Technique My Way: Hanna Brictson
A practical outlook and daily discipline keep this dancer moving.
Photo by Eddie Eng, Courtesy RNDC.
When tiny powerhouse Hanna Brictson performs her signature solo in Robert Battle’s Train, created for River North Dance Chicago in late 2007, she tucks her chin like a flamenco dancer, sets her gaze determinedly, and slowly skates forward, shoulders pumping, picking up steam like a little redheaded engine that could. You get the feeling that whatever this girl wants, this girl gets.
She’s pretty much always wanted to perform with RNDC, a contemporary jazz company where technique is polished to a high gloss. Growing up in the distant Chicago suburb of Elgin, Brictson saved her money year-round to attend the troupe’s summer workshops. She started auditioning at RNDC as a high school sophomore, and in 2004, her senior year, made it in as an apprentice. A few months later, she joined the main company.
Impetus for Strength Training
“I was never a very toned, muscular person—it’s just not my body type naturally,” says Brictson. So in December 2007, facing the debut of Battle’s grueling sextet in February 2008, she knew she needed to go beyond cardio at the gym. Train’s leaps and falls, she says, made it “so physically demanding that if I didn’t start working out hardcore, I wasn’t going to make it through the piece. I really didn’t want to die onstage in front of everyone.”
“I made some big changes,” she says. “As a dancer, as a woman, you might be afraid to pick up weights. But what changed my body was starting to lift free weights and do a lot of full-body workouts.” She didn’t have a trainer, though she did become “obsessed” with the Yoga Sculpt classes at the local branch of CorePower, which add light weights to a yoga workout. “It gives me stretch, strength, and tone, all in one hour,” says Brictson.
Multitasking is another way she builds strength and economizes on time. “Whenever I do an upper-body exercise, I try to incorporate a squat into it. Or I’ll hold a grand plié while doing bicep curls, so the muscles in my legs have to work to balance my upper body.” She grew to love the Bosu—that rubber half-sphere flat on one side—“because you can do any exercise on it” and build core strength at the same time.
Dealing With Injury
While on tour in New Orleans several years ago, Brictson “fell out of a lift and had to crawl offstage in the middle of a piece. They always say, ‘Finish the dance!’ But when you can’t stand up, that’s pretty hard.”
She’d torn a ligament in her right ankle and couldn’t dance for four months—partly because, after wearing a boot night and day for four weeks, she “lost a ton of muscle on that side.” In physical therapy, discovering that she had high arches and loose ankles, she made a “new best friend: a green foot-roller ball. I now know I have to constantly roll out my feet and calves to prevent them from tightening up.”
Through physical therapy, Brictson learned that her ankle injury stemmed from instability in her core, glutes, and hips. “As a dancer, you think your legs are strong,” she says. “I didn’t realize this, but my hamstrings weren’t doing anything for me.” She added bridges and lunges into her routine and, by strengthening her glutes and the backs of her legs, eliminated chronic lower-back pain and safely increased her turnout.
Brictson’s ongoing trouble spots include tendonitis in her Achilles and right hip and arthritis in her big toe. “Those things have their good days and bad days. But I definitely notice them flare up if I haven’t been doing an exercise that I usually do. You need to do maintenance, small amounts of exercise every single day.” Before ballet class, she warms up briefly at the gym to ensure that her core “is already activated, so that I don’t pull something that isn’t ready or use my back instead of my glutes.”
Though Brictson says it was hard to be inactive after her injury, she made the best of her downtime. “I researched things that I enjoy outside of dance. I looked into personal training. And I’m this super doodler, so I started creating greeting cards.”
She also got into costuming for her students, ages 8 to 18. In fact, she finds that teaching two to three times a week is a great stress reliever. “My students look up to me, and I love them all. It’s fun to be able to create on them.” She adds, “I get to not think about my issues and just enjoy the kids.”
Acknowledging that she’s “a little superstitious,” Brictson lists numerous pre-performance rituals. “I have to be onstage warming up 45 minutes before curtain.” She does push-ups, crunches, and finishes with balances—“passé balances, turned-in, turned-out, arabesque, so I know if I’m on my center.” She has to listen to “upbeat, super-cheesy music” on her iPod. She always has a pre-show cup of coffee and, last thing, pops a mint: “I don’t want to bad-breath my partners!”
There are days, Brictson says, when “I just want to be a person and eat a cupcake. And pretty much if I want one, I let myself have one.” But generally her discipline is steely, based as it is “on feeling good and having that sense of accomplishment in my choices. I think that makes me a happier person and a better person to be around.” And in Train, she adds, “For a moment, I get to feel like a superhero.”
Laura Molzahn writes about dance and the arts in Chicago.
Brictson swears by plank pose for waking up every muscle in the body.
• Place the palms of your hands directly beneath the shoulders, stretch the legs back and rest on flexed toes, creating a straight line from your torso through your heels.
• Focus on creating length, especially in your center and hips. Think about pushing the heels back, the crown of the head forward, and the floor away from you. (“It’s like you’re giving the floor a good shove,” Brictson says.)
• Hold for as long as you can maintain your form—Brictson goes for “a good couple minutes.”