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By Jen Peters
Have you ever woken up the day after a show feeling too stiff to get out of bed? Many dancers think soreness is unavoidable, so they learn to deal through determination and painkillers. But a thorough cooldown after a performance, class, or rehearsal can help your body recover.
Do restore your heart rate to a resting level with a low-intensity exercise like walking. “Get a sense of your heart rate before you exercise, and then bring yourself back to that point afterwards,” says physical therapist Julie O’Connell, director of performing arts rehabilitation at AthletiCo in Chicago. Rigorous movement increases blood flow to your major muscles, and stopping abruptly can cause blood to pool in the legs. Walking lightly for 5–10 minutes returns blood to the heart, preventing symptoms like nausea and lightheadedness.
Do stretch major muscle groups and any area that feels tight. “Especially in modern classes, we inevitably work one side of the body more than the other,” says Jana Hicks, a popular contemporary teacher at Steps on Broadway in NYC. Even if you only have five minutes, find a spot in the hallway or studio. For dancers on tour, post-performance stretching can be a challenge. “When we do one-nighters, we can’t stay in the theater and stretch,” says Lauren Sambataro, who’s in the national tour of Movin’ Out. “Most of us stretch throughout the show and again in the hotel.”
Do elevate your legs and arms, lying on your back with legs resting against a wall or chair. “Limb elevation helps drain the blood back to the heart,” says O’Connell, and also decreases swelling in tired feet and ankles.
Do ice sore joints or muscles to help reduce inflammation and pain. “Even if we go out after a show, I stay up later to stretch and ice,” says Aspen Santa Fe Ballet dancer Katherine Eberle. If using an ice pack, ice for 15–20 minutes, rest for 20, then repeat if needed. You can also use an ice bath to completely submerge the isolated area, but only for 5–10 minutes.
Do gently massage muscles to relax overworked areas. Sambataro uses a foam roller, especially for tight IT bands (the large band of connective tissue along the outside of the thigh). Tennis balls are also great tools for self-massage.
Don’t skimp on sleep, especially if you have to perform or rehearse the next day. Your body needs at least 6–8 hours of rest to restore its muscles for tomorrow’s dancing.
Don’t wait too long to refuel. “Eating within one hour after dancing is most effective,” says O’Connell. She recommends a balanced carb-protein snack, like peanut butter and a banana or yogurt with fruit and granola. “Your metabolism is so high and your muscles are being broken down. Protein brings them back to recovery.” And carbohydrates boost your sugar level, which is depleted through sweating. It’s also critical to rehydrate with lots of water or an electrolyte-enhanced sports drink.
Don’t jump into a steaming bath right away, since it promotes swelling. If you do want to have a hot soak to relax your muscles, O’Connell suggests alternating between the tub and a cold pool or shower, making sure to end with cold.
Don’t cut out your cooldown just because friends or family came to your performance. “Sometimes you just want to go out and relax and eat,” Sambataro admits. “But you have to go through the routine even if your body isn’t hurting yet.” Not taking that time is a surefire way to feel more sore tomorrow, and a stiff body can’t dance to its full potential.
Jen Peters dances with Jennifer Muller/The Works.
Photo: Erin Baiano; Model: Jacqueline Green of the Ailey/Fordham BFA Program