As the world returns to something like normalcy, dancers are feeling two intense emotions: "Enthusiasm and fear," says Dr. Lucie Clements, a dance psychologist based in England. "Most are excited about coming back to the studio full-time, and many are anxious."
If you're more conflicted than you might have expected about coming back to the studio and stage, know that you're not alone. The good news is that a major transition like this is the ideal time to create healthy habits that will stick. The key is carefully pacing yourself so you can greet the post-pandemic era without getting overwhelmed—or injured.
If you can, begin preparing your body for the challenges of dancing all day at least one month to two weeks before you're back in the studio on a more regular basis. At Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, associate artistic director Matthew Rushing devised a five-week virtual conditioning program for reacclimating company members to full days of rehearsal. "We'd start the day with a brief meditation or body scan, then hear from nutritionists, then do floor barre and/or Gyrokinesis, ballet or modern, and cardio classes," he says. "As the weeks went on, we added in more strength training and had anatomy classes."
Of course, not every dancer has the resources for such a thorough program. But Rushing says the takeaways from the Ailey dancers' conditioning intensive can be applied to any dancer's post-pandemic comeback: "It's not just cardiovascular fitness that takes a hit from training at home," Rushing says. "When you've been sitting for a long period, the glutes and hamstrings get 'sleepy' and weak." Make sure your reconditioning plan includes plenty of stability and strength work for the glutes and thighs (think clamshells and bridges), and gradually increases cardio to rebuild respiratory stamina.
Rushing brought in nutritionists to talk with the Ailey dancers because fueling with enough calories and nutrients is part of getting fitter at any time—but especially now. Trying to lose weight put on during quarantine by eating less will make your comeback slower and shakier, says Dr. Natalia Rodriguez of Zion Physical Therapy in New York City. Her colleague (and fellow former professional dancer) Dr. Ana Wu suggests keeping up with one main feature of dancing at home: not looking in the mirror! Your body will gradually change as your dancing hours ramp back up. Be patient, rather than trying to rush that process along.
Rodriguez says she's seen a lot more injuries coming in of late, as dancers and regular folks alike jump back into activity after so many months of relative hibernation. Wu adds that dancers returning to full-time schedules can expect to face a frustrating gap between what they feel they should be able to do and what's physically available to them at this moment.
To avoid the tendon injuries and neck/back/joint pain that both physical therapists have treated in dancers recently, make mindful movement your mantra. "About a month after heading back is when you should be reaching your 100 percent capacity in jumping, across the floor and rehearsal stamina," Rodriguez says. "Don't get excited on your first day and push as hard as you would have in February 2020."
Before each day of dance starts, Wu suggests taking half an hour for a personal warm-up, starting with a mental body scan. What's out of alignment? What feels tight or locked? What's fatigued from the day before? Then, warm up your ankles with a TheraBand, address your rotators with hip exercises and wake up your core, Wu says. Once you're done dancing for the day, do a proper cooldown, rolling out and/or stretching. Then use your time away from the studio to truly rest and recharge.
Don't Get Overstretched
If your experience of the pandemic was, like many dancers', characterized by longer or more frequent blocks of unscheduled time, consider keeping your outside-of-the-studio schedule lighter as you ramp back up—at least for a while.
"Think of it as scheduling time to reflect and process how you're feeling," says Clements. Of course, there'll be work and other essential commitments, but pause to ask yourself if you truly have the bandwidth before saying yes to optional projects or too many of those long-awaited social gatherings. As Wu says, "Sleep has to be your number-one self-care priority right now."
Among the pandemic's (few) gifts to dancers might be a stronger sense of identity beyond dance, and an increased awareness of what makes them feel healthy, inside and out. Rushing, for one, is here for that newfound self-knowledge: "I started therapy during the pandemic, and I would honestly suggest it to any dancer." (Visit The Actors Fund website for information on free or subsidized mental-health services for performers.)
Taking care of yourself will be essential to dancing your best during these months of transition. Maintain any good mental habits—like meditation, self-compassion, positive self-talk, more time spent on nondance hobbies—that got you through the pandemic's darkest months.
That also means being gentle with yourself and firm with those who try to push your boundaries too far. "There will be quite a lot of pressure as you come back, whether to prove yourself or 'make up for lost time' or be back in shape straight away," Clements says. "Try not to put any additional pressure on yourself."
Clements advises journaling and having authentic conversations with trusted peers to fully release this transition's intense emotions. "This is where self-care becomes really important," she says, "because if you're taking time for yourself outside the studio, you might go into the studio with firmer boundaries in place."
If you're up against undue pressure from an artistic director, fellow dancers or anyone else, try to remember that a carefully calibrated return will ultimately be much more sustainable. "I can't think of any situation in this moment where pushing yourself would be appropriate," Rushing says. "Take everything step by step, and constantly take your own emotional, physical and mental temperature."