Intensive dance training is one of the most rigorous and demanding tasks imaginable, both physically and emotionally. There really is no way to take it lightly and still get results, so it is incredibly important that young people who are serious about pursuing professional dance careers educate themselves not only on the art of dance, but also about the special physical and emotional precautions they need to take in order to enjoy a long, healthy career and not burn out. When I was a young dance student, I was incredibly dedicated to improving my technique, but like many young dancers, I neglected many of my physical and mental needs.
Because of this, I spent the majority of my 4 years of conservatory training (and, come to think of it, a lot of my high school pre-professional training) injured, depressed, and demoralized. When I graduated, I went into teaching rather than intensively performing, and also started a small company. I was no longer dancing the number of hours I was while in school, but I was taking class 3-4 times a week, teaching class daily, and rehearsing multiple hours a week, so my load was still pretty heavy. After my first year out of school, I noticed a remarkable change had happened– despite a sharp decrease in class time, my technique had actually improved. My balance was better, my extensions more solid, and my injuries had subsided. I realized that more than changing my schedule, this new life post-college had changed a lot of my HABITS, thus enabling me to dance smarter and stay healthy.
I don’t deny the value of the intensity of conservatory training, and I only wish I had figured out some of these healthier attitudes sooner so I could have gotten even more out of my programs. Now that I am on the other side of the mirror, so to speak, I try to pass along some of these ideas to my students, so that even at a young age they can form routines and, attitudes which will help keep them sane and healthy if they choose to pursue an intensive study of dance. The following are some suggestions which in my opinion, would greatly reduce injury and frustration in young dancers.
1. Warm yourself up.
I don’t just mean before rehearsal, although clearly dancers who jump into choreography ice cold are doing themselves a disservice. I feel that it is also necessary to warm up before CLASS. No matter how thorough a warm-up class provides, no teacher is able to give a warm-up which focuses on the specific needs of every unique body in the room. Maybe you are tight and need to mobilize your joints before class. Maybe you are hyper-mobile and need to do some stabilization exercises. Perhaps you have a chronic ankle problem and need to do some theraband stretches to get the kinks out before doing relévès. Whatever your specific issues are, don’t simply rely on class to take care of all of them. Additionally, if you arrive 15 minutes early to your first class of the day and take the time to check in with your body, you will be more focused and better able to pick up in class.
As I mentioned above, the needs of each dancer are unique in terms of warm-up, but some general rules of thumb are that you want your warm-up to get your blood flowing and wake your muscles up (move around, don’t just stay in a static position for a long time– I find leg and arm swings while lying on the floor to be very useful), include gentle, mobilizing stretches (yoga cat and cow back good, splits and straddles not good– save deep stretching for after class or after barre), and focus on aligning your body for your class work (spine and abdominal strengtheners like Pilates can be good to include.)
If you’re clueless as to what to do for a warm-up, ask a teacher you trust, a physical therapist or trainer, or even a friend you see consistently warming up, then start to develop a routine based on what makes you feel best. Trying some bodywork classes in Pilates, yoga, Klein, or Gyrotonics (if you have time) can also be very informative.
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2. Practice restorative stretching.
It is distressing to observe how much young dancers tend to focus only on stretches they feel will improve their extension (splits, straddles, shouldering the leg, etc) and how little time overall is spent on stretches to release chronically overworked areas. I encourage all of my students to stretch their glutes, quads, hip flexors, and calves daily. These muscles are constantly working if you are doing classical dance, and allowing them to get ultra tight through neglect can result in a host of injuries. While they don’t obviously contribute to extension in the ways that, say, the hamstrings do, everything is working together in the body and an excessive tightness in one area is going to lead to problems in other areas.
3. Stop forcing turnout
Ok, I may have to give up my tutu and the stick I bang on the floor after this one, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say it: most dancers force their turnout. We all know we’re not supposed to, but we also all know that 5th position is heel to toe and tendú a la seconde is supposed to be in line with your shoulder. I am definitely not advocating the total abandonment of turnout, and feel that turnout is useful as well as beautiful, but forcing yourself to stand in a position you can’t maintain muscularly in order to meet a certain aesthetic standard doesn’t make sense. We’re dancers, not Barbies, right? The point is to be able to MOVE, not to be a perfect, yet non-functional, ballet statue.
When finding one’s real turnout, I would suggest going through the same checklist I give my Level 1 8 year olds: are all 10 toes on the floor? Is your pelvis underneath you? Can you straighten your knees without any twisting? Can you balance without the barre? Can you transfer to standing on one leg or to relévè without having to alter your turnout? Once you have found the turnout level which meets that criteria, stop looking in the mirror for a few weeks. Learn to locate your rotation kinesthetically instead of visually. You may be amazed at the improvement in your technique.
4. Focus on the pelvis.
I subbed a high school modern class once in which the students complained, “All we’ve been working on all year is PELVIS!!” My response was, “What else is there?” Whether doing ballet or modern, understanding and being able to properly control your pelvis is one of the most important things dancers can do. I could easily write an entire essay just on the many impacts of the pelvis on dancer health and technique, but for the moment, the following are chronic problems many young dancers need to address:
Stop tucking your pelvis in order to “look skinny.” First off, pelvic position and weight have very little to do with each other. If you do have excess weight around your stomach or butt, walking around in a perma-contraction is not going to help it, only diet and exercise can make one lose weight (and I’ve found that most dancers employing this trick are NOT overweight at all.) Secondly, constant tucking can actually make your glutes and quads bulk up due to the overuse they suffer when trying to work around a misaligned pelvis.
Stop distorting your pelvic alignment in order to turn out more or get your leg higher. If you keep using an improper means towards your desired end, your results will be unpredictable and possibly hurt you. Don’t be so eager to developè over your head if the only way you can do it is jacking your hip up. Accept the limitations of what your body can do CORRECTLY and then advance from there.
Remember to strengthen all areas of the pelvis. Crunches only get the upper abs. A proper abdominal workout for dancers must also include strengthening the lower abs, the obliques, the back muscles, and in my opinion absolutely must include exercises to engage the pelvic floor and trunk stabilizers in a neutral position so that dancers learn to engage the abdominals without altering the position of the spine.
checkout our pelvic placement series with Leslie Journet
5. Have a healthy attitude about corrections.
I can’t tell you how many classes I’ve left in tears because I didn’t get a correction. As a young dancer, I completely relied on the validation of my teachers for self-worth, so that every time I got a correction I couldn’t immediately master I felt incompetent and every class I wasn’t singled out in I felt worthless. Now that I’m a teacher, I have learned how challenging it is in a large class to give individual attention to every student every single week, (as well as the fact that whether or not I correct someone has nothing to do with whether I like them or think they’re talented—I’m simply noticing a problem and addressing it) and I realize how silly it was for me to spend so much of my training being so upset over attention I was or wasn’t getting. Now that I am taking class for personal enrichment and on my own terms, I focus on enjoying the movement, learning new things about my own body, and learning from listening to the teacher, whether he or she is addressing me or not.
When you are taking class, try to remember the old adage that every correction is your correction. Listen to the teacher, no matter who they’re talking to. Also use class as a time to check in with YOUR body and do as much self-correcting as you can. It’s wonderful when you bring your performance energy into class, but recognize that class is not a show, and you aren’t going to always get that same rush in the studio that comes from having an enthusiastic audience. Also remember that class is where it’s ok to make mistakes—the risks you take in class are the way you learn how to perfect new skills and then eventually bring them to the stage, so don’t be afraid to try and sometimes fail. If we all knew how to do everything perfectly we wouldn’t need class, and dance technique is one of those things that constantly has to be revisited and fine-tuned.
I wish I had had this attitude and developed more of these healthy attitudes as a younger dancer, as class is now a joy instead of a stress, and whether or not I nail my double pirouette or not, I truly marvel at the fact that this body of mine, designed by nature to do things like walking and running, can do something as remarkable as a pirouette at all.