Yoga began as a path to spiritual enlightenment about 5,000 years ago in ancient India. It includes meditation techniques, breath control exercises, and a detailed set of ethical principles. It also involves a series of physical poses (asanas) that have become popular in the West in recent years. Dancers have discovered yoga as a way to relax between technique classes, rehearsals, and performances, while still maintaining flexibility and strength. Here several dancers explain how yoga benefits their bodies and their work.
Finding Your Center String
Kellie Epperheimer, 23, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago I started yoga after I sprained my ankle. It gave me a way to work a little more slowly. As a dancer you have drive, so the pace was really hard for me at first. The balancing poses especially helped me stabilize and find a nice center string to work from in my body alignment. Now I appreciate having a slow hour and a half where my mind can go to a different place instead of having to think about a step.
Favorite pose sirsasana (headstand).
“I feel my plumb line and all of my muscles lifting and being activated. It’s soothing.”
The Gift of Time
Paul McGill, 20, current Broadway revival of A Chorus Line With yoga you can take your time and focus, unlike a dance class, and it’s changed my dancing. I don’t just jump and kick and turn anymore. My movement has more fluidity. When I was younger I danced, but I didn’t know where the movement was coming from or what muscles I was using. With yoga you feel every little thing in your body. It’s very personal, very internal. There’s no one watching me, no one judging me. I can just be.
Favorite pose parivrtta parsvakonasana (twisted side angle, with legs in lunge, upper body twisting). “It helps me release my lower back, which gets really, really tight after each show.”
Briana Reed, 32, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Yoga helps me with life on the road. When I get to a hotel and pull out my mat, it centers me. I find that my hamstrings are more flexible. I am more steady on my feet. I’ve also learned to control my breath, so I’m not as tired performing. In yoga there’s no such thing as a bad class because you’re doing it for yourself and you don’t have an audience or an artistic director to disappoint. You have the chance to be imperfect. It’s a huge relief.
Favorite pose sirsasana (headstand). “This pose was the scariest thing for me and I had to learn to trust myself. I never imagined that I could stand on my head. Now I’m more wiling to try things that I wouldn’t have before.”
An Unexpected Energy
Seth DelGrasso, 30, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet I started yoga because I wanted to increase my flexibility, but after a few months I also noticed my mental focus had increased, and the breathing and relaxation exercises allowed me to connect with my muscles in a much deeper way.Yoga has allowed me to understand more of that internal connection between breath and movement, which has given me more energy. I’ve learned to stretch by elongating rather than going into stretches too aggressively, which helps my body protect itself. Plus certain things throughout the day don’t bother me as much as they used to.
Favorite pose padmasana (lotus). “When I began my hips were very tight. To find calmness within this pose has allowed me to increase my flexibility tremendously.”
Preparing to Perform
Elana Altman, 25, San Francisco Ballet Yoga’s a good way to stretch and relax and prepare myself for a performance. It’s not an aerobic workout. It’s about using the particular poses to get specific results in your body, like opening your hips or releasing your back or neck tension. Ballet is all about turnout and extension—it uses the same muscles over and over. Yoga puts me into a different sort of alignment. It makes me very conscious of my body and that can translate into preventing injuries. When my body doesn’t let me dance anymore, at least I’ll have yoga!
Favorite pose kapotasana (pigeon pose, where you sit on the floor with legs in a split). “This is a good isometric butt and hip stretch. Since ballet is all about turnout it’s great for dancers.”
Shayna Samuels is co-founder of the Mothership Yoga Lounge in Truth or Consequences, NM.
Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.
Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?
If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.
"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."
Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.
"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.
After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.
Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org
In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."
She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."
Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.
Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.
Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."
Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.
But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.
I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."
It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.
Everyone knows that community college is an affordable option if a four-year school isn't in the cards. But it can also be a solid foundation for a career in the dance field. Whether students want an associate in arts degree as a precursor to obtaining a bachelor's, or to go straight into the performing world, the right two-year dance program can be a uniquely supportive place to train. Don't let negative stereotypes prevent you from attending a program that could be right for you:
Conscientious theatergoers may be familiar with The School for Scandal, The School for Wives and School of Rock. But how many are also aware of the school of Fosse?
The 1999 musical, a posthumous exploration of the choreographic career of Bob Fosse, ran for 1,093 performances, winning four Tonys and 10 nominations; employing 32 dancers; and, completely unintentionally, nurturing a generation of Broadway choreographers. You may have heard of them: Andy Blankenbuehler and Sergio Trujillo danced in the original cast, Josh Rhodes was a swing, and Christopher Gattelli replaced Trujillo when he landed choreography jobs in Massachusetts and Canada. Blankenbuehler remembers that when Trujillo left, "It was as if he was graduating."
January 16 might as well be a Broadway holiday. Three gigantic names were born on this day, in 1908, 1950 and 1980, and they represent three distinct eras of powerhouse musicals. Without them, there'd be no belting Reno Sweeney, no "Fame"-ous Lydia Grant and no rapping Alexander Hamilton. Happy birthday to these indelible superstars.
In the midst of its 20th-anniversary season, BodyVox is taking a moment to look back. The Portland, Oregon–based company presents Urban Meadow, an amalgamation of some of its most popular works, at Philadelphia's Prince Theater, Jan. 18–21. Expect whimsy, and the unexpected. bodyvox.com.
I never believe that I deserve to be happy. This reaction kicked in big time since I got a steady job. My emotions are a roller coaster: joy at the chance to perform, terror that the people in charge don't like me and resentment at not getting solo roles. I'm driving myself crazy.
—Terry, Philadelphia, PA