Cross-training to heal: Since 2010, principal dancer Adrian Danchig-Waring has dealt with flare-ups of painful stress fractures in his shins. When we spoke, he was working on healing those "dreaded black lines," substituting physical therapy, cardio and strength work for his usual dance-heavy schedule with New York City Ballet.
Pool time: Unable to participate in company class or bear much weight, Danchig-Waring has taken up swimming for 30 to 60 minutes daily. "It's become sort of my new passion," he says. He likes the sport for its no-impact, high-cardio nature and often follows lap workouts from a training website called goswim.tv. He cycles through various strokes, like freestyle, crawl and backstroke, to condition different muscles in his arms and shoulders.
Strength in numbers: Danchig-Waring takes a group fitness class, typically Pilates, after each swim. At first, he was surprised by how much he enjoyed the atmosphere. "But then I realized my whole life as a ballet dancer has been group fitness. There's this healthy sense of competition and collective energy that motivates, and it helps to push yourself further."
Off-his-feet footwork: Pilates mat work is especially perfect for him since most of the class is done lying down or on all fours. This allows Danchig-Waring to articulate his feet through demi- and full pointe in non–weight-bearing exercises, like the single-leg stretch and criss-cross. "Foot strength is such an essential part of this rehabilitation," he says.
Retraining the body and mind: Danchig-Waring works with a physical therapist twice a week on what he calls "neurologic reconditioning." He's coached through basic exercises, like sitting on the edge of a bench and slowly rising to relevé in parallel while holding a tennis ball between his ankles. Though the movements aren't complex, it's a mental challenge. "I focus on firing specific muscle groups that are otherwise resistant to working." The aim is to relieve some of the burden from his shins and toes and instead rely more on his glutes and abductors for stability.
Discovery zone: Inspired by his injuries, Danchig-Waring is on a mission to better understand ballet's mechanics—in the past, he even took a kinesiology lab at New York University. Despite being a principal dancer, he says, "I feel like a total novice when it comes to how the body is designed to move." Ballet is about so much more than forcing the body into beautiful shapes, he says, so now he's learning to dance in a way that's healthier and more sustainable.
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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.”