Advice For Dancers

June 19, 2007

What can I do to stop muscle cramps? Sometimes they hit me in the middle of the night and hurt for days. Or they happen when I’m dancing or working in class. Is this normal?



You’re not alone. Nearly every dancer has had muscle spasms wake them out of a deep sleep or hit them in the midst of dancing. You can deal with it preventively, but first you need to know the cause. Dance medicine specialists tell me that a chronic back problem (such as a stress fracture that has healed with scar tissue) can cause the surrounding muscles to go into spasm if you move the wrong way. Your body is saying “Cool it.” A old-fashioned remedy: put a piece of plastic wrap on that area after you shower. It’s like walking around with a moist heating pad on 24/7.

Muscle fatigue from sustained vigorous exercise can also create cramping, whether it’s performing a Broadway show six days a week or dancing an intense season of ballet. Balance your body with more sleep, and more warming up and cooling down combined with gentle stretching. Then there’s your diet. Drink one-to-two cups of water about 30 minutes before exercising to keep hydrated, and ward off cramping. Try to have a cup of water or a sports drink every 15 minutes while doing it to counter the potassium lost from sweating. When you’re done, replenish your fluids over several hours with water, low-fat milk, and a small amount of fruit juice (a banana is even better). This gives you calcium, magnesium, and potassium to offset cramps. Feel free to add calcium supplements with vitamin at bedtime, as well as 50 to 100 mg. of magnesium (if your kidneys are normal). If your foot inadvertently points in the middle of the night, shortening your calf muscle and leading to a spasm, use your hands to force the foot to flex with the knee straight, reducing the swelling and soreness.

I always hear that dancers need more sleep. I understand we need to rest, but are there any other benefits?


Brooklyn, NY

Don’t get me started. Sleep increases your memory, ability to manage your weight, and your coordination, so you’re less likely to have a traumatic injury, such as a torn knee ligament. If you have trouble feeling sleepy, turn down the lights an hour before bedtime (switch off the TV or computer), hop into a hot bath or shower that will raise and then lower your body temperature, slowing your heart rate, and try to unwind with some relaxing music. You might also note what you did right during the day, versus worrying about an endless list of what you should have done. Sweet dreams!

I’m worried about my dance school keeping me back next fall if I gain weight. That’s what happened last year and it did a real number on my body image and self-esteem. I’ve been to a nutritionist who helped me eat a healthy dancer’s diet, but I’m still worried. What can I do?

Paranoid Dancer
Cincinnati, Ohio

Actually, it’s more about what your dance teachers can do—which is to get smart! Height and weight vary by season in teens. During those years, two-thirds of weight gain occurs between September and February, then spring brings big growth spurts. Any teacher who gives you a hard time because you are a bit heavier in September has no clue that it’s necessary for your development. My advice is to stick to a healthy diet. If your teachers give you a hard time, get a doctor’s note or switch schools. Your health, along with your future career, may depend upon it.

Can you explain why I often hurt the day following a hard workout? It doesn’t make sense to me that I don’t feel it that night. Or is it just my body?


Philadelphia, PA

I assume you’re talking about that stiff, achy feeling that sneaks up on you and peaks 48 hours later. This often happens after trying a more difficult workout or dancing yourself into shape after a long break. It can make even walking down the stairs a major ordeal. While it is hard to pinpoint the exact cause, we know it’s not related to the build-up of lactic acid (otherwise known as the ‘burn’), which is a byproduct of exercise that dissipates within an hour. Many scientists believe that delayed muscle ache comes from microscopic tears that occur when you perform new exercises. This produces inflammation up to 36 hours later, as the body’s white blood cells start to repair the damage while preparing the muscle to handle the same exercise better the next time. The chemicals that get released cause the soreness. A massage, along with minimal activity during your day off, can help. One tip: You need to ease into your routine with a gradual warm-up followed by a 15-minute cool-down where you keep moving. This is often the best time to stretch—but gently!



Former New York City Ballet dancer Linda Hamilton, Ph.D., is a psychologist, a wellness constultant for NYCB , and the author of
Advice for Dancers (Jossey-Bass). She has offered advice to Dance Magazine readers since 1992.