Advice for Dancers

July 31, 2007
Former New York City Ballet dancer Linda Hamilton, Ph.D., is a lecturer, a psychologist in private practice, and the author of
Advice for Dancers (Jossey-Bass). She has been offering advice to Dance Magazine readers since 1992.
Does practicing more than one technique cause injuries? I’ve studied ballet since I was a kid, but recently added modern classes to help land a job. My body is acting up big time. What should I do? —Vanessa, Brooklyn Heights, NY
Pay attention to what hurts! According to a recent study by Dr. Bonnie Weigert, each technique places different stresses on the body. While ballet dancers report more problems in the lower back, hamstrings, and shins, modern dancers are twice as likely to experience upper body strain. The upside is that training in several techniques will give you a competitive edge, but more parts of your body are vulnerable. Like Tiger Woods, all athletes, including dancers, can reduce injuries through cross-training. Try combining working out with free weights to build strength in your arms and upper body, a resistance training program like Pilates, and aerobic exercise like pedaling a stationary bike or swimming. In a study that I recently presented at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention, serious injuries were significantly higher in ballet dancers who performed contemporary works but did not take contemporary dance classes. So if your company plans to perform Martha Graham’s
Diversion of Angels
, try to take some Graham classes before rehearsals start.
After reading in The New York Times about New York City Ballet’s first Wellness Weekend for the dance community this past September, I was impressed with the company’s pre-season health screenings. Why is this procedure only required for new company members? When I danced, I know my body could have used a thorough check-up before each season. —Too Old to Learn,
Princeton, NJ
Annual screenings are still a novel idea in the dance community. It’s a big step that NYC Ballet is offering confidential screenings to the entire company, with mandatory attendance for the youngest dancers, who are most prone to overuse injuries. This way we’re training a new generation about healthy work habits, while encouraging seasoned performers to reap the benefits of early screenings. Why is it important for all company members to seek early screenings? Suppose that a dancer has tight hamstrings. If she discovers this at the beginning of the rehearsal period, she can correct it with special stretching exercises, making her less likely to pull a muscle in an area that takes forever to heal. Likewise, dancers who get a personalized training routine can raise their fitness level without straining vulnerable parts (such as a bad back). Dancers with nutritional deficiencies associated with dieting may offset common problems, such as brittle bones, by seeing a registered dietician. The advances in dance medicine have made screening an invaluable tool for all dancers regardless of their age.
My daughter is studying ballet at my dance school. She’s exceptional at jumps and leaps, but also wishes to join the cross-country running team. Dance is her first love. What is your advice?
—Mary-Liz, Elkon, VA
I wish I could say go for it! But running is generally not a healthy option for ballet dancers. Unlike the best runners, who are pigeon-toed, dancers tend to run in the turned-out position. This gait bypasses the power of the Achilles tendon in favor of the smaller posterior tibial tendon, leading to strains and tendonitis. Difficult as it is, your daughter needs to choose between her first love, ballet, and her passion for cross-country running.
My jazz teacher tells me that I’m talented. I work harder than nearly every dancer in the class and I give 100 percent when it comes to effort. My problem, she says, is that I think too much and am overly self-critical. It’s a backhanded compliment. I know I should be happy but all I feel is frustrated and confused. Why does hard work backfire? —Miserable, Baltimore, MD
Dancers often thrive on being workaholics, so I know it’s disheartening when effort is the problem rather than the solution. Yet no dancer gets every step right all the time. The good news is that stress management can help you take a more constructive approach. Strategies range from yoga and meditation to cognitive techniques, such as self-talk. In the latter case, reframing a difficult situation in a more positive light (“I’m excited and ready to go”), along with focusing your attention on a key phrase before a difficult combination, can make a huge difference. Remember, the drive to excel always involves a certain amount of struggle. Sometimes, the best lessons come when nothing seems to work.