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.
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New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns wasn't sure she was strong enough. A ballerina who has danced many demanding full-length and contemporary roles, she was about to push herself physically more than she thought was possible.
"I said, 'I can't. My body won't,' " she says. "He told me, 'Yes, it will.' "
She wasn't working with a ballet coach, but with personal trainer Joel Prouty, who was asking her to do squats with a heavier barbell than she'd ever used.