Advice for Dancers

October 31, 2012

Last year I had the opportunity to perform a lead role in The Nutcracker. I could do all the turns with no problem. However, one of the corps girls got sick and her understudy required a last-minute rehearsal right before the curtain went up. It completely messed up my usual routine and really spooked me. I never want to feel that scared again. What can I do if this happens to me in the future?

Fearful Dancer, NYC

Loosen up! While using a ritualized routine to prepare for a featured role can make you feel more secure, any surprise, distraction, or delay that interferes with your plans will easily throw you off. A sudden injury or illness requires an immediate adjustment from everyone in the cast. And anything can happen in a live performance. So it helps to take a flexible approach when getting ready. I know one ballerina who purposely varies her warm-up routine so that she’s mentally prepared to maintain her focus even if she has to perform with a new partner in an emergency situation. She also puts together calming playlists that she can pull up on her iPod when things get chaotic before a show. Once you’re onstage, keep your nerves in check by using cues, such as telling yourself to breathe. Likewise, prepare ahead of time for potential problems. For example, you should have an extra pair of pointe shoes broken in just in case your current shoes “die” before the second act. A dance psychologist can provide you with personalized strategies as well. If your company’s medical team doesn’t have this healthcare professional on staff, you can always ask the orthopedist or physical therapist for a referral.


My shin was hurting off and on for six months: It would get better after short breaks from dancing but start hurting again as soon as I went back to work. I finally went to the doctor, who took an X ray. It showed I had a chronic stress fracture, what he called a big “dreaded black line.” He said it will take a long time to heal and sent me home with a bone stimulator and a walking boot. How can I make this injury heal faster? My friend suggested taking calcium supplements.

Andy, Los Angeles, CA

Certainly, having sufficient amounts of calcium (with vitamin D) and protein in your diet contributes to the healing process. So does getting at least eight hours of sleep, since it releases human growth hormone. Still, the best way to get over this injury is to follow your doctor’s advice. A chronic stress fracture in your tibia is no joking matter. There are a few reports of dancers who continued to work and broke their legs when the fracture cracked through the entire bone. The general rule is that a stress fracture takes as long to heal as the time you danced with it in pain. Fortunately, a bone stimulator can speed up the healing process by passing an electrical current through the fracture. Avoid any form of impact, from jumping to grand pliés or even going for long walks. If you continue to dance, or if the fracture is already so bad that it fails to heal, you could end up with a nonunion that needs to be drilled or even bone-grafted. Be sure to stay on top of follow-up visits with your doctor to see how it’s progressing.

I used to make a point of never dating other dancers in the same show when I performed in a national tour. I’d seen too many couples break up after a show closed. All that changed when I fell in love with this cute guy and was wildly happy—until he lost interest in me halfway through the tour. Now I can barely concentrate. What can I do to keep my sanity?

Alex, St. Paul, MN   

Although I’ve seen many dancers who become happy couples, touring can engender intense feelings of intimacy that don’t translate into a long-term commitment. While your instincts to avoid this trap were right, there’s no logic when it comes to love. It’s also true that breakups usually hurt, so much so that they activate the pain centers of the brain. Multiply this by 10 for dancers who have to see their ex at work and perform together—the absolute pits is being cast in a romantic pas de deux. Other than taking the normal dosage of Tylenol for two weeks, there are a few ways to minimize the angst. First, try to find people outside of your cast for emotional support, even if you have to Skype your best friend in Alaska every day for a while. Next, keep it professional by only speaking to your ex if it’s strictly work-related. It also helps to refrain from trashing him or sobbing in public, as this looks indiscreet and suggests a lack of self-control. Remember, you are a professional dancer and you need to maintain your composure among colleagues and staff, meaning no tears, wistful looks, false pride, or exaggerated arrogance. The feelings of loss will dissipate over time. Show him that his behavior is no longer of significance to you: Delete him from your friends on Facebook and email, while realizing that you haven’t lost anything of value. You deserve someone who loves you.


Former New York City Ballet dancer Linda Hamilton, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice, the author of advice for dancers (Jossey-Bass), and co-author of the dancer’s way: the new york city ballet guide to mind, body, and nutrition (St. Martin’s Griffin). Her website is


Send your questions to:

Dr. Linda Hamilton

2000 Broadway, PH2C

New York, NY 10023

[email protected]