Your Body Got the Blues?

January 21, 2007

A rigorous season of performances or a grueling touring schedule can trigger burnout no matter how prepared the dancer. “It was a shock to my body,” remembers New York City Ballet soloist Dana Hanson, who was barely 19 when she first joined the company and leapt into a winter season that stretched 14 weeks. She danced in the corps de ballet of The Nutcracker for six nights a week, plus the weekend matinees. “The repetition wears your body down,” she says. Hanson ended up with multiple ankle sprains, and learned two important lessons. The first? As soon as something hurts, try to figure out what’s causing it. The second? Make staying healthy as much a part of your job as learning a role.



Smart work habits, a fitness program tailored to your body, and sensible eating can go a long way to helping dancers survive a tough season. “It’s not always the most talented dancer who goes the farthest and lasts the longest. It’s the one with the best work habits to nurture their gift,” notes Peter Marshall, company physical therapist for American Ballet Theatre. During long runs it’s easy for the younger dancers to get bored and let the basics slide, opening up the way for injuries. “It takes discipline and commitment to get an adequate warmup and keep it fresh,” he says.


After the curtain falls, a proper cool down is just as key. “Dancing unbalances you,” says physical therapist Sean Gallagher, who works with the Paul Taylor Dance Company. He notes that many Taylor pieces require the dancers onstage periodically for short spurts of movement that put enormous stress on certain body parts. “His dancers do these weird configurations and wild and crazy stuff. So after it’s over, they have to undo what they’ve done. If they go to sleep with an imbalance in their bodies, it doesn’t go away,” says Gallagher. He recommends that dancers stretch and massage tight, overused muscles before their body temperature drops.


The best way to maintain stamina during a long run is to have an aerobic component in your regular workout. “It’s the surest, clearest path to energy,” says Marshall Hagins, resident physical therapist for the Mark Morris Dance Group. While it may seem that dancers get a solid workout onstage, the choreography’s starts and stops and fractured movements hinder their ability to reach an aerobic threshold. To guarantee that a dancer builds up stamina, Hagins recommends cross-training. He rules out jogging because it puts similar stresses on the muscles and joints—particularly knees and hips—that dancers have been using to work all day. Better choices are swimming, training on elliptical machines, or using your body in a completely new way.


That’s why the Paul Taylor Dance Company’s Richard Chen, who’s been performing for 26 years, likes to go river kayaking even while touring. He finds it combines his need for an aerobic workout with his desire for a more balanced lifestyle. Getting out in nature opens him up to a broader world than he finds in the theater. “Performing is more difficult if I make it the one important thing in my life,” he says.


Another dancer who takes his hobby on the road is David Leventhal, who tours with Mark Morris Dance Group six months of the year. During rehearsal breaks, he’ll slip away to play the pianos he finds in theaters and hotel lobbies. “It’s a relaxing thing to do,” says Leventhal, who’s compiled a homemade songbook of over 600 tunes that he pulls out on such occasions. “It’s active, but not distracting, and a wonderful release.”


When dancers perform six days a week, their neuromuscular systems don’t always have time to recover. Jet lag only heightens the problem. When he’s on the plane, Chen has a hamstring-and-glute stretch that helps. He sits up straight in his seat, crosses one leg over the other, and creates a right angle by placing the ankle on the opposite knee. Then he leans forward and grabs the support ankle that’s braced on the floor. He then repeats the stretch on the other side. Hagins recommends doing half-squats at the back of the plane.


Static postures are so debilitating that San Francisco Ballet’s physical therapist, Michael Leslie, often tapes dancers’ backs before boarding a plane. “It creates more kinesthetic awareness of where they’re slouching,” he says. He uses a mesh tape similar to Leukotape called Cover Roll Stretch. It has a strong adhesive but gives with body movements. He also encourages the dancers to do “fanny squeezes” in their seats, as well as get up and move about frequently during flights. He recommends pressure stockings to prevent cabin pressure from causing body fluids to shift and make their feet swell.


As the performing season stretches on, Cody Brazos, physical therapist for Houston Ballet, notes that some of the biggest stresses for performers are psychological rather than physical. He recommends they unburden themselves by talking over problems. “Dancers are perfectionists,” he says. “So there is always frustration, dissatisfaction, and the stress that accompanies those feelings.” Young, inexperienced corps dancers in particular are susceptible to feelings of failure, especially when they see their peers excelling at a faster rate. “You grow out of it and come to realize that dancing in the corps is important, too,” says Dana Hanson.


Rather than just focusing on how to get through a heavy performance season, Tina LeBlanc, a principal with the San Francisco Ballet, encourages dancers to thrive on it. Having successfully completed 13 seasons with the company (and many more with the Joffrey Ballet before that), she has a clear idea of what it takes. “It’s always a push, but that’s also what makes it exciting. Sometimes when I’m tired, something new comes out in the dancing,” she says. “I might focus more attention on the softness of my arms, for instance. It can be a time of self-exploration.”


After 14 years in the NYCB corps Hanson has proven that she’s got what it takes—talent and discipline. And her reward is more demi-soloist roles. “Performing is pretty extreme,” she says. “Every day you have to work your body back up. But you never know when an opportunity is going to be thrown at you, and you want to be ready for it.”


Ann Farmer is a New York writer.