Garnet Henderson is a dancer and writer originally from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and based in New York. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, VICE, Quartz, Refinery29, and others. Her choreographic work has been presented in Paris, France, as well as in New York at the 92nd Street Y, the West End Theater, Triskelion Arts, Gibney Dance, and more. Garnet is also a NASM certified personal trainer and corrective exercise specialist and trains clients at Studio 26 in Manhattan.
If a teacher or choreographer has ever commented that your dancing looks stiff, the problem could be that you aren't breathing effectively. "When dancers aren't breathing, their shoulders are up and there's no length in their movement. They start to look like they're just waiting to get to the next thing," says Maria Bai, artistic director of Central Park Dance in New York.
It may seem like a no-brainer—of course you can't move without breathing. But beginning dancers often hold their breath because they are so focused on picking up choreography, says Sarah Skaggs, director of dance at Dickinson College. Even advanced dancers can benefit from focusing more on their breath. "Sometimes they are paying so much attention to what their limbs are doing that they forget about the lungs, the chest, the trunk. Breath is the last thing they're thinking about, but really it should be the first," says Skaggs. The more integrated your breathing is, the more relaxed and present you will feel.
Few dancers are able to make a comfortable living from their creative pursuits alone. Many rely on non-dance freelance work or multiple part-time gigs, fearing that a full-time job would take too much time away from their dancing. However, plenty of artists manage to balance full-time day jobs with fulfilling dance careers, opting for the security, benefits and opportunity to learn new skills.
The most compelling dancers don't just have amazing technique. They also use their focus to draw in the audience and make their performance captivating. Be more confident and engaging onstage by avoiding these mistakes:
Many contemporary choreographers today expect women to be game to do some lifting. However, the partnering training that most female dancers grow up with—if they have partnering classes at all—usually only teaches them to be supported by a man. It's no surprise that being a good lifter requires physical strength, but it may also require a change in mind-set.
As a teacher, Ashley Tuttle is known for her lightning-fast petit allégro combinations. But her students might be surprised to learn that speed did not come naturally to her. "When I joined American Ballet Theatre at 16, I was an adagio dancer," says Tuttle. "I had to learn to be fast."
Many dancers immediately become tense when they think about moving faster, causing their bodies to stiffen and their shoulders to creep up. As counterintuitive as it may feel, you will find more success in doing the opposite. "To go faster, we have to go deeper and breathe more expansively," says contemporary teacher and choreographer Kristin Sudeikis. Even if speed doesn't come naturally, you can become a faster mover by working on your physical and mental agility.
In 2012, freelance contemporary dancer Adrianne Chu made a major career change: She decided to try out for A Chorus Line. "Even though I didn't get the job, I felt like I was meant to do this," says Chu. So she started going to at least one musical theater audition every weekday, treating each as a learning experience. After several years of building up her resumé, Chu's practice paid off: She booked a starring role as Wendy in the first national tour of Finding Neverland.
Approaching auditions as learning opportunities, especially when you're trying to break into a different style or are new to the profession, can sharpen your skills while helping you avoid burnout. It also builds confidence for the auditions that matter most.
Experienced practitioners of contact improvisation appear to float through the air and move through the most daring positions with ease. Those new to the form, on the other hand, often feel awkward and impatient. Some dancers hesitate, worried they will hurt their partner by giving them too much weight. Others move too quickly, trying for impressive lifts without laying the proper groundwork. Having spent so much of their training focused on aesthetics, many dancers struggle to stop fixating on what their movement looks like. But just like any other form of dance, contact improvisation skills can be developed with practice and the right approach.
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Rachel Fallon's first year with the Hofesh Shechter Company has been spent largely on the road. The company performs frequently, and almost always on tour. "Because we are constantly out of our home setting, I like to have some sort of routine that I can count on," says Fallon. She shares how she stays centered despite the nearly-constant traveling.
Nutcracker season starts today at many ballet companies, including New York City Ballet. For corps members like Claire Kretzschmar, that means an always demanding schedule reaches a whole new level of busy. Here's how she keeps herself going.
Kretzschmar in the Coffee variation. Photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy NYCB.
You know that how you care for your body before curtain can impact your performance. But with so many factors to consider, it can be difficult to nail down an exact routine. How much rest is enough? How close to showtime should you eat? We asked the experts.
In 2013, a few days before The Bang Group left for a tour to Italy, a dancer pulled out of the company's production of Nut/Cracked. The reason? A callback for another gig. "We were left high and dry. We somehow pulled it off, but it wasn't the show I hoped it would be," says David Parker, the company's choreographer and co-director. The debacle didn't just affect that tour—it ended a professional and personal relationship of 10 years.
The Bang Group, PC Ian Douglas
Dancers are often faced with tough decisions about when to tell choreographers or directors personal news about illness, injury, pregnancy or even schedule conflicts. Many dancers fear that being honest could lead to being let go, but withholding information could burn a bridge. Strike the right balance with these tips.
"Besides the stage, baking is my other happy place," says New York City Ballet corps member Jenelle Manzi.
Four years ago, she thought her baking days were over when she was diagnosed with gluten intolerance. Manzi had been dealing with pain, frequent illness and joint inflammation for nearly 10 years. Once she cut out gluten, Manzi gradually started to feel better, noticing a transformation in how her body felt and functioned. She found her joints were less inflamed, and she got sick less often.
Many people see dance and choreography as separate pursuits, or view choreography as a dance career's second act. For some dancers, however, performing and choreographing inform one another. "That's just the kind of choreographer I am. I feel things so deeply in my physicality. I have to do it to know it," says Jodi Melnick, who is a prolific performer of her own work. She also maintains an active practice as a performer for other choreographers: Throughout her career, she's worked with Trisha Brown, Twyla Tharp, Tere O'Connor and Donna Uchizono, to name a few.
Though a dual career can be fulfilling, simultaneously inhabiting the roles of dancer and choreographer requires focus, organization and a great deal of energy.
"So what do you do?"
This is the first question many of us ask when we're getting to know a new person—but it's one I've come to dread. When I tell people that I'm a dancer, occasionally I am met with enthusiasm and interest. But more often, I'm met with confusion, condescension or even hostility. "Oh, that's fun. I wish I could do something fun like that," a new acquaintance once said to me. She then proceeded to tell me about how difficult her job was and how hard she was working, making it clear that in her mind "fun" meant "easy." And if I had a dollar for every time a simple getting-to-know-you conversation has turned into a debate in which I've had to defend my career choice, maybe I could quit one of my other jobs.
Dancers are used to communicating with their bodies. But they can forget how much they rely on verbal cues until the directions are spoken in a different language. "I arrived in France straight out of college in 1977 and didn't speak a word of French. It was pretty intimidating," says Wayne Byars, an American ballet dancer who went on to spend his entire career in France. Byars is now a sought-after teacher in Paris, but he did have his early blunders—including mistakenly attending an audition meant for female cabaret dancers.
But students shouldn't be afraid of taking classes taught in a language they do not understand. "One of the wonderful things about dance is that wherever you go, be it Paris, Tokyo, Rome, a dance studio is a dance studio. You're home, you're in your element," Byars says. Though it can be daunting to take class in a foreign language, embracing that challenge could give you a new perspective on your dancing.
When Ashley Mayeux joined Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater last summer after four years with Complexions Contemporary Ballet, she was already a versatile mover accustomed to a demanding schedule.
But the career move came with several challenges. Here's how she's tackled them:
To get used to the rep:
"I had to take a lot more modern classes to get the grounded feeling back into my body," she says. "I had been doing a lot of contemporary work on and off pointe that required me to be more 'pulled up.' "
Despite intense hip pain, Annmaria Mazzini waited until leaving the the Paul Taylor Dance Company to have one hip replaced in 2011, followed by the other in 2016.
But, it turns out, a hip replacement no longer spells an automatic end to a dance career. While the surgery remains a last resort, new technologies work better and last longer, allowing dancers to continue performing for several years after getting a replacement.
Mazzini, for example, has continued to dance. She even performed a duet just three months after her second hip replacement, having rehearsed for four months prior on a deteriorating hip. "It was really a gift to have that dance to do right before and after the surgery, because I had something to compare," she says. "There were parts of the duet where my whole body used to tense up, and now to be able to do them so easily is just euphoric."
It is no surprise that a career in dance is physically demanding. But many dancers learn the hard way that their side jobs can be just as taxing on their bodies. Whether you're standing for too long or sitting too long or demonstrating too often, non-dance work can lead to muscular imbalances.
Unfortunately, most dancers need to take on extra work. According to a 2012 Dance/NYC survey, just 55 percent of the total income among New York City's dancers ages 21 to 35 came from dance jobs. And more than half of responding dancers reported working more than one non-dance job.
“The need to work so much outside of dance may detract from an optimal training volume needed to stay in peak form," says Dr. Marijeanne Liederbach, director of New York University Langone's Harkness Center for Dance Injuries.
But you don't have to let a survival gig take a toll on your dancing. Be proactive: Find out the common physical issues associated with your job so you can do your best to prevent them.
Food and Beverage Service
Flexible shifts in restaurants, bars and coffee shops have long been go-to side jobs for dancers. But spending so many hours on your feet doesn't allow your body as much time to recover from hours of dancing, says Christine Bratton, a New York physical therapist who specializes in working with dancers. “Also," she adds, “dancers who have to serve and handle trays often end up with shoulder and back issues." Liederbach says she has also seen patellar tendonitis, or inflammation in the front of the knee, from constant running up and down restaurant stairs.
What to do: Liederbach recommends good, supportive shoes and encourages dancers to stay alert for hazards, like slippery floors and stairs without railings. Bratton suggests building opportunities into your day to get off your feet, lying on your back with your legs up a wall or on a chair.
Dance or Fitness Instruction
Jobs teaching dance and fitness are a clear fit for dancers, building on the body intelligence you already have. But they can also amplify the physical stress of dancing. “The problem with all kinds of teaching of movement is that it is focused on the needs of others and can be draining," says Bratton. “It can take years to develop a sense of caring for your own body while focused on another person." She sees dancers in her practice who develop hip and low back problems from demonstrating repetitively on one side, or demonstrating full-out when not warmed up.
What to do: Bratton recommends developing a simple go-to stretching routine that you can do in between activities or before bed. Target muscles that get tight while you are working—a physical therapist or doctor can give you further guidance on what areas may need extra attention.
Administrative work gives you a break from time on your feet, but dancers are susceptible to the wrist, neck and low back issues that come along with desk jobs, according to Liederbach. Bratton points out that the increasing prevalence of remote work means that dancers are often sitting at home in positions that can be even more problematic than the traditional desk setup, like on the couch or in bed with a laptop. “Screen time and keyboard use feed into all kinds of postural syndromes, like forward head and forward shoulders, which are not good for dancers who are trying to be as tall and centered as possible," says Bratton.
What to do: “Seek jobs that allow for adequate rest intervals and posture changes away from your workstation," recommends Liederbach. Recognizing when you are sitting with poor posture and working to change that—whether by being more mindful or by finding a chair or desk that encourages better alignment—can also help.
During his dancing days, Jared Kaplan used to look down on strength training. “I was a snobby dancer," he says. “I thought, Why would I need to lift weights?" Then Kaplan, 6' 2", was cast in a role originated by a shorter dancer, and realized he needed more power to move as quickly and explosively as someone smaller. He became a weight-room convert, and quickly saw a difference: Once he started a strength-training routine, his body felt less “strained" during demanding performances, and he grew aware of imbalances resulting from repetitive rehearsal of one-sided movements.
Many dancers are intimidated by weight training—or even think it is detrimental. According to Dr. Brent Brookbush, a trainer, physical therapist and president of the Brookbush Institute, they are missing out. “Just think of the relationship between strength and your performance," he says. “Jumping, lifting, holding positions. Resistance training can help with all of that." Whether you call it weight training, strength training or resistance training, exercises that increase your strength by lifting weights (or even just your own body weight) could take your dancing to the next level.
Myth: It will make me “bulky"
This myth is one of the most pervasive misconceptions about weight training. “Nobody gets bulky by accident. Putting on muscle takes a lot of work. A lot of work," says Brookbush. Supplemental weight lifting once or (ideally) twice a week is enough to make you stronger, but will not cause huge gains in muscle size.
Aesthetics are not the main reason experts recommend dancers strength train. Kaplan, who is now a personal trainer and Pilates instructor, suggests using workouts to reconnect with how your body feels, not just how it looks. “Gym time doesn't have to be about an externally motivated form," he says.
Myth: It will make my body stiff
“Research shows that resistance training has no negative effect on flexibility, and may even improve it," says Brookbush. The key, according to Kaplan, is working within a full but safe range of motion. A 2011 study found similar flexibility gains between people who followed a full-range-of-motion resistance-training program and those that followed a static stretching routine.
However, any form of exercise can exacerbate musculoskeletal problems, warns Brookbush. For example, dancers tend to be tight in their thoracic spines, calves and deep external rotators of the hip. If any of those areas feel stiff after your workout, seek guidance from a physical therapist about how to correct that dysfunction.
Myth: It will work the “wrong" muscles
“Dancers tend to go to Pilates and yoga because they are similar to dance," says Kaplan. While there are benefits to these forms, that similarity has a downside. Any kind of repetitive movement can lead to imbalances in the body that can cause overuse injuries. Use strength training to work muscles in a different way than you do when dancing. “The weight-training room should be for corrective exercise. You need to balance your body out," says Brookbush. “Weight train for strength and endurance. Dance will train you for dance."
Smart strategies to navigate your school's dining hall.
My first year of college, I subsisted mostly on cereal. Tired and hungry after class and rehearsal, and faced with unappetizing dining hall options, I ate bowl after bowl. It was far from the most nutritious way to fuel my dancing.
College students are responsible for planning all their own meals, often for the first time in their lives. But without kitchens in most dorm rooms, the main dining option is typically the campus cafeteria. Fortunately, most offer everything you need to meet the physical and mental demands of a degree program—if you avoid a few common pitfalls.
Do: Choose smart portions.
In buffet-style food halls, it can be tempting to try a taste of everything, or keep returning for seconds of your favorite dishes. Instead, build a plate with a balance of nutrients. Dietitian and sports nutrition expert Lisa Moskovitz recommends that at any given meal you should fill half your plate with vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables. Then, one-quarter of the plate should consist of lean protein, which helps with muscle recovery and repair, and the remaining quarter should be a high-fiber starch or carbs, which will give you the energy to make it through long, hard hours of dancing.
Don’t: Always reach for packaged foods.
Cafeterias often provide easy access to heavily processed foods like bagged chips, sugary cereals and candy bars, warns Rachel Fine, a dietitian who works with dancers. If you want to grab a snack for later, granola bars can be a wise option, but check the package: If you can’t pronounce an ingredient, says Fine, your body will probably struggle to digest it.
Do: Control what you can.
Look for stations, like salad and sandwich bars, that allow you to choose the exact ingredients that go into your meal. Simple choices are often the smartest. “Raw fruits, vegetables and nuts are usually the healthiest foods you can eat from most cafeteria menus,” says Moskovitz.
Don’t: Overdo breakfast buffet items.
Just because you see pancakes and sausage at the buffet every morning doesn’t mean you should be eating them for every breakfast. A build-your-own omelet is ideal if it is available, says Fine, because you can decide what to put in, and eggs are a great source of protein and vitamins. Otherwise, have some Greek yogurt with fresh fruit and nuts.
Do: Allow yourself to splurge sometimes.
It can be challenging to pass up indulgences like burgers, mac and cheese, and sugary soft drinks at every single meal. “If you try to restrict or avoid certain foods that you love too often, you will likely only crave it that much more later on,” says Moskovitz. Fine recommends choosing the indulgence you love most—hers is dark chocolate—and enjoying one portion each day. Moskovitz says it is perfectly fine to enjoy one or two “free” meals per week as well, but make some compromises, like sharing your french fries with a friend.