Just knowing you have an appointment with your favorite massage therapist can be an incentive to get through a long day in the studio. Achy muscles and tension will soon melt away and be replaced with that lovely sense of blissful relaxation.
Luckily, a massage is more than just a guilty pleasure. It can actually increase circulation, reduce muscle tightness and relieve stress. But while massage therapy has many positive benefits, it's not exactly the panacea some dancers wish it were. Before you skip the doctor, make sure you know both the benefits and limits of a good rubdown.
How Massage Works
Massage is not just about relaxation. Massage therapists look at how to make a muscle, joint and tendon fire more effectively and even decrease spasm, says Ron Mulesa, company massage therapist for the National Ballet of Canada.
There are several types of massage therapy. Dancers most often get a Swedish massage, which helps create a relaxation response in the body, or deep-tissue massage, which helps to reshape patterns of tightness by working on fascia (the connective tissue that wraps each muscle and groups of muscles, much like the casing of a sausage).
When a muscle is “tight," it can be a sign of overuse or strain, and circulation can be decreased and compromised, making the fascia dehydrated and sticky, which in turn creates adhesions. “These adhesions can become painful to stretch and they limit movement, reinforcing dysfunctional movement patterns," says Heather Southwick, director of physical therapy at Boston Ballet. “Massage can help break up these fascia adhesions, allowing for improved circulation to the muscle and restoration of full movement."
By allowing the muscle to work more freely, massage helps prevent imbalances that lead to injury. “Massage is one part of injury prevention and rehabilitation, along with exercise, nutrition and sleep," Mulesa says. “The massage therapist is part of the dancer's whole physiological team."
…Reduce Muscle Soreness?
Massage can increase your circulation, which helps improve recovery. The relaxation effects can also improve your perceived level of fatigue. “If a dancer relaxes after a rehearsal while their body is being worked on, they've already started the body's healing process," Mulesa says. “That sets them up to feel better, which means they can perform better."
…Increase Your Range of Motion?
Massage won't make your muscles more flexible, but it can help relax them. “It won't elongate the muscle, but if you are more relaxed, you will be able to move the limb or joint more easily, and that could increase your range of motion," says Deborah Vogel, a neuromuscular educator and lecturer in dance at Oberlin College. Mulesa says some dancers at the National Ballet of Canada ask for a 15-minute session before an important rehearsal or performance if they have a tight muscle. “They'll notice their pliés will be deeper or their arabesque will be higher afterwards," he says. “They feel they have their range back, but it all depends on how fatigued they are and what else is going on with their body."
If you want to get rid of toxins, you're better off focusing on hydration than massage. “Drinking water right after a massage to rid the body of lactic acid is a myth, as a massage generally does not release built-up lactic acid," Vogel says. “But staying hydrated will help your body function better."
Lymphatic drainage is proven to decrease inflammation, but that work requires a very light touch. Since a dancer's schedule is often packed, inflammation is more efficiently treated through electrical stimulation, icing and medication than massage, Mulesa says.
…Provide Stress Relief?
Massage has been proven to help reduce both physical and mental stress. “The best thing massage can do for you is to help you relax your body," Vogel says. It is also known to improve sleep and help decrease depression and anxiety.
The Bigger Picture
Everyone has muscle imbalances, and staying injury-free is all about maintaining balance in your body. “Dancers need to remember that massage is just one possible aid," Southwick says. “Be careful not to rely too much on restorative therapies that only help you 'feel better.' Adding stretching and strengthening to correct muscle imbalances is vital to help you get better, too."
3 Tips for Self-Massage
• Try a lacrosse ball. “It's a good size for a lot of body parts, it's only about $2 and it's rubber," says National Ballet of Canada massage therapist Ron Mulesa.
• Remember what your therapist does and try to re-create that, making sure it is never so painful that you hold your breath.
• If an area is too sore for pressure, try massaging your face, hands or any surrounding area, suggests neuromuscular educator Deborah Vogel. That will help decrease the body's overall muscle tension, which in turn will help decrease tension in the sore spot.
Time It Right
If you have a rehearsal or performance later in the day, massage work should be more superficial, as deep-tissue techniques can leave you feeling too relaxed, loose, a bit sore and unresponsive. A 2006 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found a decrease in muscle-force production immediately following a lower-limb massage. Boston Ballet PT Heather Southwick advises dancers to save deep-tissue massage for when they have a day or so to recover from its effects.
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.
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.
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.
"Women are often presented as soft, fragile little creatures in ballet," says Léonore Baulac. "We're not." The Paris Opéra Ballet's newest female étoile is discussing her unease at some of the 19th-century narratives she portrays. "It was real acting," she says with a laugh of La Sylphide. "James kills her by taking away her wings, yet she tells him not to worry and goes to die elsewhere onstage!"
Sitting in the canteen of the Palais Garnier, Baulac embodies some of ballet's contradictions in the 21st century. With her fair curls and dainty features, she could easily pass for a little girl's fantasy princess. As Juliet, she exuded a girlish ardor that felt entirely natural; her reservations notwithstanding, her Sylphide was committed and carefully Romantic in style.
Yet the 27-year-old is no ingénue. At Garnier that day, her sweater reads "I can't believe I still have to protest this s**t," a feminist slogan; last winter, Baulac proudly wore it over a Kitri tutu on Instagram. And her repertoire is as thoroughly modern as she is offstage. A versatile performer even by Parisian standards, she is equally at home in Nutcracker as she is in the works of Pina Bausch and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker.
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.
As we approach Thanksgiving, there's much to be grateful for. Perhaps one of the most important things on your list is dance. Whether you're a full-time company member, an aspiring professional, an audience member, or you simply delight in dancing in your daydreams, this art form is a creative escape.
That's not to say that being a dancer is easy: Pursuing such a competitive career can be heartbreaking, especially when you're faced with rejection.
La Folía, a short dance film by director Adam Grannick that was recently released online, echoes these sentiments in under 12 minutes.
It took two years of intense nutrition counseling and psychotherapy to pull me out of being anorexic. My problem now is that I've gained too much weight from eating normally. Is there no middle ground? I can't fit into my clothes, but I don't want to go back to being sick.
—Former Anorexic, Weston, CT