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If you’re looking for a cardiovascular workout, swimming laps can be a great option. But it shouldn’t be your primary source of cardio exercise, says Michael Velsmid, DPT, MS and owner of Boston Sports Medicine, a clinic that provides aquatic therapy to Boston Ballet dancers. “The dancer’s body needs to have a certain amount of stress imparted on it,” he says. “But if you’re recovering from a heavy workout, the pool is great. Where you might typically want to skip a day to rest and recover, you can go in the pool without any additional delay in your recovery.”
The pool is also an excellent environment to rehabilitate, especially if you have difficulty with weight-bearing exercises like relevé and petit allégro. I spent an entire summer doing aquatic therapy when I was recovering from a stress fracture in my ankle. But according to Velsmid, “If you’re not recovering from an injury, the pool probably isn’t the best place to strengthen because it’s a gravity-minimized environment.”
However, simply taking barre underwater can do wonders to improve your alignment and balance. Suddenly, exercises that are simple on land, such as passé or grand rond de jambe, become much more difficult. “It helps create a better mind-body connection of how to activate those muscles,” says Velsmid. If you have access to a pool, try going through a ballet barre using the ledge or wall to balance. For an even greater challenge, try it without holding on.
Om at home: Three days a week, Van Buskirk spends about 20 minutes waking up with yoga. “I build muscle easily,” she says, “so I like to balance it out by stretching and lengthening.” She moves through sun salutations and warrior poses to get her heart rate up but pauses when her body needs a deeper stretch. “If my psoas is sore, I usually hold my lunges.” Yoga’s breathing techniques also help her connect with her breath during demanding choreography.
Stability secret: “My left knee has been giving me problems, so I do a lot of stabilizing work,” she says. Between allégro combinations, she builds strength around the joint with this exercise: Standing in parallel with one leg in a turned-in passé, she slowly lowers into a lunge and tries to touch the ground with her hand before returning to standing. The focus is on tracking the standing knee with correct alignment.
Outdoor action: Van Buskirk admits that the gym bores her. “I prefer outdoor activities like walking, biking and swimming.” Each time she hits the pool, she tries to swim at least one lap farther than she did previously to build stamina. “And anytime I have an excuse to hike in the woods, I’ll take it.”
Scaling walls: She enjoys indoor rock climbing with a group of fellow Atlanta Ballet dancers. “That is some cardio,” she says. “You don’t realize it until you’re halfway up a wall and every muscle is shaking. You’re breathing so heavy and holding on for dear life. It’s exhilarating.” She relishes climbing for its similarities to dance, including the subtle weight shifts, whole-body coordination and problem solving.
Backstage elixir: When she’s in the theater, Van Buskirk always has a local cold-pressed juice made of pineapple, cranberry, ginger and lemon—called a Hot Shot—which she adds chia seeds to for a pre-performance boost. “The seeds help with long periods of energy and fullness,” she says.
Nighttime stretching: Van Buskirk winds down by foam-rolling her muscles and releasing her IT bands with slow stretches from yin yoga. “As dancers, we often approach stretching aggressively,” she says. “Instead of pushing through pain in 20 seconds, I let it happen passively over a few minutes. It gets into the deep connective tissue, and the difference is amazing.”