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Secrets of Longevity: 6 Tips From 20-Year Veteran Ballerina Xiao Nan Yu
What does it take to sustain a 20-year ballet career? The luminous principal dancer Xiao Nan Yu, who just marked two decades with National Ballet of Canada, shares how she's kept her body strong for long-term success:
Find Balance in Your Body
Naturally flexible, Yu spends most of her cross-training time counter-acting her body's elasticity. "Having a flexible body is a treat, but it can sometimes be a curse," she says. To control her limbs, she strengthens her core with lots of planks, especially during her daily pre-class warm-up (which can take up to an hour). She also books private Pilates sessions with NBoC's instructor whenever her schedule allows, and does yoga videos or a half-hour of floor barre at home on the weekends.
Don't Skip Morning Class
Aaron Vincent Elkaim, Courtesy NBoC
"Ballet class is like brushing my teeth," says Yu. "I have to start every day with it or else my body does not feel right."
Go To Bed Early
Quinn B. Wharton
Now that she's a mom (her daughters are ages 5 and 12), Yu wakes up around 6:30 or 7:30 am. She's forced to go to bed earlier, which she feels actually benefits her body: Studies have shown it increases sleep quality and could be connected to improved heart health.
Strengthen Your Weaknesses
Due to an extra bone in her left foot, that ankle often rolls in. To build strength to counteract that habit, Yu practices this exercise in soft ballet slippers:
1. Holding the barre with both hands, she rises to demi-pointe with both feet in parallel.
2. From there, she rises onto full pointe using just the strength of her foot muscles, then slowly rolls down.
She repeats this with both feet, and then on single legs, first turned in and then turned out. She'll add an extra set or two on her left side.
Just Keep Drinking
Yu drinks at least three bottles of water and sports drinks every day. Her favorite brand is BioSteel, which is filled with electrolytes but is low in calories and has no sugar. "It has a bubble gum flavor! Even my kids like it."
Don't Waste Energy Stressing Out
Karolina Kuras, courtesy NBoC
Yu found her body grew even looser after going through pregnancy. But having children also made her mind tougher. "My muscles don't fight me as much," she says. "After having children, I don't think, 'Oh, holding my leg up is so difficult.' It's just something I have to do, so I do it. Maybe I just don't have much time to agonize over it anymore. My daughters have made me realize how precious my time is when I come to work."
My dance coach wants my word that I'll keep competing under his school's name for the next year and not audition. I'm 18 years old and already doing lead roles and winning medals. I love his teaching, but shouldn't I be ready to go out and get a job?
—Gil, Las Vegas, NV
How do we make ballet, a traditionally homogeneous art form, relevant to and reflective of an increasingly diverse and globalized era? While established companies are shifting slowly, Richard Siegal/Ballet of Difference, though less than 2 years old, has something of a head start. The guiding force of the company, which is based in Germany, is bringing differences together in the same room and, ultimately, on the same stage.
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?
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."
Claude Debussy's only completed opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, emphasizes clarity and subtlety over high-flung drama as a deadly love triangle unfolds. Opera Vlaanderen and Royal Ballet of Flanders are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the composer's death with a new production of the landmark opera that is sure to be anything but traditional: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet are choreographing and directing, while boundary-pushing performance artist Marina Abramović collaborates on the design. Antwerp, Feb. 2–13. Ghent, Feb. 23–March 4. operaballet.be/en.
Black History Month offers a time to reflect on the artists who have shaped the dance field as we know it today. But equally important is celebrating the black artists who represent the next generation. These seven up-and-comers are making waves across all kinds of styles and across the country:
When a new director began transforming Atlanta Ballet a couple of years ago, longtime dancer Alessa Rogers decided to finally explore her dream of dancing in Europe. "I always had this wanderlust," she says. She wasn't set on a particular city or company, but thought learning French would be fun. She began her research that September, making note of repertoire and the number of dancers as well as which companies employed foreign, non–European Union dancers. "I saw that Ballet du Rhin was looking for dancers," says Rogers. "They also had a new director coming in, so I thought it could be an opportunity." After sending a video, Rogers traveled during her layoff week to take company class. She was offered a job on the spot.
Uprooting and moving out of the country, far away from your support system, language and customs, is not something to take lightly. While it can push you as an artist and be an exciting opportunity for personal growth, working as a dancer in a foreign country comes with its challenges. Lots of research and an adventurous spirit are required.
Justin Lynch is surprisingly nonchalant about the struggles of being a full-time lawyer and a professional dancer. "All dancers in New York City are experts at juggling multiple endeavors," he says. "What I'm doing is no different from what any other dancer does—it's just that what I'm juggling is different."
While we agree that freelance dancers are pro multitaskers, we don't really buy Lynch's claim that what he does isn't extraordinary. In fact, we're pretty mind-boggled by the career he's built for himself.
At the annual Gala de Danza in Los Cabos, Mexico, the lineup of performers is usually pretty typical gala fare: You can expect celebrity performers like Lil Buck, reality stars like Ballet West's Beckanne Sisk and "So You Think You Can Dance" finalist Tate McRae, plus principals from top companies like New York City Ballet's Tiler Peck and Daniel Ulbricht.
What's absolutely not typical? The venue.
At 5'10" I felt like an ant in the studio with Alonzo King LINES Ballet. The San Francisco-based company is full of statuesque dancers whose passion is infectious. Every story was told not only through their movement, but through the expression on their faces and their connection to one another.
We talked to artistic director Alonzo King about his love of collaborations and why he thinks politicians need to dance more.