Advice for Dancers

April 25, 2007

  I’ve performed with dancers all over in various companies and no one seems to know why we wish each other “merde” before a show.  I know what it means in French. Can you shed some light?

Peace and Pliés
Chicago, IL


All performers can be superstitious— dancers too. After all, a live performance is unpredictable. To give themselves  more of a sense of control before going onstage (even if it’s only imaginary),  dancers  wish each other a bad outcome, so as not to “tempt the gods.” Merde (in this case, losing control over your bowels) certainly fills the bill in dance.  Still, it doesn’t do much for those pre-performance jitters.  More effective can be deep breathing, staying in the moment versus worrying about falling on your backside, and reframing the performance  in your thoughts  as more fun than scary.

I am a teenage dancer whose dream is to become a ballerina, but I don’t have the turnout or extension, even though I’ve tried everything to improve. Please help!

Rainesford Stauffer
Owensboro, KY


It’s always difficult to confront physical limitations.  Yet, if you can figure out the problem, you have a better chance of finding a solution that suits your body.  First, let’s begin with a little lesson in anatomy. The boney socket of your hip plays a significant role in both turnout and extension. Nothing can change the shape of that joint. However, you can affect how your hip functions by strengthening and stretching the small muscles and capsule around the joint. Consult a physical therapist or athletic trainer to get exercises to help you reach your full potential—your school may be able to give you a referral. You might also consider experimenting with dance techniques other than ballet.  Today’s contemporary choreography often uses a mix of different styles, which gives dancers with a broad background a competitive edge. Last but not least, it helps to pursue interests outside of dance. Everyone needs to broaden their horizons . It not only relieves stress, but gives you more options.

How can I project more when I’m dancing?  My teachers tell me that they can’t cast me in better roles until I show my personality. I know they’re right.  My favorite dancers are the most expressive ones. I want to be like them so much. Can you tell me how?

Bottled Up
St. Paul, MN


You need to find your own key to cutting loose. Sometimes, it is simply a matter of learning how to express your feelings in front of others. If this is the case, you might begin by going into a room by yourself and basically just dancing your heart out.  However, this will only work if you can really enjoy it on your own. Then  consider acting lessons with a supportive instructor  who can teach you techniques to tap into your emotions on cue.  Private dance lessons that focus on self-expression can also help.  Sometimes performers who have trouble revealing their feelings may be struggling with painful self-doubt or shyness (which has a genetic component).  Psychotherapy is another tool that can help to uncover and deal with emotional blocks within a safe environment. Whichever route you take, give yourself time to open up. .

Is it true that dancers shouldn’t run for fear of knee injuries?  Some days I wish I could go for a run but stop myself because I don’t want to get hurt. I’ve had knee injuries in the past, so that makes me hesitate too.  

Name and Address Withheld
By Request


Certainly, there are exceptions to every rule. I’ve known dancers with a prior history of knee problems who run without any problems.  The trick is to do it with your feet straight rather than turned out. I would also make sure that your doctor approves. On a more practical level, there are several do’s and don’ts. Get athletic shoes with sufficient support.  According to podiatrist Dr. Thomas Novella, a running shoe should bend at the toe, not at the arch. It’s also better to size your shoe at the end of the day (in contrast to dance slippers) when you feet are their largest.  You need a quarter to a half-inch between your longest toe and the inside of your sneaker.  The widest part of your foot should match the widest part of your shoe. Finally, play it safe by running on a smooth, resilient surface (neither too bouncy nor too hard). Try to avoid hills, which place further stress on the knee and ankle. And be aware of the four periods when you’re most vulnerable to injuries:  starting a running program, coming back from an injury,  running a longer distance, and increasing your speed.