Magazine

Star-Quality Workouts

Three top dancers on their cross-training discoveries

 

 

Sara Mearns with trainer Sebastian Plettenberg at Gyrotonic Manhattan, Photo: Christopher Duggan

 

 

It’s 9:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning and while most people her age are still asleep, New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns is working out. Dressed in baggy sweatpants and a faded Bon Jovi T-shirt, her wet hair tied in a loose knot, she curves and arches her back while balanced on her knees, her arms tracing circles on gliding disks. Her trainer, Sebastian Plettenberg, looks on, “checking how her spine moves after a very full day yesterday.”

 

During the past six years, as she shot to super-stardom, Mearns has been practicing Gyrotonic. The non-impact exercise methodology developed by Juliu Horvath involves three-dimensional, spiral movements and coordinated breathing to stretch and strengthen the muscles while stimulating the nervous system and opening joints. Mearns, currently getting over a back injury, credits it with cutting her healing time down considerably.

 

“It’s probably the number one thing dancers should do when recovering from something,” she says in between sets of scissor kicks on the Leg Extension Unit, a complex system of weights and pulleys, at Gyrotonic Manhattan on 57th Street.

 

Mearns is one of many leading dancers who have discovered the value of training outside the studio—not only when recuperating from an injury but also as a preventative measure. “As I’ve gotten older and started dancing more, I’ve been finding things in my body are off a little bit—or a lot,” she says, noting that she has scoliosis and an uneven pelvis. “So I need to work hard to keep my body in check.”

 

Mearns squeezes in an hour-long Gyrotonic session with Plettenberg five to six days a week, usually before her morning technique class. If he isn’t available to train her, she’ll go through some exercises on her own. “I can’t walk into class and just start. I have to warm up my body and my senses and find a rhythm before I get to the barre,” she says. “If I just go to class, I feel like my body is closed up like a clamshell. But if I do this I’m completely open and expanded, free to move in any direction and experiment more. I feel so much stronger and on top of my legs in class and rehearsal.”

 

Alicia Graf Mack of Ailey, Photo: Andrew Eccles, Courtesy Ailey

 

For veteran Ailey dancer Alicia Graf Mack, cross-training is crucial for building stamina and endurance. She jogs for 20 to 30 minutes on her days off to keep her muscles activated. “Our rep is so demanding that your body has to be in Olympic-athlete shape,” she says. “If I don’t prepare my legs for high-powered movement, I have a really hard time.”

 

Mack first took up running while on a hiatus from dance. In 1999, after four years with Dance Theatre of Harlem, she was suffering from a knee tear on top of a bad bout of arthritis (she has an autoimmune disorder that affects her joints) and decided to enroll at Columbia University. She began jogging for a cardio workout. “I like to get outside and be physical and feel spent,” says Mack. And her knee improved as a result. So when she started dancing again in 2003, she kept it up as a contrast to her time spent in the studio.

 

“From the outside it probably looks like a light prance,” she says, adding that she walks for half an hour afterward to lengthen her muscles. “With dance, you work your body in such extreme ways—everything is turned out—so I tend to do things that put me back at neutral, parallel, to keep my body strong and well aligned.”

 

Carla Körbes warming up for rehearsal, Photo: Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB

 

Many dancers accomplish that by doing Pilates. Pacific Northwest Ballet principal Carla Körbes swears by the popular fitness system for both overcoming and staving off injuries. She was first introduced to it as a student at the School of American Ballet, when she had a ligament tear in her foot that required reconstructive surgery; she couldn’t dance for a year and a half. “Pilates was a big part of my recovery,” Körbes says. “And throughout 16 years of dancing, every time I get an injury I do baby Pilates and it makes me feel like, OK, I can get back to this. It takes time, but it’s always a tool I will use.”

 

In Seattle, Körbes trains once a week when she can with Michele Miller of Halfmoon Acupuncture & Pilates. (She sees her partner for treatments, too; “they’re like a dream team to me,” she says.) “What I like is you’re not just doing crunches or lifting weights; because you’re lying on a machine with springs connected to you, you have to work every muscle.” And while she does some mat work on her own, she has learned to listen to her body: “I have to be conscious of how I feel that day and what I have that week,” she says. “More is not necessarily better. If I do a lot of working out incorrectly, it throws me off.”

 

For all three dancers, a major benefit of exercising with a trainer is having an expert eye on you at all times. Körbes says Miller noticed her left calf was still a little weak from an injury she endured a year ago, so she’s been having her do additional repetitions and relevés on that side. And Mearns recalls that after she sprained her ankle four times last year, Plettenberg came to see one performance and immediately identified the cause (she wasn’t landing from jumps properly) and began addressing it in their sessions.

 

In fact, much of the work these dancers do outside the studio is to correct imbalances and bad habits developed inside it. Despite her stature in the ballet world, Mearns uses Gyrotonic to perfect basic steps, like her arabesque. “I have such a mobile back—that’s how I got into this place I’m in,” she says of her injury. “My body’s smart and finds a way to get my leg up, but it might not be the right way.” When she had the privilege of meeting Gyrotonic founder Horvath, he explained that a proper arabesque engages the legs and pelvis more than the back, which just accommodates the bend.

 

On the other hand, part of the appeal of running for Mack is that it takes her mind off of dance. She likes to jog with her husband, listen to her iPod (usually gospel or pop music), and just enjoy being in nature. Then when she returns to work, she feels refreshed. “I’ve never met Mr. Ailey, obviously, but a lot of people tell me he loved dancers who are real people, who went outside of the studio and experienced life and then had something to bring back to the studio,” Mack says. “The studio is sacred, and it’s hard to live in that sacred place all the time. It can be kind of draining. For me, running is a way to take a deep breath.”

 

All of these dancers report that outside exercise also serves as a form of stress relief. “Whenever you work out and feel good about what you did for your body, it’s helpful mentally,” Körbes says. Or as Mearns puts it, “Your mind is at ease when your body is. Gyrotonic creates a good energy in your body that automatically translates to mind and spirit. I walk out and feel confident about the day. It’s so uplifting that it gets addictive.” 

 

And, of course, being in peak physical and psychological shape leads to career longevity, which is another reason these dancers engage in cross-training. “As the body gets older, you have to get smarter to make the aging process as smooth and beneficial as possible,” says Plettenberg. He claims that regularly practicing Gyrotonic can add a decade to a dancer’s professional life.

 

That is an especially strong motivation for Mearns. Having risen to the top of the ranks at City Ballet in record time (see cover story, June 2012), she wants to stay there as long as possible. And getting injured again last May helped her understand that sometimes means slowing down. “It made me reevaluate how I approach my rehearsals, my schedule, everything,” she says, noting that after her back spasm five different dancers had to fill in for her in one weekend.

 

Now Mearns is focused on “what I need to do to have a career that lasts 20 more years.” And Gyrotonic is an integral part of that plan. “It’s my secret weapon in a way,” she says with a grin while sprawled on the floor of Plettenberg’s studio after her Saturday morning session. “I feel like I have an edge.”

 

 

Elaine Stuart has written for The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, as well as for Dance Magazine.

The Conversation
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Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

Cover Story
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"Question," Portner asks. "Are we looking at our hands?"

She steps out to watch the others try the phrase, and adds a few more steps. Quick, staccato movement, legs kicking out, torsos swiveling around, fists hitting glass. "This is a puzzle," she says, almost to herself. "I'm not sure I'll like it." The statement, like so many, is punctured with a sweet, nervous laugh.

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2. Feel worthless and alone? You slump your shoulders, avoid eye contact with your teacher and fellow dancers, and wish to disappear.

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