Flexibility is a required and admired trait for dancers. But lounging in a split isn’t necessarily the most effective way to stretch. “The more flexible a dancer is, the more adaptable they can be,” says Anneliese Burns Wilson, owner of ABC For Dance, a dance education company, and a Stott Pilates instructor trainer in Dallas, TX. “But flexibility needs to be useful. There is a kind of flexibility where someone else can move the dancer’s limb through a wide range of motion, but the dancer themselves cannot, because they don’t have the strength to support it.” To help you stretch for optimal supported flexibility, DM spoke to Burns; Christine Wright, ballet teacher at Studio 5-2 in New York City, and Vanessa Muncrief, a physical therapist at New York’s Harkness Center for Dance Injuries.
Habit: Stretching to the point of pain Though a deep stretch can feel intense, some dancers push beyond that sensation to actual pain. “We are a motivated and disciplined group of people,” says Wright. “Plus we want results quickly, so there’s this idea that if you stretch the muscle hard, it will elongate more. But that’s not true! The muscle doesn’t want to tear, so if you go beyond your stretch threshold, the muscle will contract to protect itself.”
Break It: Learn to distinguish between a healthy stretch and a potentially damaging one. Wilson says that shaking, redness, bruising, or continuous popping are signs that you’re stretching too intensely. Wright adds, “When stretching, you’re asking your muscle to accommodate a different length. But the most intense feeling should dissipate after a few moments. If it doesn’t, you’ve gone too far.”
Muncrief says a change of mindset can be helpful. “Dancers often think, ‘If I just push harder, I’ll get better.’ Even our society supports that path of thought,” she says. “So, I try to bring my dancers some yogic principles of letting go. Get back to the joy of effortless movement. Think, ‘Yes, I need to work hard, but where can I do less?’ ”
Habit: Hanging in a static stretch At one point or another, you’ve probably lain on your back against the wall, let your legs drop to either side in a straddle—and stayed there for a while. While this kind of stretching was once recommended for dancers, it’s no longer considered beneficial. Muncrief describes it as “gravity pulling on your ligaments, not muscle stretching.” Wilson explains, “An effective stretch works in the belly of the muscle to lengthen the muscle fiber.” When you hang in a straddle, “you’re stretching ligaments, the fiber that holds bones together. Once stretched, ligaments can’t tighten back, and that destabilizes the joint. It’s very harmful and dangerous.”
Break It: Try this new version of the wall straddle: “Lie on your back with your bottom against the wall, legs straight up,” Wilson says. “Then envision your toes reaching away from each other. Don’t focus on your toes going to the floor. Instead concentrate on your turnout and sending energy to the side walls. If you can’t pull your legs back together, and if they release into your sockets, you’ve relapsed into static stretch.”
“A few-second stretch won’t lengthen the muscle either,” Muncrief points out. Hold a stretch for 30 seconds to a minute, and repeat several times. “Muscles respond to a low load over this period of time.” she says.
Habit: Stretching Cold Walking into the studio and dropping to the floor to stretch before class is a common routine. “But stretching should actually come later,” Muncrief says. “Think of muscle like silly putty: When it’s warm, it’s pliable. But if you put in the fridge and it’s cold, it snaps! Muscles have the most power in normal resting length, so deep stretching before activity won’t yield the best results.”
Break It: To warm up, “Do full-body movements, like marching in place or doing a light jog,” says Wilson. “Sweating is a good sign that your body is warm, but don’t try to artificially heat your body with plastic pants or a too-hot room. You haven’t created mobility for yourself. Artificial heat just puts you at risk for injury.” Wright suggests using a ball or foam roller to release muscular tension without over-stretching. Muncrief recommends moving through active yoga poses: “You’re stretching but also working your muscles and building heat.” The best times to stretch are between barre and center, and after dancing, when you can take advantage of the body’s warmth and pliability.
Habit: Stretching “Key” Areas Only Wright observes that when a dancer identifies a personal weakness, “they will work like crazy to improve that area.” This might mean stretching a certain muscle group over and over. Wilson adds that teachers also sometimes concentrate on a specific area—like lengthened hamstrings for extension—and fail to communicate that the body works as a whole system.
Break It: Think of the body as one network rather than separate compartments. The fascia is integral to this concept. “Fascia is a continuous band of tissue that wraps your entire body. It connects all the pieces. Think of it as shrink wrap,” says Wilson. “If your fascia gets a kink in one area, it can affect a different body part. You could do something to your right little toe, and you won’t find out until your left shoulder hurts. So if you are working on one area and it’s not getting better, try investigating other body parts, too.”
Schedule a few sessions with a physical therapist to address to your personal stretching needs. “It’s best to work with a PT individually, even just a few times,” Muncrief says. “They can specifically take into account the roles you dance, classes you take, and your cross training activities.”
Miss Fokine’s Finale
Last August, Irine Fokine, niece of Michel Fokine, closed the doors of her ballet school after 60 years and 52 annual Nutcrackers. Many of her former students (including myself) gathered at her studio in Ridgewood, NJ, to say our farewells and share memories. Her recent students include Amanda Hankes of New York City Ballet (who was present) and Eric Tamm of American Ballet Theatre, a 2010 “25 to Watch.”
A hard taskmaster, Miss Fokine mounted Swan Lake as well as many of her own ballets—usually with a full orchestra. She made challenging, beautiful, or funny works to a wide range of composers including Prokofiev, Bach, Smetana, and Grieg. That music got under out skin.
Guest teachers included her mother, Alexandra Fedorova; Irine’s brother, Leon Fokine; his wife, Gloria Fokine; Vitale Fokine, son of Michel; and jazz great Peter Gennaro.
However, for us old-timers, the joyous summer intensives on Cape Cod were the highlight of the training. I learned three things from those weeks among the dunes. One, that spending two thirds of your waking hours dancing and the rest at the beach with friends was idyllic. Two, that hard work pays off, because we all improved by the end of the six weeks. And three, that no one looked better in a bikini than Miss Fokine. Now, at 88, she still looks like she could jump up and do a grand battement. —Wendy Perron
Notes & News
With the death of Denise Jefferson, former director of The Ailey School (“Transitions,” Oct.), Tracy Inman and Melanie Person have been appointed co-directors of the school. Both Inman and Person worked closely with Jefferson over the past decade as co-directors of the school's Junior Division, which more than tripled in size under their leadership. They became associate directors of the school in 2009.
Michael Uthoff , artistic and executive director of Dance St. Louis, received an honorary doctorate of fine arts from the University of Missouri—St. Louis in August. A former dancer with the Joffrey Ballet, Uthoff has choreographed numerous works for the Joffrey and other international companies. In 1972 he founded Hartford Ballet, which he directed for 20 years before becoming artistic director of Ballet Arizona. Under his direction since 2006, Dance St. Louis became a partner of UMSL in 2007. Uthoff has worked with the university to present performances, offer educational activities, and establish the annual Spring to Dance Festival, an adventurous showcase for mostly midwestern companies.
In August, The School at Jacob’s Pillow presented its seventh annual Lorna Strassler Award for Student Excellence to 21-year-old Calvin Royal III. The recipient of this award, selected each spring during The School’s audition process, receives a full scholarship to attend one of the Pillow’s professional advancement programs, as well as a $2,500 cash stipend. As a student in the Ballet Program, Royal was a featured soloist in Karole Armitage’s bracing Red, choreographed for the Pillow’s season opening gala. A former member of ABT II, Royal became an apprentice with American Ballet Theatre in October. —Siobhan Burke
Over the past 15 years, Gesel Mason has asked 11 choreographers—including legends like Donald McKayle, David Roussève, Bebe Miller, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Rennie Harris and Kyle Abraham—to teach her a solo. She's performed up to seven of them in one evening for her project No Boundaries: Dancing the Visions of Contemporary Black Choreographers.
Now, Mason is repackaging the essence of this work into a digital archive. This online offering shares the knowledge of a few with many, and considers how dance can live on as those who create it get older.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
When a musical prepares to make the transfer from a smaller, lesser-known venue to Broadway (where theaters hold 500-plus seats), often there's a collective intake of breath from all involved. After all, a bigger house means more tickets to sell in order to stay in the black, and sometimes shows with even the most tenacious fan bases can't quite navigate such a jump. But what about the transfer from stage…to screen? Is Broadway ready to be consumed from the comfort of your couch?
Daphne Lee was dancing with Collage Dance Collective in Memphis, Tennessee, when she received two difficult pieces of news: Her mother had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma cancer, and her father had Parkinson's disease, affecting his mobility and mental faculties.
The New Jersey native's reaction: "I really need to move home."
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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Summer is almost upon us, and whether you're a student about to go on break or a pro counting the days till layoff, don't forget that with warm weather comes a very serious responsibility: To maintain your cross-training routine on your own.
Those of us who've tried to craft our own cross-training routine know it's easier said than done. So we consulted the stars, and rounded up the best options for every zodiac sign. (TBH, you should probably consult an expert, too—we'd recommend a physical therapist, a personal trainer or your teacher.)
It's become second nature in dance studios: The instant anyone gets hurt, our immediate reaction is to run to the freezer to grab some ice (or, more realistically, a package of frozen peas).
But as routine as icing our injuries might be, the benefits are not actually backed up by scientific studies. And some experts now believe icing could even disrupt the healing process.
I'm a contemporary dancer, and I'm nervous about trying to get pregnant since I can't predict if it might happen during the middle of the season. We have a union contract that is supposed to protect us. But I'm scared because several of my colleagues' contracts weren't renewed for no particular reason. Having a big belly could be a big reason to get rid of me!
—Andrea, New York, NY
When the going gets tough, the tough start dancing: That's the premise behind "Dance of Urgency," a recently opened exhibit at MuseumsQuartier Vienna that features photos, video and other documentary material relating to the use of dance as political protest or social uprising.
The groups featured in the show, largely based around clubs and electronic dance music scenes, span the globe and respond to a variety of issues—from inequality and social stratification to racial divides to crackdowns on club culture itself.
Last night, longtime theater legends (including Chita Rivera herself!) as well as rising stars gathered to celebrate one of Broadway's danciest events: the third annual Chita Rivera Awards.
The evening paid tribute to this season's dancer standouts, fabulous ensembles, and jaw-dropping choreography—on- and off-Broadway and on film.
As usual, several of our faves made it into the mix. (With such a fabulous talent pool of nominees to choose from, we're glad that ties were allowed.) Here are the highlights from the winner's list:
When you're a foreign dancer, gaining legal rights to work in the U.S. is a challenging process. It's especially difficult if you're petitioning to work as a freelance dancer without an agent or company sponsorship.
The process requires professional muscle along with plenty of resources and heart. "There's a real misnomer that it's super easy," says Neena Dutta, immigration attorney and president of Dutta Law Firm. "People need to educate themselves and talk to a professional."
Here are four things every foreign dancer who wants to work in the U.S. needs to know to build a freelance dance career here.
What does it take to "make it" in dance? It's no secret that turning this passion into a profession can be a struggle. In such a competitive field, talent alone isn't enough to get you where you want to be.
So what kinds of steps can you take to become successful? Dance Magazine spoke to 33 people from all corners of the industry to get their advice on the lessons that could help us all, no matter where we are in our careers.
On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.