What Actually Happens To Your Body When You Stop Dancing
It's the end of a long season: Your body is exhausted, you're emotionally drained from back-to-back performances and you're feeling ready for some serious time on the couch.
But as soon as you start to relax, the doubts creep in. What will happen to my physique if I'm not in class? Will I lose muscle, flexibility or stamina if I'm not dancing?
Dancers crave rest—until it happens. Photo by Joanna Nix/Unsplash
"The word 'rest' to a dancer can bring up some anxiety," says Julie O'Connell, a physical therapist at Athletico in Chicago. "But rest is just as important for the body as activation."
Sports medicine experts agree that taking a true break is crucial for maintaining peak physical health. Your end-of-season leave has a purpose—and a true understanding of what's happening to your body and mind can help you reap the full rewards of your recovery time.
Micro Damage Needs Rest To Heal
The body goes into repair mode during rest. Photo by Simon Migaj/Unsplash
For starters, dancers often assume that their bodies are sculpted during class, but muscles actually build strength when you rest after your workout. During exercise, your heart rate goes up, muscle fibers break down and adrenal glands secrete stress hormones. This signals the body to go into repair mode, healing micro tears in the muscles once things have calmed down.
Often, dancers don't give their bodies enough time to fully recover—especially in the peak days of a busy season when movement is strenuous and repetitive—so over time, fatigue may set in, which can lead to inflammation, muscle damage and difficulty with performance.
"Time away from the movement you're used to allows muscles to build back up in a healthy manner," says Selina Shah, MD, who works with dancers at Saint Francis Memorial Hospital's Center for Sports Medicine in Walnut Creek, California. "It allows the muscles, tendons and ligaments that are stressed a chance to recover from any micro damage that could turn into something worse."
The Brain Benefits, Too
Taking a break from the mental stress of dance can ward off burnout. Photo by Michelle Spencer/Unsplash
Since dance is also difficult mental work, the brain benefits from downtime as well. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, which helps you stay mentally sharp and calm under pressure. But constant mental stress takes a toll.
"Research suggests that the mental burnout dancers can experience when practicing day in and day out is not helpful for maintaining their passion," says Jatin P. Ambegaonkar, PhD, associate professor in the Athletic Training Education Program at George Mason University. "That's why sports medicine suggests that athletes cross-train with another activity once a week, and they have 'off-seasons' throughout the year."
How Long Can You Go Without Losing Technique?
Of course, completely terminating any physical activity will eventually lead to negative effects on your technique—but most professional dancers can go up to two weeks without seeing any downsides.
"Even a hard stop for up to 14 days is fine," says Ambegaonkar. "But after that, problems due to inactivity—a decrease in stamina or technical ability—start to set in, so you'll want to eventually change your mind-set to active recovery, building a foundation for when you come back."
- Should You Take a Break from Exercise? ›
- Why Taking Time Off From Exercise Is Good For Your Health | HuffPost ›
- Recovery Redefined: How Much Rest You Actually Need ›
On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.
When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.
The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.
A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.
I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.
There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.
While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.
"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.
The key is choosing your loaf wisely.
It can be hard to imagine life without—or just after—dance. Perhaps that's why we find it so fascinating to hear what our favorite dancers think they'd be doing if they weren't performing for a living.
We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:
"New York City Ballet star appears in a Keanu Reeves action movie" is not a sentence we ever thought we'd write. But moviegoers seeing John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be treated to two scenes featuring soloist Unity Phelan dancing choreography by colleague Tiler Peck. The guns-blazing popcorn flick cast Phelan as a ballerina who also happens to be training to become an elite assassin. Opens in theaters May 17.
The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.
What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
The heart of his message: Be generous.
Launching a dancewear line seems like a great way for professional dancers to flex new artistic muscles and make side money. Several direct-to-consumer brands founded by current or former professional dancers, like Elevé and Luckleo, currently compete with bigger retailers, like Capezio.
But turning your brand into the next Yumiko is more challenging than some budding designers may realize.
When I first came to dance criticism in the 1970s, the professional critics were predominantly much older than me. I didn't know them personally and, as the wide-eyed new kid on the block, I assumed most had little or no physical training in the art.
As slightly intimidated as I felt at the time—you try sitting around a conference room table with Dance Magazine heavy hitters like Tobi Tobias and David Vaughan—I smugly gave myself props for at least having had recent brushes with ballet, Graham, Duncan and Ailey and more substantial engagement with jazz and belly dance. Watching dancers onstage, I enjoyed memories of steps and moves I knew in my own bones. If the music was right, my shoulders would wriggle. I wasn't just coolly judging things from my neck up.