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 have a special performance coming up that I’m dying to dance. My problem is I can’t do it because of a pulled groin muscle. The choreographer isn’t very sympathetic. How can I convince her I have a real injury? —Anna, New York, NY
Get a note from your doctor! Groin injuries tend to heal slowly and recur unless they are properly rehabilitated. So physical therapy—not performing onstage—is where you need to be. To avoid a groin injury, dancers need to warm up before plopping down into a side split first thing in the morning. In general, a good warm-up involves a slow progression from simple to complex movements to increase your body temperature and range of motion. You could gently jog in place, then sit down and do toe flexes, ankle circles, and shoulder circles. Once you’re warm, you can stretch your groin muscles doing the straddle position by standing up with feet parallel in second position, bending one leg while leaving the other straight. Just remember not to bounce, since this tightens the muscles. You can then move on to gentle splits, front-to-back and side. To help dancers prevent reinjury, American Ballet Theatre physical therapist Peter Marshall uses a progressive strengthening program to build up the hip adductor muscles that protect the groin.
I have a dream of becoming a ballerina. I’m pretty talented, flexible, and strong for a young dancer, but I don’t have the standard body type. Should I consider ballet anyway? I have six years before I try out for a dance company.
–Alexandra Klugar, Jenkintown, PA
How about giving yourself a break? At your age, it’s almost impossible to predict where your strengths as a dancer lie because so much depends on how your body develops over time. While no dancer has a perfect physique, it’s never too early to increase your competitive edge by studying a variety of styles. In fact, versatility is often necessary to tackle today’s demanding choreography—even if your primary goal is to become a classical dancer. Many professional dancers are asked to perform steps from ballet, jazz, hip hop, and modern dance. So whether you end up in a dance company or on Broadway, it pays to be prepared.
Everyone at home thinks of me as “the dancer.” But after five tough years of working for a difficult artistic director, I’ve had it. I don’t regret leaving dance or moving back in with my parents before I figure out my next step. But I do have trouble explaining my decision to relatives and friends. They don’t seem to understand that I need a break. Is it so bad to hang out before diving into another career? —Lost on Long Island
Absolutely not. One of the smartest things you can do after leading such a disciplined life is to take time off from dance. While it’s common for people to want to urge you into another career, this is your time to explore. I’ve known dancers who, after a long enough break, missed performing and reentered the profession, albeit with a new director in another company. Others discovered talents that helped them create a satisfying second career. This happened to me in college when I found, much to my surprise, that I loved doing research, which lead to numerous studies on occupational stress in the performing arts. Wherever life takes you, remember it’s normal to experiment before settling on a future career. Teenagers do this automatically, while serious ballet dancers rarely have the opportunity to delve into other aspects of themselves.
I almost feel paranoid saying it, but I’m happy with my dancing. My teachers are positive, attentive, and give me corrections all the time. It’s nice to have so much validation. My biggest concern is that I don’t trust it! I fear that somehow I’ll mess up and destroy everything. Is this neurotic? —Amy, Bronxville, NY
Many gifted people have extremely high standards, making them nervous when things go right. While this may seem peculiar, it’s common for perfectionists to doubt themselves, even when they’re praised. What’s the key to healthy self-esteem? Begin by acknowledging your hard work and focus on your effort rather than achieving a flawless performance. It’s also important to set realistic goals, so if you have an off day, you don’t jump to the conclusion that it’s time to quit. When all is said and done, it’s your work ethic, talent, and persistence that account for your ability to garner praise. The same advice goes for professionals who may continue to fear failure, in spite of their many successes. Fortunately, stress-reduction techniques, such as meditation, diaphragmatic breathing, and cognitive therapy can help students and professionals overcome their tendencies to be overly self-critical.