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By Mary Ellen Hunt
Taking good care of her body and mind
“The idea of ‘Technique My Way’ really tickled me,” says San Francisco Ballet soloist Courtney Elizabeth with disarming candidness. “I never thought of myself as a technical dancer.”
Elizabeth may be modest, but her performances reveal not only a steadiness—born of early Cecchetti and RAD training at Charlotte School of Ballet, followed by guidance from Patricia McBride and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux at North Carolina Dance Theatre—but also the spark of a quick mind. After a stint as a company apprentice, Elizabeth joined SFB’s corps in 2003. Her versatility and maturity led to her promotion to soloist last year. Dance Magazine talked with Elizabeth about the daily discipline behind her liveliness and ease—including the discipline of letting go when the workday is done.
Class and Cross-Training
Elizabeth’s approach to class changes with the seasons. During rehearsal periods, she prefers fast-paced classes—“I love to repeat combinations and jump a lot!”—but when a performance season begins, she dials it down. “I like to take everything slowly and not push too hard at the beginning,” she says, “so I’ll start with some exercises in first position.”
A classic allegro dancer, Elizabeth builds stamina with 15 to 20 minutes on the stationary bike after class or rehearsal. She’s also been practicing Pilates since she was a teenager, but her most recent discovery is floor barre. “It forces me to be focused on parallel, so it strengthens a whole different set of muscles,” she says. “And it’s magic for my entrechat six!”
To keep her energy up during rehearsal periods, Elizabeth pours herself a big bowl of Raisin Bran for breakfast and packs herself two mini lunches—usually consisting of fruit, trail mix, and yogurt—to eat during breaks. Before performance time, she avoids any heavy meals, keeping it simple with her go-to snack: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. “I eat that probably before three-quarters of my performances—that or peanut butter on toast with honey. The protein with fat and bread—that lasts me a long time.” At home, however, Elizabeth is something of a gourmet, experimenting with different combinations of lean proteins, grains, and vegetables.
Elizabeth also avoids too much caffeine, preferring green tea in the morning, and she swears by coconut water for the boost it delivers to her muscles. “I’ve tried Endura, Emergen-C, and even Pedialyte. But hands down, coconut water before and after a performance makes me feel so much better the next day,” she enthuses. “It showed me how much potassium affects your muscle performance.”
Listening to Pain
Besides dealing with common injuries like sprained ankles and tendonitis, Elizabeth has also been plagued by an ailment not often seen in dancers. After long rehearsals of arcing her arm overhead in the classic swan pose during Swan Lake, she discovered that she had a blood clot in her arm stemming from a condition known as thoracic outlet syndrome, typically seen in volleyball players and swimmers, who often move their arms overhead. Consequently she had to have a rib removed close to her collarbone to prevent a vein from being crushed.
Even so, Elizabeth says proudly that she hasn’t taken painkillers for a year. Like many dancers, she used to rely on Advil to suppress any aches or twinges. “Now I deal with stuff by really paying attention to my body,” she says. “I do ice or heat, make sure I’m hydrated and my potassium is up, and see how well that works before I resort to medications.” She also tries massage, acupuncture, chiropractic work—and rest. “You have to be discerning about how much you need to do at certain times and how much you can rest. Of course every dancer wants to dance. You never say, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ I’m especially like that, but sometimes it’s more productive to listen to what your body needs and take the time for it.”
The Mind Is a Muscle
Elizabeth has found ways to rest mentally, too—or at least occupy her thoughts with things other than ballet. In 2010, she graduated from the LEAP program at St. Mary’s College. “I found that the work was a getaway for me,” she says. “I can be so focused on what I’m doing in ballet, analyzing every detail. It’s easy to let your mind get stuck on that. So to work on anatomy, or a literature paper—something completely different—was great.”
She confides that her husband, fellow SFB dancer Matthew Stewart, also helps her to stay grounded. “He has a good sense of perspective on the dance world,” she says. “We’re usually in very different rep, so there are days when we don’t even see each other at work, but at home we’ll talk about music and art. It’s so easy to go home and think about that pirouette that didn’t work, but Matt taught me a lot about the value of dance as an art, not just worrying over the little details.”
Elizabeth continues, “I think that the healthiest dancer is the one who can give 110 percent at work, but then leave it behind when they go home and come back with a fresh outlook the next day. I’m not always able to do that, but that’s my goal.”
Mary Ellen Hunt writes about dance and the arts for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Elizabeth in company class at SFB. Photo © Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.
Three Minutes for Alignment
“If I only have three minutes to myself before I start working, I’ll do this floor barre exercise,” says Elizabeth. Taking a break from turnout and focusing on parallel helps her to activate a different set of muscles and strengthen her alignment:
• Lie on your back with your spine in a neutral position, knees bent, feet flat on the floor.
• Slowly flex one foot. Concentrate on remaining parallel and slowly straighten that leg until it is fully stretched with the back of the knee on the floor. Maintain a feeling of rotating inward and pressing your inner thigh toward the midline.
• Extend your foot to full point and draw the leg back to its original position.
• Repeat with the other leg, then with both legs simultaneously.