Technique My Way: Maria Chapman
For this PNB principal, injury led the way to better health and a fuller awareness of her body.
Maria Chapman explodes across the stage—her legs stretching into three long jetés, one right after another. She powers through her solo in David Dawson’s A Million Kisses to my Skin, giving the extreme extensions and torso shifts full play. Kisses is about how good it feels to dance, and Chapman gets the point across, showing that every muscle and joint can contribute to the enjoyment. Piqué passé: Did you know how luscious a stretch that can be?
Two years ago, this Pacific Northwest Ballet principal couldn’t have done that passé. A fluke foot injury had her facing two surgeries; her doctor thought she would never dance again. Chapman was back onstage in 10 months.
“Proprioception was really key to my rehabilitation,” says Chapman. (Proprioception is the sense that tells you where your limbs are and how they’re moving in relation to the rest of your body.)
“Since I was on crutches for so long—six months,” continues Chapman, “I developed a real disconnect to my entire right leg, but especially my right foot. It didn’t even feel like it was part of my body. So I really needed to remember to love my foot and reincorporate it back into my body—to take it back.”
Chapman did proprioception exercises to reintegrate her foot, but in the process she tuned in to her entire body, gaining a connected quality that looks great onstage.
The Root of the Problem
Chapman started listening to her body when she was very young. At 15, while at the School of American Ballet, she struggled with a pinched fat pad in her knee, a relatively common injury in that joint. The “ice it/rest it” prescription wasn’t yielding long-term results. Chapman, however, realized that forcing her heels to touch in first position was causing the problem. “It makes my knees angry,” she says. Rather than fussing over a perfect first, she just stopped putting her heels together. Problem solved!
Chapman knows the price of not listening: In 2000, she was sidelined for a season. Her back had given her warnings, she says, but she pushed on—to the point where it spasmed nonstop. She recommends admitting when your body needs attention, rather than just plowing through. Take the time to figure out what’s going on. “I was doing a lot of movement from my back when I should have been using other parts of my body”—specifically her obliques, glutes, and hamstrings.
Fuel and Maintenance
Originally from Macon, Georgia, Chapman grew up eating “everything” cooked in bacon fat. Nowadays, her health-savvy, triathlete husband does much of the cooking for them both. At some point, her canister of bacon fat just…disappeared. She eats three full meals—and snacks. She chooses colorful foods, high in protein and calcium, low in sugar and salt. Nuts, yogurt, a sweet potato (or squash), and an avocado make a daily appearance. Water is key; she also drinks electrolytes and protein shakes. Before a performance? Clif Shot Bloks.
Chapman avoids popping pills like Advil, given their potential long-term-use effects on the kidneys. She opts instead for an occasional homeopathic painkiller. She finds relief for strains with Phiten strips. A hot bath with Epsom salts at night helps, as does massage twice a month.
“My body feels really good,” she says. “But I do take care of myself every minute of the day…making sure I’m doing things that I need to do—the way I need to do them.” Pre-class rituals include 15–20 minutes of cardio (swimming, running, or biking) and 30 minutes of strengthening exercises (including pelvic-floor strengtheners, core stabilizers, and plyometrics). Equipment includes a Bosu ball, Thera-Bands, and weights. Variety is key for Chapman, and she chooses exercises that make her feel good. She has a binder full of favorites. She also works with a trainer twice a week, sometimes on moves specifically created to tackle issues noticed in performance.
Chapman looks ahead to see what the day—and the week—will require of her. She plans for it, considers which morning exercises will help most, and tries to pace herself. She works hard but fights the temptation to work so hard that she might compromise the next day’s dancing. “That’s not what I’m going for,” she says. “The goal is to have the perfectly planned week, dancing the way I want to dance.”
When she started rehearsals for Kisses, Chapman realized this fast piece would take more than just ramping up stamina. “You need strength to move in that bigger range,” she says. She found exercises that would help her safely manage the ballet’s split-second changes in direction and its extreme, full-range flexibility. Her work resulted in performances of power, speed, clarity, grace, and joy—A Million Kisses, inside and out.
Rosie Gaynor writes about dance in Seattle.
In a rehearsal for Dawson’s A Million Kisses to my Skin. Photo © Lindsay Thomas, Courtesy PNB.
Take Care of Your Entire Self—Even Your Toes
Chapman found that she was getting a lot of tightness underneath her foot because two toes were doing all the work. Here’s how she helps her other toes pull their weight.
• Put your foot flat on the floor.
• Wrap the thinnest gauge of exercise tubing around your big toe.
• Pull up on the tubing with your fingers so your toe comes up.
• Keeping the tension in the tubing, try to push your toe down.
• Repeat with each toe. “All the toes want to come up, too,” says Chapman. “The idea is to leave them down and just work the one toe. It’s actually hard!”
• Start with a few repetitions and work your way up to more.
Showing choreography at a major venue in New York City is a goal and milestone for many dance artists. Yet when such an opportunity comes their way, choreographers frequently find themselves scrambling for time and technical resources to give their work that professional shine. What they end up performing may not have the polish they intended. "Far too often artists are arriving at their presenting house and the piece isn't ready," says Adrienne Willis, the executive and artistic director of Lumberyard Contemporary Performing Arts, an organization that helps dance artists develop new work.
Back when Lumberyard was known as the American Dance Institute and operated out of a strip mall in Rockville, Maryland, it pioneered its Incubator program to whip new pieces into shape, kind of like the "out-of-town" tryout model for theater. Several of the artists it supported ultimately brought their shows to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, one of New York City's most prestigious venues, which quickly recognized the positive influence of the Incubator on performances.
Since Thanksgiving is finally here, it's officially time to talk Nutcracker. With countless productions taking place between now and Christmas (and even some through the new year), we've been keeping tabs on Instagram to check in on rehearsals. Whether you're obsessed with all things Sugar Plum Fairy or the snow scene is more your speed, we've got your first look at the holiday classic.
We have a feeling even the Boston Ballet dancing bear couldn't keep up with second soloist Lawrence Rines' tricks in Russian.
For the past 3 years, choreographer Stephen Petronio has been reviving groundbreaking works of postmodern dance through his BLOODLINES project. This season, although his company will be performing a work by Merce Cunningham, his own choreography moves in a more luxurious direction. We stepped into the studio with Petronio and his dancers where they were busy creating a new work, Hardness 10, named for the categorization of diamonds.
'Tis the season to have some fun in the kitchen. If you want to get more creative than simply baking another pumpkin pie, try these Nutcracker-themed treats—created by and for dancers. These recipes from former Boston Ballet and Joffrey Ballet dancers were first published in Dance Magazine's December 1990 issue. Today, they're still guaranteed to turn any holiday party or dressing room into a true Land of the Sweets.
We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.
But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.
A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.
Everyone knows that training is the cornerstone of a successful career in dance. But as a dance educator, I also take comfort in the fact that high-quality dance training helps shape students into genuinely good people (in addition to creating future artists, which is a wonderful goal in itself.) These are the lessons dance teaches that help make students into better humans:
Improvement Takes Commitment Over Time
In my tap courses at Cal State University, sometimes students are shocked when they can't learn something quickly. In today's world, we're used to getting fast results. You need an answer—Google it. You need to talk to someone—text them. The cooking channel wants your dinner to be easy, the physical trainer wants your workout to be five minutes, Rosetta Stone can have you speaking Mandarin in an hour.
It's no secret that affording college is a challenge for many students. And for dancers, there are added complications, like the relative lack of merit scholarships that take artistic talent into consideration and the improbability of a stable salary to pay off loans post-graduation. But no matter your budget, a smart approach to the application process can help you focus less on money and more on your training.
According to Drexel University performing arts department head Miriam Giguere, figuring out the kind of financial assistance a school offers is just as important as navigating what kind of dance program you want. Here's how to incorporate finances into your decision-making process:
When dancers get injured, they often think they should eat less. The thought process goes something like, Since I'm not able to move as much as I usually do, I'm not burning enough calories to justify the portions I'm used to.
But the truth is, scaling back your meals could actually be detrimental to your healing process.
With her fearless demeanor onstage, it's easy to see how Washington Ballet apprentice Sarah Steele attracted the keen eye of former American Ballet Theatre stars Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel. Promoted mid-season from the studio company by artistic director Kent, Steele was cast by Stiefel as the lead in Frontier, his world premiere for The Washington Ballet, this past spring. For the space-themed piece, Steele donned a black-and-white "space suit" onstage, exhibiting dual qualities of strength and grace. Most evocative about Steele's dancing might be her innate intelligence—she was accepted to Harvard on early admission, and plans to resume her studies there in the future. But first, she'll dance.
Lots of college groups do stepping—a form of body percussion based on slapping, tapping and stomping—but Step Afrika! is the first professional dance company to do it. They are currently at New York City's New Victory Theater, presenting The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence, a show based on the painting series by Harlem Renaissance artist Jacob Lawrence about The Great Migration of the 1900s, when millions of African Americans fled the Jim Crow South and traveled by train to the North for a better life. The Great Migration transformed the demographics of the country, and Jacob Lawrence's paintings became famous for their bold color and evocative power.