Health & Body

Nobody Has a Perfect Dance Body. How Can You Turn "Imperfections" Into Assets?

It's not about what you have, but how you use. Photo by Brooke Cagle/Unsplash

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."


Misa Kuranaga

An asian dancer in a grand jete, wearing period clothing.

Kuranaga re-enrolled in school to improve her turnout. Here in George Balanchine's Coppélia. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy Boston Ballet.

Boston Ballet principal

The Challenge: After winning an apprenticeship to San Francisco Ballet at the Prix de Lausanne, Kuranaga realized she was still missing a vital part of her technique: turnout. "When I got to the States I hit the wall right away," says Kuranaga. "I wasn't cast and I was told I had to fix my foundation. I was already in my late teens and it felt like it was a little late."

How She Tackled It: After she wasn't rehired at SFB, Kuranaga enrolled at the School of American Ballet. Teachers like Suki Schorer and Susan Pilarre worked on rebuilding her technique, refining where and how she was using her rotation and building the strength to maintain it. "I needed a visual image to understand how to change, and Susie showed everything in pointe shoes every day in class," Kuranaga says.

A Continuous Effort: The push to improve herself never ends: Kuranaga still sets goals in daily class. "I never skip class. If you take it seriously, it is an insurance policy for keeping your turnout and technique."

An Unexpected Benefit: With an increased focus on the basics at SAB, not only did Kuranaga's turnout get better, but her pointe work improved, too.

Kristin Draucker

Two women, one in a dress and one in pants and a leotard, look off to the side of a dark stage

Drauker (left, here in Esplanade) phrases her movement carefully to make it look juicier. Photo by Paul B. Goode, courtesy PTDC

Paul Taylor Dance Company member

The Challenge: Growing up, Draucker was self-conscious about her short calves. "Starting as a ballet dancer, most of the girls who were singled out as having 'attractive legs' always had a longer lower leg," she says. Though gifted with a supple Achilles tendon, Draucker felt limited in her plié; it never looked stable or felt juicy to her.

How She Works It: "If I approach every plié like it is going to be awful, then it will be awful," says Draucker. Instead, she works on phrasing the descent of her pliés, taking as much time as possible. "I use the music and try to make it look like I am always moving towards the bottom of my plié without tension."

Cross-Training: Draucker does tons of calf-stretching to keep her lower leg muscles loose.

A New Mind-Set: "At some point I realized that really exciting work wasn't about presenting your foot and leg for eight counts," says Draucker. "Paul's dances don't have time for that; you can't worry about all of those tiny things. He was creating new shapes on new people all the time, and while some things are hard for me, others are a better fit."

Unexpected Benefits: "My hinge point is closer to the floor because of my shorter lower leg," says Draucker. "Other people might have to think more about getting down to the floor, but for me, knee turns and other floor work come naturally."

Courtney Henry

A black dancer squats in a purple skirt along the banks of a river

Embracing her length has changed how Henry's height is perceived. Photo by Kopie Vivian Yang, courtesy Henry.

Richard Siegal/Ballet of Difference guest soloist

The Challenge: Six-foot-tall Henry stands almost 6' 6" on pointe. Although her first teacher encouraged her, complimenting her beautiful lines, Henry didn't believe it. "Subconsciously, in ballet, I was always trying to blend and fit in, and I wasn't able to recognize my length and my power," says Henry. "I was moving like someone half my size."

A Turning Point: Once Henry arrived at Alonzo King LINES Ballet, she realized her height was a gift. "Every-one was asked to be at their fullest capacity," she says. She pushed herself to begin taking up more space and filling out her movement.

A New Mind-Set: No longer self-conscious about her height, Henry has come to love partnering. "When there is a good match, it is so nice to let go," she says. "I have partnered with people half my size and I know now that it is not just about proportion, but also technique and momentum."

Bonus: Strangers used to comment on Henry's height all the time, but now they react differently. "People can see my height as an asset right away because I use it as an asset," says Henry. "I am less apologetic and more comfortable."

Caili Quan

An asian ballet dancer stands on fourth position in pointe shoes against a blue backdrop.

Quan wears pointe shoes in every class to strengthen her feet. Photo by Gabriel Bienczycki, courtesy BalletX

BalletX company member

The Challenge: Quan has long struggled with her feet. "They're where I always get corrections," she says. "Everywhere I went they were a problem." Quan grew up in Guam with spotty ballet training. Yet even after attending Ballet Academy East and later landing a contract at BalletX, her feet continued to be a challenge.

Confronting the issue: "In my mind, I thought I could fix my feet by just moving fast so no one would see them," says Quan. But she eventually found that pushing herself to work slowly was what actually built strength.

How She Maximizes Her Line: Knowing she couldn't change the structure of her feet, Quan decided to get to know every inch of them. She began wearing pointe shoes for every class—even when her rehearsal day does not call for them—focusing on how she can work her demi-pointe and transitions. And she is very particular about her pointe shoes. "I know everybody who works at the Freed store. I have tried everything," says Quan. "I wear F maker, cut so low on the sides that I have to put water and rosin on my heels."

A New Mind-Set: "Some ballet dancers don't have great feet, but the way they use them is magical," says Quan. "For me it is not about the end point, but showing off the in-betweens. How you get there can change the look of how you dance."

Jeffrey Cirio

Three men in colored unitards jump in unison, legs together in fifth position, arms reaching diagonally down towards their sides

Cirio, center, practices transitions to make his movement look more lengthened. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy ABT.

English National Ballet lead principal

The Challenge: Cirio, 5' 9", always knew he would be on the smaller side. "But I was a huge fan of Fernando Bujones," he says. "He danced with amazing ballerinas and wasn't very tall either."

How He Became a Prince: Naturally a quick mover, Cirio could have easily spent his career dancing soloist roles or being pegged as the "contemporary guy." But he realized early on that there were both physical and mental components to dancing bigger and commanding the adagio solos he coveted. "Practicing transitions, paying attention to your tombé pas de bourrée as much as the turn and the preps into jumps can make you look elegant and lengthened," says Cirio. "Dancing big is a mental game, and you have to project confidence and know how to push your body."

The Importance of The Right Director: Cirio says he owes a lot to his first artistic director, Mikko Nissinen of Boston Ballet. "He never pigeonholed me. He gave me the chance to do prince roles and, in effect, dance up. In another company, I might not have been able to dance Balanchine's 'Diamonds.' "

Making It Work: In preparation for his first full-length featured role, in Nureyev's Don Quixote, a ballet master taught Cirio how to cross-train with body-weight exercises, cardio and band work (with a lot of reps). "You never know who your partner will be, and you have to be prepared to partner the person in front of you. You might have to relevé to be able to do that finger turn."

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Sin #2: Misaligning the spine. Photo by Erin Baiano

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."

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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.

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