Surviving Your Day Job

February 29, 2012

Healthy ways to work and dance

Illustration by Penelope Dullaghan.



Performing is rarely a full-time job. More often, dancers have to put in hours at a day job on their feet or at a desk to make a living. This can take its toll, yet dancers have found ways to make it work, staying healthy on- and offstage. Dance Magazine spoke with three double-dipping dancers and one physical therapist.

Brit Wallis
juggles waitressing at one of Houston’s favorite artist hangouts with dancing with Hope Stone Dance Company and NobleMotion Dance, two of the city’s A-list groups. She’s on her feet six to eight hours a day, working a 30-hour week. “Each morning,” says Wallis, “I ask myself what my body needs, whether it’s 30 minutes more sleep, a yoga class, or an Epsom salt bath.” Wallis’ feet and legs are the first to get tired. “I usually wear Converse, but when my feet start to hurt I switch to my Adidas running shoes.”

Although there isn’t one shoe solution that fits everyone, Jennifer M. Gamboa, DPT, OCS, MTC, director of the Washington Ballet health and wellness program, has some suggestions. “A shoe that is comfortable, light, and supportive will be most helpful,” she says. “If you are on your feet and running back and forth, shoes should not have high heels, as they can shorten calf muscles and cause increased low back pain/tension—much like the perils of dancing on a raked stage.”

Wearing supportive hose can be beneficial to dancers who may be sore from dancing, as well as sore and tired from waiting tables. “Dancers can buy over-the-counter, high-support pantyhose at the local convenience store or even consider over-the-counter compression hose,” adds Gamboa, who is also president of Body Dynamics, Inc., a physical therapy center.

Even though waitressing is a movement job, certain exercises can help keep the blood flowing. “Dynamic stretching—large-amplitude movement, such as leg swings, arm swings, torso rotations—prior to and following your shift will bring blood flow and nutrition to muscles and joints and help release muscle tension,” says Gamboa. She also recommends calf stretching throughout the day.

Being on your feet for long stints often comes with the usual suspects of increased soreness, tension, and spasm in the calves, low back, upper back, and traps. “Proper posture and footwear will go a long way to alleviating these aches and pains,” says Gamboa. “Avoid standing with hyperextended knees, leaning into one hip, and a prolonged asymmetrical stance.”

Pay attention to how you are carrying trays, as well. “Practice good body mechanics when picking something up. Use the legs and hip joints in order to get the body upright, rather than bending only from the back,” Gamboa insists. 

Dustin Crumbaugh
survived several years as a shoe fitter before going to dance full-time at the Big Muddy Dance Company in St. Louis, Missouri. “My job was harder on my body than most people would expect. When fitting shoes, I would spend the majority of my time crawling around on my hands and knees.” The work proved hard on his back and knees. Running up and down stairs added to his tightness and fatigue level as well. “Yoga and gym time were a must,” recalls Crumbaugh. “If I could not get to class, I would add a floor barre to my daily routine. Since I was looking for a full-time dance job, staying in shape took a great effort and time management.”

Kristen Arnold
balances a day job providing academic support for choreographer Susan Marshall at Princeton University’s dance program with dancing for Takehiro Ueyama and Sydney Skybetter. Not only does she work at a desk job, but it requires a long train ride to get there from New York City. “I am very conscious of the way I sit, trying not to cross my legs. I try to do something technique-related every day; it doesn’t always work out,” says Arnold. On non-working days, she takes class. “I have to stay in shape and be healthy. If I let go of that, it all crumbles.” One perk of her job is occasionally taking class at Princeton during the workday. “I try to get in at least the barre,” she says.

When returning to the city, Arnold often runs right from Penn Station to rehearsal, where the transition to dancing can be frenetic. Having a set warm-up that maximizes range of movement has made a big difference for Arnold. She has created a densely packed sequence that activates the upper and lower body at once, includes weight shifts, swinging in all three planes, and shoulder rolls. “It’s designed to deliver mobility and blood flow to my extremities,” says Arnold. “It’s also fun in a nerdy way.”

According to Gamboa, Arnold is on the right track. “Movement is the best warm-up for movement. Static stretching right before a rehearsal is probably the single worst thing to do—but it’s the most common warm-up used,” she says. “Save your stretching for the end of your day, after rehearsal, and give yourself a barre, or have a small group of exercises that warm up the core, spine, hips/knees/ankles before jumping right into rehearsal.”

Prolonged sitting isn’t good for anyone, especially dancers. Hip flexors can shorten and tighten. “Properly stretching hip flexors may help prevent this, and remind yourself to have good posture while sitting at your desk,” says Gamboa. “With improper posture, it’s very easy for gravity to win. The upper back slumps down and the head moves forward, causing stiffness in the upper back.”

Frequent breaks are the key to avoiding stiffness. “Putting Post-it note reminders on your desk/computer to take that three- to five-minute stretch/movement break every hour is a good idea because it’s very easy to allow hours to go by in front of the computer,” she says.

There are other ways to sneak in movement. Walk or bike to work, and give thought to upper body motion as well. “One big difference between activities of daily life and dance life is the amount of range that is used of each joint (mid-range) versus the amount that is used for dance movements (end-range),” says Gamboa. “It’s crucial to warm up the body in the range that is about to be used.”

There’s also the mental shift from day job to dancer job that can be a struggle. “What helps me the most,” says Crumbaugh, “is simply taking a few quiet moments to slowly breathe without having any thoughts about what was happening prior to rehearsal. The only thing I try to think about is my warm-up and the effect it has on my muscles. Once I’m truly present, I can focus throughout rehearsal.”


Nancy Wozny takes frequent breaks from moving to write about dance and health from Houston.


Inset: Illustration by Penelope Dullaghan.