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My Body, My Stress
It’s no secret that a career as a professional dancer can be unpredictable and stressful. But with the economy in a deep recession, this year has been an especially difficult one for the dance world. Many companies have been forced to cut dancers or tours, and have lost rehearsal space. A dancer who once lay awake in bed replaying a botched pas de deux may now be staying up into the wee hours worrying about whether she’ll have a job come fall.
But before your heart rate begins to accelerate just thinking about it, remember that stress isn’t always a bad thing. “Our responses to stress are supposed to be helpful,” explains Dr. Richard Gibbs, MD, supervising physician at San Francisco Ballet and the chair of the Dance/USA Task Force on dancer health. In intensely stressful moments, the endocrine system and the sympathetic nervous system work together to release higher levels of cortisol and adrenaline. In an audition, for instance, this can actually benefit a dancer. “You’re going to be more alert, pick up choreography faster, and move more assuredly,” says Dr. Gibbs.
But when stress becomes chronic—say while searching for work in a depressed economic climate—its positive effects quickly turn harmful, which can have a big impact on your dancing. Too much adrenaline, for instance, keeps you in “fight or flight” mode, which leads to anxiety and fatigue. This slows down your reflexes and thinking processes, so learning choreography becomes a challenge. Extra adrenaline also makes your heart beat faster, speeds up your breathing, and makes you sweat more. (This is why staying hydrated is key.)
Because stress also causes an increase in cortisol levels, dancers are susceptible to all kinds of viral infections, since cortisol lowers immune system resistance. Cortisol also activates your gastrointestinal tract, which leads to more acid in the stomach, causing peptic ulcers. But perhaps most significantly, stress creates the perfect breeding ground for injury—and makes healing more difficult. “When stressful situations are on the line, injury rates go sky-high,” Dr. Gibbs explains. “This is because cortisol actually weakens tissue and bone.”
On a psychological level, stress also does damage. “Irritability is more likely,” says Dr. Harlene Goldschmidt, PhD, director of education and wellness at the New Jersey Dance Theatre Ensemble. “It’s easier to lose control of your emotions.” She also adds that stressed-out dancers often have trouble taking criticism, causing them to miss out on valuable feedback (and jeopardize a relationship with a teacher or director).
So how do you reduce the effects of stress? In addition to the obvious (like get eight hours of sleep), Dr. Gibbs suggests low-impact aerobic activity like riding a stationary bike, walking, or going for an easy jog one to three times a week. “If I have a stressed-out dancer, I recommend exercise,” he says. “It releases endorphins, and reduces injury and cholesterol. It’s the number one treatment for depression and anxiety.”
Yoga—which stretches and strengthens the body while calming the mind—along with a regular meditation practice have been lifesavers for Shila Tirabassi of the Stephen Petronio Company. Like others, the company has had dates cut this season, and the dancers have struggled with reduced income and more anxiety—all of which has an effect on Tirabassi’s body. Her hips get tense and her back goes into spasm. “Yoga has saved me,” she says.
And above all, don’t panic. If you’re in financial straits, ask yourself whether you need a second job, or could turn to a trusted friend in a worst-case scenario. Dr. Goldschmidt notes, “There are a lot of steps between having performances cut and being on the street.” And even if you’ve just been laid off, take advantage of downtime. “Give yourself permission to feel good on days when you’re relaxing,” she says.
Whatever happens, enjoy dancing while you are dancing. “Even in the midst of a struggle, remember that we’re striving to do something that we absolutely love—and that’s a gift that most of the world doesn’t get,” Tirabassi says. “Let those be the wheels that turn, not the ‘I need money and stability’ wheels. Getting to do the thing you love all day is what you should hold dear in your heart.”
Abigail Rasminsky, a former editor at Dance Spirit, has written for The New York Times, The Forward, and The Nextbook Reader.
Photo: Erin Baiano; Photo illustration: Hanna Varady
Rebecca Warthen was on a year-long assignment with the Peace Corps in Dominica last fall when a storm started brewing. A former dancer with North Carolina Dance Theatre (now Charlotte Ballet) and Columbia City Ballet, she'd been sent to the Caribbean island nation to teach ballet at the Dominica Institute of the Arts and in outreach classes at public schools.
But nine and a half months into her assignment, a tropical storm grew into what would become Hurricane Maria—the worst national disaster in Dominica's history.
On the occasion of its 70th anniversary, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba tours the U.S. this spring with the resolute Cuban prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso a the helm. Named a National Hero of Labor in Cuba, Alonso, 97, has weathered strained international relations and devastating fiscal challenges to have BNC emerge as a world-class dance company. Her dancers are some of ballet's best. On offer this time are Alonso's Giselle and Don Quixote. The profoundly Cuban company performs in Chicago May 18–20, Tampa May 23, Washington, D.C., May 29–June 3 and Saratoga, New York June 6–8.
Ever wonder why some dancers' port de bras appears to be disconnected from their body? It typically comes down to how they stabilize their shoulder blades, says Marimba Gold-Watts, Pilates instructor to dancers like Robert Fairchild.
"Dancers often hear the cue to pull down on their latissimus,"—the biggest muscle in the back—"which doesn't allow the shoulder blades to lie flat," she says. "It makes the bottom tips of the shoulder blades wing, or flare out, off the rib cage."
Sidra Bell is one of those choreographers whose movement dancers are drawn to. Exploring the juxtaposition of fierce athleticism and pure honesty in something as simple as stillness, her work brings her dancers to the depths of their abilities and the audience to the edge of their seats.
A few weeks ago, American Ballet Theatre announced the A.B.T. Women's Movement, a new program that will support three women choreographers per season, one of whom will make work on the main company.
"The ABT Women's Movement takes inspiration from the groundbreaking female choreographers who have left a lasting impact on ABT's legacy, including Agnes de Mille and Twyla Tharp," said artistic director Kevin McKenzie in a press release.
Hypothetically, this is a great idea. We're all for more ballet commissions for women. But the way ABT has promoted the initiative is problematic.
Some dancers move to New York City with their sights set on a dream job: that one choreographer or company they have to dance for. But when Maggie Cloud graduated from Florida State University in 2010, she envisioned herself on a less straightforward path.
"I always had in mind that I would be dancing for different people," she says. "I knew I had some kind of range that I wanted to tap into."
New York City Ballet is celebrating the Jerome Robbins Centennial with twenty (20!) ballets. The great American choreographer died in 1998, so very few of today's dancers have actually worked with him. There are plenty of stories about how demanding (at times brutally so) he could be in rehearsal. But Peter Boal has written about Robbins in a more balanced, loving way. In this post he writes about how Robbins' crystal clear imagery helped him approach a role with clarity and purpose.
Who says you need fancy equipment to make a festival-worthy dance film? Right now, two New York City–based dance film festivals are calling for aspiring filmmakers to show their stuff—and you don't need anything more cumbersome than a smartphone to get in on the action.
Here's everything you need to know about how to submit:
When Lisset Santander bourréed onstage as Myrtha in BalletMet's Giselle this past February, her consummate portrayal of the Queen of the Wilis was marked by steely grace and litheness. The former Cuban National Ballet dancer had defected to the U.S. at 21, and after two years with the Ohio company, she's now closer to the dance career she says she always wanted: one of limitless possibilities.