In her first season as a principal at American Ballet Theatre, Stella Abrera experienced a kind of exhaustion she'd never known before. “For 14 years, I got used to gearing up to do one pas de deux or one solo, and I would usually feel fresh beforehand," says 38-year-old Abrera, who was promoted in 2015. “It was new to be so fatigued before I had to go on for the second or third act."
She quickly learned not to freak out or fight the feeling. Instead, Abrera began to use each intermission to calmly recharge with an electrolyte-rich drink and a few bites to eat—some banana, some nut bar and a few gummy bears.
Rather than obsess over fatigue, she reframes it as a way to help her relax her nerves, trusting that adrenaline will kick in when she needs it. “Adrenaline is maybe my favorite drug," she jokes. “I don't feel any pain, just a burst of energy. It's kind of unreal. It's something I never feel until I'm onstage."
The downside of adrenaline, however, is how long it takes for the buzz to wear off. “After every big show I had this season, I didn't nod off until 4 am, and then I would wake with a jolt two hours later."
Knowing how high the risk of injury can be when she's had so little sleep, Abrera takes extra care to listen to her body: Any rehearsals the next day are just for muscle memory; none are danced full-out. She looks forward to her day off to recuperate with a massage, homemade pancakes and, ideally, nine hours of sleep.
Abrera typically visits the gym four times a week to do 20 to 25 minutes on the elliptical, plus a series of body-weight exercises like lunges, planks, calf raises and bridges. She skips the elliptical during peak performance weeks but continues her core-strength regimen. During off weeks, she ups her gym routine by adding some jumping exercises, such as jump rope, box jumps and using the jump board on the Pilates reformer.
Lessons From Injury
Abrera's career was put on hold when a back/sciatic nerve injury atrophied her calf muscle. Between the injury and a re-injury, she was offstage for two years. “After I came back, it took me a few years to trust my body again and let go with certain movements," she admits. Despite the setback, the experience taught her several lessons:
- “I'm more mindful of ramping up after time off now. I don't ever run a full variation right away—I'll do it at 50 to 75 percent energy for two days, or one section at a time."
- “I learned a lot about the nervous system. The sciatic nerve goes under the sacroiliac joint, and if that's tight, I feel weakness in my calf. The low-impact running motion of the elliptical helps me keep it well oiled and open."
- “I hydrate like crazy now. I'm obsessed with giving my muscles everything they need to fire correctly."
- “Core exercises help with everything."
A banana with almond butter, toasted almonds and honey, plus a cup of tea with half-and-half and honey. “I need the right balance of protein and carbs. If I have too much sugar, I have a horrible crash at barre, get woozy and start wandering around asking people for Life Savers."