Should I turn down an apprenticeship to finish my dance degree, or should I put my education on pause? —Ashleigh
Congratulations on receiving an apprenticeship offer! They don't come every day. If you think you're ready for company life, and will be full of regrets if you turn the offer down, you can always resume school later. However, make sure you know what the position entails.
Not all apprenticeships are paid, and there's no guarantee that you'll be promoted to the company's corps de ballet at season's end. Are you comfortable entering the dance world without the security of a college degree? And are you motivated enough to return to school if you put your education on pause now?
Though you may not think about it much, building strength in the muscles around the hips is a must for ballet dancers. Pacific Northwest Ballet’s physical therapist Boyd Bender even likes to think of the gluteus maximus, medius and minimus and the deep external rotators of the hips as integral core muscles. “They’re as important as the abs and posterior trunk muscles,” he says.
Why? Because they give dancers a strong support base for the torso and standing leg, so the working leg can move freely. And they’re key players in petit allégro, since these muscles help create propulsion for jumps and control the hips and the rest of the legs during landing. Bender recommends the following exercises, both takes on a basic squat, for boosting overall hip strength. If you’re not injured, they can be done every other day after warming up.
a clear space against a wall
1. Tie a Thera-Band in a loop around your thighs and position it just above the knees. Stand with both legs in a parallel position, knees slightly wider than your shoulders.
2. Lower into a squat, sinking your weight into your heels as your arms reach forward. Return to standing. The goal, Bender says, is to use your left and right legs equally. Try to counteract the resistance of the Thera-Band, which is attempting to internally rotate and adduct the hips.
1. Stand in parallel or with slight turnout, with your back toward the wall and one foot against it for balance. The raised shin should be parallel to the floor.
2. Keep a neutral spine as you lower into a one-legged squat. It’s okay to pitch forward slightly with your upper body. Bender says this alignment will challenge the gluteal muscles even more. Return to standing (keeping the back leg up on the wall) and repeat on the same leg. Do all reps on one leg before switching to the other.
Once you’ve mastered this one-legged squat, Bender says you can move away from the wall to add more of a balance component. Practice the exercise in center with one leg raised behind you in the same bent parallel position.
Switch up your reps: For a balance between strength and stability, Bender recommends the following rep patterns for both exercises. On Monday, do 3 sets of 10 squats at a moderate pace. On Wednesday, do 1 set of 10, pausing 5 seconds at the bottom of each squat. (Keep alternating the sequences each time you work out.) Remember: More squats build strength, whereas longer pauses focus on stability. “The holds also give time to ensure your technique is correct,” says Bender.
Spice Up Your Life
If you’re tired of eating the same bland meals, it’s time to step up your spice game. Not only will you add more complex flavors to your diet, but you’ll get bonus nutritional benefits. Here are five common seasonings that all dancers should add to their cabinets.
Cayenne pepper: Capsaicin, which gives the spice its kick, increases your metabolism. It can also cut down cravings for salty, fatty foods.
Add a dash to: hummus, popcorn or avocado toast
Cumin: It’s high in iron, which keeps you from getting fatigued.
Add a dash to: roasted veggies or pork
Ginger: This spice can ease upset stomachs as well as muscle soreness from strenuous dancing.
Add a dash to: a green smoothie for extra zing, or pancake or muffin batter
Nutmeg: It contains antibacterial compounds that kill germs to boost oral health.
Add a dash to: coffee, cocoa or fruits like pears, bananas or apples
Oregano: It’s a source of vitamin K, which helps with blood clotting, and it’s especially high in antioxidants.
Add a dash to: pastas, soups or salads
The Upside of Stage Fright
If you’re feeling nervous before you step onstage, interpreting your anxiety as excitement—instead of telling yourself to calm down—may result in a better performance. Though it sounds counterintuitive, a study published by the American Psychological Association found that feeling excited can help you focus on positive outcomes while dwelling on your anxiety and trying to calm down usually means you’re thinking about what could go wrong.
Question: Which type of workout is best for your brain?
Why: New research published in The Journal of Physiology suggests that when compared with weight training and high-intensity interval training (bursts of intense activity followed by a more moderate recovery period), running caused more neurogenesis—that is, the creation of new cells in the brain’s hippocampus, which plays a role in memory and learning. Running doubled and sometimes even tripled the amount of new neurons in a study using rats, though researchers expect similar results in humans.
How did the other workouts stack up? Weight training showed no changes in the hippocampus, and interval training yielded far fewer new neurons than longer, steadier bouts of cardio. Although you can still increase your stamina and strength with interval or resistance training, when it comes to brain health, a constant pace on the elliptical may be a smarter choice.
A handful of walnuts—approximately 14 halves—may not seem like much of a snack, but this small amount boasts numerous health benefits for dancers. What’s in a handful?
4 grams of protein to fuel your dancing
monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats—the healthy kinds—which have anti-inflammatory effects and can help heal microtears in the muscles
almost half of your daily requirement of manganese, a mineral that may help ease PMS symptoms
a combination of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and fats that could help you recall choreography more effectively, since walnuts have been linked to better memory, concentration and processing speed
Get cooking: Aside from making a great dance bag snack, you can add walnuts to any meal of the day. Throw a handful on oatmeal or a salad, or mix into chicken salad with apples and grapes for an extra crunch. If you’re not crazy about the taste, you can still reap the benefits by blending walnuts into a fruit smoothie, or grinding them into pesto served over whole-wheat pasta.
Good News for Dancers
From radical floorwork to obscure partnering, other dance genres are increasingly influencing new ballet choreography, so it’s to your advantage to try your hand at different techniques. And if that isn’t enough of a reason to shake up your cross-training with a hip-hop or contemporary class, consider this recent study from the University of Brighton. Researchers found that 30 minutes of contemporary, street or swing dance classes burned more calories than 30 minutes of more traditional cardio work like running, cycling or swimming. Improving your stamina doesn’t have to be boring. Add in dance’s energizing powers and its ability to reduce fatigue, and you’ve got one effective workout.
Amp Up Your Arabesque
You’ve probably heard it time and again throughout your training: Flexibility isn’t all that helpful unless you have the strength to support it. Leigh Heflin Ponniah, MA, MSc, from the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries of New York University’s Langone Medical Center, offers this exercise to build lower-back strength to better support and hold arabesques. Try it two to three times a week as part of your core warm-up before class, and you’ll be on your way to a stronger arabesque balance.
a physio ball
a clear space where the wall meets the floor
1. Position a physio ball under your hips. Lie facedown on top of it with your chest slightly curved over the ball and hands by the ears. Your feet should be against a wall, with the toes on the floor, heels on the wall and legs slightly bent.
2. Use your lower-back extensors, which allow backward bending of the spine, and your gluteus muscles to slowly lift your chest up and away from the ball. The body should pass through a straight diagonal before the chest continues lifting into a slight arch without crunching in the lower back. The core should also be engaged.
3. Curve back down over the ball and do 10 repetitions, increasing up to 20 as you gain strength.
If you don’t have access to a physio ball, you can also do the exercise lying on the floor. However, Heflin says the ball allows for an increased range of motion in the lower back and challenges dancers’ stability.
Catch More Zzzs
If you’ve been sick a lot lately, you may need to reconsider your sleeping habits. They could be a major factor in keeping you away from the studio. A study in the journal Sleep found that women who had five or fewer hours of nightly winks spent more time sick throughout the year (approximately five more days out of work) than those who slept for around seven and a half hours each night. Aside from helping you keep a clean bill of health, sleep is especially tantamount for dancers. The downtime allows muscles to repair and recharge.
There’s an App for That
If you’re looking to breathe new life into your stretching and strengthening routine, check out the new Ballet Elasticity app. The program offers 48 short videos demonstrating exercises that cover everything from improving ankle strength to increasing turnout. With strengthening exercises specifically created for ballet dancers under the supervision of a certified athletic trainer and stretches designed and modified by Slawomir Wozniak (coach to competition stars like Gisele Bethea), you’re sure to be challenged. Available for the iPad and iPhone in the App Store for $1.99.
Beat the Sniffles
If allergy season has you sniffling your way through pirouettes, consider a pre-class cardio workout. Why? Research from Thailand found that running can provide relief from allergy symptoms, and it may be due to the fact that aerobic exercise calms the inflammatory proteins in the nasal passages. Any form of cardio, like jogging or using an elliptical or stair-climber machine, will do. The study found that 30 minutes at a moderate pace decreased sneezing, congestion and an itchy, runny nose by more than 70 percent.
Organized Dance Bag, Organized Mind
When you’re frantically digging in your bag before the start of class for just one more bobby pin (you swear it’s hidden in there, somewhere between yesterday’s dirty leotard and the crumpled-up granola bar wrappers you forgot to throw out), it’s no wonder if you start your pliés feeling frazzled.
In fact, research from the University of California, Los Angeles, found a correlation between the amount of stress female homeowners experience and the clutter in their living spaces. Women’s cortisol, or stress hormone, levels were higher the more disorganized their houses were. Do yourself a favor and sift through the contents of your dance bag once a week. When you’re stocked with easy-to-access essentials, you’re likely to feel more calm and prepared going into class.
Did You Know?
The Achilles tendon, which is integral to jumping and pointework, is the largest tendon in the human body, and it can withstand more than a thousand pounds of force.
Good Eats for Headache Relief
For ballet dancers, no time is a good time for a headache, whether you’re in rehearsal learning a new work or about to step onstage. But you don’t have to be defenseless. If you’re prone to that pounding in the brain, try incorporating these foods into your diet.
Almonds: Because magnesium helps regulate blood pressure, almonds may ease existing headaches and prevent future ones.
Cherries: These fruits are rich in the compound quercetin, a natural anti-inflammatory that aids in pain management.
Dairy: Low amounts of riboflavin, or vitamin B2, are a known trigger of migraines, but riboflavin-rich dairy can help ward off attacks.
Try this supercharged snack: Make a parfait of low-fat yogurt, dried cherries and almonds for a hassle-free nosh to relieve tension.
Valentine’s Day All Year Long
On February 14, you’re likely to nosh on chocolate. But here are five dancer-friendly reasons to enjoy one to two small squares of dark chocolate with at least 70 percent cacao daily.
1. Your mind: The flavonols in dark chocolate help increase blood flow to certain parts of the brain, which may make you more alert in class and onstage.
2. Your heart: A German study found that eating a square of dark chocolate daily reduced heart attack and stroke risk by 39 percent and lowered blood pressure.
3. Your overall nutrition: According to a University of Copenhagen study, dark chocolate is more filling than milk chocolate. This means when you opt for dark, you’re more likely to eat healthier, since it lessens cravings for sweet, salty and fatty foods.
4. Your stress levels: A study by Swiss scientists found that when anxious people ate dark chocolate, their levels of stress hormones significantly decreased.
5. Your skin: Eating chocolate high in flavonol has been found to double the amount of time it takes to develop the redness indicating sunburn
If you’re trying to squeeze cardio into your busy schedule, look no further than jump rope. Stick one in your dance bag for short aerobic bursts between rehearsals. Though simple, jumping rope gives you loads of benefits: It sharpens coordination and balance, tones the legs, gets your heart pumping and burns up to 13 calories per minute.
If you have a long afternoon of rehearsals ahead of you, add half of an avocado to your lunchtime salad, soup or sandwich. Avocados are packed with fiber to keep you full, and a recent study published in Nutrition Journal proved it: Those who had half an avocado with their lunch felt 26 percent more satisfied three hours later when compared to those who didn’t. Say good-bye to the four o’clock slump!
Love Your Adagio
The next time your leg is trembling during an agonizingly slow développé during adagio, consider this: According to research from the University of Cincinnati, physical activity that focuses on breath and gentle movement helps relieve stress later on.
Your Cross-Training Soundtrack
If anyone knows about pushing their bodies to the limit, it’s dancers. But what if you could work past your own perceived threshold? New research published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that music can be a good motivator, not just when you’re going for an easy session on the elliptical, but when you’re working at high-intensity, muscle-exhausting intervals. In the study, participants did 30-second bursts of stationary bicycling, pushing themselves as hard as possible. When they cycled while listening to a soundtrack of their favorite music, the workout still felt difficult, but they were able to work harder than when they pedaled in silence. So be sure to charge your iPod before hitting the gym—you’ll get more out of your workout when you jam to your favorite tunes.
Smell to Excel
Ballet dancers are sensory experts: hearing the nuances of music, adjusting their eyes under harsh stage lighting, feeling their feet working against the floor and negotiating the touch of a partner’s hand. But have you considered how your sense of smell might help your dancing? Research shows that certain scents evoke different psychological reactions. Applying scented lotion or giving yourself a spritz of perfume just might help you take your dance game to the next level.
To calm pre-audition nerves, try lavender. Studies show it can lower stress hormones.
If you’re feeling sluggish and need a boost before rehearsal, try citrus scents like orange or grapefruit, which may increase your energy.
Trying to find your own unique take on Juliet or Kitri? Cinnamon-vanilla scents seem to be linked with creativity.
If your muscles are aching, peppermint oil may help relieve tension.
Gobble down your Thanksgiving feast guilt-free this year. Researchers from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, recently found that women who performed moderate-intensity cardio exercise before overeating actually increased their metabolism. Instead of turning into love handles, the calories were used to refuel their muscles. So while the turkey is cooking in the oven, hit the bike or elliptical machine for at least 30 minutes.