Working Out With Chelsy Meiss

Deadlifting 140 pounds gives her a noticeable edge in the studio.

 

Meiss builds explosive power by jumping on and off a 24-inch box. Photo by Sian Richards, Courtesy NBOC.

 

As a student, Chelsy Meiss was told that to become a professional ballet dancer, she should never lift weights. “ ‘No one likes an overly muscular ballerina,’ ” she says, repeating a common refrain. After joining the National Ballet of Canada in 2008, however, Meiss injured her ankle and the recommended rehabilitation program involved weight lifting to build strength, stamina and explosive power. Initially, she had her doubts. “It was a little daunting—ballerinas usually don’t lift anything heavier than themselves,” she says. “I really had no idea what I was getting into, and I didn’t think I would like it.”

Yet, after a few sessions with personal trainer Freyja Spence at Toronto’s Fortis Fitness, surrounded by guys in sweat-stained shorts and hard rock radio echoing off the industrial-strength equipment, Meiss quickly became a convert.

Standing 5' 6" and weighing a lithe 111 pounds, today the 28-year-old second soloist deadlifts 140 pounds. She also sweats through 95-pound front squats, 24-inch box jumps and one-arm dumbbell lunges—often executed consecutively as part of an intense circuit training program known as Tabata. It’s a killer workout that leaves Meiss utterly spent but also renewed. “I could see very quickly that weight training really improved my allégro, my jumps, my explosive and powerful movements, without changing my balletic line,” Meiss says. “Ballet dancers, especially female ones, are concerned that lifting weights will bulk them up. But that has not been my experience at all.”

What it has done instead is give her a noticeable edge. Visiting choreographers like Alexei Ratmansky, John Neumeier, Christopher Wheeldon and Marco Goecke have recently hand-picked Meiss to dance leading roles in their ballets. “Staff and colleagues have noticed a positive change in me and some are now going for weight training themselves,” Meiss adds. “They see the benefits, and are now willing to get past the stigma that lifting heavy weights is bad for a ballerina.”

 

Ready to Pump Some Iron?

Always lift weights with a trainer or a spotter who can recommend the proper resistance-training methods for your body type while also assessing your technique and gradually increasing the intensity over time. Here’s Meiss’ routine:

1. Warm up first. Meiss starts her gym workouts by standing in parallel, one leg lifted to the side at a 45-degree angle. She then traces a series of small circles in the air with the toe of the working leg extending back behind the body in a low arabesque. This fires the gluteal muscles and warms up the hips.

2. Kettle bell swings. Squatting in a parallel second position with the glutes sticking back and toes pointing slightly outwards, let the kettle bell hang down between your legs. Then thrust the weight up to chest level using the buttocks, not the arms, for momentum. Repeat 15 to 20 times. Meiss, who uses a 35-pound kettle bell, swears this exercise is made for women on pointe: “It lifts the hips and prevents the feet from sinking into the shoes.”

3. Box jumps. Find a sturdy object with a height you can safely jump on and off of. Start with feet parallel, hips-width apart, and then plié in front of the box. Jump up on and then off the box, landing with your core braced and stepping back before beginning the sequence over again. Repeat up to five times. Meiss finds this builds stamina and power for jumps.

4. Dumbbell lunges. Hold a dumbbell in one hand (Meiss uses a 20-pound weight) and lunge forward, alternating legs for a total of 10 lunges on each before shifting the weight to the opposite hand. Keep the core lifted and knee straight over the foot. “You should be lunging deep enough so that the back knee lightly touches the ground,” says Meiss. This strengthens the hips and lengthens the psoas muscles.

 

 

 

TIP: When lifting heavy weights, chalk is like rosin for the hands: It helps your grip and ensures that the weight doesn’t slide when you get tired.

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I'm a Professional Dancer With Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Here's Why Dance Companies Need to Start Prioritizing Mental Health

My name is Abi Stafford, and I have generalized anxiety disorder.

I've had this "hook" in my mind for how I'd open an important essay my entire dance career, but I was never ready to talk about it, until now.

I might be the only dancer to say this, but the best change to result from the coronavirus shutdown is company class moving to Zoom.

As a kid, my teachers encouraged competition between students. While it undoubtedly helped push me, all these years later I still struggle with unhealthy levels of competitive feelings in class. But on Zoom, I don't have to compare myself to anyone, and it feels great. I can dance freely because no one is watching and critiquing my abilities.

When the shutdown started, I was preparing to return to New York City Ballet after a hiatus. I had taken a leave of absence since December 2019, the middle of Nutcracker season, to focus on my mental health.

As NYCB underwent leadership transitions during the last few years and the culture among the dancers shifted, I had developed new feelings of anxiety. Some dancers felt more emboldened to ask for roles they wanted, envisioning exciting career possibilities. Others quietly wished casting choices would remain the same and sensed a more uncertain path. With my brother as artistic director, workplace dynamics collided with my personal life. Casting disappointments jabbed me painfully, and it became hard to find a corner in the theater where my soul felt safe.

It was difficult to officially inform the company that I needed to take a leave because I'd been burned when I'd shown my anxiety before. Back when Peter Martins was in charge, I had an anxiety attack backstage prior to Theme and Variations. I felt too insecure, too scared, too tired, and I couldn't fathom performing. He offered me en­coura­ge­ment at the time, but, several years later, he brought up the episode unexpectedly, pointing to that painful moment to explain why I wasn't reliable. The experience solidified that I should never show emotional vulnerabilities or weaknesses.

Fast-forward to December 2019. When I finally let myself stop dancing, literally mid-rehearsal, some colleagues tried to talk me out of it. While well-intentioned, their words made me feel worse because I started to question my choice. But it was the right decision for me. I have been focusing on my mental wellness, family and pursuing my law degree to heal my spirit as quarantine carries on.

I have lived and performed with (sometimes crippling) anxiety for my entire career, and I'm nowhere near the only one who's struggled. I know of a dancer who picked up her bag and quit in the middle of a rehearsal. One time a young dancer timidly asked a group of older dancers whether ballet company life was hard for them. Upon emphatic replies of "yes," he said, "I thought it was just me. Everyone walks around like they are just fine."

Dancers feel immense pressure from management to constantly be perfect onstage. Yet, we are at the mercy of our bodies. Those two factors are an excellent recipe for anxiety. Some dancers cry a lot. Others call out sick when they're too anxious to perform. Some even choose to retire altogether—far too young.

There needs to be more mental health support within dance companies. Psychological services should be made available to all dancers and artistic staff—including ballet masters. At my company, they're under an intense amount of pressure to prepare the vast repertory, and all are former NYCB dancers who shared similar experiences, stresses and pain during their own careers.

Overall, everyone needs to listen more. Artistic management could send out anonymous surveys to assess what areas need improvement. Companies could hold talk-back sessions with dancers to open up the lines of communication about what's working and what's not. We need to make it acceptable for dancers to take care of their mental health. We need to stop training dancers (explicitly and implicitly) to hide their anxiety for fear of losing performance opportunities.

It is time to begin the conversation, because I worry about the ongoing suffering of dancers if this is not addres­sed. I worry that company leadership will continue to view my very real struggles with my mental health as a weakness. Most of all, I worry that the next generation of artists will continue to suffer as too many of their predecessors have.