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 schedule is insane! I’m taking three dance classes a day, working evening shifts as a waitress, and have an hour train ride home to my apartment in Brooklyn. I thought I could handle it but recently my health has started to fall apart. I can’t get over this cold and I’m barely able to drag myself out of bed in the morning. My dancing is also going downhill fast. Please help. —Dancer in Distress, Brooklyn, NY 
Believe me, I want to help. I know far too many dancers in your shoes who are struggling just to survive. Like you, most of them have low-paying jobs, which means they work long hours; some have even longer commutes. Adding a full load of dance classes further depletes your resources, making you a prime candidate for burnout, not to mention the flu.
     In an ideal world, local businesses would support the arts by hiring dancers for temp jobs above the minimum wage, while reaping the benefits of their amazing work ethic. Until that happy day, you’ll need to train for a more lucrative survival job during your summer break. For instance, you could consider becoming certified as a personal trainer for a health club by signing up for a home-study program offered by the American Council on Exercise (800-825-3636; Other options include studying to be a word processor, massage therapist, Pilates instructor, or paralegal. Meanwhile, please make your health a priority by backing off from a grueling dance schedule.

I’m a 30-year-old professionally-trained dancer in Italy who would love to become qualified to teach ballet. I am very interested in studying the Balanchine technique, which is not widely taught in Europe. Can you suggest somewhere in your country where I could study? —Maide De Marinis, Sardinia, Italy 
While there is no official school for Balanchine teachers, there’s a highly detailed book by Suki Schorer called Balanchine Technique (Knopf, 1999). It was written for teachers, scholars, and advanced students. In addition to discussing work at the barre, center, and port de bras, it details the Balanchine approach to pointework, partnering, and jumps. Some videos are also available by Schorer and another Balanchine ballerina, Merrill Ashley [see “Balanchine’s Teaching Legacy,” Teach-Learn Connection, p. 112, January]. The Amazon website offers both book and videos for sale. Finally, you might seek permission to watch a series of Balanchine classes. Ms. Schorer will teach company class at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan from June 15-25, 2005.

Is it safe to be a vegetarian and still be a dancer? I don’t like the idea of eating animal products for moral reasons. Yet my mother says that going without them could be dangerous. What do you think? —Confused, Lyndhurst, NJ 
While I know professional dancers who are vegetarians, it’s challenging to find complete sources of protein from plant products, except for soy beans. The good news is that a registered dietitian can show you how to combine certain foods, such as rice and black beans, to provide the nutrients essential for healthy bones and muscles. Check out the American Dietetic Association’s website ( for a referral in your area.

I’m sick of being injured. Every season, I get cast in a wide range of roles from classical ballet to new contemporary choreography. This has helped me extend my capabilities beyond the traditional ballet idiom and develop as an artist. The problem is that my body can’t take it for very long. One year it was a pulled hamstring. Recently, I tore the cartilage in my knee. Now I’m out for the rest of the season, wondering what I did wrong. I’ll do anything to stay healthy—just tell me how to stop this self-destructive cycle. —Injured Dancer, New York, NY
  It isn’t easy to switch from one technique to another without it taking a toll on your body. Besides some of the more obvious problems, like switching from pointe shoes to bare feet, classical and modern techniques rely on different positions, muscle groups, and even centers of gravity. I’m not surprised that you’re getting injured.
     What can you do? Prepare ahead of time by taking contemporary dance classes in addition to your regular ballet class. If you’re scheduled to perform a Graham piece, by all means take some classes in Graham technique before you start rehearsals. This principle applies to performing Balanchine if you’re used to dancing traditional ballets such as Giselle. Cross training at the gym can also help improve your strength and  stamina and restore range of motion after an injury. While it’s impossible to prevent all dance injuries, you can minimize the physical and mental stress associated with performing new choreography during a busy season.