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 yamunabodyrolling.com).
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.
You know Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo as the men who parody your favorite ballet variations—and make it look good. But there's more to the iconic troupe than meets the eye.
A new documentary, Rebels on Pointe, goes behind the scenes of the company, and it's full of juicy tidbits about what it's like to be a Trock. These were some of our favorite moments:
After 30 years of pioneering work in physically integrated dance, AXIS Dance Company co-founder Judith Smith has announced plans to retire from the Oakland, California, company. Throughout her tenure, she strived to get equal recognition for integrated dance and disabled dancers, commissioning work from high-profile choreographers like Bill T. Jones. Her efforts generated huge momentum for expanded training, choreography, education and advocacy for dancers with disabilities.
By phone from her home in Oakland, Smith reflected on how far the field has evolved since the early days of AXIS, and what's yet to be done.
You know that how you care for your body before curtain can impact your performance. But with so many factors to consider, it can be difficult to nail down an exact routine. How much rest is enough? How close to showtime should you eat? We asked the experts.
How do you make your athleisure collection stand out from the pack? Get the ultimate studio-to-street seal of approval by having dancers star in your campaign, of course.
For his second collaboration with activewear brand Carbon38, ready-to-wear designer Jonathan Simkhai traded in his usual top models like Gigi Hadid and Karlie Kloss for the original Hiplet dancers—and the resulting video is as cool as we'd expect from such a fierce collaboration.
Everyone knows that training is the cornerstone of a successful career in dance. But as a dance educator, I also take comfort in the fact that high-quality dance training helps shape students into genuinely good people (in addition to creating future artists, which is a wonderful goal in itself.) These are the lessons dance teaches that help make students into better humans:
Improvement Takes Commitment Over Time
In my tap courses at Cal State University, sometimes students are shocked when they can't learn something quickly. In today's world, we're used to getting fast results. You need an answer—Google it. You need to talk to someone—text them. The cooking channel wants your dinner to be easy, the physical trainer wants your workout to be five minutes, Rosetta Stone can have you speaking Mandarin in an hour.
I first started pulling out my eyelashes when I was 9, after removing fake ones at a dance competition. A few of my own eyelashes came out and I felt a new sensation. It hurt, but the prick also felt so good.
Eventually, I was pulling even when I was not wearing stage makeup, sometimes unaware of what I was even doing. It happened while I was reading or doing homework, or when I was sad or angry.
For the next five years, I secretly pulled my eyelashes, then moved to my eyebrows and eventually the back of my scalp. Finally, at 14, I told my mom what I had been doing and she took me to see a child psychologist. It turned out I had trichotillomania (a.k.a. "trich"), which is one of a group of behaviors known as Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors in which people repeatedly pull, pick, scrape or bite their hair, skin or nails.
Again and again, dance teaches me that when the filters fall away between people—when the boundaries of geography, religion and politics soften—the beginning and end of our relationships is always human.
In March, I traveled with Keigwin + Company to Cote D'Ivoire, Ethiopia and Tunisia, on a tour sponsored by the US State Department and facilitated by DanceMotion USA/Brooklyn Academy of Music. Our mission was cultural diplomacy: Simply, to share ourselves with diverse communities, to promote common understanding and friendships.
Our last stop was Tunisia. Until that point, we had mostly been learning varieties of traditional African dance, and sharing American modern dance. But Tunisia was different. The dancers already had a solid grasp of contemporary movement invention. Though we didn't speak the same language, we could make movement vocabulary with surprising ease. Everything about our backgrounds was different, but there was this special intersection through dance that seemed to present an open door to collaboration.
Photo by Todd Rosenberg, Courtesy Joffrey Ballet.
Christopher Wheeldon's new Nutcracker for the Joffrey Ballet was huge news when it premiered last winter. The choreographer shifted the setting from the home of a well-off German family to the Chicago world's fair, making the hero the young daughter of a working-class, Polish immigrant sculptress. This month, WTTW Chicago, the city's public broadcasting station, will premiere Making a New American Nutcracker, a new documentary showing how Wheeldon and his high-profile collaborators made the magic happen. Premieres on WTTW11 and wttw.com/watch on Nov. 16 before appearing on public television stations across the country. Check your local listings.
For most dancers, walking into the theater elicits a familiar emotion that's somewhere between the reverence of stepping into a chapel and the comfort of coming home. But each venue has its own aura, and can offer that something special that takes your performance to a new level. Six dancers share which theaters have transported them the most.
GLENN ALLEN SIMS
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Glenn Allen Sims in Alvin Ailey's Masekela Langage. Photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy AAADT
Favorite theater: Teatro Real in Madrid, Spain
Royal details: "The theater is gorgeous and ornate, with deep red upholstery and gold trim. There is a huge royal box in the center, which takes you back to when kings and queens were watching performances there."
Impressive facilities: Even the dressing rooms are a sight to see: Amenities for the dancers include large, carpeted rooms, and towel service.
The business side of dance can often fall second to the art. Contracts, which usually appear after you've done the hard work of securing a job, can seem like an inconsequential afterthought. You might decide to simply sign without reading the terms—or be understandably confused by all the legalese.
Ultimately, though, contracts can play an important part in setting the expectations for your job. A basic understanding of the legal terms you might see can go a long way in making sure that signing is a positive step toward growing your career.