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Working Out with Frances Chung
With Gennadi Nedvigin in Liam Scarlett's "Hummingbird." Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.
Frances Chung is a petite powerhouse. Exceptionally strong, the 5' 4" San Francisco Ballet principal has the technical chops to perform a sparkling Kitri and the endurance to lead the African-classical fusion of Val Caniparoli’s Lambarena. She first learned to boost her strength with swimming back when she was a corps member rehabbing a bad ankle sprain that happened during a rehearsal of Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering.
“I was out for six weeks,” she recalls. “I had to learn how to work out by not dancing.” Frequently recommended by orthopedists, swimming loosens and strengthens nearly every muscle in a dancer’s body without weight load or joint-taxing impact, so it’s ideal for recovery and aerobic conditioning. “Doing a full ballet without stopping is what makes dance really difficult for me,” she says. “Swimming helps me with stamina, so I can do the whole ballet better.”
Chung, now 31, still uses swimming to heal injuries and maintain the fitness required by SFB’s varied repertoire. She adapts her weekly 30- to 45-minute swim to her always-changing needs. “If I feel fatigued, going to the pool is still beneficial. Just jumping into cold water is very therapeutic for my body, which is usually pretty swollen.” With two full-length ballets—and a reprise of Dances at a Gathering—on this season’s slate, she’ll rely on swimming to help keep her body at its best. “Ultimately, it comes down to taking class every day. But swimming is an extra push that allows me to dance more freely.”
Get Your Kicks
Chung tailors her pool routine to how her body feels and what she is dancing—lap swimming boosts her cardio strength, while kickboarding strengthens specific muscles.
1. Warm-up. Chung loosens up with 5 minutes of low-key breaststroke and freestyle laps, then does 5 to 10 minutes at a faster pace to raise her heart rate. “If I feel like I’ve been lagging in rehearsal, I’ll push and do more sprinting.”
2. Kickboard basics. Fifteen minutes of kickboarding works Chung’s legs and core without building upper-body bulk. Hold the top of the board with your hands and rest your elbows on the center. For the first lap or two, kick with your lower body under the water. “I relax my knees and legs, and keep a relatively straight back. I don’t want to sink into my neck or my lower back, so I try to really pull up.” Then work the glutes and hip flexors by keeping your hips at water level and splashing while you kick. Knees can be bent or straight.
3. Kick it up. To challenge your obliques and central core muscles, move your hands to the sides of the kickboard, push the board under the water and extend your arms fully. Stabilize the board with your core as you kick with splashes for 2 to 3 additional laps. “There is a lot of resistance, even though the water is holding you up,” says Chung.
4. Go for a jog. Aqua-jogging gives Chung a high-intensity cardio workout that’s easy on the joints. Starting at one side of the pool at neck depth, move your arms and legs in a running motion without touching the bottom as you work your way back and forth across the pool.
Tip: Ankles tend to sickle during freestyle kicking, so focus on maintaining a straight or winged position to reinforce correct muscle
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.