In Ohad Naharin's Minus 16, dancers on chairs perform a quick series of emphatic gestures, flinging back their heads and limbs, with the last dancer eventually throwing their body to the floor. The first time Atlanta Ballet performed the piece, the company saw a number of injuries to the neck and low back. So when it returned last year, the artistic staff wanted to find a method to prevent injuries.
"It is such a stressful piece on the body, and the dancers are not always prepared because it is very outside of the box for the classical and neoclassical repertoire they're used to," says Emma Faulkner, physical therapist with Atlanta Ballet. To help prepare them, Faulkner and her colleague Amanda Blackmon, along with former ballet master Sarah Hillmer, created a workout designed specifically for the movements of Minus 16.
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.
We all know that personal trainers can help dancers condition their bodies more effectively. But trainers who are also dancers themselves? Now that's a uniquely valuable perspective.
Take Kathyrn Boren, an American Ballet Theatre corps member who got certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine last summer, following in the footsteps of her colleagues Thomas Forster and Roman Zhurbin. Her weekly Conditioning for Dancers classes in New York City are filled with everyone from athletic men to older women (including one ABT donor who's attended every single time). But those who might get the most out of her workouts are the dance students who attend. They walk away with exercises and advice tailored for their particular challenges—coming from someone who knows those challenges intimately.
Boren recently spoke with Dance Magazine to share her best cross-training advice for dancers looking to improve their fitness.
Growing up with a father who's a swim coach at Ohio Wesleyan University, Emma Hawes was in the water almost from the time she was born. From ages 6 to 12, she swam competitively.
"I would have two swim practices a day during season, then go to ballet class," says Hawes, who's now a first soloist at both National Ballet of Canada and English National Ballet. "It was pretty normal for me since my parents are both athletes." (Her father is also an avid cyclist and triathlete; her mom was a competitive runner.)
While swimming gave Hawes stamina, dance helped her body awareness in the pool. "I was able to make fine-tuning adjustments—like rotating the angle of my forearm—because of ballet," she says.
If dancing across a stage is the greatest way to break a sweat, pounding a treadmill under fluorescent lighting has to be among the worst.
"A lot of people hate the gym," says Lauren McIntyre, an athletic trainer and clinical specialist at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at NYU Langone Health. Luckily, you don't need a gym membership to cross-train effectively.
Afro Flow Yoga is a body-and-soul awakening. Created by dancer-yogini Leslie Salmon Jones and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Jones, the dance form melds yoga with West African diasporic dance.
The majestic entrance into Sky-Mind Hall, an exquisite 3,000-square foot floor-to-ceiling-windowed studio with breathtaking views of the Playa Guiones along the Pacific Ocean, at Blue Spirit Retreat Center in Nosara, Costa Rica, recently introduced me to the practice.
My hypermobility used to cause me a lot of trouble, but I've gained confidence and strength after reading about it in one of your columns. I now have a Pilates instructor who's retraining my body and helping me dance in a consistent way. Thank you!
—No Longer Anxious, Philadelphia, PA
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A good personal trainer can coach you through a challenging, safe workout. A great one understands the unique demands dance places on your body and helps you correct specific weaknesses to make you an even stronger performer. Enter Joel Prouty.
Dancers will do just about anything to increase their odds of staying injury-free. And there are plenty of products out there claiming that they can help you do just that. But which actually work?
We asked for recommendations from four experts: Martt Lawrence, who teaches Pilates to dancers in San Francisco; Lisa-Marie Lewis, who teaches yoga at The Ailey Extension in New York City; physical therapist Alexis Sams, who treats dancers at her clinic in Phoenix; and stretch training coach Vicente Hernandez, who teaches at The School of Pennsylvania Ballet.
Barre classes have soared in popularity. Last year, Time Magazine labeled them a "phenomenon" among fitness routines, with an estimated 800 studios in the U.S.
But: Has the fad penetrated the rehearsal studios of professional ballet dancers? Not necessarily, according to feedback from several ballet companies.
Every dancer is told to cross-train. But, the million-dollar question you should be asking is:
Is it helping my dance career…or hurting it?
Why It Matters: Cross-training can be a powerful tool to give you the physicality you need to compete in today's dance world. However, if done wrong, it can also undo all of your hard work in the studio.
It can take a full team of experts to keep a dancer dancing—from masseuses and acupuncturists to yoga teachers and personal trainers. But, that comes at a cost, literally. When do you really need to invest in pricier options, and when can you take the more budget-friendly route? We broke it down for the most popular options.
As the temperatures drop and sweater weather begins, most of us groan at the thought of chilly muscles and achy bones. Dancers know that a cold winter can make our bodies feel "off." Dance Magazine tapped Dr. Thomas Sanders, a board-certified foot and ankle specialist at The Centers for Advanced Orthopaedics, to find out how to deal with the most common health issues dancers face in frigid temps.
How cross-training your core, hips and calves can help
Photos by Jayme Thornton, modeled by Eva Solnick of Joffrey Ballet School
Leanna Rinaldi never expected demi-pointe to be the most difficult part of her first season with Miami City Ballet. But a painful bunion on her left foot made one of the most basic steps in ballet incredibly difficult. “I couldn’t flex my toes and rolling up to pointe was hard,” she says. “I could hardly dance.”
For many dancers, bunion pain is an all-too-familiar reality. But it doesn’t have to be, according to Kathleen Davenport, MD, a dance medicine specialist and company physician for Miami City Ballet. “People think there is nothing you can do about it,” she says, “but that is just not the case.” In a report published in the July 2014 Journal of Dance Medicine and Science, Davenport and her colleagues explain that proper technique, strength and flexibility in a dancer’s core, hips and calves can impact the formation of a bunion.
Also called hallux valgus, bunions are progressive deformities of the big-toe joint. Although they typically develop in middle age due to genetics, Dr. Jeffrey Oster, a podiatrist who has worked with dancers at BalletMet Columbus, says he has seen bunions in patients as young as 12 or 13. “For the unlucky who have early onset,” he says, “there are usually biomechanical factors at play.” One of those factors may be wearing shoes that are too tight or taper too narrowly at the toe—pointe shoes, for instance.
The first stage of a bunion’s development looks like a small bump. In stage two, the bump grows bigger. In stage three, the toe joint begins to buckle because the end of the first metatarsal begins to angle outward while the toe is pulled inward by tendons and ligaments. “There is often a constant low-grade ache and signs of arthritis,” says Oster. Stage four bunions require surgery to cut the two bones of the joint and pin them together, which can result in a limited range of motion. “It is very difficult to perform ballet after surgery,” says Davenport. “You are probably not going to get that full demi-pointe where it was before.”
That’s why prevention is key. Taking a closer look at alignment throughout the body can both help prevent the formation of a bunion, and keep small bumps from growing. “I see dancers rolling in on their feet constantly,” says Davenport. “This puts so much stress on the part of the foot where a bunion can develop.” Strategic cross-training can help a dancer avoid this pronation so they don’t aggravate the joint and make a bunion worse.
The core of the body is a dancer’s control center. When it’s weak, turns are sloppy, lines are disjointed—and the feet don’t stand a chance. The pelvic bones tilt forward and the hips internally rotate. This rotation continues down the legs, resulting in pronation at the feet, shifting the distribution of weight to the big toe instead of spreading it evenly across the foot.
To strengthen: Performing crunches and leg lifts on a large exercise ball engages your entire core. First, do three sets of 15 to 20 crunches with your back on the ball and feet on the floor. Keep the elbows wide. Next, in a “plank” with the ball under your stomach and hands on the floor, lift one leg and the opposite arm. Hold for 10 seconds, and repeat 10 times, alternating sides.
The range of motion in the hip joints directly affects the alignment of the feet, particularly in first and fifth positions. When rotation is limited, dancers often find 180 degrees at the feet by “sticking” them to the floor, twisting at the knees and rolling in at the ankle.
To stretch: Lie on your back, bending the hips and knees to 90 degrees and opening the legs wide. Rest your hands on your open knees, and hold for 30 seconds.
To strengthen: Tie an elastic band around the knees while lying on one side, then open and close the knees, clam-style, keeping the feet together. Do three sets of 15 to 20, then repeat on the other side.
Because the calf muscles and the Achilles tendons push dancers high into the air, and absorb shock upon landing, they need to be strong. But they also require flexibility to distribute the force through the foot, says Davenport. Otherwise, demi-plié will become limited, so the foot will roll in to compensate.
To stretch: Standing with your toes on a step, lower one heel down at a time. Wear shoes for comfort and hold on to a railing for balance. Keep the working knee straight and turn the toes in slightly, making sure that the foot does not roll in. Let the standing leg bend to allow the other heel to lower fully. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds and repeat on the other side.
What About the Foot?
In addition to cross-training, local remedies can also help relieve bunion pain.
Doming Exercises: Keeping the toes long, slowly pull a towel toward the heel by bending at the base of the toes. Widen the toes to straighten the big toe. Strengthening these intrinsic muscles can increase joint stability and improve shock absorption.
Toe Spacers: A spacer or makeup sponge between the first and second toes can improve the alignment of the big-toe joint.
Bunion Pads: These doughnut- or horseshoe-shaped pads can help decrease the surface area of the inflamed bunion that comes into contact with your shoe.
Proper Fit: See a professional pointe shoe fitter. A too-short box may not offer enough support, allowing more angling, while one that’s too tight can irritate an inflamed bunion.
Ice: The American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons recommends ice as one of the first lines of treatment for bunion pain. —RBM