Listening to Your Body
For a young dancer, it’s easy to live only in the here and now, blinded by stage light. Feeling invincible, you cut corners with the care of your body. As the years go by, you pay more attention to your instrument. So many aspects of both body and mind need to be working at optimum level that longevity is a rare accomplishment. More often than not, your body will decide when it’s time to retire.
As a clinical specialist and athletic trainer at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries in New York City, Megan Richardson works with dancers at all stages of life. “A career in dance is a lifetime of honing, readjusting, and refining,” she says. While no two dancers experience their development the same way, by understanding how our bodies change over time, we can take care of ourselves more effectively. Dance Magazine spoke to five women at different stages of their dancing lives.
The Teenage Years
Teenagers’ bodies are still developing while they are laying down the foundation that will serve them the rest of their careers. “The bone mass that we grow in adolescence and through our 20s is all we get for the rest of our lives,” explains Richardson. For this reason teenagers need sufficient calories, and girls should see an endocrinologist if they aren’t menstruating by 16.
Most dancers tend to grow in spurts, with the limbs lengthening before the spine. This can create frustrating setbacks in flexibility, strength, and coordination. Until the muscles catch up, dancers need to decrease impact exercises.
During a growth spurt, Richardson recommends that teenagers focus on strengthening their core muscles with the limbs supported or held closer to the trunk of the body. Young dancers should modify an exercise like the hundreds by propping the feet up on a physio ball, or keeping the legs bent at 90 degrees at both the hip and knee.
While dancers at this age are often eager to impress with Sylvie Guillem–esque flexibility, Richardson urges caution with static stretching, in which a dancer moves straight to the end point of their flexibility in one quick motion and then holds the position. Instead, you should focus on stretching dynamically, slowly moving through your entire range of motion.
When preparing for a competition, Jessica Payne, 18, often spends seven days a week in her studio—the Dmitri Kulev Classical Ballet Academy in Laguna Hills, California. The long hours pay off—she won first place in the classical category at the San Diego Youth America Grand Prix—but it aggravates her shin splints and tendonitis. Massaging trouble spots and icing helps her to work through the discomfort. Rehearsing pirouettes too much causes tension in her neck, so she sees a chiropractor every other week. For Payne, attending high school full-time while dancing meant her homework had to be done late at night, so she was losing sleep. She made the choice to start home schooling and is now able to get the needed rest.
Jessica Payne in YAGP San Diego regionals. Photo by Siggul/Visual Arts Masters, Courtesy YAGP.
Whether they’re in a professional company, a college dance program, or a conservatory, dancers in their 20s may have new teachers or directors, new movement languages, and new physical demands. They may be living alone and taking sole responsibility for themselves for the first time, while learning how to achieve balance in their lives in a highly competitive environment. “This is the time of pushing—and over-pushing—and ignoring what your body is telling you,” warns Richardson. She says dancers at this age often do what they’re told without paying attention to their individual needs.
For Amanda Cochrane, a 23-year-old soloist with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, an injury related to an extra bone in her left ankle taught her that the quick fix for pain won’t serve her body best. “I had cortisone injections in my ankle because nothing seemed to be working,” she recalls. But the pain came back, and she sought other solutions to avoid surgery. Now, almost two years later, Cochrane is able to manage the injury by soaking in Epsom salts, icing, elevation, and using arnica creams for their anti-inflammatory benefits.
Richardson says that dancers in their 20s can be at their peak capacity for strength building. But they must have proper nutrition, adequate rest, and correct training. Cochrane incorporates Pilates with daily training on the elliptical, push-ups, and crunches. “Physically I’ve gotten a lot stronger,” she says. “I’ve gained more muscle definition and more energy.”
Amanda Cochrane in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Peter Pan. Photo by Rich Sofranko, Courtesy PBT.
By 30, a dancer has likely established a personal routine that addresses her weaknesses and nourishes her body for optimum performance. This is when you’re most likely to drop the bad habits of your youth and focus on health.
Major injuries may increase during this time. Richardson’s advice: Whatever routine you’ve developed for yourself, stick with it and listen to your body. Some dancers find Gyrotonic, yoga, or swimming helpful.
As Olivia Bowman-Jackson prepared to take the stage at the start of the New York season in her first year as an Ailey dancer in 2001, she tore a ligament in her lower lumbar spine and was out for the New York run. Now at 33, with a burgeoning freelance career, Bowman-Jackson reflects on that injury as a turning point in the care of her body. “I was lucky enough to get a prescription for Pilates for rehab once I healed,” she recalls. “It changed my life.” Now an avid Pilates practitioner, Bowman-Jackson attributes the stability and strength of her dancing to her routine work on the reformer—which has also helped her manage her scoliosis.
Photo of Olivia Bowman-Jackson courtesy Bowman-Jackson.
For many, the 40s are a transitional time when they are considering looking beyond performance. Richardson explains that at 40 your tissues don’t retain as much water. “This means that it’s going to take a little bit more work, more rest, more stretching, and more strengthening to feel like you’re getting back to where you started,” she says.
Dancing in your 40s is a state of mind, according to the Joffrey Ballet’s Valerie Robin, 42. When she’s injury-free, she says performance feels the same way it did 10 years ago—and that’s worth protecting. “There’s nothing that I’m really afraid of. If I’m feeling something is kind of off, I’m not going to try and prove anything,” she says. “When you get a little bit older you realize that it’s not the end of the world if you didn’t do grand allegro today.”
At 25, Robin ruptured three ligaments in her ankle. The injury made her aware of how much her hip placement affects her ankles while jumping. And the time off taught her to be patient when her body is healing. Robin’s willingness to learn from an injury rather than view it as a setback has probably helped sustain her career. “I think sometimes dancers get really frustrated when they’re injured,” says Robin. “But you can learn a lot about your body and about how you work and your mentality when you get injured.”
Valerie Robin with Matthew Adamczyk of the Joffrey Ballet in Wheeldon’s After the Rain. Photo by Herbert Migdoll, Courtesy Joffrey.
The 50s & Beyond
Since we retain less water as we age, there are less circulating nutrients that provide strength, and the tissues become thinner and weaker. The muscle cannot contract and expand as quickly to produce the necessary force, so repeating the same motion can cause strain to the tendons.
In order to continue moving safely and comfortably, the older dancer must be steadfast about warming up, and renew that warm-up throughout the day. “This will allow that muscle to get as juicy as possible,” says Richardson, “and it will be able to contract and expand within its limits.” These dancers should use modest amounts of dynamic stretching since the lack of elasticity and collagen in the muscles puts a strain on the tendons.
“Technique to me is about intelligent dancing now,” says Pat Catterson, who at 66 continues to dance and tour with Yvonne Rainer. “It’s not about virtuosity. It’s about helping me to produce consistent results and keep my body in balance.” Catterson continues to take class five to six days a week. When she stretches, she finds she needs to cushion her joints against the floor to feel comfortable since they are less padded than when she was younger. She sometimes has to refresh parts of her warm up several times in one rehearsal when the choreographic process is stop-and-go.
For Catterson, the joy of dancing has not left her. She is realistic about her limitations, but refuses to allow the skepticism of others to infect her passion. “I’ve learned that you cannot let fear overtake you,” she says. “Yes you have to be sensible, but if you let fear cripple you, then you just move correctly and you don’t dance anymore. Dancing is a combination of control and abandon, and you have to have that abandon to feel like you’re dancing.”
Pat Catterson in Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A. Photo by Yi-Chun Wu, courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.
Kathleen McGuire is a dance writer based in Pittsburgh, PA.
The coming weeks see not one, but two companies that can best be described as French cultural mash-ups landing at New York City's Joyce Theater.
It was a Christmas Eve that The Lion King dancer India Bolds will never forget.
Exhausted from a long week of performances, Bolds was clueless when she saw her cast mates randomly dancing in Broadway's Minskoff Theater lobby, and even more confused when they morphed into a choreographed flash mob. But when her boyfriend of four years, Dale Browne, popped up in the mob wearing a beautiful blue suit, she realized what was coming.
Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.
"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.
After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.
Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org
In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."
She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."
Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.
Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.
Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."
Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.
But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.
Back in the 80s, Molissa Fenley introduced a luscious, almost Eastern-feeling torque in the body that made her work compelling to watch. Her sculptural shapes and fierce momentum showed a different kind of female strength than we had seen. Now, as part of The Kitchen's series on composer Julius Eastman, Fenley has remounted her 1986 Geologic Moments, the second half of which she had developed with Eastman. The result, which premiered at Brooklyn Academy of Music, is a richly textured piece in both music and dance. (The first half has music by Philip Glass.)
When Paul Taylor created Beloved Renegade on Laura Halzack in 2008, he gave unequivocal instructions. She was the figure, sometimes referred to as the angel of death, who circles dancer Michael Trusnovec in a compassionate, yet emphatic way.
"He choreographed every single step for me," she says. "He showed it to me—do this développé, reach here, turn here, a very specific idea," she says. His guidance was that she be cool and sweet. Then, she says, "he just let me become her. That's where I really earned Paul's trust."
From the minute my journey as a dancer began at age 4, there were no other options of what I might do with my life.
Sure, I tried other "after-school activities." I tried desperately to master The Phantom of the Opera with my squeaky violin rental—a headache for my parents who paid for private Suzuki method lessons at our house. Constantly attempting famous show tunes on my violin, the effort was completely futile. I actually remember thinking, 'Surely this sheet music is wrong, this sounds nothing like the Phantom of the Opera.'
I even tried my hand at gymnastics. But when my mom's brilliant bribery of $100 for my first mastery of a kip or a back handspring didn't produce any results, we quickly threw in the towel.
When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."
But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.
From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.
New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.
A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.
Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.
In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.
When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series