Your Best Body: Defy Your DNA

Practical ways to improve turnout, extension, balance and jumps.
Published in the August/September 2011 issue.

Photo by Nathan Sayers

Part of what makes the spectacle of ballet so astonishing is the way dancers’ bodies seem to defy the laws of physics. To the average onlooker, a ballerina can effortlessly lift her leg to her ear while balancing on her toes; she can soar so high it looks like she can fly. But in accomplishing these seemingly magical feats, there’s actually
little magic involved. Instead, they take a whole lot of hard work.

Even the most talented dancers aren’t born with perfect ballet bodies. But no matter what you struggle with, there are practical ways to reach the maximum potential within your set of genetic limits. Instead of forcing your turnout at the knees or lifting your hip to yank your leg higher, use these techniques to reach your absolute best.    

Tackle Your Turnout
Having a narrow range of turnout affects everything from your first plié to the last grand jeté, since every movement in ballet starts with the outward rotation of the
legs. And this problem is made all the more frustrating by the fact that it’s largely
determined by the hips you’re born with. “Turnout is controlled by capsular laxity and joint orientation—how the femur bone is put into the hips,” explains Megan Richardson, a senior certified athletic trainer and clinical specialist at PT Plus in New York.

To achieve your maximum rotation, start by finding proper alignment. Shannon Bresnahan, a teacher at San Francisco Ballet School, says the pelvis should be
lifted and in a neutral position, so there’s still a slight natural curve in your lower back.

Next, you need to locate the correct muscles—squeezing everything in your backside will actually limit your turnout. Instead, you want to strengthen the hips’ external rotators. These muscles can be tricky to find, however. To help dancers locate them, Richardson tells her clients to make a fish face, and then mimic it with their other cheeks. “Everything around the rotators should be fairly soft,” she says. “It’s like a Jell-O mold: firm on the inside and kind of jiggly on the outside.” To strengthen these muscles, Richardson has dancers practice rotating from parallel to turnout while wearing socks on a slick surface, like your kitchen floor.

Maggie Small, a dancer at Richmond Ballet, has found that making certain artistic choices can give the illusion of more turnout. Even things as small as doing a tendu derrière instead of B-plus can help hide the heel of her back leg.

Boost Your Balance
Trying to build up your balance? If you’re struggling at the end of barre exercises, don’t just keep wobbling: You haven’t yet found the proper position. “Hold the barre, push against the floor to get to the top of your muscle tone and stretch upwards,” Bresnahan says. “It doesn’t do any good to wobble around.”

Luckily, balance is highly trainable—even if it doesn’t come naturally. “Dancers tend to be really visually dominant,” says Richardson. “So to improve the fastest, practice by taking the eyes away.” She advises balancing on one leg (in both turnout and parallel) for 30 to 60 seconds with your eyes open, and then closed. Once you feel strong enough, try the same thing standing on a pillow or wobble disk.

Emulating onstage conditions can also help. Face away from the mirror sometimes
to feel where your body is in space, and play with darker or really bright lighting. “It will decrease your reliance on the eyes for balance,” says Richardson. “And it trains the proprioceptors in your joints and skin, as well as the vestibular system (the area of the brain responsible for balance).”

Increase Extension
Every dancer dreams of floating her leg up to her ear, but time spent in the splits isn’t enough to make it a reality. “Someone who can put their leg up there with their hand isn’t necessarily able to développé it there,” points out Richardson. “Extension requires both flexibility and strength.”

And it’s not just about the working leg: The primary area you need to strengthen is actually your core. “The first muscle to activate when we move our legs is the transverse abdominis (the deep abdominal muscle),” explains Richardson. To strengthen it, Richardson says, lie on your back with your pelvis in neutral position, knees bent, feet on the floor. Keeping your pelvis and ribs still, draw your stomach down to the floor and up toward your chest—think of drawing the pelvic bones together and scooping the abdomen into a “bowl.” Holding this position, lift one shin up to tabletop position, then the other. Dip one foot down to the floor (moving your leg from the hip, not the knee). Return to tabletop, and repeat on the other side. Then place one leg at a time back down on the floor in starting position. Repeat that entire sequence, performing a total of two to three sets of ten.  

Even if your extension doesn’t reach much past 90 degrees, proper execution can still make it look striking. Bresnahan says to be sure you’re really stretching the leg to its maximum from the hip to the end of your shoe. “Most important,” she says, “especially if the leg isn’t as high, is that the line of the foot is beautiful.”
Jump Higher
Catching some air at the height of a leap is one of the greatest joys of dancing. The secret to achieving a jump like that is plyometric training. In this technique (which athletes across disciplines have used for decades to increase their force and speed), you allow the muscles to reach their optimum stretch in plié and then use the natural recoil to launch the body up quickly. “Jumping is the ability to produce really fast power,” says Richardson.

The good news is that the 200-plus jumps you do every day in class already train your body in this highly efficient method. But it’s the way you mentally approach those jumps that makes the difference. “As you reach the bottom of a good, healthy plié (with your heels on the ground), think of exploding up off the floor,” Richardson says.
You can also add plyometrics to your cross-training routine. Do two double leg hops forward in a row, traveling as far as you can. At the end of the second hop, jump up vertically as high as you can from both legs. Repeat this five times in a row, doing two or three sets total. To advance the exercise, go from one leg instead of two on the last vertical jump. Richardson emphasizes the importance of landing toe-ball-heel with your knees aligned over the middle of your foot, and making sure to keep your upper body still as you jump.

Limitations to your dancer DNA don’t have to mean curtains for your dream career. Richmond Ballet’s Small has succeeded by making sure her technique is grounded in
performing steps properly and working with the best of what she has. “Keep persevering,” she says. “Seek advice from people with more knowledge, because there’s no substitute for experience.”

Kathleen McGuire writes about dance from Pittsburgh, PA.



Black Is The New Green
Green has long been the go-to color for super foods. But nutrition studies have recently shifted the spotlight to black veggies, fruits and grains. Try adding these three dark powerhouses to your diet to keep your body in tip-top shape.
Black Rice: With more fiber than brown or white rice, this variety helps you maintain a healthy weight by keeping you full for longer. It also has considerably higher amounts of vitamin E, which strengthens the immune system and protects cells from free radicals.
Blackberries: Loaded with powerful antioxidants called anthocyanins (the natural chemical that gives produce a dark hue), these berries can help to reduce inflammation.
Black Tea: Studies from Rutgers University suggest that theaflavins, antioxidants found in black tea, may speed your recovery from muscle soreness after an intense class or rehearsal.

Rein It In
Dancers love their flexibility. How else are your développés supposed to reach the sky? But combine that elasticity with explosive movements like jumps, and you can end up with dangerously loose ligaments in hyper-mobile joints. Keep your body safe from injury by practicing stability training. Adam Daredia, a certified strength and conditioning specialist who trains dancers in New York’s Ailey/Fordham program, recommends working on a BOSU ball, a fitness device that looks like a yoga ball cut in half. Standing on top of it in parallel, do three sets of 10 squats while being sure to keep your core stable and your hips, knees and ankles aligned. “Mentally connect all of your joints,” says Daredia. “Work them together, with no shifting in and out of the knee joint, no ankles turning in and out.” Add this exercise to your regular cross-training routine to keep your joints not just supple, but strong.

Dry It Off
Sweaty feet are more than just a smelly annoyance—they can be a breeding ground for painful plantar warts, which you can pick up when walking around the studio barefoot. An easy way to stay dry is to use antiperspirant on your feet. “I’ve had dancers apply Drysol, a prescription deodorant, for years with great success,” says Dr. Frank Sinkoe, a podiatrist who works with Atlanta Ballet dancers. “If sweat is controlled, warts can be prevented and are more easily treated—athlete’s foot, too.” Although prescription-strength deodorant will be stronger, the same stuff that you use under your arms every day also works.

Give Yourself A Break
Most of us assume that fierce discipline and strong willpower are the keys to keeping up a healthy diet. But cutting yourself a little slack may actually be a better route. New studies on self-compassion show that allowing room for mistakes results in smarter nutrition choices overall. Acknowledging that you may not be perfect allows you to move on from a flub. So let yourself off the hook for eating that one doughnut—it will keep you from scarfing down the whole box of a dozen later.

Eat Like A Pro
Miami City Ballet’s Tricia Albertson knows she needs a filling breakfast. “If I don’t eat well in the morning, I’m worthless!” she says. Her go-to a.m. meal? Whole wheat blueberry oatmeal pancakes. She’ll even make extra for when the company goes on tour, keeping them refrigerated, then popping them in the microwave for one minute in the morning. “I love this recipe because it sustains me through morning class and rehearsals,” she says. “I get high-density carbohydrates, protein, omega-3s, antioxidants—and a little bit of sugar that makes it all taste great.”

Whole Wheat Blueberry Oatmeal Pancakes

1/2 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup low-fat milk
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
2 tsps baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tbsp sugar
1/4 tsp salt
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups plain or vanilla Stonyfield Farms yogurt
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 tbsps olive oil
1 cup blueberries

1. Combine milk and oats in a bowl; set aside.
2. Sift together the flours, baking powder, baking soda, sugar and salt.
3. In another bowl, whisk the eggs, then whisk in the yogurt, followed by the vanilla extract and oil.
4. Add the flour mix to the wet ingredients and whisk together. (Don’t overbeat; a few lumps are okay.) Fold in the oats and milk. Let sit for an hour, or refrigerate overnight.
5. Drop three to four tablespoons onto a hot griddle for each pancake, topping with six or seven blueberries. Cook two to three minutes, until bubbles begin to break through. Flip and cook for about 30 to 60 seconds, or until nicely browned.
6. Serve hot with a little butter and real maple syrup.
Yield: One dozen pancakes

Make Class Easier
Wish you could build strength without the burn? Stop by Starbucks before class. A recent study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism found that when athletes consumed caffeine before exercising, their workouts felt less taxing on their muscles. The effects were seen in both those who drink coffee regularly and those who don’t. Researchers believe caffeine blocks some nerve endings from transmitting pain signals to the brain. But before you start guzzling cappuccinos, be sure your body can handle the stimulation without getting jittery. Try sipping just one cup about an hour before class and see how your dancing responds.