Working Out with Frances Chung

The SFB principal gains strength and stamina on her kickboard.

With Gennadi Nedvigin in Liam Scarlett's "Hummingbird." Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

Frances Chung is a petite powerhouse. Exceptionally strong, the 5' 4" San Francisco Ballet principal has the technical chops to perform a sparkling Kitri and the endurance to lead the African-classical fusion of Val Caniparoli’s Lambarena. She first learned to boost her strength with swimming back when she was a corps member rehabbing a bad ankle sprain that happened during a rehearsal of Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering.

“I was out for six weeks,” she recalls. “I had to learn how to work out by not dancing.” Frequently recommended by orthopedists, swimming loosens and strengthens nearly every muscle in a dancer’s body without weight load or joint-taxing impact, so it’s ideal for recovery and aerobic conditioning. “Doing a full ballet without stopping is what makes dance really difficult for me,” she says. “Swimming helps me with stamina, so I can do the whole ballet better.”

Chung, now 31, still uses swimming to heal injuries and maintain the fitness required by SFB’s varied repertoire. She adapts her weekly 30- to 45-minute swim to her always-changing needs. “If I feel fatigued, going to the pool is still beneficial. Just jumping into cold water is very therapeutic for my body, which is usually pretty swollen.” With two full-length ballets—and a reprise of Dances at a Gathering—on this season’s slate, she’ll rely on swimming to help keep her body at its best. “Ultimately, it comes down to taking class every day. But swimming is an extra push that allows me to dance more freely.”

 

Get Your Kicks

Chung tailors her pool routine to how her body feels and what she is dancing—lap swimming boosts her cardio strength, while kickboarding strengthens specific muscles.

1. Warm-up. Chung loosens up with 5 minutes of low-key breaststroke and freestyle laps, then does 5 to 10 minutes at a faster pace to raise her heart rate. “If I feel like I’ve been lagging in rehearsal, I’ll push and do more sprinting.”

2. Kickboard basics. Fifteen minutes of kickboarding works Chung’s legs and core without building upper-body bulk. Hold the top of the board with your hands and rest your elbows on the center. For the first lap or two, kick with your lower body under the water. “I relax my knees and legs, and keep a relatively straight back. I don’t want to sink into my neck or my lower back, so I try to really pull up.” Then work the glutes and hip flexors by keeping your hips at water level and splashing while you kick. Knees can be bent or straight.

3. Kick it up. To challenge your obliques and central core muscles, move your hands to the sides of the kickboard, push the board under the water and extend your arms fully. Stabilize the board with your core as you kick with splashes for 2 to 3 additional laps. “There is a lot of resistance, even though the water is holding you up,” says Chung.

4. Go for a jog. Aqua-jogging gives Chung a high-intensity cardio workout that’s easy on the joints. Starting at one side of the pool at neck depth, move your arms and legs in a running motion without touching the bottom as you work your way back and forth across the pool.

Tip: Ankles tend to sickle during freestyle kicking, so focus on maintaining a straight or winged position to reinforce correct muscle

memory.

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021