Big, Bad Habits
Part of dance's beauty is that its perfection is elusive. At the same time, this can be one of the most frustrating things about the form. Whether you've been cursed with tight muscles or have picked up a distracting habit, fixing your technical hang-ups can feel like a never-ending battle. But the truth is, all professional dancers, even those with seemingly effortless technique, have their share of struggles.
Suzi Taylor: Master teacher at Steps on Broadway and New York City Dance Alliance. Photo Courtesy Taylor.
Annette Karim: Director of dance medicine at Evergreen Physical Therapy Specialists in Pasadena, California. Photo by Evergreen PT Specialists, Courtesy Karim.
Stiff, Wobbly Ankles
New York City Ballet
Lauren Lovette in rehearsal with Justin Peck and Jared Angle. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.
Lauren Lovette's ankles have flexibility and strength in all the wrong places: They're loose side to side, making it easy to pronate, but too stiff to achieve a deep plié. It was a problem that plagued her throughout her student years, until, at the suggestion of a teacher, she started lifting her heels just a fraction of an inch off the floor in plié to open up her range of motion. Meanwhile, she focused on strengthening her ankles in the other direction. “When I studied Pilates with Patrick Strong, he had me roll up to relevé on pointe while he physically held my foot down to provide resistance," she says. “I also switched to stronger shoes that I didn't realize I needed."
Ask the teacher: “You have to build the musculature around a loose ankle," says Taylor. She recommends working on finding stability on your standing leg in parallel. Away from the barre (or, for a more advanced version, on a half-ball balance trainer), practice plié to relevé in coupé and passé. Gradually work up to a turned-out position.
Ask the PT: “It's common for dancers who wear pointe shoes all day to have trouble bending at the ankle, even though it's quite loose side to side," says Karim. To increase flexion, practice downward-facing dog, with knees bent and heels pressed toward the ground. The goal is to stretch in this position until, over time, your feet are far enough away from your hands that your ankles are flexed at a 20-degree angle with your heels closer to the ground.
Karida Griffith. Photo Courtesy Dorrance Dance.
Karida Griffith, Dorrance Dance
“When I'm entering the last stretch of a 50-minute second act, I've got to make sure I'm not dropping any sounds, or other aesthetic performance qualities," says tap dancer Karida Griffith. She credits Jason Samuels Smith—a real drillmaster, she says—with boosting her endurance through long runs of cramp rolls. “I can remember hearing Jason yell, 'Toe, toe! Toe, toe!' to emphasize the timing, and I was just willing myself not to drop my heels too soon," she says. “You see how many you can do consistently, and at what pace, before you lose a sound or start rushing, then build up from there."
Ask the teacher: Taylor understands dancers wanting to run a piece until it's perfect, but warns that it won't necessarily increase your overall stamina. “Rehearsal is great for building endurance within one piece, but it's probably not enough to support everything you could be asked to do by a choreographer."
Ask the PT: Cross-training by swimming, biking or performing any other activity that ups your heart rate, at least three times a week for 20 minutes, will increase your aerobic capacity. Karim also points out that the more stable your center, the more support your extremities have. A strong core will give you the freedom to move quickly and efficiently throughout a long piece.
Melanie Moore (center) in Fiddler on the Roof. Photo by Joan Marcus, Courtesy Fiddler.
Weak, Hyperextended Legs
Melanie Moore, Fiddler on the Roof
Flexibility is something that many dancers strive for, but Melanie Moore has worked hard to rein hers in. “I was blessed with beautiful lines, but if I don't think about rotating from the hips or elongating the leg, rather than whacking it up, I'm not in control," she says. “I never realized I was faking rotation with hyperextension." Ballet class was the best training ground for undoing her bad habits, but she says they still creep back in if she's not mindful.
Ask the teacher: “Your mantra has to be: 'Just because I can, doesn't mean I should,' " says Taylor. Develop an awareness of whether your weight is forward, on an engaged and rotated standing leg, or just relaxing back into the knee joint.
Ask the PT: Karim warns against sitting in static stretches, which will only weaken already-lengthened muscles. Instead, try dynamic stretches like walking lunges or a flowing yoga sequence. If you have access to one, do développés on a vibration plate (a vibrating platform that looks like a step-on scale, available at some gyms). “The unstable surface will actually increase the efficiency of the muscles you need to support your extensions," says Karim.
Andrea Parson channels the energy of her partner, Franco Nieto, to keep calm. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert, Courtesy NWDP.
Andrea Parson, Northwest Dance Project
Andrea Parson has long struggled with anxiety before rehearsals and performances. “It can be difficult to psych myself down, especially on tour, but even in class," she says. “If I'm too pumped, my energy takes me all over the place." Before dancing, Parson focuses on her breathing: She pictures sending breath down her spine to her tailbone, softening her muscles as she exhales. While moving, it helps her to tune in to all the sensations, such as the floor beneath her, the temperature of the room or the stability of her partner. “I feel my shoulders drop, my upper chest releases, and I have more power to move from a calm, relaxed place."
Ask the teacher: Before performances or auditions, Taylor suggests doing a full barre. “Your mind certainly won't be there for you if your body's not ready for it."
Ask the PT: Karim suggests this calming exercise: Lie on your back with your legs in the air, and knees bent at a 90-degree angle. “Put your arms out to the side and just breathe. Your diaphragm will drop slightly, settling your nervous system. It's like a baby crying it out on his back, with his legs in the air." Crawling on your stomach and rolling or bouncing on a stability ball can have the same effect—the oscillation calms tension.
Linda Celeste Sims. Photo by Lois Greenfield, Courtesy AAADT.
Linda Celeste Sims, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
With very long arms, one of the most challenging things Linda Celeste Sims has had to work on is her port de bras. “People say not to look in the mirror, but I rely heavily on it to check the lines of my arms and that I'm getting them to the right position at the right time," she says. She concentrates on lifting her arms from her center and making sure they are connected from her back down through her fingertips. “One thing that has really helped is Gyrotonic—the resistance and strengthening helps me feel the connection between my arms and back. I keep up that strengthening when I'm on the road by doing 15 slow push-ups, making sure my shoulders are down, at least every other day. And I never skip my 20-minute floor-barre warm-up—that's home base," Sims says.
Ask the teacher: The full coordination of your arms with your body is key. “Never mark your arms, even in a crowded classroom," says Taylor. “If there isn't space to do the arms the combination calls for, hold them in first or fifth en bas. Those are the pictures your body should know, not the collapsed position of marked arms."
Ask the PT: Use the mirror to take stock of the musculature support it takes to both move and hold the arms. Then close your eyes briefly, hold the position, and then open them to check your line in the mirror. Karim adds that dancers who have difficulty maintaining their port de bras often need to strengthen their arms and core. Another possible issue: You might need a good stretch. “Tight lats can actually pull your arms out of position," says Karim.
Kristyn Brady is a Vermont-based freelance writer with a BA in dance from Muhlenberg College.
No matter how much anti–Valentine's Day sentiment I'm feeling in a given year, there's something about dancer couples that still makes me swoon. Here's a collection of wonderful posts from this year, but be warned: Continued scrolling is likely to give you a severe case of the warm fuzzies.
When Rennie Harris first heard that Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater had tapped him to create a new hour-long work, and to become the company's first artist in residence, he laughed.
"I'm a street dance choreographer. I do street dance on street dancers," he says. "I've never set an hour-long piece on any other company outside my own, and definitely not on a modern dance company."
When Chase Brock signed on to choreograph a new musical at a theater in New Jersey in 2015, he couldn't have predicted that four years later, he would be receiving fan art featuring his Chihuahua because of it. Nor could he have he imagined that the show—Be More Chill, based on the young adult novel by Ned Vizzini—would be heading to Broadway with one of the most enthusiastic teenage fan bases the Great White Way has ever seen.
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It's no longer just Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo and the few pointe-clad male character parts, like in Cinderella or Alexei Ratmansky's The Bright Stream. Some male dancers are starting to experiment with pointe shoes to strengthen their feet or expand their artistic possibilities. Michelle Dorrance even challenged the men in her cast at American Ballet Theatre to perform on pointe last season (although only Tyler Maloney ended up actually doing it onstage).
The one problem? Pointe shoes have traditionally only been designed for women. Until now.
Camille Sturdivant, a former member of the Blue Valley Northwest High School dance team is suing the school district, alleging that she was barred from performing in a dance because her skin was "too dark."
The suit states that during Sturdivant's senior year, the Dazzlers' choreographer, Kevin Murakami, would not allow her to perform in a contemporary dance because he said her skin would clash with the costumes, and that she would steal focus from the other dancers because of her skin color.
You wander through the grocery aisles, sizing up the newest trends on the shelves. Although you're eager to try a new energy bar, you question a strange ingredient and decide to leave it behind. Your afternoons are consumed with research as you sort through endless stories about "detox" miracles.
What started as an innocent attempt to eat healthier has turned into a time-consuming ritual with little room for error, and an underlying fear surrounding your food choices.
Aside from a solid warm-up, most dancers have something else they just have to do before performing. Whether it's putting on the right eyelashes before the left or giving a certain handshake before a second-act entrance, our backstage habits give us the comfort of familiar, consistent choices in an art form with so many variables.
Some call them superstitions, others call them rituals. Either way, these tiny moments become part of our work—and sometimes even end up being the most treasured part of performing.
Raise your hand if you've ever gotten sucked down an informational rabbit hole on the internet. (Come on, we know it's not just us.) Now, allow us to direct you to this new project from Google Arts & Culture. To celebrate Black History Month, they've put together a newly curated collection of images, videos and stories that spotlights black history and culture in America specifically through the lens of dance—and it's pretty much our new favorite way to pass the time online.
If you're anything like us, your Instagram feed is chock-full of gorgeous dance photos and videos. But you know what makes us fall in love with an artist even more? When they take a break from curating perfect posts and get real about their missteps. These performers' ability to move past mistakes, and even laugh them off, is one reason why they're so successful.
Every time you fall out of a pirouette, just remember: The stars—and literally every. single. dancer.—have been there, too. (Even Misty Copeland.)
Dancers today have an overwhelming array of options at their fingertips: New fitness tools, recovery trends, workouts and more that claim to improve performance, speed up recovery or enhance training.
But which of these actually meet the unique demands of dancers? In our new series, "We Tried It," we're going to find out, sampling new health and fitness trends to see if they're dancer-approved.
First up: Brrrn, the cold temperature fitness studio (the first and only of its kind, they claim) located in Manhattan.
I write this letter knowing full well and first-hand the financial challenges of running an arts organization. I also write this letter on behalf of dancers auditioning for your companies. Lastly, I write this letter as a member of society at large and as someone who cares deeply about the culture we are leading and the climate we create in the performing arts.
Throughout your dancing life, you've heard the same corrections over and over. The reason for the repetition? Dancers tend to make the same errors, sometimes with catastrophic results. Dance Magazine spoke to eight teachers about what they perceive to be the worst habits—the ones that will destroy a dancer's technique—and what can be done to reverse the damage.
To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.
Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.
Misaligning the Spine
Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.
Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.
Clenching the Toes
Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.
Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.
Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension
Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.
But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."
Using Unnecessary Tension
“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.
Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."
Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.
Pinching Your Shoulder Blades
Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."
Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."
Getting Stuck in a Rut
While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.
Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."
Clad in her signature loose black T-shirt and baggy gym shorts, Emma Portner is standing in a cavernous industrial space in downtown Los Angeles. A glass box—big enough to fit five dancers with only a little room to maneuver inside—sits in the middle. The five performers, Portner included, are standing inside it, side by side, palms on the glass.
"Question," Portner asks. "Are we looking at our hands?"
She steps out to watch the others try the phrase, and adds a few more steps. Quick, staccato movement, legs kicking out, torsos swiveling around, fists hitting glass. "This is a puzzle," she says, almost to herself. "I'm not sure I'll like it." The statement, like so many, is punctured with a sweet, nervous laugh.
Lately I've been having recurring dreams: I'm in an audition and I can't remember the combination. Or, I'm rehearsing for an upcoming show, onstage, and I don't know what comes next. Each time I wake up relieved that it was only a dream.
However, this is the reality of how I often felt throughout my dance career. Once I knew the steps, there was no undoing it. It was the process of getting there that haunts me to this day.
In the February 1969 issue of Dance Magazine, we talked to Bob Fosse about taking Sweet Charity from stage to screen. Though he already had a string of Tony Awards for Best Choreography and had spent plenty of time on film sets as a choreographer, this adaptation marked his first time sitting in the director's chair for a motion picture.
"When I started out, I wanted to be a Fred Astaire," he told us, "and after that a Jerome Robbins. But then I realized there was always somebody a dancer or choreographer had to take orders from. So I decided I wanted to become a director, namely a George Abbott. But as I got older I dropped the hero-worship thing. I didn't want to emulate anyone. Just wanted to do the things I was capable of doing—and have some fun doing them. By this time I'm glad I didn't turn out to be an Astaire, a Robbins or an Abbott." He would go on to become an Academy Award–winning director, indelibly changing musical theater in the process.
If you've ever wondered where models get their moves, look just off-camera for Pat Boguslawski. As a movement director and creative consultant based in London, he works with top brands, fashion designers, magazines and film directors to elicit bold, photogenic movement for ad campaigns, runway shows and film. Boguslawski has collaborated with plenty of big-name talent—FKA Twigs, Hailey Baldwin, Victoria Beckham, Kim Kardashian—and draws on his diverse experience in hip hop, contemporary dance, acting and modeling.
Dance Magazine recently asked him about how he got this career, and what it takes to thrive in it.
Let's say that today you're having a terrible time following your class's choreography and are feeling ashamed—you're always stumbling a few beats behind. Do you:
1. Admit it's your fault because you didn't study the steps last night? Tonight you'll nail them down.
2. Feel worthless and alone? You slump your shoulders, avoid eye contact with your teacher and fellow dancers, and wish to disappear.
Shame is a natural emotion that everyone occasionally feels. If you answered #1, it may be appropriate—you earned it by not studying—and positive if it motivates you to do better in the future.
My hypermobility used to cause me a lot of trouble, but I've gained confidence and strength after reading about it in one of your columns. I now have a Pilates instructor who's retraining my body and helping me dance in a consistent way. Thank you!
—No Longer Anxious, Philadelphia, PA
George Balanchine famously wrote, that ballet "is a woman." Four of his most celebrated women—Allegra Kent, Gloria Govrin, Kay Mazzo and Merrill Ashley—appeared onstage at Jacques d'Amboise's National Dance Institute Monday evening to celebrate his legacy. The sold-out program, called "Balanchine's Ballerinas," included performances of excerpts from ballets closely associated with these women and a discussion, moderated by former New York City Ballet principal Wendy Whelan. Here are some highlights of the conversation, filled with affection, warmth and fond memories.
When Catherine Wreford found out that she had brain cancer in June 2013, with doctors predicting she had only two to six years left to live, there was one thing she knew she wanted to do: dance.
She had grown up training in the recreational division at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School, then went on to perform on Broadway and in musical theater productions around the country. She eventually left the stage to find more stable work, running a mortgage company and later getting a nursing degree because, she says, "I knew that I could do that for a long time."
But a diagnosis of anaplastic astrocytoma meant she didn't have a long time left.