Magazine

Listening to Your Body

Five dancers' decade-by-decade approach to dancing health

 

For a young dancer, it’s easy to live only in the here and now, blinded by stage light. Feeling invincible, you cut corners with the care of your body. As the years go by, you pay more attention to your instrument. So many aspects of both body and mind need to be working at optimum level that longevity is a rare accomplishment. More often than not, your body will decide when it’s time to retire.

As a clinical specialist and athletic trainer at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries in New York City, Megan Richardson works with dancers at all stages of life. “A career in dance is a lifetime of honing, readjusting, and refining,” she says. While no two dancers experience their development the same way, by understanding how our bodies change over time, we can take care of ourselves more effectively. Dance Magazine spoke to five women at different stages of their dancing lives.

The Teenage Years

Teenagers’ bodies are still developing while they are laying down the foundation that will serve them the rest of their careers. “The bone mass that we grow in adolescence and through our 20s is all we get for the rest of our lives,” explains Richardson. For this reason teenagers need sufficient calories, and girls should see an endocrinologist if they aren’t menstruating by 16.

Most dancers tend to grow in spurts, with the limbs lengthening before the spine. This can create frustrating setbacks in flexibility, strength, and coordination. Until the muscles catch up, dancers need to decrease impact exercises.

During a growth spurt, Richardson recommends that teenagers focus on strengthening their core muscles with the limbs supported or held closer to the trunk of the body. Young dancers should modify an exercise like the hundreds by propping the feet up on a physio ball, or keeping the legs bent at 90 degrees at both the hip and knee.

While dancers at this age are often eager to impress with Sylvie Guillem–esque flexibility, Richardson urges caution with static stretching, in which a dancer moves straight to the end point of their flexibility in one quick motion and then holds the position. Instead, you should focus on stretching dynamically, slowly moving through your entire range of motion.

When preparing for a competition, Jessica Payne, 18, often spends seven days a week in her studio—the Dmitri Kulev Classical Ballet Academy in Laguna Hills, California. The long hours pay off—she won first place in the classical category at the San Diego Youth America Grand Prix—but it aggravates her shin splints and tendonitis. Massaging trouble spots and icing helps her to work through the discomfort. Rehearsing pirouettes too much causes tension in her neck, so she sees a chiropractor every other week. For Payne, attending high school full-time while dancing meant her homework had to be done late at night, so she was losing sleep. She made the choice to start home schooling and is now able to get the needed rest.

 

Jessica Payne in YAGP San Diego regionals. Photo by Siggul/Visual Arts Masters, Courtesy YAGP.

The 20s

Whether they’re in a professional company, a college dance program, or a conservatory, dancers in their 20s may have new teachers or directors, new movement languages, and new physical demands. They may be living alone and taking sole responsibility for themselves for the first time, while learning how to achieve balance in their lives in a highly competitive environment. “This is the time of pushing—and over-pushing—and ignoring what your body is telling you,” warns Richardson. She says dancers at this age often do what they’re told without paying attention to their individual needs.

For Amanda Cochrane, a 23-year-old soloist with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, an injury related to an extra bone in her left ankle taught her that the quick fix for pain won’t serve her body best. “I had cortisone injections in my ankle because nothing seemed to be working,” she recalls. But the pain came back, and she sought other solutions to avoid surgery. Now, almost two years later, Cochrane is able to manage the injury by soaking in Epsom salts, icing, elevation, and using arnica creams for their anti-inflammatory benefits.

Richardson says that dancers in their 20s can be at their peak capacity for strength building. But they must have proper nutrition, adequate rest, and correct training. Cochrane incorporates Pilates with daily training on the elliptical, push-ups, and crunches. “Physically I’ve gotten a lot stronger,” she says. “I’ve gained more muscle definition and more energy.”

 

Amanda Cochrane in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Peter Pan. Photo by Rich Sofranko, Courtesy PBT. 

The 30s

By 30, a dancer has likely established a personal routine that addresses her weaknesses and nourishes her body for optimum performance. This is when you’re most likely to drop the bad habits of your youth and focus on health.

Major injuries may increase during this time. Richardson’s advice: Whatever routine you’ve developed for yourself, stick with it and listen to your body. Some dancers find Gyrotonic, yoga, or swimming helpful.

As Olivia Bowman-Jackson prepared to take the stage at the start of the New York season in her first year as an Ailey dancer in 2001, she tore a ligament in her lower lumbar spine and was out for the New York run. Now at 33, with a burgeoning freelance career, Bowman-Jackson reflects on that injury as a turning point in the care of her body. “I was lucky enough to get a prescription for Pilates for rehab once I healed,” she recalls. “It changed my life.” Now an avid Pilates practi­tioner, Bowman-Jackson attributes the stability and strength of her dancing to her routine work on the reformer—which has also helped her manage her scoliosis.

Photo of Olivia Bowman-Jackson courtesy Bowman-Jackson.

The 40s

For many, the 40s are a transitional time when they are considering looking beyond performance. Richardson explains that at 40 your tissues don’t retain as much water. “This means that it’s going to take a little bit more work, more rest, more stretching, and more strengthening to feel like you’re getting back to where you started,” she says.

Dancing in your 40s is a state of mind, according to the Joffrey Ballet’s Valerie Robin, 42. When she’s injury-free, she says performance feels the same way it did 10 years ago—and that’s worth protecting. “There’s nothing that I’m really afraid of. If I’m feeling something is kind of off, I’m not going to try and prove anything,” she says. “When you get a little bit older you realize that it’s not the end of the world if you didn’t do grand allegro today.”

At 25, Robin ruptured three ligaments in her ankle. The injury made her aware of how much her hip placement affects her ankles while jumping. And the time off taught her to be patient when her body is healing. Robin’s willingness to learn from an injury rather than view it as a setback has probably helped sustain her career. “I think sometimes dancers get really frustrated when they’re injured,” says Robin. “But you can learn a lot about your body and about how you work and your mentality when you get injured.”

 

Valerie Robin with Matthew Adamczyk of the Joffrey Ballet in Wheeldon’s After the Rain. Photo by Herbert Migdoll, Courtesy Joffrey.

The 50s & Beyond

Since we retain less water as we age, there are less circulating nutrients that provide strength, and the tissues become thinner and weaker. The muscle cannot contract and expand as quickly to produce the necessary force, so repeating the same motion can cause strain to the tendons.

In order to continue moving safely and comfortably, the older dancer must be steadfast about warming up, and renew that warm-up throughout the day. “This will allow that muscle to get as juicy as possible,” says Richardson, “and it will be able to contract and expand within its limits.” These dancers should use modest amounts of dynamic stretching since the lack of elasticity and collagen in the muscles puts a strain on the tendons.

“Technique to me is about intelligent dancing now,” says Pat Catterson, who at 66 continues to dance and tour with Yvonne Rainer. “It’s not about virtuosity. It’s about helping me to produce consistent results and keep my body in balance.” Catterson continues to take class five to six days a week. When she stretches, she finds she needs to cushion her joints against the floor to feel comfortable since they are less padded than when she was younger. She sometimes has to refresh parts of her warm up several times in one rehearsal when the choreographic process is stop-and-go.

For Catterson, the joy of dancing has not left her. She is realistic about her limitations, but refuses to allow the skepticism of others to infect her passion. “I’ve learned that you cannot let fear overtake you,” she says. “Yes you have to be sensible, but if you let fear cripple you, then you just move correctly and you don’t dance anymore. Dancing is a combination of control and abandon, and you have to have that abandon to feel like you’re dancing.”

 

Pat Catterson in Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A. Photo by Yi-Chun Wu, courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.

 

Kathleen McGuire is a dance writer based in Pittsburgh, PA.

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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.

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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