From the angles of your feet to the size of your head, it can sometimes seem like there is no part of a dancer's body that is not under scrutiny. It's easy to get obsessed when you are constantly in front of a mirror, trying to fit a mold.
Yet the traditional ideals seem to be exploding every day. "The days of carbon-copy dancers are over," says BalletX dancer Caili Quan. "Only when you're confident in your own body can you start truly working with what you have."
While the striving may never end, there can be unexpected benefits to what you may think of as your "imperfections."
As winter sets in, your muscles may feel tighter than they did in warmer weather. You're not imagining it: Cold weather can cause muscles to lose heat and contract, resulting in a more limited range of motion and muscle soreness or stiffness.
But dancers need their muscles to be supple and fresh, no matter the weather outside. Here's how to maintain your mobility during the colder months so your dancing isn't affected:
Sebastian Abarbanell remembers being asked as an undergrad at Trinity Laban in London to perform wearing only a dance belt. "I said no," he says, "because I felt uncomfortable." Now a performer with Sidra Bell Dance New York, he's performed partially nude several times, without reservation. The difference? "It comes with more experience and maturing as a dancer," he says. "When you see a dancer living in their skin, you don't need to put anything else on them. When I said no in college, I wasn't in my skin yet."
Getting in your skin—and getting comfortable wearing only your skin onstage—requires a particular alchemy of vulnerability, agency, preparation and practice.
Today, you no longer have to head to a gym or a fitness studio to get a heart-pumping workout. (Or rely on rewinding old VHS tapes of Jane Fonda.) Online workouts have never been easier for dancers to fit into their lives, whether you're on tour or want to squeeze in a warm-up at home before class. But with a seemingly endless scroll of options, which are best?
Tamisha Guy has always loved pushing her body. The dynamic A.I.M dancer and rehearsal director performs like she has no limits. And she's recently taken up a sport that pushes her even further: boxing.
Two or three times a week, she takes a 45-minute class at New York City boxing studios Shadowbox or EverybodyFights. Workouts include a warm-up of core exercises and body-weight strength training. "Then we put the gloves on and go at it on the bag," says Guy.
Tamisha Guy in Kyle Abraham's The Gettin'. Photo by Jerry and Lois Photography, courtesy A.I.M.
Although she was initially afraid that the workouts would bulk up her already muscular physique, she's found they've simply added definition to her arms. More importantly, they've improved her stamina.
"Thirty minutes into class is usually the point where you're like, 'I can't punch anything else,' but you have 15 more minutes to go," she says. "It's just like when you've been dancing for an hour and have to dig deeper to find something in yourself to stay present. Pushing through the uncomfortable part is so gratifying." She feels boxing has put extra fire in her to keep up the intensity onstage.
Her favorite time to box is in the morning. "I find I have more energy going into rehearsals after boxing," she says. "I feel so ready to take on my day."
But if she's got more than four hours of rehearsal, she'll wait to box until after dancing so that her arms aren't overly fatigued. "Then, if I still have a little fight in me, I might take an evening class."
Tamisha Guy is also working to start a side hustle as a fitness model. "You're only young once," she says. Photo by Whitney Browne, courtesy Guy.
For now, she's not looking to enter any fights. "I think I'm gonna stick with the bag," she says, laughing.
Though she admits she loves the feeling of being in a ring. "I've had a few private training sessions inside it, with my trainer calling out sequences," she says. "But he wasn't hitting me back!
You don't need to be a performer to make a positive impact through dance. Dance/movement therapists use movement to approach a patient's health holistically, working with populations as diverse as teenagers dealing with anxiety, veterans suffering from trauma and elderly patients with dementia or Alzheimer's. What makes for a good dance therapist? "They've seen the power of movement in their own life. And they have empathy for other people and for what's going on in the world," says Nancy Beardall, dance/movement therapy coordinator at Lesley University.
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In 2018, the Youth America Grand Prix added a rule: For participants under age 12, performing on pointe became strongly discouraged. For those under 11, it became prohibited.
The competition organizers made these changes after jury members, teachers and others raised concerns about students being pushed to perform on pointe too early. Larissa Saveliev, YAGP co-founder and director, says, "Ten years ago we didn't have to have these rules because nobody was progressing that fast."
As ballet prodigies get younger and their abilities more extraordinary, many are asking, How young is too young to let their bodies dance on the tips of their toes?
Why do back injuries seem to be so common these days among dancers?
"It used to be that if you were in a company, you did all the work of that choreographer," says Rocky Bornstein, a New York City–based physical therapist who specializes in professional dancers. "Now companies feel like they have to bring in choreographers to work with the company, so the work is much more eclectic." More and more dancers are also building freelance careers, which forces them to hop between various styles. This is an unprecedented challenge for the body.
Dr. William Hamilton, who was an orthopedic consultant for New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre for four decades, adds that even big companies are getting smaller, which puts more pressure on each individual dancer. A minor injury in one member can cause a domino effect within the company: Other dancers need to do double duty, which puts their bodies at risk for injury as well.
On busy performance days, international guest artist Joy Womack always makes time for one activity after class and rehearsals: a nap. "I like to feel well-rested when I need to be in the spotlight at night, not dragging at the end of the day," she says. "It helps me recover and refocus."
With her earbuds tuned to a guided meditation app, she can squeeze in a nap wherever she needs to. "One time I even took a nap on the floor of the tour bus in Siberia," she says. "Dancers can sleep anywhere."
Joy Womack prioritizes napping before a show. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Pointe magazine.
As research has revealed the benefits of short daytime naps, power-napping advice has proliferated, and more dancers are choosing to include a nap in their pre-performance routines. Approaching napping strategically will help you get the most out of an afternoon snooze.
A good personal trainer can coach you through a challenging, safe workout. A great one understands the unique demands dance places on your body and helps you correct specific weaknesses to make you an even stronger performer. Enter Joel Prouty.
It's become a colloquialism—or, we admit, a cliche—to say that dance can heal.
But with a new initiative launched by British Health Secretary Matt Hancock, doctors in the U.K. will soon be able to prescribe dance classes—along with art, music, sports, gardening and more—for patients suffering from conditions as various as dementia, lung problems and mental health issues.
There are few things more satisfying than a good back crack. But rumors say it can have negative effects on your body—and your dancing.
In truth, research has shown that spinal manipulation done by a practitioner can provide short-term pain relief and better recruitment of your deep spinal muscles. Jessica Davis, a physical therapist in Pennsylvania and lead faculty at the Institute of Clinical Excellence Performing Arts Division, says that it's reasonable to believe that self-manipulation can offer the same benefits.
When it comes to flexibility, more isn't always better. Donna Flagg says that many of the dancers who show up at her Lastics Stretch Technique classes at studios like Broadway Dance Center and Steps on Broadway are already hypermobile.
"They're so loose," she says, "they just yank their legs as far as they can." That's not to say that hypermobile dancers shouldn't stretch—they just need to take extra care to keep their joints safe. Flagg recommends a few guidelines:
A dancer once contacted me because he was devastated after walking in on his girlfriend with another man. While he was distressed about ending the relationship, he was most concerned about a major performance coming up. They had to dance a romantic pas de deux. When I met with them together, she was afraid he would drop her and he didn't want to look lovingly in her eyes. My role was to help them find ways to make magic onstage and keep their personal difficulties offstage. They ended up dancing to rave reviews.
When you're unable to dance, it's easy to feel like you're falling behind and losing out on opportunities. But this can be a time to reset your body and come back even stronger, says Ilana Goldman, BFA program director at Florida State University's School of Dance. "Some of the greatest leaps I made in my technique happened because of injuries," she says. "Learning how to deal with them is part of being a professional dancer."
In dance, pushing through pain is often glorified. Dancers can be reluctant to take time off when sick or injured for fear of missing out on opportunities. It can feel even harder to justify when the pain isn't physical. Though it's becoming more commonly acknowledged that mental health is just as important as physical health, a dance career doesn't leave much time to address mental or emotional issues.
But dancers need to take care of their mental well-being to be able to perform at their best, says Catherine Drury, a licensed clinical social worker for The Dancers' Resource at The Actors Fund. So what can you do if you need a mental health day?
When Dance Magazine surveyed our readers last summer, 81 percent said the field wasn't doing enough to support mental health. We sat down with four mental health professionals, each with more than a decade of experience working with dancers, to find out their thoughts on how mental health is being addressed in the dance community today, and what makes it so challenging.
When it comes to mental health, dancers are the ones on the frontlines trying to support each other. Many find themselves routinely confronted with concerns for their friends. Maybe it's the dancer down the barre who you know is cutting, or the partner who only speaks about himself with disparagement and disgust.
According to Dr. Sharon Chirban, a sports psychologist who works with dancers at Boston Ballet, it is normal for peers to seek each other out when dealing with mental health issues. Yet many are unsure of what to do when a friend approaches them. Keep these six actions in mind the next time you need to help a fellow dancer.
College can be hard on the body. Between late-night rehearsals, carrying backpacks around hilly campuses and long, sedentary study sessions, it's tough for dancers to give their bodies the care they need to prevent injury.
Here are the most common reasons college students get injured—and our top tips for prevention.