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.
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.
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.
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.