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|
At 6' 6.63", Fabrice Calmels towers over his fellow dancers at the Joffrey Ballet. His height gives him an undeniable presence onstage—whether he’s playing the statuesque lead in Apollo or the domineering Von Rothbart in Swan Lake. It also recently earned him a Guinness World Record as the “World’s Tallest Ballet Dancer.” But that much length comes with its own set of challenges. “People assume that height makes dancing easier, but it’s actually the opposite,” Calmels says. “There’s so much more mass to coordinate, which takes a toll on your body.”
Though beautiful, long lines could also increase your risk of injury. Katie Lemmon, certified athletic trainer at Athletico Physical Therapy in Chicago, says dancers with long legs need to build more strength to counterbalance a limb that is farther from their bodies, especially if they have a shorter torso. “If you don’t have enough core strength, you could sustain strain injuries to the hips or lower back,” she says.
Some tall dancers struggle with balance and alignment—especially when it comes to grand allégro and pirouettes. “When you’re tall, you can’t just spin. Multiple pirouettes aren’t possible unless you’re in perfect alignment,” Calmels says. “I’ve had to work harder at rotating around my spine, which means engaging my back and abdominals.”
Experts agree that the key to avoiding injuries and maintaining coordination is a strong core. It’s an important asset to all dancers, but an especially crucial one for those with lengthy limbs. Calmels starts each day with 200 sit-ups before he even gets out of bed. Lauren Kreha, certified athletic trainer at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at the NYU Langone Medical Center, suggests holding a plank for about a minute per day, focusing on keeping a straight line throughout the body and gently engaging the abdominals. “Especially for dancers who’ve already started experiencing back pain, planks will strengthen without irritating the spine,” Kreha says. “I recommend starting with a forearm plank and then, as you feel more stable, moving to your hands.”
The next step is Pilates, which not only builds strength but also improves range of motion in the hips. “Pilates exercises help make sure dancers’ hip flexors are strong and well-balanced with the core and back muscles,” Kreha says. “They can give you the extra control needed to manage all that length.” Here, Kreha and Lemmon share four Pilates-inspired exercises to strengthen tall dancers’ core, improve control of lengthy limbs and decrease the chance of injury.
To Improve Alignment
1. Lie on your side in a straight line from head to toe. Your head can rest on your arm to keep your spine in line.
2. Flex your feet and lift your top leg to hip height, keeping the leg parallel.
3. Swing your leg to the front as far as you can go without tucking your pelvis. Then slowly swing it behind you, stopping before your lower back arches.
4. After 10 controlled swings back and forth, switch to the other side.
“Focus on maintaining a neutral pelvis, keeping the natural curve in your low back,” says Lemmon. “The bend should be at the hip.”
To Strengthen Your Core
2. Slowly lower your right leg from the hip, retaining the 90-degree bend in the knee,until your big toe touches the floor. Then return to the starting position.
3. Alternate legs, repeating the exercise for 3 sets of 10 toe touches (5 on each leg).
“I recommend doing this exercise before class to help engage your abdominals,” says Kreha. “Be sure to breathe throughout.”
To Increase Stability
2. As you plié on your left leg, extend your right leg into a parallel arabesque, but only as high as you can with your hips square to the ground. The key is to avoid rotating and to keep the standing leg’s hip, knee and second toe lined up.
3. Hold the arabesque position for 3 seconds, then return to the starting point. Do 3 sets of 5 on each leg.
“This improves core stability while working the legs, so it will help to increase range of motion in your extremities,” says Lemmon. “You should feel this in your glutes, but it shouldn’t be painful.”
To Improve Balance
2. Alternate lifting each leg up off the ball with control, keeping both legs straight.
3. Repeat for 3 sets of 10 leg lifts (5 on each leg).
“This exercise is great for balance,” Kreha says. “The ball adds an extra challenge that teaches your body to maintain stability.”
Bonus: Get a Lift
For male dancers, who have the added challenge of lifting their partners, extra height means bending further toward the ground and lifting higher. Athletic squats are a great way to train the body to maintain proper spinal alignment while also strengthening the core and thighs, says Kreha. Practice three sets of 10 parallel squats, keeping your knees over your ankle bones (not knees over toes like in plié).
It’s in a dancer’s nature to constantly strive to be better, to grow stronger, to get healthier. So choosing a New Year’s resolution is usually the easy part; harder is putting it into action—and staying consistent about it. The surest road to success is to have more than one strategy. We asked a variety of experts for their advice, because there’s no one right way to make your resolution a reality.
Alison Deleget, MS, ATC, clinical specialist at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries in New York City
Nadine Kaslow, PhD, past president of the American Psychological Association, psychologist for Atlanta Ballet
Randy Skinner, Broadway director, choreographer and master teacher
Heidi Skolnik, MS, CDN, FACSM, sports nutrition consultant for the School of American Ballet
Katie Lemmon, certified athletic trainer at Athletico Physical Therapy in Chicago
Get More “Toned”
Lemmon: “Try varying the amount, intensity or weight of strength-training exercises so the body is always challenged. One exercise I like for dancers is the airplane, which works the glutes and legs: Start in a parallel passé, bend the standing leg and extend the working leg into an arabesque, then return to passé. You can also extend the arms out to the sides for some shoulder stability and arm work.”
Deleget: “To look toned without bulking up, strength-train with more repetitions but fewer sets. For example, a weight lifter might do seven sets of four reps using a heavy weight, but dancers should do two to three sets of 15 reps with a lighter weight.”
Photo by Nathan Sayers
Tackle My Audition Anxiety
Kaslow: “The best way to master something you’re afraid of is to do it—not to avoid it. Do practice auditions with your teachers. Have other dancers watch and critique you. The more audition-like experiences you have, the easier they’ll get.”
Skinner: “Wake up early enough to do a really good warm-up: If you avoid rushing, you won’t feel discombobulated.”
Deleget: “To calm the anxiety buzz, close your eyes and take 5- to 10-second breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth for two to three minutes. Repeat a positive mantra to yourself, such as, ‘I will be the best I can be and let myself shine.’ ”
Skolnik: “If you’re hungry, you’re going to feel more anxious. But you don’t want to feel weighed down or bloated, either. Pack small, easy to digest snacks like apple sauce, a banana, trail mix or Cheerios. Another great option is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich cut in quarters so that you can eat one quarter at a time throughout a long audition day, which will give you stable energy.”
Photo by Nathan Sayers
Get Higher Jumps
Lemmon: “Studies have shown that dynamic, moving warm-ups instead of static stretches before a performance will improve jump height. I’d recommend a walking lunge in various directions—side to side and back to front—for the length of the studio. Another easy one is standing leg swings, so you’re working through a range of motion at the same time. An entire dynamic warm-up should last between 5 and 10 minutes, doing each exercise for roughly 30 seconds.”
Deleget: “Try a plyometric training program. Harkness offers a progressive six-week program that takes dancers through basic jump training, moving from pedestrian, stable jumps to dance-specific exercises designed to strengthen leg muscles, and improve stamina and explosiveness. For example, they start with two-leg, parallel tuck jumps, then progress to parallel pas de chats, then to turned-out pas de chats. Each exercise is done for 30 seconds, three times per week for two weeks, before progressing to the next version. Dancers have to be strong to undertake this training; it’s important they do it with an athletic trainer.”
Improve My Stamina
Lemmon: “Add cardiovascular exercise, like swimming or the elliptical trainer, for 20 to 40 minutes, three days per week. And although it’s hard to get cardiovascular training during most dance classes, it could help to repeat a few jumping combinations after class. Generally, it takes six to eight weeks to notice results.”
Deleget: “Try interval training, which improves your aerobic and anaerobic capacity at the same time. You’ll want a one-to-one ratio of high-intensity and low-intensity activities—two minutes on the elliptical followed by two minutes of Pilates exercises, for example, for 15 to 20 minutes, three to four times per week. Add this in when you’re in a cross-training time of the year—not during performance season.”
Skolnik: “Carbohydrates are an especially good power source, since muscles use them for energy. That doesn’t necessarily mean loading up on pasta and bread. Go for fruits, vegetables, beans, sweet potatoes, yogurt and milk, which all have carbohydrates.”
Become More Fearless Onstage
Skinner: “Take a moment in each class to do something a little bigger than you normally would. Take up more space or take an extra risk. Kick yourself into performance mode. Imagine you’re in front of an audience, and you’ll be better prepared when you actually are.”
Deleget: “Before curtain, visualize yourself completing the show successfully.”
Kaslow: “The more you can be yourself, the more fearless you can be. You’re not going to be perfect—nobody ever is. Strive to be excellent.”
Ask for the Roles I Want
Kaslow: “Don’t catch your director off guard. Schedule a specific time to talk. During your conversation, make just a couple points about your strengths as a dancer and your commitment to working hard, and never put anybody else down. Also, make it clear that you understand that they’ll make the choice they think is best for the company. And be sure to handle it maturely if you don’t get the part. If not, you’ll be less likely to get roles in the future.”
Skinner: “If you don’t ask, you run the risk that people won’t know what you’re thinking. The same thing is true if you’re interested in being a dance captain or assistant. It never hurts to write a nice note to express your interest in a way that’s not pushy or aggressive. The written word will feel less confrontational.”
Have More Energy
Skolnik: “If you feel chronically lackluster, see a doctor to check whether you have an iron deficiency or anemia. You may also be under- or overeating, which a nutritionist can help with. Be careful of drinking caffeine in the afternoon, since it can interfere with sleep. And avoid energy drinks—the mixed stimulants can affect your nerves, blood pressure and heart rate. When you have a coffee, you tend to sip it over time, but with energy drinks you tend to gulp quickly, so it’s a big shock to your system.”
Skinner: “Think about how you’re managing stress. People often think that being busy keeps your energy up, but pacing yourself carefully and having moments of calm are how you truly reenergize.”
Lemmon: “Give yourself a full day off during long rehearsal weeks. If you have proper recovery, your muscles can regenerate.”
Deleget: “Sleep more, eat more and eat better. Sleep is essential for recovery from activity—9 to 10 hours per night is optimal for athletes. And remember that when you’re in a calorie deficit, you’re in an energy deficit, but quality needs to be there, as well: Twinkies aren’t necessarily going to bring your energy level up.”
Rachel Zar is a freelance writer in Chicago.
Twyla Tharp's summer workshop offers dancers a rare opportunity.
Longtime Tharp dancer and workshop instructor Rika Okamoto demonstrates a movement. Photo by Kyle Froman.
Reed Tankersley (left) and other workshop dancers. Photo by Kyle Froman.
It’s the third week of the Twyla Tharp Summer Workshop at Barnard College in New York City, and 30 students are in a repertoire class working on Tharp’s iconic piece, The One Hundreds. They’ve already learned phrases 1 through 25, and teacher and longtime Tharp dancer Rika Okamoto is beginning to teach section 26. She starts by demonstrating the legs—a series of rocking motions, popped arches and relevés. The students—who include high school and college dancers, as well as professionals—pick it up quickly. They also easily grasp the head’s movements, and then the eyes, when taught individually. But when Okamoto asks the dancers to put all the elements together, things fall apart. They clearly struggle, laughing nervously as they try to coordinate the conflicting motions. “This one’s almost impossible,” Okamoto says to the class. “I know maybe one person who’s ever been able to do it correctly.”
Participants in a class. Photo by Kyle Froman.
It’s clear that the perfect candidates for this workshop are those who are interested in truly being challenged. “The movement is difficult, but I think it’s one of the reasons that people are in the room,” says Tharp. “They want to be challenged physically and mentally. It’s important to me when I audition dancers that they can think quickly and that they’re not intimidated by new information. That’s one of the things we really focus on giving these students.”
Indeed, interesting movement is only half of what makes Tharp’s choreography so special. It’s also the intricate, often mathematical, patterns—plus, the opportunity for dancers to make their own choreographic choices. “Twyla told us that dancers have to be wildly independent,” says workshop attendee Austin Sora, a recent graduate of Marymount Manhattan College and apprentice with Buglisi Dance Theatre. “It’s important to be a thinking dancer and not just expect an authority figure to tell you what to do. I’ll take that lesson with me.” This autonomy is clear later in the day when the dancers work on Tharp’s The Fugue; dancers are told to decide in the moment when they will incorporate different bits of choreography, and are expected to count at their own pace, instead of listening to music.
Austin Sora works through a phrase. Photo by Kyle Froman.
The workshop will be given again this summer for two weeks in New York City. Each day starts with a technique class, with every phrase specially designed by Tharp to introduce students to her style. “My approach to teaching is a one-room school house; there’s something for everyone,” says Tharp, who calls the first technique class of the day Treefrog. It includes a strength-training warm-up, a series of center combinations designed to work through every muscle in the feet, legs and abdominals, and complex, high-energy across-the-floor combinations that look like they could have easily been taken straight from Tharp’s choreography. Each element is designed to keep dancers centered, on their leg and working their feet into the floor—important tools that can easily be translated into any style students focus on in the future. “Treefrog is about the paradox of being very grounded yet very high on the leg,” Tharp says. “It’s intended to make the dancer capable of moving in any direction very quickly, like a boxer.”
After morning technique class, the students have an hour and a half of Tharp repertoire. After lunch, they have another 45-minute technique class to warm up, followed by two and a half more hours of repertoire. The dancers learn excerpts from a selection of Tharp’s works, which are performed at an in-studio showcase. Like the technique classes, the repertoire is chosen specifically for its range, both in technical difficulty and style. The Fugue tests dancers’ memory, The One Hundreds works on counterpoint, Sweet Fields is classically based, Surfer At The River Styx is grounded in modern technique and Ocean’s Motion has a rock-and-roll edge.
As varied as Tharp’s choreography is, so are the dancers who are attracted to her program. “We have some classically trained dancers in the workshop, some who are more focused on modern dance and some with very little training, who are here to move and to think,” Tharp says. “I’m interested in everybody.”
While most dancers in attendance have experienced either Tharp choreography or technique in some context (Sora, for example, had taken Treefrog class at Marymount), they are generally not fluent in it. “A lot of these dancers have seen Twyla’s ballets,” Okamoto says. “But they’ve never seen what goes behind them.” So the program starts with the basic concepts of her movement, but progresses quickly.
Participants in a class. Photo by Kyle Froman.
“Your brain almost explodes by the end of each day,” says attendee and recent Juilliard graduate Reed Tankersley. “When we’re taught information, we’re expected to retain it the whole time, which has kept me on my toes.”
While Okamoto and 14-year Tharp dancer Alexander Brady generally lead classes and repertoire sessions, during the 2014 workshop, Tharp was often in the building, drifting in and out of the studio and stepping in to give the occasional correction or note. And from time to time, she taught the entire afternoon technique class—a rare occurrence for Tharp, who seldom even accompanies Okamoto or Brady when they set works on professional companies.
The prevalence of Tharp’s choreography makes knowing her style a valuable weapon for any aspiring professional. Indeed, there are few genres in which dancers won’t encounter Tharp’s work. And now, as The Joyce Theater’s current artist in residence, she continues to create work, and the Tharp ballet masters and dancers offer daily open company class at the Dance Art New York Studios. “She does concert dance, she does Broadway, she does ballet,” says Tankersley, who started dancing for Tharp after the workshop. “What I’ve learned here will be useful no matter where my career takes me.”
Rachel Zar is a freelance writer in Chicago.
Christian Denice and Rachel McNamee in Northwest Dance Project’s Launch Project. Photo by Christopher Peddecord, Courtesy NWDP.
A year after graduating from SUNY Purchase, Tiffany Rea-Fisher heard that Elisa Monte Dance was hosting a workshop followed by an audition at Steps on Broadway in New York City. She wanted to sign up, but had one major concern: the cost. “I was waitressing, and I didn’t have a lot of money,” she says. “I decided to set aside enough for two days, and if Elisa started to notice me or even knew my name after that, I’d scramble to find money for the rest of the week.” Monte learned her name during the first class, and Rea-Fisher stayed. “By Friday, I had learned so much about the company, and there was good energy between us,” she says. “I was so invested that I knew, even if I didn’t get the job, I’d be back next year.” There was no need for that plan: She was hired at the end of the week.
Many companies are adopting the pre-audition workshop model as the norm for finding new members. The extended amount of time allows directors to get to know dancers prior to audition day. But these workshops vary greatly both in structure and content. Some are just a day or two, while others last as long as two weeks. Some teach only repertory, while others include technique classes. Some are required as part of the audition process, while others are an optional bonus. But how much does that added experience really help once it’s time for the audition? Is it worth the time and expense? It turns out, workshops can offer a lot more than just a way to prove how badly you want the job.
Getting to Know You
For company directors, the benefits of spending extra time with a dancer before handing over a contract is clear, especially in a smaller company. “Major companies can take a risk on a dancer—sticking them in the corps or a second company for a few years. We can’t do that,” says Sarah Slipper, founding artistic director of Northwest Dance Project, which typically hires dancers through NWDP’s audition workshop, the Launch Project. “I have only 10 dancers, so I need them blasting out at the top level right away. I can’t see drive or determination in a two-hour cattle call.”
During the Launch Project, Slipper and three or more directors from other dance companies work with dancers for a week or two before deciding whether or not they’re a good fit. Last summer, the other directors who attended were Hélène Blackburn of CAS Public, James Canfield of Nevada Ballet Theatre and Lucas Crandall, rehearsal director of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. As opposed to hundreds of dancers in a cattle call, the Launch Project only has 30 to 40 spots, filled through an initial audition process. Slipper estimates that 53 dancers have earned contracts directly through the program over its 10 years.
She feels the workshop process allows less technical dancers to show their true colors. “I’ve seen what I think are the best dancers—the ones who really soak up choreography—spend money to travel to auditions and not make it past tendus at the barre,” says Slipper. “When you have time with an individual, you can see so much more.”
Donald Byrd watching dancers during a workshop. Photo by Gabriel Bienczycki, Courtesy Byrd.
Spectrum Dance Theater artistic director Donald Byrd hosts at least two one- or two-week workshops per year, in Seattle and New York, followed by auditions. Attendance ranges from 18 to 40 dancers. The Seattle workshops cost about $95 per day and incorporate both his “Byrd” technique class and company choreography. And while they aren’t officially considered part of the audition—and are not required—he certainly remembers which dancers attended on audition day. “I almost never take a dancer into the company unless I’ve seen them in a workshop setting,” says Byrd. “This way I get to know a dancer’s physical capabilities, but I also get a sense of who they are temperamentally and how they deal with challenge and criticism.”
Workshops also offer dancers a better sense of the company. “Throughout the workshop, they start to understand who I am and how I work,” says Byrd. “Sometimes you look at choreography onstage and think, I’d love to do that. But when you get into the studio, the process may not be something you understand or are equipped for.”
For dancers who sometimes panic in the typical fast-paced tryout, or have trouble picking up sequences quickly, a workshop’s biggest benefit is the chance to practice choreography that may be presented in the audition. Martha Graham Dance Company hosts an optional workshop before auditions where dancers learn Graham choreography, as well as pieces by other choreographers in the company’s current rep. It’s not only a quick refresher course for dancers who don’t train in Graham movement every day, but it also offers a head start. “Giving them a bit of material ahead of time allows dancers to relax into the choreography,” says Tadej Brdnik, who manages audition workshops for MGDC. “We’re able to see the progression that one makes from learning the material to really understanding it.” Last spring, more than 40 of the 100 dancers who auditioned attended the daylong $80 workshop—and two of MGDC’s four new hires were workshop attendees.
When It’s Over
Not getting an offer on the spot doesn’t mean all hope is lost. Brdnik says that workshops allow MGDC faculty and dancers to make lasting connections with auditioners that can lead to a job down the line. In fact, he says, a dancer was recently hired based on last year’s workshop. “It wasn’t a perfect match last year, but for this year’s repertory, we wanted that dancer,” he says.
Slipper says she’s had many directors call her months after a Launch Project to ask about a dancer. “A lot of choreographers are project-based, so once a new opportunity begins, they’ll remember how much they loved working with a particular person,” she says. Byrd says he’s often had dancers come to workshops who aren’t even currently available to be hired—but it gives them an opportunity to make a connection for the future.
Even if a job offer never comes, it doesn’t necessarily mean your money and time were wasted. Most directors agree that going into a workshop with the sole purpose of getting hired may actually hinder how much you can get from the experience. “The best candidates for workshops are those who are interested in growing their artistry,” says Byrd. “If you’re in a state of discovery, you won’t walk out at the end of the workshop as the same dancer you were when you came in the door.”
Rachel Zar is a freelance writer in Chicago.
Browne (right) with Brandon Cournay in a Keigwin + Company rehearsal. Photo by Whitney Browne, Courtesy Keigwin + Company.
In the summer between her junior and senior years at Connecticut College, Kim Lusk took on an administrative internship with Velocity Dance Center’s Strictly Seattle program. “I wanted to dance professionally,” she says. “So I saw this as a perfect opportunity to be involved in and surrounded by the dance scene.” Perfect it was: Not only did her internship lead to a full-time job as Velocity’s programming coordinator, but it also introduced her to choreographer Zoe Scofield, whom she now dances for.
Interning at a dance organization is a savvy way to prepare for and make connections with the working world. Whether it’s a position in finance, marketing or administration at a dance company, studio or performance venue, these temporary positions teach valuable skills and offer an exclusive peek into how a dance organization works—giving college students an advantage when it’s time to search for a job.
The Ins and Outs of Interning
Spending a whole semester behind a desk may not sound like the perfect gig for a dancer, but learning about the inner workings of a dance organization can be more useful and interesting than you might assume. Lusk worked 20 hours a week, helping with registration and producing studio schedules for Velocity’s Strictly Seattle summer intensive. “The office was essentially one big room,” she says, “so I could hear everything that was going on, from the development team discussing tactics to the artistic director making decisions.”
Ashley Browne, now a dancer with Keigwin + Company, says her internship with Robert Battle’s Battleworks Dance Company (which has since dissolved) helped her appreciate all the work that goes into running a company. She assisted with marketing materials, fundraising and day-to-day e-mailing and paperwork. “Interning made me appreciate that being a dancer is a team effort,” she says. “Without all the moving behind-the-scenes bits, you don’t have a functional machine.”
How companies compensate their interns’ time varies greatly. Browne was paid $200 a month to work four to six hours a week. This is rare, though, as most internships in the dance field are unpaid. But they can often be taken for academic credit, or underwritten. As a University of Iowa student, Krista Ellensohn supported her summer internship at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago with a grant from the Kemper Fellows Program. And Connecticut College gave Lusk a stipend for her time at Velocity.
Regardless, internships offer many perks, like unlimited dance classes and tickets to company performances. “I took dance every night,” says Ellensohn, who kept in shape that summer dancing at Hubbard Street’s Lou Conte Dance Studio. “And my supervisors were flexible, so if there was a class or audition that came up that I wanted to make a priority, I could do it and then come back down to my desk.”
Moving On Up
Dancers sometimes dream of doing nothing but performing after graduation, but the reality is that most must find stable side jobs to supplement their income. Internships are a big resumé builder, and companies often look to high-performing interns to fill open positions. “It became clear that administration was going to pay my bills,” says Ellensohn, who now works at Hubbard Street full-time, managing the company’s pre-professional programs.
Sometimes internships can even lead to unexpected dance work. During her second and third summers interning at Velocity, Lusk decided to also dance in the Strictly Seattle program she assisted her first year. Through it, she performed a piece by Zoe Scofield. By the end of her third summer, Scofield asked Lusk to join her company zoe | juniper. Similarly, Ellensohn found her current dance job by taking Trae Turner’s hip-hop class at Lou Conte. He chose her for a promotional video for Step Up Revolution and eventually asked her to join his Boom Crack! Dance Company.
Regardless of where an internship takes you, the skills you learn will often prove valuable. Take Browne, who was recently named company manager at Keigwin. She has also had the opportunity to set the choreographer’s rep on other companies, most recently the Royal New Zealand Ballet. “While there, I’d schedule the rehearsal week and figure out the puzzle of casting dancers within a mixed bill. I had to understand the production side of things to be able to do that,” she says. “I use the skills I learned as an intern every day.”
Boston Conservatory faculty member Adriana Suárez. Photo Courtesy Boston Conservatory.
The Boston Conservatory and Walnut Hill School for the Arts have had a close relationship for some time. They are only 30 minutes apart in Massachusetts and share one full-time faculty member, as well as guest and adjunct faculty. But in fall 2015, the college and boarding school will make their partnership official. A new program will allow select Walnut Hill graduates to earn a BFA in dance from Boston Conservatory in three years. “In some ways the creation of the partnership was organic,” says Walnut Hill director of dance Michael Owen, who proposed the program one year ago. TBC dance director Cathy Young agrees. “The more we talked, the more we saw similarities in what both schools believe is essential to developing dance artists. We’ve taken a few Walnut Hill students each year, so we know they’re a great fit for our program.”
Walnut Hill students still must complete the audition and application process to be accepted into the college. Owen will identify possible candidates from Walnut Hill as early as their sophomore year, and the Conservatory director and assistant director will observe these students in classes and performances during their junior year. Candidates who are then invited to apply will submit application materials and audition in the fall of their senior year. Accepted dancers must complete three specified Walnut Hill upper-level academic courses that have been approved by Boston Conservatory before they begin their first year. Young predicts she will take about five students, out of an approximately 30-student Boston Conservatory class, from Walnut Hill each year.
Once at Boston Conservatory, students will be completely integrated with other freshman dancers, though they will be working toward slightly different degrees; traditional Conservatory students graduate with a BFA in contemporary dance performance. Curriculum will follow the same requirements, from technique classes to pedagogy to Laban, but students on the three-year track will have a condensed final year that combines junior and senior coursework. The program is especially attractive for students who may have considered forgoing college to start their professional careers. “It will be extremely useful for our dancers to be able to enter the professional field a little earlier,” says Owen. “But most importantly, they’ll be able to do it with a degree under their belts.”