Have two or more months off from dance this summer?
With a little planning, your body can reap the full benefits of your layoff—and transition back into the studio with ease.
It's the end of a long season: Your body is exhausted, you're emotionally drained from back-to-back performances and you're feeling ready for some serious time on the couch.
But as soon as you start to relax, the doubts creep in. What will happen to my physique if I'm not in class? Will I lose muscle, flexibility or stamina if I'm not dancing?
In the dance world, Mandy Moore has long been a go-to name, but in 2017, the success of her choreography for La La Land made the rest of the world stop and take notice. After whirlwind seasons as choreographer and producer on both "Dancing with the Stars" and "So You Think You Can Dance," she capped off the year with two Emmy Award nominations—and her first win.
You've come a long way on "So You Think You Can Dance"—from assistant to the choreographer (Season 1) to creative producer (Season 14). What keeps you returning to the show?
"So You Think You Can Dance" was one of my first jobs, so it feels like home. I love the chaos of live television; as soon as one show is over you're on to the next.
For a young dancer, a job as a convention assistant can be career-making. As you travel and demonstrate alongside your favorite teachers, you have the chance to show top choreographers you're hire-worthy, actively build professional skills, and gain access to classes and connections that are truly priceless. That's why conventions are looking for the cream of the crop to fill these coveted roles on the convention circuit.
Of course, some conventions only award assistantships as part of title wins. But there are other ways to land the job—if you have versatility, maturity, charisma and a good amount of patience.
Your gut is a hot topic in nutrition right now. Experts say a healthy microbiome (the makeup of bacteria in our bodies) is associated with everything from a reduced risk of infection to a more efficient metabolism.
But can we actually make our inner bacterial population healthier?
In 2012, Misty Copeland was already a star on the American Ballet Theatre stage. But a national ad campaign for Diet Dr. Pepper effectively introduced the dancer to a whole new audience. Gilda Squire, Copeland's manager who negotiated the deal with the brand's advertising company, says partnering with the soda was a carefully planned move.
"It wasn't a huge payout, but I saw it as a strategic opportunity," says Squire. In the years since, Copeland has become a household name, landing partnership after partnership with brands like Oikos yogurt, watchmaker Seiko USA and Under Armour.
Ebony Williams stands alone, strong and radiant in a pale leotard, facing a crowd of thousands. It's the 2015 Made in America Festival in Philadelphia, and the audience of Beyoncé fans is awaiting their queen. Instead of the familiar music, however, poet Maya Angelou's powerful voice rains down: “Many people wonder where my secret lies…," and Williams dances. The spectators fall nearly silent—something unheard of at Beyoncé concerts. Angelou describes the “reach of my arms," “the span of my hips," “the stride of my step," and Williams majestically flows between endless extensions and haughty swagger. An immaculate fouetté melts into a sassy stride. A delicate cabriole falls into a luxurious backbend. The solo, choreographed by Williams herself, represents both facets of her eclectic career as a concert dancer who's conquered the commercial world.
Williams was catapulted into a new chapter of her career last year when, after a decade spent dancing with Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, the company unexpectedly shut its doors. Having long used commercial dance as a side gig, she now rocks heels full-time on Beyoncé's Formation World Tour. But she still carries pointe shoes in her dance bag “just in case."
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Don’t let an unexpected problem derail your summer intensive.
Jacob’s Pillow summer intensive students in performance. Photo by Jamie Kraus, Courtesy Jacob's Pillow.
When Laura Faure was 20 years old, she was thrilled to attend American Dance Festival for the summer. But at the very start of the program, she badly sprained her ankle. “I was devastated,” she remembers. “I was supposed to be studying with some amazing people, but there was no way I could dance. Instead, I had to limp around and observe. It was incredibly frustrating.”
Now the director of Bates Dance Festival, Faure knows firsthand how shattering it is for her students when, after months of preparation and anticipation, their summer doesn’t go as planned. Still, there are ways to get everything you can out of the experience.
When Injury Gets in the Way
Your first instinct when you get injured at a summer program may be to pack your bags, or worse, hide an injury in fear of being sent home. But first, ask a medical professional about your options and focus on what you can do. For injuries that only require a couple days of rest or slight modifications to your dancing, most directors will be willing to accommodate. You may be allowed to temporarily observe classes, only take barre, move into a lower level or substitute technique classes with low-impact ones, like Pilates or yoga.
If you have an injury that will take you out for the entire session, sticking around can make for an emotional roller coaster, since you’ll have to watch your peers improve from the sidelines. Still, since most programs’ tuition is nonrefundable, Faure encourages dancers to stay and load up on any classes that won’t put stress on their bodies. Bates, for example, offers non-movement courses like Business of Dance and Film and Media. “Of course, it’s hard getting around campus on crutches,” Faure says. “And there are students who are so discouraged that they need to go home.”
If you decide to stay, use your time wisely. Ask the program’s physical therapist for exercises that will help you heal. BalletMet Academy director Timothy Lynch encourages injured dancers to bring a notebook to every class they observe. “Write down corrections the teacher gives or combinations you’d like to try when you’re feeling better,” he says. “Being injured is never fun, but it can offer a chance to investigate your training in a different way.”
When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed
Summer intensives are called intensives for a reason. The hours are long, the classes are challenging and the dancers are talented. If you start to feel like you’re in over your head, speak to someone at your program you trust—a faculty member, resident assistant or teacher. You may be able to form a plan to help things feel more manageable. For example, Lynch remembers a dancer telling him she wasn’t used to spending the whole day in pointe shoes, so he allowed her to wear flat shoes for afternoon classes. Adjusting your schedule or technique level may also be an option.
Most importantly, focus on taking care
of yourself emotionally. That may mean talking to a psychologist about any emotional
distress, practicing mindful exercises like taking deep, slow breaths, or finding a quiet place to journal every day. And don’t forget to be kind to your body. “Focus on proper nutrition and get plenty of rest,” says J.R. Glover, director of education at Jacob’s Pillow. “You have to keep your body ready for professional-level work.”
When You’re Not Feeling Challenged
Bates Dance Festival. Photo by Phyllis Graber Jensen, Courtesy Bates.
If you feel you’ve been put in a class level below your ability—especially if your placement was determined by an audition that happened months earlier—it doesn’t hurt to speak up. Let your teachers know you’d like to be re-evaluated, and ask if it would be possible to switch to a higher level. At BalletMet, the first two days of the program are used to make sure students are in the right class, and it’s rare that students’ levels will change after that.
Try to make the most of your summer by using the unexpected pace as an opportunity for growth. “After a certain point, you should go back and take the beginner’s class,” Glover says. “There’s a lot of merit and maturity in that. If something isn’t moving fast enough for you, challenge yourself to find the work involved in the slowness.”
Remember that part of the appeal of a program away from home is the introduction to different styles and repertory. Even if it feels more tedious or not as complex as what you’re used to, exposure to new techniques, teachers and choreography—and challenging yourself to truly master the nuances, alignment and intentions that come with them—will only make you a stronger dancer.
When American Ballet Theatre staff told Misty Copeland that she needed to lose weight—or rather, that she needed “lengthening"—during her second year in the corps, she felt lost. As she recounts in her autobiography Life In Motion, she was flung into deep distress, unhealthy eating habits and constant scrutiny of her muscular body. She knew that her younger dancer body had slipped away with puberty, but she didn't know how to slim out in a healthy way.
Unfortunately, this dilemma is all too common for professional dancers. Maintaining a lean body is almost always part of a dance job—sometimes even stipulated in your contract. But when your director tells you to slim down further, you may be forced to take a hard look at whether you already are at your healthiest weight or if losing a couple of pounds is in your best interest.
First, figure out what healthy weight loss would look like on your body—or if it's even necessary. “Dancers need to understand that it's not just about the numbers on the scale," says Shannon Sterne, a registered dietitian nutritionist and assistant professor of dance at Case Western Reserve University. “Two dancers may weigh the same, but have different shapes based on their body composition—the ratio of fat to muscle mass. Get a realistic assessment of what is changeable and what is not."
Consider recruiting a dietitian familiar with dancer bodies, as well as getting an assessment from a doctor and an athletic trainer. Use their impartial advice to develop a strategy to adjust your body shape, then schedule a follow-up conversation with your director about your plan. “More often than not, artistic directors know what they want, but are also willing to work with a medical team to help the dancer achieve it healthfully," says Alison Deleget, certified athletic trainer at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries of New York University Langone Medical Center. “With a team approach, a dancer will feel educated and empowered in their choices, and directors should listen."
Deleget says it's reasonable to lose about a half-pound to a pound per week at most. But wait to implement your plan until you're not in heavy rehearsal or performance season. “There's no quick fix," she says. “There's always an underlying reason why there's weight gain or decreased muscle tone, so you have to be willing to invest in long-term adjustments. It's the same approach we take with injury: If you don't figure out what you're doing that's making that tendon hurt, you're never going to get anywhere with the treatment." Ultimately, you'll want to develop a regimen that is adjustable within the ebbs and flows of your schedule, so you can maintain it throughout your career.
Devise a Nutrition Plan
A dietitian will likely ask that you track what you eat so she can point out places for adjustments. She may recommend focusing on limiting your portion sizes. Eating smaller meals throughout the day is often helpful, since dancers who wait too long between meals are more likely to overeat when they're famished after a long day. A dietitian will also help you correct any imbalances. Sometimes, dancers don't realize they're not getting enough protein (which helps them stay satiated and build lean muscle mass), or they're eating too much processed sugar in an attempt to keep their energy up.
Sterne warns that trying to target a specific area of your body like your belly or thighs isn't realistic. “There's no such thing as spot burning," she says. “You see articles on the internet all the time saying, 'Eat this food to lose all your belly fat,' but those don't work."
Strategize Your Cross-Training
Class and rehearsals, which can involve a good amount of standing around, don't always burn fat efficiently, so an athletic trainer may recommend adding cardiovascular training like running, swimming or circuit training. Dancers who are looking to lengthen bulkier muscles should develop a conditioning routine to create a different shape. “Doing lower-weight and higher-repetition exercises is more geared toward toning instead of hypertrophy (which makes a muscle bigger)," Deleget says. Copeland, for example, turned to Pilates to strengthen muscles while keeping them lean.
Identify Lifestyle Challenges
If you have put on weight recently, identify what might have contributed to the change. “Weight gain is usually the symptom of a larger problem," says Deleget. “There's often something troubling happening in a dancer's personal or professional life." It may be as simple as a new living situation that makes cooking more difficult, or it may be a traumatic breakup. You might just need an education in healthy cooking techniques—many younger dancers don't know how to cook for themselves and fall into unhealthy eating patterns inadvertently. Other lifestyle choices, like skimping on sleep and any substance abuse, can play just as big of a role in weight fluctuations as diet or exercise.
Beware the Risks
While losing a couple of pounds may not seem like a huge feat at first, the process can be dangerous. “There's a high risk of eating disorders in dancers, and once they've started, they're really hard to get over," says Dr. Nadine Kaslow, psychologist for Atlanta Ballet. “The biggest warning sign is that you'll start feeling like your weight is the most important thing about you, and it's tied to your self-esteem and self-worth. You may become obsessed with food or the scale, and think negative thoughts, like 'I'm fat' or 'My thighs are too big,' every time you look in the mirror. You may also feel depressed or even suicidal." When you notice any of these red flags, it's time to reassess your plan.
If you start eating too little, your body may go into starvation mode. “When you cut your calorie intake too low, your body will adapt by slowing down your metabolism," Sterne says. “You may not only stop losing weight, but you may also be so tired that you won't be able to get through rehearsals." For female dancers, the first sign that your body is starving is that menstruation stops. You may also experience a loss of concentration, or feel unstable and off-balance while dancing.
Remember: No job, role or director's request is worth destroying your health for. “Even when dancers know that they're in a situation that's bad for their health, they're often scared to stand up to a director for fear of losing roles or even their job," says Kaslow, who recommends taking a hard look at the culture of your company, and perhaps even recruiting a group of dancers to confront your director together if necessary. “Trying to have a conversation is always worth it." If your director refuses the plan recommended by your expert team or asks you to keep losing weight after you're seeing unhealthy side effects, consider taking your talent elsewhere.
Time It Right
Timing is everything. If you try to shed five pounds in the first two weeks of the season, you're unlikely to succeed, and could even suffer negative consequences. “Losing weight is extremely stressful for the body. You're providing it with less fuel, so it breaks down tissue to produce energy," says dietitian nutritionist Shannon Sterne. “During heavy rehearsal or performance periods, insufficient energy can be disastrous."
Unfortunately, the start of the season is often when directors make this request. So start by getting plenty of sleep, eating nutritiously (without making drastic changes) and cutting down on unhealthy habits like smoking or drinking. Show your director that you're taking the note seriously by outlining the exercise and diet plan you intend to put into action as soon as your schedule lightens up. Sterne points out, “It's worth it to both you and your director that you hold on to a couple pounds for a little longer, since the alternative may be that you're shaky onstage, sprain your ankle or forget where you're supposed to go."
Throughout Ballet West's Nutcracker, Sugar Plum Fairy Katie Critchlow is the epitome of feminine grace. Then, during the coda of the grand pas de deux, she unleashes a series of coupés jetés so impressive they would put any cavalier to shame.
Critchlow credits her stunning grand allégro capabilities—even at the end of an exhausting two-hour production—to one crucial training tool: men's technique classes. “Those classes taught me to really use my plié, push my heels down and harness the power of my legs," says Critchlow, who added twice-weekly men's classes to her schedule as a teenager. “I might be the only female dancer in the company who loves doing those coupés jetés."
Female dancers don't often see the inner workings of men's class. But women like Critchlow, who challenge themselves to join their male peers, have seen results, from stronger jumps and turns to a healthy competitive attitude. But there can be hazards to crossing the gender divide. As with any new training regimen, it's important to approach men's class intelligently so you can reap all its benefits.
A Physical Boost
Men's classes start out like any other technique class—pliés followed by tendu combinations at the barre—but the end game is distinct, with center work that's strongly weighted toward allegro and turns. “The goal is to be sure that you're doing them properly—and to continue doing them properly even when you get fatigued," says Critchlow.
It's not all about the showstopping big jumps. A strong component is petit allégro, working toward a crisp, clean battu, and gaining enough airspace to show them off to the last row of the balcony. “In men's class, we focus a lot on the coordination of the arms and the torso during jumps to create lift," says Atlanta Ballet dancer and men's class teacher John Welker. “The attack is important, but we also focus on the finish and transitions. A lot of that starts at the barre with finding the center and pushing the plié into the ground."
Miami City Ballet principal Patricia Delgado remembers trying a men's class for the first time while recovering from an injury and looking for a way to dance without wearing pointe shoes. “I felt so much stronger after having taken that class for the summer," she says. “We jumped a lot slower, so there was time to find length in the plié and create height," she says. “I try to remind myself of that feeling while I perform—making sure every step is done to its fullest potential." For Delgado, men's classes have been, at times, the equivalent of cross-training, building strength and stamina without having to lift weights or run. And that focus on footwork and grounding has come in handy across MCB's diverse repertoire—from intricate Balanchine choreography to high-impact contemporary works.
What to Expect
With all those jumps and turns, you may think class will be fast-paced, but the overall rhythm may actually feel slower, since the combinations leave more room for bravado. “The musical tempos may take some getting used to," says Ballet West II director Calvin Kitten. “Allegros tend to be much slower to allow for more ballon in their jumps." To take full advantage of the time, you have to sink into each plié and hang in the air. It may be helpful to leave your pointe shoes at the door, and focus on using your toes for extra grounding.
Another challenge for women can be traveling as quickly as the men across the floor, especially with large jumps you may not have attempted before. Critchlow recommends scanning the room and going with a group that you think may be closer to your speed. And if you notice another dancer closing in on you, it's better to step out of the line of traffic than to become manège roadkill.
Of course, when you try something out of your comfort zone, you put yourself at higher risk for injury. Before men's class, take some extra time to warm up and stretch—especially your hips and ankles. It's also important to try anything new slowly, staying aware of your physical limits. “Class will include things like double tours and double saut de basques, which you may have never even thought about approaching before," Critchlow says. “You have to be prepared that you may fall or accidentally shoot out in the wrong direction. To start, you might have to hang back or do singles instead of doubles."
Competitive, Yet Respectful
Remember that you're essentially a guest in someone else's class: Ask the teacher if you're welcome instead of just dropping in, and be respectful of any rules or etiquette that may exist. While women may be accustomed to standing in the front or going first when traveling across the floor, now might be the time to offer to follow the men's lead. Don't assume that the “ladies first" rule applies.
As long as you're respectful, most men will be happy to share their class with you. In fact, Welker says having women in the room often raises the competitive ante—pushing men to show off and women to test their limits. Delgado says it was this playful atmosphere that initially hooked her. “The benefits I've experienced from men's technique classes may have been more emotional than physical," she says. “I just loved the energy, the competitive nature and the feeling of support and teamwork. Whenever I've taken men's classes, I've felt like I have 20 partners dancing with me."
You’ve been wait-listed to the summer intensive of your dreams. Now what?
Springboard Danse Montréal accepted 45 dancers from its waitlist last year. Photo by Michael Slobodian, courtesy Springboard Danse.
You’ve found the perfect summer program. You audition, and wait weeks for the fated acceptance or rejection letter. An envelope with your dream school’s logo arrives. You excitedly rip it open to find that you’ve been…wait-listed. Your ideal intensive, that just seconds ago seemed within reach, has now slipped away. Or has it?
Few feelings are more frustrating than being placed on the waitlist. What exactly went wrong? Should you follow up or ask for another chance? Or should you make a commitment to your second choice? Ultimately, how you handle yourself while in limbo can make a lasting impression.
A Numbers Game
Most summer programs accept more dancers than they have spots for, knowing that some students will go elsewhere. Waitlists ensure they’re not left with empty barre space. Some programs never touch the waitlist, while others may extend an offer to nearly everyone, and most schools’ dependence on the list changes each year. Lack of space is the number-one reason a qualified dancer is wait-listed. It’s also a spot for dancers that the audition panel feels may not be as strong technically, but they see something special in.
Patel Conservatory in Tampa, Florida, aims to have 300 students attend its Next Generation Ballet Summer Intensive each year. After seeing more than 600 dancers on a 25-city audition tour (plus year-round Patel students), around 500 dancers are admitted. Seventy to 80 end up on the waitlist. Instead of first come, first served, dancers on Patel’s list are divided by level, then carefully ranked. “We want to make sure each of our levels have relatively even numbers,” says Patel’s dance department manager Claire Florio, who adds that dancers in later audition cities are more likely to be wait-listed if their level is already full. “Auditioning as early as possible certainly can’t hurt.”
Springboard Danse Montréal, a three-week program that connects advanced dancers with choreographers, has to be even more specific when letting dancers off the waitlist—they’re not just filling class levels, but casting performances, too. The program typically has 110 available spots. When one is given up, it needs to be filled with a dancer similar to the original. “If I lose a guy who’s amazing at partnering, I’m not going to replace him with a guy who can’t lift,” says artistic director Alexandra Wells, who pulled 45 dancers, of about 60 total, off the waitlist last year.
Increase Your Chances
Your first instinct when wait-listed may be to ask for another shot. But Alexei Kremnev, artistic director of The Joffrey Academy of Dance in Chicago, says this can only sometimes help sway your odds. “Dancers can contact our staff and we’ll decide if a reevaluation should be allowed,” says Kremnev. (Joffrey accepts 6 to 12 dancers from a waitlist of about 120 each year.) “But if you’re given that second chance, make sure you’re ready for it.” Ultimately, re-auditioning is only helpful if something went completely awry the first time, like sickness or injury.
Being wait-listed is not a rejection—it means you’ve already proven you’re a strong dancer. Stay on the program’s radar and let them know they’re still on yours. “The majority of dancers never even respond to our initial email that tells them they’re wait-listed, which is not a good idea,” says Wells, who recommends a response that does more than just state your interest. “We want dancers who have done their research and can explain why our program suits them, instead of someone who says, ‘I’m still free.’ ”
After your first email or call, occasional follow-ups are warranted. “Showing that you’re enthusiastic is always a positive,” Florio says. “With that said, sending an email every day will overwhelm our staff. If we let you know the date you’ll hear back, you don’t need to continue asking about it before then.”
Down to the Wire
You may be forced to put down a deposit for another program before you’ve heard back from your number-one choice. In this case, reach out to your dream program and explain your situation. Patel will let dancers know where they stand on the waitlist. Before agreeing to the other program, ask for a deadline extension, and check the deposit-refund policy. If you do choose another program, it’s a nice gesture to contact your wait-list school and tell them you’d like to remove your name.
Joffrey may continue accepting students from the waitlist up to two weeks after its own registration deadline, which means many dancers will have already chosen other programs. But Kremnev doesn’t recommend backing out once you’ve paid a deposit, since you’re unlikely to get that money back. “Focus on learning as much as you can wherever you end up,” he says, “because any summer program can have a positive impact on your career.”
Wells agrees: “Just tell us, ‘I am so disappointed, but I’ve already agreed to something else.’ If you made it this far, we like you, and you can likely come back to us next year. The dance world is a small family, and we’ll remember a dancer who’s not only talented, but is smart, professional and sticks to her commitments.”
Don't get waylaid by these five common dance injuries.
Photo by Nathan Sayers, modeled by Gabrielle Sprauve of Marymount Manhattan College.
No matter how careful you are, sporadic overuse injuries are an occupational hazard of professional dance. “Dance looks great because it’s an unusual movement—it’s not natural to the body, so your body may react negatively to it over time,” says Johann Howard, physical therapist at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at New York University Langone Medical Center. Fortunately, you can minimize the occurrence of chronic problems if you recognize the warning signs and are prepared to let your body heal effectively.
- FHL Tendonitis
Also called “dancer’s tendonitis,” flexor hallucis longus tendonitis is an inflammation or tear in the tendon that travels under your calf muscle, inside the ankle bone and along the bottom of the foot to help point the big toe. “This is one of the few tendons that passes through a bit of a tunnel, so when it’s swollen and inflamed, it can get stuck,” says Nancy Kadel, MD, orthopedic surgeon and chair of the Dance/USA Task Force on Dancer Health. “Ballet dancers with FHL tendonitis will generally feel pain when going from demi-pointe to full pointe, since that bends the big toe down.” FHL tendonitis can also cause a “trigger toe,” meaning the big toe clicks or gets caught, sometimes requiring straightening out with your hand.
Risk factors: FHL tendonitis comes from repetitive pushing off with your foot during jumps or while going from plié to relevé. “The key is to have balanced strength and flexibility all around your ankle,” says Kadel, who adds that it can be helpful to be evaluated by a physical therapist to be sure you’re not overstretching or compressing the tendon while dancing.
Recovery: It usually takes four to six weeks (or longer for a tear) to recover, as long as you don’t ignore the pain and seek medical treatment. “If your pain is above a 3 out of 10, don’t dance,” Howard says. “Instead, ask your physical therapist for safe strengthening exercises.” Kadel has her patients gradually return to class, perhaps leaving out pointework, grand pliés or jumps until pain has completely subsided. She may also recommend ice massages to reduce inflammation, or sleeping in a night splint to keep the foot in a neutral position.
Prevent relapse: Dancers should be able to avoid relapse as long as they maintain proper foot alignment and continue strengthening and stretching the area throughout their career.
- Stress Fractures
Photo by Nathan Sayers, modeled by Gabrielle Sprauve of Marymount Manhattan College.
In dancers, stress fractures—tiny cracks in the bones due to repetitive overloading—are often found in the metatarsals (the long bones of the foot). “Dancers will describe a toothache-like pain on the top of the foot that gets worse when jumping or turning,” Kadel says. “In the beginning, you may not see any swelling or bruising, but it will gradually become more painful.”
Risk factors: Kadel suggests thinking of the long, thin metatarsal bones like wire hangers. “It won’t break the first time you bend it, but after bending it 50 times, it may,” she says. “Every time you load the bone beyond its limit, it has a reaction and then heals itself, but with overuse, you’re not giving that bone enough time to heal, so it cracks.” Stress fractures become more likely during periods of increased activity—like in preparation for a big performance or during a summer intensive—or for dancers with weaker bones due to poor nutrition.
Recovery: Katie Lemmon, certified athletic trainer at Athletico Physical Therapy in Chicago, says this injury may land you in a boot for several weeks, especially if it hurts to walk. “Dancers with stress fractures shouldn’t be doing weight-bearing activity, but I’ll often give them other strengthening exercises like Pilates, so it’s only a modified rest,” Lemmon says. You’ll be able to monitor your recovery by how much pain you feel, but you should still be under the care of a medical professional to determine when it’s safe to return to different stages of dancing. It may take three weeks or more before you’re able to try jumping on two feet, and longer before you’re able to safely perform grand allégro.
Prevent relapse: “Since stress fractures are often caused by a muscle imbalance, use the recovery time to look for the underlying cause, which will prevent it from happening again,” says Lemmon. As long as you listen to your body, bone heals without scar tissue, so relapse is unlikely.
- Lower Back Pain
Dancers are at especially high risk for straining their lower back muscles. This pain feels like a dull ache or discomfort on one or both sides of your spine (not directly on it), and may feel especially painful in arabesque.
Risk factors: “Lower back pain often comes when dancers are trying something new, whether it’s new choreography or a different style of dance, and when dancers have weakness in their core muscles,” Kadel says. “For example, dancers’ back muscles may get overwhelmed by all the penchées on one leg while rehearsing La Bayadère.” Too much repetition on muscles that aren’t quite strong enough may lead to the muscle fibers being stretched, torn or inflamed.
Recovery: Strains in the lower back can take quite some time to heal—according to Howard, up to two or three months. Depending on the injury, you may be able to take modified class throughout your recovery or need to suspend all dancing to allow for proper healing. When appropriate, a physical therapist may help you stretch the affected muscles and offer back and abdominal strengthening exercises, like planks and movements that target the lower abs.
Prevent relapse: “With lower back pain, you can almost guarantee it will come back,” Howard says. “So it’s important to self-manage and come back to physical therapy when you anticipate something will aggravate it or if you start feeling pain.”
- Ankle Sprains
“A sprained ankle means you’ve partially torn one of the ligaments between your ankle bones,” Kadel says. “They’re often caused by fatigue, and are by far the most common injury I see.” While ankle sprains usually happen suddenly, the precursors are often dwelling for some time.
Risk factors: The biggest risk factor for spraining an ankle is having done it before. Others include higher-arched feet, very flexible ankles and, like most chronic injuries, muscle imbalances. Kadel encourages dancers to spend just as much time strengthening the outside muscles as the inside muscles of the ankle—those you use for winging and sickling.
Recovery: Sprains are generally graded on three levels, with the least severe healing in about three weeks and the most severe taking up to 12. For bad sprains, Howard says dancing at all may be off limits, and you may have to wear a boot for a few weeks. “Some ankle sprains are so painful that there’s no way you could dance even if you wanted to,” he says. “In physical therapy, we’ll slowly start to introduce perturbation exercises, which means balancing on a pillow or wobble board to build ankle strength.”
Prevent relapse: Your physical therapist may recommend core workouts to build strength to help prevent future sprains. “Even after you heal, it’s important to keep doing those physical therapy exercises like a religion,” Howard says. Once you’ve had one sprain, you’ll always be at a higher risk to get another.
- Shin Splints
Shin splints, or medial tibial stress syndrome, describes a generalized pain on the inner edge of the shin bone (tibia). Shin splints may feel worse with certain movements, like jumping or pointing your foot.
Risk factors: Shin splints often occur during an increase in activity, which overworks the muscles, tendons and bone tissue. Hard floors can exacerbate the pain. Shin splints can be more likely in dancers with very high arches or flat feet. “We also see shin splints caused by dancers gripping their toes too hard on the floor,” Lemmon says. Teenagers are particularly at risk: When dancers grow quickly, their lower leg bones often grow faster than their muscles, which can lead to discomfort.
Recovery: With proper care, rest and ice, the pain of shin splints should subside in two to four weeks. “In physical therapy, we’ll work on core exercises, calf stretches and hip-strengthening exercises so dancers aren’t using their toes to keep their balance,” says Lemmon. “Usually we’ll start with less-weight-bearing exercises and progress to more-weight-bearing exercises over time.” Dancers can take a modified class, but as with any chronic injury, any movement that causes pain is preventing your body from healing and should be avoided.
Prevent relapse: Continuing physical therapy exercises and stretches long after you’ve healed can prevent relapse.
Rachel Zar is a writer based in Chicago.
Galen Hooks' big break came earlier than most: Her dance group was named “Junior Dance Champion" on “Star Search" when she was just 7 years old. Since then, Hooks has made a habit of exceeding expectations. As a young teenager, she assisted choreographers Marguerite Derricks and Michael Rooney, and it wasn't long before she started choreographing on her own. Now 29, she's performed with artists including Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus and Rihanna, and on “Glee," “So You Think You Can Dance" and the Grammy Awards. She's choreographed for Justin Bieber, John Legend, Ne-Yo and Ciara, as well as “The X Factor" and The Oscars. Next year, she's set to choreograph a major motion picture that blends Bollywood with hip hop.
In addition to dancer and choreographer, Hooks has long had another title on her resumé: advocate. When she was 17, she attended her first meeting of the Dancers' Alli-ance, an organization that fights for dancers' rights. “It was the first time I'd seen dancers getting to have an opinion and to see top choreographers discussing issues I also cared about," Hooks says. “I've been emotionally invested in dance since I was 7 years old, and I realized that it was my responsibility to take that passion and use it to make a difference."
Since attending that first meeting, Hooks has made activism a big part of her increasingly busy career. She earned a degree in pre-law at Pennsylvania State University in 2008, completing online classes while in rehearsal for Janet Jackson's Super Bowl halftime show or backstage while on tour with Snoop Dogg. She now puts that knowledge to work as chair of Dancers' Alliance and as a board member at SAG-AFTRA (the merged labor union of Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists). “My degree taught me to be a critical thinker and problem solver," says Hooks, who doesn't see her education as a backup plan, but as something to complement her dance career. “I understand the importance of reading contracts, and I know how to present a cohesive argument."
In 2012, Hooks was instrumental in one of Dancers' Alliance's biggest successes, winning a union contract for dancers in music videos. The contract set guidelines for quality working conditions, including rest breaks, wage security and safety guarantees. While the deal was going through, Hooks was acting as lead choreographer for Nickelodeon's “How to Rock." “It was such an emotional roller coaster. We signed the contract at 3 or 4 in the morning after about 14 hours of negotiations, and then I was back on set at 7 am," Hooks says. “If I'm passionate about something, I'm going to make it happen."
Her next big project with Dancers' Alliance is well on its way: a fight for a similar unionized contract for dancers on concert tours. “We're fighting for higher pay, better protection and better contracts for dancers," Hooks says. “At our events we're educating dancers on how to back that up with professionalism, or 'act their wage.' We're working toward an environment in which dancers aren't afraid to speak up for themselves, and they're working with agents to negotiate a fair fee instead of doing jobs for free."
Choreographer Brian Friedman says he's been impressed with Hooks' commitment to sharing her talent since she started attending Dancers' Alliance meetings as a teen. “In an era where so many are consumed with self-promotion, Galen is standing up as a positive role model and an advocate for change," he says. “Galen's drive for excellence in our craft and the way she shares her knowledge with the younger generation is extremely admirable."
Her newest pay-it-forward venture is a two-day workshop, Behind the Audition, that Hooks hosts sporadically throughout the country. Her goal is to give dancers the chance to get honest audition feedback on everything from their technique to their wardrobe to their atti-tude. “I tell dancers, 'You can be you! We just have to find the most bookable, professional ver-sion of you,' " Hooks says. “I'm so happy to be able to lift dancers' spirits in an industry that's so hard. If I'd had this tool when I was just starting, it would have changed everything."
Five years ago, Alex Wong had the kind of career most ballet dancers only dream of: Under the wing of Miami City Ballet founding artistic director Edward Villella, the 23-year-old had already been promoted to principal soloist, was acclaimed for his powerful sky-high jetés and effortless pirouettes, and had recently been named one of Dance Magazine's “25 to Watch." But instead of signing another yearlong contract with MCB, he decided to audition for “So You Think You Can Dance."
“I had done most of the repertory I wanted to do at MCB, so it seemed like the opportune moment to take a leap of faith," says Wong. During a stint on an earlier “SYTYCD" season, his MCB contract had prevented him from moving onto the live shows. Now, there was nothing in his way of becoming “America's Favorite Dancer"—and no place to go if things fell apart.
At first, it seemed like the gamble would pay off. His explosive virtuosity blew the judges away, and he advanced to the Top 10. Then, while landing a split jump in second during a Bollywood rehearsal, Wong snapped his right Achilles tendon. He was out for the rest of the show and the tour that followed. But what could have been a major setback was only a blip on his way to a triple-threat career. With his can-do resilience, Wong now juggles a never-ending string of dance jobs that range from classical to commercial to Broadway. He's strategically marketed himself to create a kind of freedom that lets him slip between genres, going after any gig that excites him.
Behind the scenes: Playing with Ted on set. Photo courtesy Wong
Wong didn't initially intend to go the ballet route when he started dancing. Growing up in Vancouver, Canada, he trained in jazz, tap and musical theater, and dreamed of dancing on Broadway or television. “As I got older, those dreams kind of fizzled away, since it didn't feel realistic for an Asian to be cast in commercial jobs," says Wong, whose parents emigrated from Hong Kong. “I never saw anyone who looked like me doing the things I hoped to accomplish."
Wong added ballet classes at the Goh Ballet Academy to get a leg up at competitions, and ended up falling in love with the style's artistry and quest for technical perfection. He also noticed that there were more Asian dancers in ballet companies. “I made the conscious decision at about 15 to focus on ballet, join a company and hopefully have a stable career," he says.
In 2004, Wong became the first Canadian to win Prix de Lausanne, which led to a yearlong contract with American Ballet Theatre's studio company. He danced with the main company during its Met season, but the timing didn't work out to join long-term, as ABT had recently hired several shorter male dancers. Instead, Wong found a home at MCB, where he quickly turned heads. Only a few months after joining, he stepped up to replace an injured dancer in the lead of Raymonda Variations. He was soon promoted to soloist, then principal soloist, dancing lead roles in Balanchine classics like “Rubies," Symphony in Three Movements and Tarantella.
His experience on “SYTYCD," where both a hip-hop and a contemporary routine he danced in won Emmy awards, opened the doors to a career in commercial dance. “He broke the classical mold and showed just what can be done," says “SYTYCD" co-executive producer Jeff Thacker. For his part, Wong doesn't believe he could have made the transition without the show: “I had a great ballet career, but nobody had seen me do anything else."
Watching from behind the camera. Photo courtesy Wong
During his year off to heal his Achilles, Wong signed with Bloc talent agency and booked several print and commercial jobs. As soon as he could dance again, he was performing in the ensemble of NBC's “Smash," on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and with LMFAO on “The Voice." “Originally my plan was to return to a ballet company after 'SYTYCD,' but after being offered these other projects, I saw how many forms of dance I could do," he says. “I didn't want to do just one thing anymore."
Exactly one year and three days after his injury, Wong was auditioning for Step Up Revolution when, during a freestyle, he went for a few of those split leaps in second, and snapped his Achilles tendon again, this time on his left leg. Wong knew immediately what had happened. “But I still wanted to book the movie," he says. “I finished my freestyle on one leg, and then drove to the hospital."
Within weeks of the surgery, he was teaching class on crutches. To expand his marketable skill set, he developed his singing voice, even making it to the semifinals on “American Idol" and releasing a single to iTunes. It came in handy: Once healed, he made his Broadway debut as Sniper in Newsies. “That was one of the most incredible experiences I've ever had," he says. “I'm not even mad that I snapped my Achilles, because otherwise I might not have been in Newsies. Although, I do stay away from consecutive jumps in second now."
Now 28, Wong has since been back to “SYTYCD" as an All-Star, starred in the Microsoft “Surface" commercial, danced in Pharrell Williams' “Happy" music video, at the Oscars, in Peter Pan Live! and on episodes of “Glee," “Dancing with the Stars," “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" and “Comedy Bang! Bang!" among many other projects.
Recently, Wong spent four months playing Kim on “Flesh and Bone," a ballet-centered TV series that premieres this November on STARZ. The show was choreographed by Wong's longtime idol, Ethan Stiefel. “Alex has an explosive technique, a fearless attitude and an engaging performance persona," says Stiefel. “He's really entering his prime."
Backstage at the Oscars before the “Everything Is Awesome" Lego Movie dance. Photo from @theacademy Instagram
To Wong, the project felt like coming full circle. “I got to go back to my ballet roots, which I was starting to miss," Wong says. “It felt like having the structure and consistency of a company again."
Yet the energy of the commercial world has him hooked for the foreseeable future. “I like adventure too much," he says. “Being in the classical world was like eating a truffle burger—it's always good, high quality. But in the commercial world, some days I get a bacon burger, others an avocado burger, and suddenly—surprise!—a curry burger."
Wong's lifestyle now, split between Los Angeles and New York City, is drastically different from the consistency he left behind. “My ballet schedule was like clockwork, but now, there's no planning ahead," he says. Without a daily company class, he has had to switch up his training routine, fitting in classes when he can (still usually ballet), and also adding weight lifting to bulk up for a more muscular, commercial look.
A big perk of all the juggling is the pay that comes along with it. Wong estimates that his current income, which includes residuals for TV and film work, is five times what he was making as a ballet dancer. “Plus, I have the film or TV episode to watch over and over again," he says.
This summer, Wong's back on “SYTYCD" as an All-Star, and he's the man behind the moves in Ted 2, doing motion-capture work for the title character in an over 100-person dance scene. “The coolest part was that I got to work closely behind the scenes in terms of camera direction," Wong says. “Since Ted isn't real, only I knew where he was during the dance sequence, so I'd work with the camera operator to tell him where to go. The final shot will have come through my hands."
Wong says that if anything, he feels his ethnicity has become a plus when booking jobs. “I think it's given me a chance to stand out, since most directors now want at least a few ethnic people in each cast," he says. The risk-taking mentality he's developed means there's no longer any room in his career for holding back: “I'm trying to keep as many doors open as I can."
Rachel Zar is a writer based in Chicago.
Above: Photo by Nathan Sayers
Sugar is the latest nutritional whipping boy, but do dancers need to worry?
Like many dancers, Natalie Leibert prides herself in being conscious of what she’s putting into her body. An on-again-off-again vegan, the Hubbard Street 2 apprentice recently decided to cut all foods with added sugar from her diet, only eating natural sugars like those in fruit. She quickly noticed a difference in her dancing: “I have more energy throughout the day now,” she says. “And after lunch, it’s so much easier for me to jump right back into rehearsal without feeling weighed down.”
Leibert isn’t alone. Cutting back on sugar has recently become an increasingly popular trend among dancers. Although Americans typically consume 22 to 30 teaspoons of added sugar daily, the American Heart Association recommends that women have no more than 6 teaspoons per day, and men no more than 9. The new U.S. Dietary Guidelines suggest only 10 percent of your daily calories come from sugar, or about 12 teaspoons. That means just one 20-ounce soft drink can put you over the limit.
Why are the guidelines so strict? Sugar has negative effects throughout the body, and is linked to a range of ailments from obesity to tooth decay, heart disease to diabetes, and high blood pressure. But do dancers really have to ignore their sweet tooth in order to stay in prime shape?
Sweet and Sour
The main qualm most nutritionists have with sugar is that it provides empty calories, meaning it doesn’t add any vitamins or nutrients to your diet. If sugar-packed foods replace muscle-building protein, heart-healthy fats and complex carbohydrates, your health can begin to decline from being deficient in nutrients, says Heidi Skolnik, nutritionist for the School of American Ballet. She adds that sugar doesn’t offer any benefits—our bodies would be perfectly healthy without any of it in our diets.
For dancers, sugar can also have troublesome side effects, like low energy, decreased immunity and weight gain. “While simple sugar can give you a temporary energy high, it’s often followed by a much bigger crash,” says Boston Ballet consulting nutritionist Jan Hangen. While the glucose in sugar causes a surge of dopamine to your brain, making you feel energized, repeated dopamine spikes can actually desensitize that center over time, so you’ll struggle to get a similar rush in the long run. In addition, studies have shown that simple sugars can cause a 50 percent drop in the ability of white blood cells to attack bacteria, so you may be more likely to get sick after a sugar binge. Highly caloric sugary foods can also lead to weight gain when they’re routinely added to a dancer’s diet: Since eating sugar triggers the body to produce insulin, which blocks production of leptin—the hormone that tells your brain you’re full—it can actually make you hungrier.
So do dancers need to avoid sugar altogether? Not if you have an otherwise balanced diet. Skolnik says a healthy diet can include 10 to 15 percent of daily calories that are “discretionary.” So if you eat 2,400 calories per day, and most calories come from healthy food, 240 to 360 of those calories can come from somewhere else. The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars to no more than half of that—the 100 calories found in 6 teaspoons of sugar for women.
Dancers with a serious sweet tooth may find these rules nearly impossible to follow. “Sugar has been called as addictive as cocaine by some researchers,” says Emily Harrison, dietitian with the Centre for Dance Nutrition at Atlanta Ballet. “The more you eat, the more you crave.” That’s because the brain needs more and more of it to get the same dopamine rush it once got from just a little.
But the real culprit behind cravings for sweets typically has more to do with what you’re eating throughout the day. If you’re starving by the time you get home, your body will probably crave something sugary. “When people think they’re craving chocolate, they’re actually just craving calories,” Hangen says. “Because the body is focused on getting food, the mind goes to the foods that give the most pleasure.” Harrison encourages dancers who fall victim to post-dance sugar binging to eat something small and light every three hours throughout the day. This will manage their energy levels and ensure they’re not ravenous by the time they get home.
Keep it in Check
Dancers who prefer savory foods should still be on the lookout. Sugar is found in many pasta sauces, salad dressings, ketchups, chips, cereals and sports beverages. Check labels for the word “sugar” and the many disguises it takes: corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, evaporated cane juice and ingredients ending in “ose,” like dextrose, glucose, sucrose, fructose, isomaltulose, maltose or trehalose.
One way to only get a small amount of sugar is to stick to natural sugars, like Leibert does. While natural sugar isn’t fundamentally different than added sugar, this will ensure that it’s filling up less of your daily caloric intake and you will also be getting nutritious vitamins and antioxidants. Plus, the fiber in fruits and vegetables can slow down your body’s digestion of glucose, so you’ll avoid energy spikes and crashes.
For those who crave a little extra sweetness, Skolnik suggests buying unsweetened foods and adding sugar yourself. “If you buy plain yogurt, you can control the amount of sugar you add—or try adding real fruit,” Skolnik says. “You can eventually train your palette to enjoy the natural taste of foods with less sugar.” Even adding an entire packet of sugar to plain cereal will be less than what is in most pre-sweetened brands.
Ultimately, rewarding yourself with a sweet treat once in a while could actually do less long-term damage than swearing off sweets altogether. “For some people, saying ‘I can never eat chocolate’ makes them only want chocolate, so they’ll end up binging,” says Skolnik, who encourages dancers not to beat themselves up for a little indulgence. “Sugar is not the root of all evil. It’s certainly not nutritious, but you don’t need to eat perfectly to eat healthily.”
You may think that adding a packet of Equal, Splenda or Stevia to your morning coffee is the best option. After all, there are no calories in artificial sweeteners. But nutritionists agree that the chemicals are actually worse than the real stuff. “Most artificial sweeteners are between 400 and 600 times sweeter than actual sugar, so they’re designed with the purpose of tricking our taste buds into thinking you have calories coming in,” says nutritionist Emily Harrison. “This initiates a metabolic response to sweetness, which can be dangerous, and studies have linked artificial sweeteners to long-term weight gain. You’re also getting your taste buds used to something that is so powerful that you’re not going to be able to appreciate more subtle flavors, like the natural sweetness in a strawberry or butternut squash.”
How much is in your favorite snacks?
|Chobani||Lemon Blended Greek yogurt||5.3 oz||3 tsp|
|Go Raw||Sweet Spirulina Bites||28 g||2 1/2 tsp|
|Kashi||GoLean Crunch! cereal||3/4 cup||2 3/4 tsp|
|Lärabar||Banana Bread bar||51 g||4 tsp|
|Peeled Snacks||Apple-2-The Core dried apples||40 g||4 1/2 tsp|
|Quaker||Instant Oatmeal Apples and Cinnamon||43 g||2 1/2 tsp|
|vitaminwater||Revive Fruit Punch||20 fl oz||6 1/2 tsp|
|ZICO||Natural Coconut Water||11.2 fl oz||2 1/2 tsp|