A fresh perspective: Last year, Katie Critchlow went through seven months of recovery for a debilitating ankle sprain, but the process transformed her outlook on cross-training: “You think that doing ballet class every day is enough, but it's not," she says. “Ballet dancers are hypermobile, and in order to execute everything onstage when you're tired and fatigued, you need a lot of strength to back that up."
Ready to run: About two months after her injury, Critchlow began jogging. “I had to start really, really slow on a treadmill." Her ankle sprain had affected her hip, too, causing her to veer in a diagonal until she balanced the alignment in her legs. Now she prefers to run outdoors around Salt Lake City. “It helps mobilize my joints, so I'll either go at the end of a light day or wait for the weekend."
The Royal Winnepeg Ballet principal adapts her cross-training for the company's frequent touring.
Travel savvy: Touring seven to eight weeks a year means Sophia Lee hits hotel gyms a lot. “I usually pack my runners and workout clothes," she says. Once she arrives at a tour stop, she'll hop on the elliptical for 20 to 30 minutes. If there's no gym, she'll walk around the city to relieve stiffness from the bus or plane ride.
Picture this: While she's traveling or in her hotel room, Lee does visualization exercises. “I close my eyes, listen to the music and imagine exactly how I'm going to execute each movement. I actually think about firing the same muscles and where I'll breathe in and breathe out."
I can't seem to get off the ground in petit allégro. Help! —Sara
Developing ballon begins with basic technique: correct alignment throughout the body, strong core and leg muscles, a deep plié, and proper articulation of the feet during push- off and landing. Then, of course, there's coordination and timing. Here are some basic things to think about:
Plié, plié, plié. Much of your power stems from having a deep plié from which to push off. It should feel elastic and juicy. If you're stingy with your plié, or hold lots of tension in your feet and Achilles tendon, you have less of a foundation to spring from.
Every dancer has their own cross-training regime, tailored to their workload, injury prevention, rehab or particular roles. It's up to you to talk to a physical therapist about what exercises you should be doing to meet your own technical goals. But in the meantime, here are some of our best tips for effective cross-training:
- Do it in the morning. There are lots of reasons why AM workouts can be more beneficial, but we're most compelled by evidence that morning workouts might be easier to stick with.
- Scale your approach up or down depending on what you're training for. When it's summer intensive time, gradually work your way up to peak intensity.
- Try something new to keep yourself inspired. Ever heard of aerial yoga? What about TRX suspension training?
- Pools are an amazing training resource for everything from cardio workouts to fine-tuning your alignment.
And if that's not enough #fitspo for you, dig into our Workout archive to find out how the pros keep their bodies in peak condition.
The way you stand makes a huge impression, whether you're in an audition or just walking down the street. Awareness of your posture will help you achieve a more engaged and gracious épaulement, project confidence and strengthen your upper back. Read on for our best tips and exercises.
Two Exercises for a Strong Upper Back
1. When you begin your first plié combination of the day, you’re likely feeling refreshed and ready to go—not to mention standing tall with good posture. But as class goes on, and the mind fatigues, bad habits can creep in. By center, your upper back may be slumping forward, and your posture less than perfect.
Julie O’Connell, director of performing arts medicine at Athletico Physical Therapy in Chicago, says she often sees dancers standing with their shoulder blades too far forward and the chest caved in. She suggests this exercise to help correct this postural problem. Though the motion is minimal, it can have a big impact on your overall épaulement. If you feel your upper back rounding during class, you can even do a few reps in between combos, to remind your body of the proper alignment.
- Stand straight against a wall, using it as a contact point for your shoulder blades.
- Lift both arms in front of you to a 90-degree angle. The wrists should be in line with the shoulders and the elbows should be extended.
- Using the serratus anterior muscles (which wrap from the upper ribs around the scapulas), slowly reach both arms forward in a punching motion, feeling your shoulder blades move away from each other as they glide along your rib cage.
- Return to the starting position, so your shoulder blades are resting alongside the spine. This is correct, engaged alignment. Do 2 sets of 10 repetitions.
2. Many dancers struggle to stop habitually hunching their shoulders. Raised shoulders not only erase the look of a long neck, but also make it harder to correctly use your back muscles and core.
Try this: Strengthen your upper back to develop the muscles necessary to properly support your arms. Marianna Lobanova of the Kirov Academy of Ballet of Washington, DC, suggests this exercise, repeated daily: Lie facedown on the floor with your arms and legs stretched out. Lift your upper body for at least 10 seconds, moving your arms into fifth position overhead and keeping the lower extremities completely still. Repeat at least three times.
Stephanie Wolf Spassoff, director of The Rock School for Dance Education, who has coached dancers including Beckanne Sisk and Michaela DePrince, warns students to watch their posture outside of the studio. “Encourage your friends to tell you when you’re slouching,” she says. It will help train your back to support you even when you’re feeling tired or tense.
Be careful: Don’t lock your shoulders in place. “When there’s no movement,” Spassoff warns, “you’ve lost your épaulement.”
Your Posture Can Enhance Your Performance...
If you’re trying to perfect your portrayal of a dramatic character in any story ballet, research suggests you should focus on your chest. A study recently published in the journal PLoS One used eye tracking to determine that observers most frequently looked at the movement of a dancer’s chest when asked to decide if she was enacting happiness or sadness. Don’t underestimate the subtlety of slightly sinking the sternum or proudly presenting the collarbones.
...And Your Mood
When you’re dreading an especially rough day at the studio or a challenging performance, improving your mood could be as simple as changing the way you walk. A recent study published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry found that subjects who walked in a more depressed style (with shoulders rolled forward and less arm movement) experienced worse moods than those who walked in a “happier,” more upbeat style.
In the study, participants were shown lists of positive and negative words, and then asked to walk on a treadmill, where their gait and posture were measured. After, they were told to write down as many words from the list as they could remember. The people who had walked in a more depressed style remembered more of the negative words, and vice versa.
Previous research has already shown that our mood can affect the way we walk, but these results suggest that the opposite is also true. So the next time a difficult rehearsal is getting you down, hold your head high and put a little extra spring in your step as you walk to your next class. It might just give you the boost you need.
Power Up Before an Audition
If you’re heading into an audition and feeling nervous, try striking this power pose: Take a wide stance with your head held high and your arms energized and extended to form the letter T with palms facing down. Research shows that holding a high-power pose for two minutes can make you feel more confident, and it lowers your cortisol levels, meaning you’ll feel less stressed. Plus, this “fake it till you make it” strategy is a quick and easy way to strengthen your lats, deltoids and triceps, giving you more defined port de bras.
You work hard on turnout in class every day. But once you leave the studio, make sure you’re in parallel. Walking around turned out stresses your hips, knees, ankles and feet, causing micro-trauma that could lead to injuries like tendonitis or knee pain. It could also hurt your technique. “You’re overusing the muscles you need for ballet class,” says Erika Kalkan, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at New York University Langone Medical Center’s Hospital for Joint Diseases. “Those muscles will be fatigued, so you won’t be able to use them as efficiently when you’re dancing.”
Kalkan explains that if your legs naturally turn out when you’re walking, your body is probably compensating for some weakness or tightness. Be sure to stretch your calves as well as your external rotators (sitting down with your left leg straight in front of you, cross your right foot over the left knee—making a number 4—and lean forward with a flat back, then switch sides). Kalkan also recommends strengthening your internal rotators with reverse clamshells (lying on your side with your knees bent and together, lift your top foot) and practicing doming exercises to build up the intrinsic muscles of your feet. Then, once you get on the street, consciously remind yourself to keep your toes facing forward until it becomes a habit. Your technique will thank you.