Advice for Dancers

May 31, 2012

My dance-obsessed daughter is ready to become a professional. Her teachers think she can excel in either ballet or contemporary, which is fortunate. My concern (probably late in the game) is if a career in one technique is healthier for her body and mind than the other.

Nervous Mom,

San Antonio, TX

The answer depends on her anatomy and, of course, her preference. While it’s always good to be able to perform a mixed repertoire (common in many dance companies today), she may favor one style. There’s no reason to avoid either unless her physique isn’t suited to the requirements. The most obvious example is turned-in hips—they should never be forced outwards in order to perform ballet. Another factor has to do with each dance form’s aesthetics in terms of body type and weight. Research shows that, although dancers tend to be perfectionists, those in ballet report more disordered eating, probably due to the greater focus on being thin. Dancers can create a more streamlined look for ballet through healthy nutrition and cross-training (such as Pilates and Gyrotonic), which develop the leaner, slow-twitch muscle fibers. However, you can’t change a long torso to the short kind coveted in ballet, or force the ankle’s bone structure into a vertical line required for dancing on pointe. Given that your daughter’s teachers believe she’s suited to both genres, I don’t think you need to worry. The key to success for all dancers is to perform choreography that suits their unique talents, body type, and abilities. Aspiring dancers should look for opportunities in as many formats where they fit in as possible—from commercials to music videos, concert dance to musical theater. After all, the ultimate goal is to find work one enjoys.

I’m doing everything I can to prepare for a summer audition tour in Europe where I hope to take class with at least six different companies. My daily schedule to get in shape includes two dance classes, a couple of hours at the gym with a personal trainer, and yoga or stretching sessions every evening. I know I also need to put together a good resumé, but I’m exhausted. Can you help me manage my time better?


Orlando, FL

First, I think you need to give yourself some free time before you can focus on your resumé. At the moment, you are doing way too much. This is a common problem for dancers as they gear up for summer intensives or audition tours. They exercise all day long only to discover that they’ve lost strength, flexibility, stamina, and energy. If you aren’t careful, you’ll arrive at your destination with a full-blown case of burnout. Save the personal trainer for slow periods when you’re out of shape. For now, concentrate on dance classes and yoga, taking one day off a week to allow your body to recuperate. (Hint: This is a great day to get a massage or acupuncture treatment.) Use the extra time to replenish your resources by engaging in easy but enjoyable activities like a leisurely stroll in the park or talking to friends. Rather than seeing this as “being lazy,” reframe it as a smart way to allow your body to recover. Studies show that our muscles actually get stronger and more flexible with time off. The final step is to write a resumé, highlighting your training and experience. To find out how to organize this on one sheet of paper, check out the tip on my website.

I used to associate arthritis with old age. At least that was my thinking until I went to see my doctor because of chronic swelling and a deep achy pain in my midfoot. I never expected to get a diagnosis of osteoarthritis. How could this happen? I’m only 30 years old!


Trenton, NJ

While I can tell you’re shocked, degenerative arthritis in the foot isn’t as serious as it sounds. You can manage most symptoms with conservative treatments such as physical therapy, taping for extra support, occasional anti-inflammatory medications, and backing off from excessive relevés when your arthritis flares up. Even in extreme cases where dancers need surgery to fuse the joints with a screw, the results are very effective at relieving pain without creating undue stiffness. The only major downside to an operation is that it can take a year to heal. The bigger mystery is why anyone gets arthritis in the first place. Certainly, wear and tear can contribute to its development in some older dancers over time. So can traumatic injuries, such as Lisfranc’s Sprain, which tears the ligaments that connect the bones in the midfoot together. Still, some people are prone to osteoarthritis even when they’re young. The reason remains unknown, although researchers are working to find it.


Former New York City Ballet dancer Linda Hamilton, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice, the author of
Advice for Dancers (Jossey-Bass), and co-author of The Dancer’s Way: The New York City Ballet Guide to Mind, Body and Nutrition (St. Martin’s Griffin). Her website is