Advice For Dancers

July 22, 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.
I felt overwhelmed when I read that former Joffrey ballerina Erika Goodman had died at 59 after being anorexic for most of her career [see May, “Transitions”]. I know every dancer doesn’t starve themselves, but I did until I let my doctors know what was going on. Dancers with eating disorders risk their health, careers, and lives to be thin. How can we save them before it’s too late?
Devastated, Oakland, CA
I, too, was heartbroken at Erika’s loss. We both had participated in a PBS documentary on eating disorders called
Dying To Be Thin
. Her candor about struggling with anorexia was moving, as was her desire to help others with the same affliction. Treating eating disorders is challenging, since denial is a big part of the problem. You were wise to accept professional help. While the dance world’s emphasis on thinness isn’t the sole cause of anorexia, dieting to achieve an ideal body can trigger an eating disorder, especially in a vulnerable teen. Teachers who encourage healthy eating habits can play a key role. The time to zero in on weight loss is not while dancers are going through puberty or a growth spurt.
My legs are very muscular but also weak. My dad says he’s always had muscular legs, so it could be in my genes. But my teachers say if you use the wrong muscles when you dance, they become large. I try to make sure that I’m “pushing” my legs into the air and not “lifting” them. What am I doing wrong?
Embarrassed Dancer, location withheld
Both your dad and teachers are right. Genes play a significant role in the size of your muscles, although you can modify this to a degree by working correctly. Stay away from heavy resistance training and weight lifting, which can bulk up muscles. Instead, focus on lengthening the large muscle groups in your legs with stretching exercises such as yoga or Pilates. Katy Keller, clinical director of physical therapy at the Juilliard School, recommends strengthening the deep core muscles in the abdomen and hips that stabilize the pelvis. This will help you avoid gripping the outside of your legs, giving you a longer line.
I have a college degree and I love to dance in my small company, except it doesn’t pay. I think it would be easier to get into a better company if I could get more training. One idea was to go back to school, but this time for a dance degree. My concern is that many of these programs only want boys under 21. Money is also a problem. Any suggestions?
Christopher Cardenas, Houston, TX
Jane Ledford-Adkins, the administrative manager and assistant to the chair of the dance department at Ohio State University, says age matters more for undergraduate than graduate students. For undergrads, the emphasis is on performing potential, but many graduate students already have worked as dance professionals. If you are looking to expand your knowledge of dance and prepare for an eventual career transition, graduate work is a smart move. If you are seeking to master new dance techniques, you might consider taking additional dance classes or going to a summer program—
Dance Magazine
offers a comprehensive listing every January. In terms of financing for graduate work, many universities have work-study options to cover some costs. For more information, consult the new edition of the Dance Magazine College Guide 2005/06, which lists more than 500 programs ($24.95; 800-331-1750).
I’m 16 years old and I hope to start toe work next fall, but I’m worried that my teacher may not let me. For several years, I’ve been taking two 90-minute ballet classes a week, which is all that my studio offers. If I work really hard, take more dance classes at another studio, or enroll in a summer intensive, do you think that it’s possible I can go on pointe soon?
Aspiring Dancer, Dover, NH
I admire your determination—it’s essential. However, only your teacher or a physical therapist who specializes in dance medicine can tell if you’re strong enough to go on pointe. If you rush, you might get injured. Meanwhile, increasing the number of weekly dance classes will definitely help you get closer to your goal. Your instructor should be able to advise you about a suitable summer program as well. Given your late start, you should be prepared to take class with younger dancers. That might be a challenge, but boost your morale by focusing on your own progress, rather than comparing yourself to others in the class. If you want to learn more about dancing on toe,  consider ordering
The Pointe Book: Shoes, Training & Technique
by Janice Barringer and Sarah Schlesinger (Princeton Book Co.; $19.95; 800.220.7149).