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My Body, My Stress
It’s no secret that a career as a professional dancer can be unpredictable and stressful. But with the economy in a deep recession, this year has been an especially difficult one for the dance world. Many companies have been forced to cut dancers or tours, and have lost rehearsal space. A dancer who once lay awake in bed replaying a botched pas de deux may now be staying up into the wee hours worrying about whether she’ll have a job come fall.
But before your heart rate begins to accelerate just thinking about it, remember that stress isn’t always a bad thing. “Our responses to stress are supposed to be helpful,” explains Dr. Richard Gibbs, MD, supervising physician at San Francisco Ballet and the chair of the Dance/USA Task Force on dancer health. In intensely stressful moments, the endocrine system and the sympathetic nervous system work together to release higher levels of cortisol and adrenaline. In an audition, for instance, this can actually benefit a dancer. “You’re going to be more alert, pick up choreography faster, and move more assuredly,” says Dr. Gibbs.
But when stress becomes chronic—say while searching for work in a depressed economic climate—its positive effects quickly turn harmful, which can have a big impact on your dancing. Too much adrenaline, for instance, keeps you in “fight or flight” mode, which leads to anxiety and fatigue. This slows down your reflexes and thinking processes, so learning choreography becomes a challenge. Extra adrenaline also makes your heart beat faster, speeds up your breathing, and makes you sweat more. (This is why staying hydrated is key.)
Because stress also causes an increase in cortisol levels, dancers are susceptible to all kinds of viral infections, since cortisol lowers immune system resistance. Cortisol also activates your gastrointestinal tract, which leads to more acid in the stomach, causing peptic ulcers. But perhaps most significantly, stress creates the perfect breeding ground for injury—and makes healing more difficult. “When stressful situations are on the line, injury rates go sky-high,” Dr. Gibbs explains. “This is because cortisol actually weakens tissue and bone.”
On a psychological level, stress also does damage. “Irritability is more likely,” says Dr. Harlene Goldschmidt, PhD, director of education and wellness at the New Jersey Dance Theatre Ensemble. “It’s easier to lose control of your emotions.” She also adds that stressed-out dancers often have trouble taking criticism, causing them to miss out on valuable feedback (and jeopardize a relationship with a teacher or director).
So how do you reduce the effects of stress? In addition to the obvious (like get eight hours of sleep), Dr. Gibbs suggests low-impact aerobic activity like riding a stationary bike, walking, or going for an easy jog one to three times a week. “If I have a stressed-out dancer, I recommend exercise,” he says. “It releases endorphins, and reduces injury and cholesterol. It’s the number one treatment for depression and anxiety.”
Yoga—which stretches and strengthens the body while calming the mind—along with a regular meditation practice have been lifesavers for Shila Tirabassi of the Stephen Petronio Company. Like others, the company has had dates cut this season, and the dancers have struggled with reduced income and more anxiety—all of which has an effect on Tirabassi’s body. Her hips get tense and her back goes into spasm. “Yoga has saved me,” she says.
And above all, don’t panic. If you’re in financial straits, ask yourself whether you need a second job, or could turn to a trusted friend in a worst-case scenario. Dr. Goldschmidt notes, “There are a lot of steps between having performances cut and being on the street.” And even if you’ve just been laid off, take advantage of downtime. “Give yourself permission to feel good on days when you’re relaxing,” she says.
Whatever happens, enjoy dancing while you are dancing. “Even in the midst of a struggle, remember that we’re striving to do something that we absolutely love—and that’s a gift that most of the world doesn’t get,” Tirabassi says. “Let those be the wheels that turn, not the ‘I need money and stability’ wheels. Getting to do the thing you love all day is what you should hold dear in your heart.”
Abigail Rasminsky, a former editor at Dance Spirit, has written for The New York Times, The Forward, and The Nextbook Reader.
Photo: Erin Baiano; Photo illustration: Hanna Varady
Before she became the 20th century's most revered ballet pedagogue, Agrippina Vaganova was a frustrated ballerina. "I was not progressing and that was a terrible thing to realize," she wrote in a rough draft of her memoirs.
She retired from the Imperial Ballet stage in 1916, and for the next 30-plus years, devoted herself to creating a "science of ballet." Her new, dynamic teaching method produced stars like Rudolf Nureyev, Alla Osipenko, and Galina Ulanova and later Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. And her approach continues to influence how we think about ballet training to this day.
But is the ballet class due for an update? Demands and aesthetics have changed. So should the way dancers train change too?
I love being transgender. It's an important part of the story of why I choreograph. Although I loved dance from a very young age, I grew up never seeing a single person like me in dance. So how could I imagine a future for myself there?
The enormous barriers I had to overcome weren't internal: I didn't struggle with feelings of dysphoria, and I wasn't locked down by shame.
For many dancers, a "warmup" consists of sitting on the floor stretching their legs in various positions. But this strategy only reduces your muscles' ability to work properly—it negatively affects your strength, endurance, balance and speed for up to an hour.
Save your flexibility training for the end of the day. Instead, follow a warmup that will actually help prevent injury and improve your body's performance.
According to the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, a smart warmup has four parts: "a gentle pulse-raising section, a joint mobilization section, a muscle lengthening section and a strength/balance building section."
It's easy to feel whiplashed thinking about everything Emma Portner has achieved in such a short amount of time. Last fall, the 23-year-old was the youngest woman ever to choreograph a West End production (it was based on Meat Loaf's greatest hits). This was, of course, after she already choreographed and starred in Justin Bieber's viral hit "Life is Worth Living," and before she charmed major media outlets when she secretly married actress Ellen Page. Now, she's L.A. Dance Project's first-ever artist in residence, and she's working on a commission for Toronto's Fall for Dance North Festival.
We caught up with her for our "Spotlight" series:
The dance community is heartbroken to learn that 14-year-olds Jaime Guttenberg and Cara Loughran were among the 17 people killed during the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.
Guttenberg was a talented competition dancer at Dance Theatre in Coconut Creek, FL, according to a report from Sun Sentinel. Dance Theatre owner Michelle McGrath Gerlick shared the below message on her Facebook page, encouraging dancers across the country to wear orange ribbons this weekend in honor of Guttenberg, whose favorite color was orange.
A statement released yesterday by New York City Ballet and School of American Ballet reported that an independent investigation was unable to corroborate allegations of harassment and abuse against former ballet master in chief Peter Martins, according to The New York Times. This marks the end of a two-month inquiry jointly launched by the two organizations in December following an anonymous letter detailing instances of harassment and violence.
The statement also included new policies for both the company and school to create safer, more respectful environments for the dancers, including hiring an independent vendor to handle employee complaints anonymously. These changes are being made despite the independent investigation, handled by outside counsel Barbara Hoey, purportedly finding no evidence of abuse.
Not all ballet dancers cling to their youth. At 26, Lauren Lovette, the New York City Ballet principal, has surpassed the quarter-century mark. And she's relieved.
"I've never felt young," she says. "I can't wait until I'm 30. Every woman I've ever talked to says that at 30 you just don't care. You're free. Maybe I'll start early?"
When Beatlemania swept through the U.S. in the 1960s, Mark Morris was one of millions of young Americans who fell head over heels for the revolutionary group. "I was not immune," the choreographer says. "My sisters were mad about The Beatles and so was I. At age 12 I had a crush on Paul, of course."
Flash forward 50 years and he is still rocking to the British band, but this time with a new Beatles-inspired dance work his company is touring across North America, starting this month with scheduled stops in Seattle, Toronto, Portland, Oregon, and another 25 cities before the end of 2019.
You could call it island-hopping, but it's not exactly a vacation. After choreographing last season's Come From Away, and winning a Tony nomination, Kelly Devine zipped from frosty Newfoundland to the Caribbean beach resort that is the setting for Escape to Margaritaville.
In the fall, she was shuttling between them, before they start this month: flying to Toronto to prepare a new Canadian production of Come From Away, then jetting back to Chicago for the final stop of Margaritaville's four-city pre-Broadway tryout.
"These two shows could not be more different from each other," Devine says with a dash of understatement. Come From Away is about the small Newfoundland town where airliners grounded by the 9/11 attacks dumped thousands of unexpected visitors; Escape to Margaritaville, at the Marquis Theatre, is a comic island romance concocted from the beachcomber songbook of Jimmy Buffett.