Working Out With Rena Butler

May 30, 2016

How the Bill T. Jones dancer finds balance between lengthening and strengthening

Butler, here in Jones’ Duet x 2, recovers after rehearsals in savasana (corpse pose). Photo by Paul B. Goode, Courtesy BTJ/AZDC

Rena Butler needs an unusual amount of strength. As a dancer with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, she says, “I know at any minute Bill is going to ask for something crazy with me lifting God-knows-who”—including, possibly, a male dancer as tall as 6′ 4″.

But at the same time, she’s also careful to sculpt a lean physique. “My body was super-bulky when I was younger,” says the former competitive swimmer, who also played water polo and soccer growing up. “I have to work on keeping my muscles lean.”

Her secret to achieving both strength and length? Hot yoga. “It’s groomed my body in a way that keeps me from looking like a football player,” she says. Butler discovered Bikram at age 18, then converted to heated vinyasa flow a few years later. “Bikram’s mantra is to keep pushing and pushing, and while that’s great for some people, I like to take my time to reach a goal in a certain pose, or to sit down if the heat is bothering me.” Still, the challenge of the heat is part of what attracts her to the practice: “Dancers are all masochists. This feeds that.”

Today, Butler practices yoga up to four times a week, depending on her rehearsal and touring schedule. She seeks out local studios while on tour, sometimes catching a 6 am class along with the company manager (also a hot yoga fanatic) before rehearsal. “By taking yoga before dancing, I’m able to quickly gauge what’s hurting that day, what’s limited,” she says. “I can feel my joints and tap into my body as it cools down from the heat.”

The philosophy of yoga—staying in the moment, and letting it go once you’ve completed it—has informed Butler’s approach to performance, especially when something doesn’t work as planned. She’s learned, she says, “it’s not about how perfect you can be, but how much you give.”

But as much as she relies on yoga, Butler hasn’t lost her love of swimming. When she has access to a pool, she’ll whip out 8 to 20 laps. “I’ll do freestyle, or maybe breaststroke to work my turnout. But my favorite is butterfly. It makes my back super-strong. And as much as I care about the aesthetic of my body and the lengthening of my muscles, my first priority is always strength.”

Post-Yoga Juice

“I get a fresh grapefruit, mango, pineapple juice with spirulina, chia seeds and a little ginger after yoga class. It revs me up for the day.”

Vacation Workout Strategy

“I take a backpacking trip every December with my boyfriend, who’s also a dancer, to places like Nicaragua and Thailand. On vacation we try to do things to stay in shape in a very lazy way: hiking or doing anything outside in warm weather. Just enjoying life and letting your body work out naturally.”