Tools of the Trade

Dancing professionally should come with a warning label: Beware of aches and pains, muscle fatigue and cramping, joint discomfort, and crackly popping sounds. To manage pain and keep moving, dancers often turn to foot rollers, foam rollers, and balls. These handy self-massage tools can relieve aching muscles during class or rehearsal, but they are not interchangeable. Here's how each can help.

Roll It Out
Foam and wood rollers are the most commonly used tools among dancers. “Rolling is great for lengthening and pulling apart fascial tissue, especially plantar fascia on the bottom of feet, and the iliotibial band (IT) along the side of the thigh," says Julie O'Connell, director of Performing Arts Rehabilitation at AthletiCo in Chicago. Fascia, a soft connective layer between skin and muscle that helps support the body's structural integrity, tends to tighten and get more rigid from use. O'Connell recommends spending 3 to 5 minutes rolling during breaks in a long rehearsal day to feel some relief, until there's a decrease in tension and an increase in pliability. “Don't try to remove all of the fascial tension because your body needs that for postural support," she says.

Rolling iliotibial bands and feet can be very painful, so choose the roller's density (hardness) based on your pain tolerance. If the roller causes muscles to tense, switch to a lower density and work up to harder rollers. Half-rollers and skinny rollers are better for smaller muscle groups. To unknot the calves, try kneeling with a skinny roller lying on top of the calf muscle length-wise, sit back on it, and move gently from side to side.

Erika Kalkan, faculty member at Harkness Center for Dance Injuries, suggests rolling once muscles are warm after class to reap the most benefit. However, if the muscle is irritatingly tight beforehand, the dancer may want to roll to loosen it up before she starts to work. “As you roll out, focus, breathe, and try to relax into it," she says. “If you only roll for a couple seconds while talking with other dancers, it may be completely useless."

Foot rollers are compact and unobtrusive enough to use in class, so many dancers keep one nearby during barre. During Jennifer Muller/The Works company classes, dancer Duane Gosa says, “I always use a wood foot roller when my feet cramp up, so I can focus on the combinations and not on my foot pain."

On the Ball

Tennis balls, racquet balls, rubber balls, and small spiky balls have become dance bag necessities in recent years. While rollers release tension in large sections of the body, balls are for local, trigger-point release. Balls can soften knots or muscular adhesions in the back, chest, hamstrings, glutes, and feet. For ballet dancers, O'Connell notes that calves and external rotators—specifically the piriformis, in the gluteal region—most often require release.

To release the piriformis, says O'Connell, sit on a ball placed under one hip, with knee bent in a relaxed turnout, and roll around on the ball. Kalkan also tells dancers to keep the ball in one spot for 30 seconds and imagine relaxing the muscles over the ball, then move to a different spot and repeat. “A relaxed muscle allows the fibers to lengthen, brings circulation to the area, and causes a release on a neuro-physical level."

There are more specific ball-rolling techniques, including Yamuna Body Rolling, that safely increase relief. Yamuna uses 6- to 10-inch balls of various densities to roll out the entire body in an anatomically correct manner, starting at the origin of a specific muscle and rolling to the point where the muscle inserts into the bone. Once learned, the technique can aid a dancer's post-class body maintenance (see

The Safety Dance
There are red-flag cautions for all self-massage techniques. Any numbness or tingling is a sign of pressure on a nerve. Kalkan warns about rolling on the pectoral muscles because the brachial plexus—a large network of nerves—is nearby. Also watch for tingling in the toes when rolling the peroneal muscles on the outside of the lower leg. A softer ball, less pressure, and not working the area for too long helps avoid nerve pain.

Also remember that a deeper roll does not mean more relief. “I am surprised at how many dancers bruise themselves and the bone from rolling!" exclaims Kalkan. Applying forceful pressure or spending too much time on one spot leads to painful inflammation and swelling.

But don't use these tools as a way to mask more serious body issues. “Don't use balls or rollers instead of seeking medical attention," warns O'Connell. “Early intervention can catch issues before they become serious injuries." Tools like these may help you con­tinue dancing, but Kalkan believes in investigating the cause of pain, discovering why some areas are always tight, then striving towards a solution. Working on alignment and proper muscle recruitment can lead to long-term relief.

Lopez in Circus Polka. PC Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB

When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."

But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.

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Matthew Neenan used images of silencing and control in let mortal tongues awake. Photo by Bill Herbert.

From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.

New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.

A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.

Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.

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Breaking Stereotypes
Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

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

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."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at

Sylvie Guillem, via

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.

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Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series

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Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series

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In The Studio
Abraham.In.Motion performing "Drive." Photo by Ian Douglas.

The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!

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Tero Saarinen's Morphed. Photo by Darya Popova, Courtesy Helene Davis Public Relations

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.

Rant & Rave
PC Break the Floor

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."

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Dance in Pop Culture
Roberto Bolle and Kenall Jenner on set. Photo via

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."

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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:

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