The Body Whisperer

Advice from Clarice Marshall, the injury-prevention guru New York’s top dancers swear by.

Marshall suggests translating somatics to dance: Here, Ailey II apprentice Djouliet Amara moves through a phrase. Photo by Nathan Sayers.

When American Ballet Theatre principal Gillian Murphy was looking for a new trainer eight years ago, she called the person every dancer seemed to be talking about: Clarice Marshall. Murphy was in search of a gentle but rigorous cross-training regimen, and found just that. “Clarice has an eagle-eye for spotting areas in my body that are compensating or firing unevenly,” she says. When Murphy strained an inner thigh muscle, for example, Marshall helped her find “a lengthened sense of alignment” rather than giving in to her body’s immediate, muscle-gripping response.

A former member of the Mark Morris Dance Group, Marshall is the injury-prevention guru who keeps some of New York City’s finest dancers on the move. In addition to running her own practice, she teaches Pilates to ABT’s apprentices, Studio Company members and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School students. She’s been introducing New York City Ballet dancers to the GYROTONIC® equipment in their new gym, and teaches a company class combining Pilates and ballet at Mark Morris. Whether recovering from injury or working to maintain healthy alignment, her clients swear by her precise, sensitive approach to body conditioning.

Marshall’s interest in what she calls “helping dancers back into dancing” stems from her own experience. At 27, having danced with David Gordon, Rosalind Newman and other choreographers, she sustained a severe knee injury caused by poor alignment and overuse. Dance medicine wasn’t what it is today, and her 18-month rehabilitation was largely self-guided. Through a combination of physical therapy, Pilates and Alexander Technique—a method of improving ease and efficiency of movement—she pieced together the puzzle of returning to class. She joined Mark Morris Dance Group at 36 and performed into her 40s.

In order to meet the needs of increasingly versatile dancers, Marshall became certified in GYROTONIC®, which explores larger ranges of movement against the resistance of specialized equipment. She also became interested in choral master Carl Stough’s method of breathing coordination, investigating its application to movement. 

Her own recovery taught her a few lasting lessons. “Too often and increasingly, our lives are rushed and we try to fast-track our bodies,” Marshall says. “I try to provide dancers with a place that is safe for them to explore and develop in a way that puts them in charge of a process of discovery.”

Marshall treats all dancers individually, working closely with physical therapists to understand each body’s unique strengths and limitations. Asked how she addresses common habits such as forced turnout, she replies, “That depends on the person in front of me.” Still, no matter the issue at hand, there are certain ideas she stands by.

Translate Exercise To Dance

Improving alignment during a Pilates session is one thing. Applying that new awareness while, say, learning a knotty Wayne McGregor ballet is another. “It’s important to take the kind of work that I do and translate it into class, into dancing, into performing,” Marshall says. “At almost every session, I try to finish by standing up and doing some dance-related movement or something on the equipment that has a more direct application to dance.”

Keep Thoughts Simple

When a dancer is injured or in discomfort, Marshall says, “they can spiral into really complicated thinking.” She tries to send them back to class with simple, straightforward, positive thoughts, without room for self-doubt. Those thoughts might take the form of a movement-focused mantra: “Say that someone thinks about going up so much that they’re no longer feeling the floor. You want to keep that opposition equal. So I might tell them to keep telling themselves: ‘Feel the floor, lengthen into the ground.’ ”

Find Fluidity

A common tendency is to lock the core or turnout into place—“like trying to put something in landing gear”—when more fluidity should be allowed. “The core is a dynamic muscle group that is connected to the movement of breathing,” Marshall says, “not a girdle of muscles that can be held in place all day.” Engaging too rigidly not only inhibits freedom of movement but can also lead to injury. Simple thoughts are useful here, too. “I might coach somebody into thinking about their torso in ballet class by saying to themselves, ‘Lengthen and breathe and move’—to keep words like that going. The same with rotation: ‘Spiral and open and move.’ ”  

Challenge Your Inner Core

“In general, the things that really challenge your core muscles are more subtle than most people think,” Marshall says. “They’re not heavy-duty ab-crunching series.” She likens the core to a group of people collaborating on a project: Some people want to do everything, and others will let them. “Your external muscles can start to work hard to the point where your core muscles”—the diaphragm, pelvic floor, transversus abdominis and multifidus, all deep under the surface—“decide to take a backseat.” The real core challengers, in her view, “are simple movements that require a refined sense of stability in the torso.” For instance: a knee-fold while lying on your back, in neutral alignment, maintaining torso stability while breathing. Or a simple half sit-up or head-lift, maintaining pelvic stability while breathing.  

Give It Time

For dancers in their teens, the body’s constant change calls for patience and attentiveness. “As a person grows, their core muscles are also growing and forming,” Marshall says. “Teenage dancers are often given abdominal exercises that are overly challenging given that their core muscles are not fully developed.” Another challenge: growth spurts. “At times the bones can outgrow the muscles, which have to catch up. This can lead to issues of tightness around joints that can lead to injuries.” Young dancers can be skeptical of slow, subtle strengthening—another thing Marshall knows from experience. “When I was exposed to Pilates at 18, I thought it was stupid,” she admits. “I wanted to dance. I didn’t want somebody to tell me to lie down on the floor and feel something.” Today she sometimes sees that restlessness in her students, but they grow out of it, too. “I’ll run into somebody I taught when they were a teenager, and now they’re dancing in a company, and they say, ‘I had no idea what I was being exposed to, and now I know.’ ” 

Siobhan Burke writes on dance for The New York Times.

DIY Conditioning

There’s no substitute for working in person with a body-conditioning expert, but if cost or travel time gets in the way of weekly sessions, try once a month, which has its own benefits. “Having to absorb and practice on your own can help to make you a more independent student,” Clarice Marshall says. To supplement that training at home, here are two resources she recommends:

 

Pilates Anytime: Subscribe to pilatesanytime.com for access to hundreds of online tutorials with trusted instructors, plus a guide to Pilates history.

 

Alexander on DVD: The renowned Alexander teacher Jane Kosminsky introduces the foundations of Alexander Technique in a series of DVDs available through balanceofwellbeing.com. —SB

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