Health & Body

Budget Your Bodywork: When to Splurge & When to Save

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It can take a full team of experts to keep a dancer dancing—from masseuses and acupuncturists to yoga teachers and personal trainers. But, that comes at a cost, literally. When do you really need to invest in pricier options, and when can you take the more budget-friendly route? We broke it down for the most popular options.



Gyrotonic

Tony Morales at Circular Power

Using a machine with a seat, arcs attached to handwheels and moving pieces, Gyrotonic promotes circular motion. "That action reveals weaknesses in your range of motion and musculature," says Tony Morales, who owns New York City's Circular Power. "Gyrotonic massages the body internally and balances it."

When to Splurge:

  • When you first start. "There's so much going on, having eyes on you makes progress much faster," Morales says. "And the machine offers resistance and feedback."
  • If you're serious about keeping your body healthy. "Gyrotonic privates are an especially great way to handle an intense rehearsal period or performance mode," Morales says. His clients from American Ballet Theatre book sessions once or twice a week to help prevent injury and improve their dancing.

Budget Option:

  • Gyrokinesis. These group classes follow all of the same concepts as Gyrotonic, but without the machine.


Strength Training

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Core training and stabilization work can strengthen muscles used less often in dance, increasing longevity and improving your technique. "How much better can your arabesque be from a single-leg deadlift, or your stability from bridge work and core training?" asks former professional dancer Emily Cook Harris, who owns EMPOWERED, a personal training and remote coaching business.

When to Splurge:

  • When you want specialized movements for your body, prescribed by a personal trainer.
  • To correct your form. A trainer can offer hands-on adjustments to ensure you're using the exercise to its best effects.
  • At the beginning: "I like the idea of working with a trainer at 'the beginning,' whether that means preseason or at the start of a rehearsal period," says Harris. "If you see a trainer once a month, you can learn the exercises while they correct you, then you can do that program for the rest of the month."

Budget Options:

  • Group fitness classes. "The energy of the room can be motivating, and you still have an instructor. Be careful, though, not to get so wrapped up you forget about form," cautions Harris. "Start slower and with lower weights and advance slowly."
  • Subscription video services like Daily Burn offer motivation and easy access for an ongoing routine.
  • Free videos on YouTube and Instagram. "Look for core exercises like planks and bridges," suggests Harris. "The emphasis should be on stabilization because that's all of dance!"
  • Apps like Nike+ Training Club offer workouts of various lengths and styles.


Acupuncture

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The minimally invasive, holistic process works by inserting needles at key points throughout the body. "Acupuncture is the manipulation of blood and energy," says practitioner Heather Trujillo. "When you insert a needle, it's a micro injury. The body sends blood to the area, instigating the body's healing mechanism."

When to Splurge:

  • After an acute injury. Getting acupuncture as soon as you can hurting yourself can speed up the healing process.
  • When you have a chronic problem that won't go away. "That might be the time to spend on a session," says Trujillo.

Budget Options:

  • Community acupuncture clinics that work on a sliding scale
  • Acupuncture schools usually provide budget-friendly or free services.
  • Acupressure. Instead of the needle, a practitioner will use their hands to place pressure on certain points on the body.


Pilates

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The full-body system strengthens and lengthens through a concentration on the core. "Dancers love the grounded feeling Pilates gives you," says Chloe Brehm, who teaches at Bridge Pilates in Brooklyn. "It's particular in how you articulate your spine and the deepest layer of your abdominal wall. Being able to initiate movement from that layer makes you a stronger dancer."

When to Splurge:

  • To find your personal weaknesses, take a private class so you can have a trained eye on you. "The feedback of the practitioner and equipment together helps things click," says Brehm.
  • Before any reformer class, book a private.
  • To set yourself up for home practice or mat classes.

Budget Options:

  • Duet lessons. Grab a friend who has similar issues and technique to cut your cost.
  • Group mat classes. "It's harder without the feedback from equipment. But this will often satisfy a dancer, and there are modifications and advancements for any level," says Brehm.
  • Online classes like Pilates Anytime or Pilatesology are helpful for travel and tight schedules.
  • Mat work on your own. "Buy a cushy mat, remember to check in on your breathing and alignment, and continue to switch it up," says Brehm. "If you are breathing in for five and out for five in teaser, what about in for three and out for seven?"


Yoga

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Diverse styles from vinyasa to hot bikram and restorative yin yoga offer stretching, strengthening and meditation. "It's like taking dance, slowing it down and breathing in it," says DC- and Maryland-based yoga teacher Kevin Platt. "You get to explore how your body integrates movement. Since dancers are so go-go-go, adding a slow yoga practice into your week creates balance."

When to Splurge:

  • Once a week or once a month, it can be worth it to book a private to get a teacher's eyes on you, says Platt.

Budget Options:

  • Group classes. Look for affordable introductory offers, or consider finding a nonprofit studio or a "dharma studio," where you can pay for classes with simple work.
  • Online resources and books. Yoga Journal and Light on Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar are two of Platt's favorites.
  • YouTube videos are beneficial if used with discretion, but be careful with doing inversions alone, Platt cautions.
  • At-home DIY practice remains "a great part of any dancer's normal upkeep," says Platt.


Massage

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After putting so much strain on muscles, releasing them through massage is a must for most performers. "A practitioner can release your body in a way you can't do yourself," says Platt, who is also a licensed massage therapist. "It helps integrate all of the muscular work you're doing while keeping inflammation at bay."

When to Splurge:

  • After big events, like a major performance
  • To facilitate continued healing you might have started with a PT or doctor. "Massage can open up circulation around a minor injury, like a muscle pull," he says.
  • After trying a new technique, massage can be helpful in clearing up inflammation and decreasing recovery time.

Budget Options:

  • Self-release with foam rollers, tennis balls and other tools. "Rolling helps induce circulation and realign fascia, the Saran wrap around all of your muscles," says Platt.
  • Yin and restorative yoga offer deeper connective-tissue release, in turn affecting trigger points and releasing deeper layers of muscle.

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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.


Rolling In

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."

Rant & Rave
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"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.

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Health & Body
Leon Liu/Unsplash

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.

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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!

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