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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.
Sarah Haarmann stands out without trying to. There is a precision and lack of affectation in her dancing that is very Merce Cunningham. Her movement quality is sharp and clear; her stage presence utterly focused. It's no wonder she caught Mark Morris' eye. Even though she still considers herself "very much the new girl" at Mark Morris Dance Group (she became a full-time member in August 2017), in a recent performance of Layla and Majnun, Haarmann seemed completely in her element.
Company: Mark Morris Dance Group
Hometown: Macungie, Pennsylvania
Training: Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Performing Arts and Marymount Manhattan College
In 2012, freelance contemporary dancer Adrianne Chu made a major career change: She decided to try out for A Chorus Line. "Even though I didn't get the job, I felt like I was meant to do this," says Chu. So she started going to at least one musical theater audition every weekday, treating each as a learning experience. After several years of building up her resumé, Chu's practice paid off: She booked a starring role as Wendy in the first national tour of Finding Neverland.
Approaching auditions as learning opportunities, especially when you're trying to break into a different style or are new to the profession, can sharpen your skills while helping you avoid burnout. It also builds confidence for the auditions that matter most.
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:
Last month, the International Association of Blacks in Dance's third annual ballet audition for women of color was expanded to include a separate audition for men.
The brainchild of Joan Myers Brown (founder of both Philadanco and IABD), the women's audition was created to specifically address the lack of black females in ballet. However, the success and attention that audition drew made the men feel left out, so IABD decided to give the men equal time this year.
Pina Bausch's unique form of German Tanztheater is known for raising questions. Amid water and soil, barstools and balloons, the late choreographer's work contains a distinct tinge of mystery and confrontation. Today, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch's dancers use questions as fuel for creativity. The company's most recent project introduced a new group of performers to the stage: local high school ninth-graders from the Gesamtschule Barmen in Wuppertal, Germany, in an original work-in-progress performance called Veränderung (Change).
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.
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.