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Working Out With Stella Abrera
In her first season as a principal at American Ballet Theatre, Stella Abrera experienced a kind of exhaustion she'd never known before. “For 14 years, I got used to gearing up to do one pas de deux or one solo, and I would usually feel fresh beforehand," says 38-year-old Abrera, who was promoted in 2015. “It was new to be so fatigued before I had to go on for the second or third act."
Instead of fighting fatigue, Abrera, here in Le Corsaire, uses it to relax her nerves. PC Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT.
She quickly learned not to freak out or fight the feeling. Instead, Abrera began to use each intermission to calmly recharge with an electrolyte-rich drink and a few bites to eat—some banana, some nut bar and a few gummy bears.
Rather than obsess over fatigue, she reframes it as a way to help her relax her nerves, trusting that adrenaline will kick in when she needs it. “Adrenaline is maybe my favorite drug," she jokes. “I don't feel any pain, just a burst of energy. It's kind of unreal. It's something I never feel until I'm onstage."
The downside of adrenaline, however, is how long it takes for the buzz to wear off. “After every big show I had this season, I didn't nod off until 4 am, and then I would wake with a jolt two hours later."
Knowing how high the risk of injury can be when she's had so little sleep, Abrera takes extra care to listen to her body: Any rehearsals the next day are just for muscle memory; none are danced full-out. She looks forward to her day off to recuperate with a massage, homemade pancakes and, ideally, nine hours of sleep.
Abrera typically visits the gym four times a week to do 20 to 25 minutes on the elliptical, plus a series of body-weight exercises like lunges, planks, calf raises and bridges. She skips the elliptical during peak performance weeks but continues her core-strength regimen. During off weeks, she ups her gym routine by adding some jumping exercises, such as jump rope, box jumps and using the jump board on the Pilates reformer.
Lessons From Injury
Abrera's career was put on hold when a back/sciatic nerve injury atrophied her calf muscle. Between the injury and a re-injury, she was offstage for two years. “After I came back, it took me a few years to trust my body again and let go with certain movements," she admits. Despite the setback, the experience taught her several lessons:
- “I'm more mindful of ramping up after time off now. I don't ever run a full variation right away—I'll do it at 50 to 75 percent energy for two days, or one section at a time."
- “I learned a lot about the nervous system. The sciatic nerve goes under the sacroiliac joint, and if that's tight, I feel weakness in my calf. The low-impact running motion of the elliptical helps me keep it well oiled and open."
- “I hydrate like crazy now. I'm obsessed with giving my muscles everything they need to fire correctly."
- “Core exercises help with everything."
A banana with almond butter, toasted almonds and honey, plus a cup of tea with half-and-half and honey. “I need the right balance of protein and carbs. If I have too much sugar, I have a horrible crash at barre, get woozy and start wandering around asking people for Life Savers."
Never did I think I'd see the day when I'd outgrow dance. Sure, I knew my life would have to evolve. In fact, my dance career had already taken me through seasons of being a performer, a choreographer, a business owner and even a dance professor. Evolution was a given. Evolving past dancing for a living, however, was not.
Transitioning from a dance career involved just as much of a process as building one did. But after I overcame the initial identity crisis, I realized that my dance career had helped me develop strengths that could be put to use in other careers. For instance, my work as a dance professor allowed me to discover my knack for connecting with students and helping them with their careers, skills that ultimately opened the door for a pivot into college career services.
Here's how five dance skills can land you a new job—and help you thrive in it:
When you spend as much time on the road as The Royal Ballet's Steven McRae, getting access to a proper gym can be a hassle. To stay fit, the Australian-born principal turns to calisthenics—the old-school art of developing aerobic ability and strength with little to no equipment.
"It's basically just using your own body weight," McRae explains. "In terms of partnering, I'm not going to dance with a ballerina who is bigger than me, so if I can sustain my own body weight, then in my head I should be fine."
I always knew my ballet career would eventually end. It was implied from the very start that at some point I would be too old and decrepit to take morning ballet class, followed by six hours of intense rehearsals.
What I never imagined was that I would experience a time when I couldn't walk at all.
In rehearsal for Nutcracker in 2013, I slipped while pushing off for a fouetté sauté, instantly rupturing the ACL in my right knee. In that moment my dance life flashed before my eyes.
Last week in a piece I wrote about the drama at English National Ballet, I pointed out that many of the accusations against artistic director Tamara Rojo—screaming at dancers, giving them the silent treatment, taking away roles without explanation—were, unfortunately, pretty standard practice in the ballet world:
If it's a conversation we're going to have, we can't only point the finger at ENB.
The line provoked a pretty strong response. Professional dancers, students and administrators reached out to me, making it clear that it's a conversation they want to have. Several shared their personal stories of experiencing abusive behavior.
Christopher Hampson, artistic director of the Scottish Ballet, wrote his thoughts about the issue on his company's website on Monday:
We all know that companies too often take dancers for granted. When I wrote last week about a few common ways in which dancers are mistreated—routine screaming, humiliation, being pressured to perform injured and be stick-thin—I knew I was only scratching the surface.
So I put out a call to readers asking for your perspective on the most pressing issues that need to be addressed first, and what positive changes we might be able to make to achieve those goals.
The bottom line: Readers agree it's time to hold directors accountable, particularly to make sure that dancers are being paid fairly. But the good news is that change is already happening. Here are some of the most intriguing ideas you shared via comments, email and social media:
With dancer and choreographer credits that cover everything from touring with Beyoncé to music videos and even feature films, Tricia Miranda knows more than a thing or two about what it takes to make it. And aspiring dancers are well aware. We caught up with the commercial dance queen last weekend at the Brooklyn Funk convention, where she taught a ballroom full of dancers classes in hip-hop and dancing for film and video.
How To Land An Agency
"At times with the agencies, they already have someone that looks like you or you're just not ready to work. Look has to do with a lot of it, work ethic and also just the type of person you are. Do you have personality? Do people want to work with you? Because you can be the greatest dancer, but if you're not someone that gives off this energy of wanting to get to know you, then it doesn't matter how dope you are because people want to work with who they want to be around. I learned that by later transitioning into a choreographer because now that I'm hiring people, I want to hire the people that I want to be around for 12 or 14 hours a day.
You also have to understand that class dancers are different from working commercial dancers. A lot of class dancers and what you see in these YouTube videos are people who stand out because they're doing what they want and remixing choreography. They're kind of stars in their own right, which is great for class, but when it comes to a job, you have to do the choreography how it's taught."
Houston's METdance and the Dallas-based Bruce Wood Dance have teamed up to commission a new work from Dallas native (and former Dallas Black Dance Theatre artistic director) Bridget L. Moore. The two contemporary companies will take the stage together in Dallas at Moody Performance Hall on March 16 and at Houston's Hobby Center for the Performing Arts on April 13–15. Visit brucewooddance.org and metdance.org for details on the respective engagements.
Onstage, Clifton Brown is a force of nature. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancer joined the celebrated company at 19, in 1999. In 2011, he left to dance with Jessica Lang Dance and Lar Lubovitch Dance Company before returning to Ailey last year. Brown has been trying his hand at choreography on the side, but this week his first larger work—a commission from The Washington Ballet artistic director Julie Kent—premieres on a program of new works by choreographers who still perform.
Brown will take a day or two away from the Ailey company's rigorous tour schedule to see TWB dancers perform his Menagerie, danced to Rossini's Duet for Cello and Double Bass in D Major, at Washington, D.C.'s Harman Center for the Arts. We caught up with him last week in Chicago.
Once Adriana Pierce caught the choreography bug as a teenager, dancemaking came naturally. More difficult was navigating the tricky situations that would arise when choreographing on classmates and friends. "If a rehearsal didn't go well, I'd worry that people didn't respect me or didn't like my work," says Pierce, who went on to participate in the School of American Ballet's Student Choreography Workshop twice, at 17 and 18. "I had a lot to learn: how not to take things personally, how to express what I wanted, when to push and when to back off."
Choreographing on your peers can feel intimidating. How can you be a leader in your own rehearsals when you're dancing at the same level the rest of the time? How can you critique your cast without hurting feelings? Avoiding pitfalls takes commitment and care, but the payoff is worth it.
Ever since we heard that Michaela DePrince's memoir, Taking Flight, was going to be a movie, we've been on the edge of our seats waiting for more info. Almost three years later, it's been worth the wait—we just learned that the Queen of Pop herself will be directing DePrince's biopic.
"Michaela's journey resonated with me deeply as both an artist and an activist who understands adversity," Madonna said in a statement. "We have a unique opportunity to shed light on Sierra Leone and let Michaela be the voice for all the orphaned children she grew up beside."