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By Lauren Kay
Learning to match flexibility with strength
Li in Anabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Mad’moiselle. Photo: Eduardo Patino, Courtesy Ballet Hispanico.
Ballet Hispanico dancer Min-Tzu Li moves with the stable delicacy of a calligraphy pen. In Anabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Locked Up Laura, she etches out strong, sensual lines in deep lunges, endless penchées, and daring tilts. In a piece by Rosie Herrera, Li arrives at each gestural pose with dart-like precision. In five years, she’s become one of Ballet Hispanico’s top dancers, even while dealing with chronic back problems. Though her supple spine enhances her expressivity, Li’s natural flexibility has made her more prone to injury. To keep dancing her best, she has had to reshape her ideas about nutrition and conditioning.
A WAKE-UP CALL
The half-Taiwanese, half-Japanese dancer, who grew up in Taiwan, began dancing at age 6 to increase what her mother saw as a lack of strength. She started out in community classes that focused on Chinese traditional dance and knew right away that she loved it. Later, in ballet classes, she was encouraged by teachers who saw her potential, and a dance program in high school allowed her to develop classical skills outside of folk dance. Her move to the U.S. for a full scholarship to Boston Conservatory was followed by a contract with Ballet Hispanico.
When she entered a professional setting, Li realized how unhealthy her lifestyle had been, especially on the nutritional front. “Before I came into Ballet Hispanico, I ate junk food all the time,” she remembers. “Once in company rehearsals, I realized how tired I felt each afternoon.”
Since then, she has changed her diet drastically. “I drink tons of water and take vitamin C now,” she says. “I start my day with carbohydrates like bread for breakfast, have smaller snacks like turkey and cheese throughout the day to keep my energy up, and end with a large meal of solid protein like steak for dinner. I eat the most after rehearsal because I feel it’s harder to digest during the day while I’m dancing. You can’t eat like a kid once you’re dancing in a company.”
Li usually takes a full ballet class before rehearsal, knowing that she’ll need to be ready for anything. “Since we are a small company, I need to know everybody’s part,” she says. “My body has to be fully warm because if I’m not dancing in a piece, I’m marking and learning in case someone gets injured.”
Li often relies on self-massage techniques she learned as a teenager. “You’re tight the whole day dancing, without much release. That can build the wrong muscles and make you bulky,” she says. “As I am stretching, I’m also massaging myself all over, especially my feet, the way my family taught me.” (She inherited this method, she says, from her uncle, a Chinese chiropractor.) She finishes the day with Epsom salt baths and a handheld massager at home.
A ROCKY PATCH
Li spends most of her downtime on abdominal exercises, and for a specific reason: “I am extremely flexible, so I constantly have to strengthen my core to avoid more injuries.”
For Li, this is a top priority considering her fair share of back problems, which started at a young age. “When I was little I studied mostly Chinese dance, which includes a lot of flexible positions,” she says. “When I was 17, I was doing a complicated lift. I didn’t have the strength to hold myself in a straight line and I sprained my back. I didn’t know how to control myself—our teachers didn’t teach us that. I couldn’t stand up by myself,” and because she was inactive during the recovery, she adds, “I lost a lot of flexibility.”
To heal, Li saw a Chinese chiropractor who tried to treat the problem through topical creams, without any physical therapy. Now, looking back, she knows better. “If I had gained proper strength I wouldn’t have gotten injured,” she says. “And, if once injured I had learned physical therapy exercises, I would’ve healed faster.”
A NEW FOUNDATION
These lessons came in handy at Boston Conservatory, when Li slipped on the stairs and reinjured her lower spine and tailbone. This time, she took a healthier road to recovery. Working with the school’s physical therapists, she was able to regain strength and understand how to protect her back with her core muscles. “The conservatory changed my thoughts about healing; Americans are concerned about injuries and they showed me a better way to deal with it,” she says. “I started with gentle baby poses, moving my lower back slowly. Then, I learned to go to my hands and knees, lifting my leg and arm in opposition, like in yoga, to increase trunk strength. I added planks and bicycle sit-ups eventually. The second time, my back rehabilitated faster because I was taught how to work with it. Now, when I take class, I listen to my body and pay more attention to what it needs.”
Li’s back is still vulnerable due to the first, uncared-for injury. Last spring, she tweaked it again on opening night of the company’s Joyce season. “I was sore from rehearsal so I went to see our physical therapist 15 minutes before curtain,” she recalls. “I felt better, but then I was so relaxed onstage, I wasn’t prepared to move. My back popped soon into the first piece and I was immediately injured.” Rest and her tried-and-true physical therapy regimen saw her through this round of pain.
Now, Li constantly strengthens her center with abdominal work and goes to class regularly. She has also learned to find new pathways to the same movement and to listen when her body asks for rest. “I’ve found over time, if you get injured, don’t rush to get better. Really fix it,” she says. “Don’t force yourself to dance until you’re fully ready. Build your strength when you’re young, so you have that technique as you get older.”
Lauren Kay is a NYC dancer and writer.