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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.
When Rachel Hamrick was in the corps of Universal Ballet in Seoul, her determination to strengthen her flexibility turned into a side hobby that would eventually land her a new career. "I was in La Bayadere for the first time, and I was the first girl out for that arabesque sequence in The Kingdom of the Shades," she says. "I had the flexibility, but I was wobbly because I wasn't stretching in the right way. That's when I first started playing around with the idea of the Flexistretcher. It was tied together then, so it was definitely more makeshift," she says with a laugh, "But I trained with it to help me get the correct alignment so that I would have the strength to sustain the whole act."
Now, Hamrick is running her own business, complete with an ever-growing product line and her FLX training method—all because of her initial need to make it through 38 arabesques.
For the new Broadway season, Ellenore Scott has scored two associate choreographer gigs: For Head Over Heels, which starts previews June 23, Scott is working with choreographer Spencer Liff on an original musical mashing up The Go-Go's punk-rock hits with a narrative based on Sir Philip Sidney's 1590 book, Arcadia. Four days after that show opens, she'll head into rehearsals for this fall's King Kong, collaborating with director/choreographer Drew McOnie and a 20-foot gorilla.
Scott gave us the inside scoop about Head Over Heels, the craziness of her freelance hustle and the most surprising element of working on Broadway.
Dance in movies is a trend as old as time. Movies like The Red Shoes and Singin' in the Rain paved the way for Black Swan and La La Land; dancing stars like Gene Kelly and Ginger Rogers led the way for Channing Tatum and Julianne Hough.
Lucky for us, some of Hollywood's most incredible dance scenes have been compiled into this amazing montage, featuring close to 300 films in only seven minutes. So grab the popcorn, cozy on up, and watch the moves that made the movies.
Broadway musicals have been on my mind for more than half a century. I discovered them in grade school, not in a theater but electronically. On the radio, every weeknight an otherwise boring local station would play a cast album in its entirety; on television, periodically Ed Sullivan's Sunday night variety show would feature an excerpt from the latest hit—numbers from Bye Bye Birdie, West Side Story, Camelot, Flower Drum Song.
But theater lives in the here and now, and I was in middle school when I attended my first Broadway musical, Gypsy—based, of all things, on the early life of the famed burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee. I didn't know who Jerome Robbins was, but I recognized genius when I saw it—kids morphing into adults as a dance number progresses, hilarious stripping routines, a pas de deux giving concrete shape to the romantic yearnings of an ugly duckling. It proved the birth of a lifelong habit, indulged for the last 18 years in the pages of this magazine. But all long runs eventually end, and it's time to say good-bye to the "On Broadway" column. It's not the last of our Broadway coverage—there's too much great work being created and performed, and you can count on hearing from me in print and online.
If you want to know how scary the AIDS epidemic was in the 1980s, come see Ishmael Houston-Jones' piece THEM from 1986. This piece reveals the subterranean fears that crept into gay relationships at the time. Houston-Jones is one of downtown's great improvisers, and his six dancers also improvise in response to his suggestions. With Chris Cochrane's edgy guitar riffs and Dennis Cooper's ominous text, there's an unpredictable, near-creepy but epic quality to THEM.
What is the right flooring system for us?
So many choices, companies, claims, endorsements, and recommendations to consider. The more you look, the more confusing it gets. Here is what you need to do. Here is what you need to know to get the flooring system suited to your needs.
This time last year, Catherine Conley was already living a ballet dancer's dream. After an exchange between her home ballet school in Chicago and the Cuban National Ballet School in Havana, she'd been invited to train in Cuba full-time. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and one that was nearly unheard of for an American dancer. Now, though, Conley has even more exciting news: She's a full-fledged member of the National Ballet of Cuba's corps de ballet.
"In the school there were other foreigners, but in the company I'm the only foreigner—not just the only American, but the only non-Cuban," Conley says. But she doesn't feel like an outsider, or like a dancer embarking on a historic journey. "Nobody makes me feel different. They treat me as one of them," she says. Conley has become fluent in Spanish, and Cuba has come to feel like home. "The other day I was watching a movie that was dubbed in Spanish, and I understand absolutely everything now," she says.
Chantel Aguirre may call sunny Los Angeles home, but the Shaping Sound company member and NUVO faculty member spends more time in the air, on a tour bus or in a convention ballroom than she does in the City of Angels.
Aguirre, who is married to fellow Shaping Sound member Michael Keefe, generally only spends one week per month at home. "When I'm not working, I'm exploring," Aguirre says. "Michael and I are total travel junkies."
Akram Khan and Florence Welch (of Florence + The Machine) is not a pairing we ever would have dreamt up. But now that the music video for "Big God" has dropped, with choreography attributed to Khan and Welch, it seems that we just weren't dreaming big enough.
In the video, Welch leads a group of women standing in an eerily reflective pool of water. They seem untouchable, until they begin shedding their colorful veils, movements morphing to become animalistic and aggressive as the song progresses.
Savannah Lowery is about as well acquainted with the inner workings of a hospital as she is with the intricate footwork of Dewdrop.
As a child, the former New York City Ballet soloist would roam the hospital where her parents worked, pushing buttons and probably getting into too much trouble, she says. While other girls her age were clad in tutus playing ballerina, she was playing doctor.
"It just felt like home. I think it made me not scared of medicine, not scared of a hospital," she says. "I thought it was fascinating what they did."
It can be hard to focus when Alice Sheppard dances.
Her recent sold-out run of DESCENT at New York Live Arts, for instance, offered a constellation of stimulation. Onstage was a large architectural ramp with an assortment of peaks and planes. There was an intricate lighting and projection design. There was a musical score that unfolded like an epic poem. There was a live score too: the sounds of Sheppard and fellow dancer Laurel Lawson's bodies interacting with the surfaces beneath them.
And there were wheelchairs. But if you think the wheelchairs are the center of this work, you're missing something vital about what Sheppard creates.
A Jellicle Ball is coming to the big screen, with the unlikeliest of dancemakers on tap to choreograph.
We'll give you some hints: His choreography can aptly be described as "animalistic," though Jellicle cats have never come to mind specifically when watching his hyper-physical work. He's worked on movies before—even one about Beasts. And though contemporary ballet is his genre of choice, his choreography is certainly theatrical enough to lend itself to a musical.