Advice For Dancers

July 19, 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.

My dream is to perform in a contemporary dance company. To pay for dance classes, I work as an aerobics instructor in a health club. The salary is good compared to my former waitressing job. The problem is that my knee has begun to hurt in class. My doctor says it’s “jumper’s knee” and that I need to start physical therapy. Is being an aerobics instructor bad for my body? I’ve had knee pain before when I danced but it’s never lasted this long. —Aching Dancer, Yonkers, NY 
In addition to pain and discomfort, a chronic injury can add to a dancer’s anxiety level, often when you most need to focus on other aspects of your dancing. The good news is that treating overuse problems like tendonitis or “jumper’s knee” is fairly straightforward. Ice your knee frequently, modify your workout (meaning don’t do what hurts), and find a physical therapist who can set up an exercise program after rehab. The bigger question is whether teaching aerobics is safe for dancers. According to Dr. James Garrick, San Francisco Ballet School’s orthopedist, three out of four aerobic injuries don’t result in disability. That’s reassuring. In your case, a prior history of orthopedic problems increases the likelihood of injury, given that your knee is probably weak. While this doesn’t mean you’re doomed to waitressing, you need to be careful. Meanwhile, Dr. Garrick recommends that one of your best students demonstrates the steps, allowing you to provide more individual attention to the rest of the class without feeling guilty.

My teacher is always telling me to work on my ballet, which isn’t very good, whereas I’ve always been great at tap and jazz. My difficulty is that I do try hard and practice, but I’m not seeing a difference. What should I be doing?—Courtney Slack, Pittsburgh, PA
  While I know many wonderful dance teachers, it’s amazing how few understand some of the recent discoveries made in dance medicine and science. Teachers often fall back on the traditional view that hard work is the answer for everything from flat feet to poor turnout. Yet genes, anatomy, and training also play a significant role. You may be the kind of dancer whose body and sense of syncopation was made to master tap and jazz. My advice is to find a teacher who knows how to work with different bodies and can tailor advice to each dancer. Teachers who wish to expand their knowledge of what affects dance training and technique can locate helpful publications by logging on to the website of the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science (

I’m bone tired! Like many dancers who are trainees with a ballet company, I’ve needed a part-time job to support myself. I also wanted to squeeze in a couple of college courses in my free time. The result is that I get about five or six hours of sleep a night, which has really messed up my ability to concentrate. I’m also feeling burnt out all the time. What can I do? —Tired Dancer, New York, NY
  Many enterprising people view sleep deprivation as a badge of honor. Yet dancers need sleep like they need carbs or protein. Otherwise, it becomes difficult to learn new choreography, avoid injuries, or manage your weight. While you sleep, your brain stores new information into long-term memory via sleep spindles (these are one- to two-second bursts of brain activity) associated with dreaming. The catch is that most occur between the sixth and eighth hour of sleep. If you skimp on this stage, your memory will become impaired. Injuries  can increase because fatigue affects motor skills, including strength, joint stability, balance, and how fast your muscles contract. And lack of sleep alters the body’s hormonal and metabolic systems, making you feel hungry and also making your body more likely to store fat. My advice is to make sleep a top priority, even if you have to cut back on your college coursework. Also be sure to get a check-up from your doctor to rule out any physical problems, like anemia.
I’m a college dance student with no formal ballet training. I want be in a ballet company, but people tell me I’m too old. Is my head in the clouds?—Longing to Dance, Ithaca, NY  
For the most part, ballet requires early training, with a few notable exceptions as this magazine recently explored. Most professionals interviewed in  “Better Late Than Never” (DM, February) ended up in modern or contemporary companies. We all have limitations. The trick is to make the most of your strengths.       ™