Career Advice

Ache, Throb, Hurt

New York City Ballet principal Abi Stafford opens up about the frustrating, but unavoidable role of pain in a dance career.

Soaring through “Flower Festival in Genzano," from Bournonville Divertissements. PC Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB

My lower back went into spasm during a three-week tour to Paris with New York City Ballet this summer. I was dancing Sanguinic in The Four Temperaments, a role that requires the hips to be pushed forward in an exaggerated manner. Because of the raked stage, I was forced to dance with my shoulders placed even farther back than normal, and I could feel the extreme position compressing my lower spine. Yet with the excitement of performing in Paris, I pushed my hips forward with all my might, even though I sensed danger as each tiny back muscle slowly seized up. It felt like fingernails were pressing hard into each nerve. As I danced, I imagined each muscle turning red and gripping furiously. The spasm worked its way up, eventually taking over most of my back.

At the risk of sounding bleak, pain is simply a fact of life for dancers. Of course, not all pain is created equal. It varies from niggling bruised toenails to crippling torn ligaments. There is temporary pain from pulled muscles and chronic pain from tendonitis. Nerves make stomachs hurt. Performances make lungs burn, leg muscles cramp and arms tingle. And at the end of the day, exhaustion can bring on all-encompassing suffering.

Yet there is pain one can dance with, and pain that one can't. For me, lower back pain is nothing new. My first foray into back pain came after executing an overenthusiastic tour jeté, sending my back out of alignment while I was still a student at the School of American Ballet.

This time, as a 30-something, the pain was different. Earlier times when my back went out, the hurt was superficial. It would vanish after a quick adjustment from a chiropractor. Now, it was deep and muscular. I had a sense that my poor, angry muscles needed time to calm down. But I still hoped to get back to normal quickly. I diligently signed up for physical therapy appointments. I applied heating pads and ice packs. I popped Advil. I visited chiropractors and massage therapists. I bent from my knees to pick up my 1-year-old baby, keeping my back straight. (Unfortunately, that didn't make my back better but did split my favorite pair of shorts.)

Confidence gave Stafford more freedom onstage. Here, in Balanchine's A Midsummer Night's Dream. PC Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB

Despite my best efforts, the pain didn't improve. I knew this wasn't the type of pain I should dance through. I was awfully close to looking injured onstage. But I continued to rehearse for my remaining performances anyway. It's not easy to admit you're unable to dance. I didn't want to feel like a failure. Others were managing to perform with injuries, so why couldn't I? I felt like I should have been able to prevent my injury, which was, of course, impossible.

By the end of the finale of Symphony in C during the last week of tour, it was clear that I had made my back much worse. After Paris, the company headed straight to a summer residency in Saratoga, New York. When we got there, I couldn't physically make myself dance. My body rejected ballet. All dance steps hurt, from tendu derrière to fourth position, and even simply running. So I finally gave in and let myself stop, rest and heal. About three and a half weeks later, the deep muscle pain finally subsided.

If I had rested sooner, I could've healed faster and danced more in the end—which is all I want in the first place. But since this career is so short, we all want to squeeze in as much dancing as we can muster before the final curtain comes down. Often the fear of not being able to dance when it counts feels worse than the actual injury. And perhaps somewhere deep down we know that physical pain is temporary, but the memories and the rewards of dancing will last forever. So, this type of existence isn't all bad. Although the pain is ever present, it becomes a badge of honor. An aching body post-performance signals tangible proof of a job well done. Sore muscles mean that stronger muscles are merely days away. Dancers hope that today's pain might help their work feel a bit easier tomorrow. It gives us confidence to trust that our bodies are strong and capable of performing difficult choreography each night. The pain reminds us that we continue to grow—and that hard work is never in vain.


A Deeper Pain

As much as our bodies can hurt, emotional pain can be much harder to handle. For me, paralyzing self-doubt set in after reading online ballet message boards early in my career. Some people cited the many different ways that I wasn't good enough. Others discussed how I shouldn't have been given the roles I was dancing. Unfortunately, I believed them—and I carried their words onstage with me. I imagined them in the audience and pictured what they would later write about me. I desperately wanted to prove them wrong, yet I was afraid that they were right. I performed accordingly: My lack of confidence translated to the audience, continuing the cycle of vicious comments.

Feelings of inadequacy are normal in this career. But I've realized that I can make my skin as thick as I want. People using anonymous handles are not experts on ballet. The critiques to listen to are the ones from those who have my best interests at heart, like my artistic director, ballet masters and teachers. At the end of the day, I can only be me. And if I don't like my own dancing, who will? Rather than trying to perfect my technique at this stage of my career, I plan to perfect my confidence. Instead of seeking out fans on the internet, I've decided to become my own biggest fan.

The Conversation
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Throughout your dancing life, you've heard the same corrections over and over. The reason for the repetition? Dancers tend to make the same errors, sometimes with catastrophic results. Dance Magazine spoke to eight teachers about what they perceive to be the worst habits—the ones that will destroy a dancer's technique—and what can be done to reverse the damage.


Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

Rant & Rave
Matthew Murphy

I write this letter knowing full well and first-hand the financial challenges of running an arts organization. I also write this letter on behalf of dancers auditioning for your companies. Lastly, I write this letter as a member of society at large and as someone who cares deeply about the culture we are leading and the climate we create in the performing arts.

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Dance History
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In the February 1969 issue of Dance Magazine, we talked to Bob Fosse about taking Sweet Charity from stage to screen. Though he already had a string of Tony Awards for Best Choreography and had spent plenty of time on film sets as a choreographer, this adaptation marked his first time sitting in the director's chair for a motion picture.

"When I started out, I wanted to be a Fred Astaire," he told us, "and after that a Jerome Robbins. But then I realized there was always somebody a dancer or choreographer had to take orders from. So I decided I wanted to become a director, namely a George Abbott. But as I got older I dropped the hero-worship thing. I didn't want to emulate anyone. Just wanted to do the things I was capable of doing—and have some fun doing them. By this time I'm glad I didn't turn out to be an Astaire, a Robbins or an Abbott." He would go on to become an Academy Award–winning director, indelibly changing musical theater in the process.

The Creative Process
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Dance Magazine recently asked him about how he got this career, and what it takes to thrive in it.

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Health & Body
Leon Liu/Unsplash

Let's say that today you're having a terrible time following your class's choreography and are feeling ashamed—you're always stumbling a few beats behind. Do you:

1. Admit it's your fault because you didn't study the steps last night? Tonight you'll nail them down.
2. Feel worthless and alone? You slump your shoulders, avoid eye contact with your teacher and fellow dancers, and wish to disappear.

Shame is a natural emotion that everyone occasionally feels. If you answered #1, it may be appropriate—you earned it by not studying—and positive if it motivates you to do better in the future.

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Advice for Dancers
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My hypermobility used to cause me a lot of trouble, but I've gained confidence and strength after reading about it in one of your columns. I now have a Pilates instructor who's retraining my body and helping me dance in a consistent way. Thank you!

—No Longer Anxious, Philadelphia, PA

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George Balanchine famously wrote, that ballet "is a woman." Four of his most celebrated women—Allegra Kent, Gloria Govrin, Kay Mazzo and Merrill Ashley—appeared onstage at Jacques d'Amboise's National Dance Institute Monday evening to celebrate his legacy. The sold-out program, called "Balanchine's Ballerinas," included performances of excerpts from ballets closely associated with these women and a discussion, moderated by former New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan. Here are some highlights of the conversation, filled with affection, warmth and fond memories.

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