Sleep at Last!

June 21, 2007

What to do when ZZZs are but a dream



You’ve kicked the blankets to the floor, turned the pillow over and upside down (10 times), lowered the shade, raised it, and turned out the light—again! You’ve danced Swan Lake and gone over your new choreography, all inside your tired brain. You’ve even envisioned your thunderous curtain call, complete with a deep and humble bow. In the words of a popular ’60s tune, you’ve been tossin’ and turnin’ all night. In plain English, you CAN’T SLEEP!

Lack of sleep is a major discomfort that affects people from all walks of life. But for the professional dancer, sleep loss can have more profound repercussions than napping at your desk during the late-afternoon slide into the “valley of fatigue.”

Marijeanne Liederbach, Director of Research and Education for the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at the Hospital for Joint Diseases in New York, says many dancers don’t take time off because they are afraid of losing ground technically. “Sleep loss is a big part of what’s called overtraining syndrome,” she says. Dancers with the syndrome experience changes in sleep behavior and appetite, and may suffer mood disturbances, diminished energy, and lower immunity. It occurs when training becomes monotonous and training-to-rest ratios fall out of balance, not uncommon with the physical  overload of class and rehearsal. “To help avoid burnout,” says Liederbach, “we encourage teachers to vary the way they approach classes and rehearsals.” And dancers need to take appropriate rest cycles. “They have to understand,” says Leiderbach, “that they are helping their overall performance by taking a day (or two) off from training.”

How often should a dancer alternate rest with training? “It varies individually,” says Leiderbach. “You may be in a butoh piece or a highly physical role, but no matter what you’re dancing, you need downtime and at least one full day of rest per week to let the tissues recover and de-stress.”


Rachel McKeever, a self-proclaimed night owl and dancer with American Repertory Ballet in New Jersey, suffered severe insomnia between graduating from her performing arts high school and joining ARB. She says it helped her to develop a nightly ritual. “Teach yourself that routine, and your body will know it’s time to sleep. It has to include something relaxing, so nix the mile run. I like to take a hot shower and read a magazine or book that I don’t have to concentrate on, so I can easily slip into some zzzs.”

New York dancer/choreographer and former insomniac Tamar Rogoff attended a sleep clinic for a year. “I look at not being able to sleep as a balance problem. If you rehearse late, learn a new part, and are over-stimulated, it’s hard to sleep. You are the only one who can balance these things.” Rogoff choreographed several dances with sleep as a theme. “I tried to process the issue through my work,” she says. “Doing the work put certain issues to rest, and then I could sleep better.”

At the clinic, Rogoff got tips in “sleep hygiene” that helped her establish the balance she was seeking. She was told to assign a time to worry, and not to do it near bedtime. “If you actually put words to your worries with pencil and paper, it minimizes them. When the lights are on, it turns monsters into elves.” She was also told not to have work-related things in her bedroom, and to establish a pre-bedtime habit, like taking a bath, reading, or listening to stories on tape.


Practically every sleep expert on the planet will tell you that alcohol and caffeine—found in coffee, soda, and chocolate—are musts-to-avoid at least five hours before sleep. These substances raise your alertness level, and increase your heart and breathing rates, making sleeplessness more likely. Rogoff touts the benefits of calcium, which she takes before bed along with magnesium. “It’s like a glass of warm milk,” she says. She also drinks a sleep tea with valerian.

Gigi Berardi, a dance medicine specialist and Dance Magazine contributing editor, says the stress of performance anxiety, dancing close to bedtime, and eating late-night post-performance meals are all stimulants that can keep you up. In addition to “ritualizing sleep,” Berardi recommends a comfortable mattress. She claims that a darkened and noiseless room can help even the most energized dancer catch some shut-eye. “Don’t start anything stressful before going to bed,” says Berardi. “And if you’re having a hard time getting to sleep, get out of bed and quietly read or sew ribbons on your pointe shoes.”

Rogoff agrees that “lying and trying” just doesn’t work. “If I wake in the night I take more calcium and read. Try not to lie in bed with your mind racing. Get up and get your costume ready, and when you feel sleepy, climb back into bed and try again.”

McKeever found that a support system is helpful too. “Using your teacher, director, or friends as an outlet can relieve tension and keeps me from internalizing things,” she says. She sometimes thinks she waited too long to discuss her problem. When she got to ARB she finally talked to a nutritionist, who diagnosed her insomnia and suggested Ambien to retrain her body for sleeping. “I was concerned about taking a pill, but he assured me they weren’t addictive. And after the three weeks, I was fine.”

McKeever is addicted to Starbucks coffee, but in the morning only. “I watch my caffeine intake. I try not to have coffee after 5 p.m., because during performances it’s a little bit harder to unwind at night. If there’s a new rep, I’ll sometimes go over the choreography in my head so I don’t mess up. I’m also thinking, how can I make that role work for me? I can’t wait to get started and I want to keep working. And that’s when having a sleep routine comes in handy.”

When McKeever had insomnia, she was getting only about 10 hours of sleep per week. When asked how her dancing was affected, she says, “It made it harder to retain choreography, and a lot harder to focus. I started to hallucinate. If I was at the barre doing a combination, I’d feel like the teacher was behind me and then I’d realize he was on the other side of the room. An overall state of paranoia took over. Even though I could function, nothing felt right—not to mention the horrible, unattractive bags I had under my eyes.”

Turning the sleep monster into a dreamy elf entails making some changes and mustering a dash of discipline to enforce them. If you create your own bedtime ritual, watch your caffeine and alcohol intake, talk to friends, and take a day off here and there, keeping your eyes open long enough to finish this article may become harder than you’d think.

Nancy Alfaro, a former dancer with Streb and Jane Comfort, lives and writes about dance in New York City.