Monday morning class after a three-day weekend? Stiff. After eight weeks off? Agonizing.
For most professional dancers on their summer layoff, a break from the daily grind is simultaneously exciting and unnerving. These months are often reserved for recovery and rest—a necessary opportunity to let the body repair and recharge. How dancers spend their summer break is mixed: some teach at summer intensives; some take the extended time to travel, visiting family or exploring internationally; some choose not to pause, performing at galas or festivals; and some just want to stay home, feet up, movies on. Depending on where you dance, the break might span a couple weeks or a couple months. Regardless of length, it involves a physical wind down, as well as a build back up. While it's never going to feel entirely easy, here are a few pro tips to help smooth the transition between 1 and 100 percent.
What Your Yoga Teacher Wishes You Knew
Yoga has become a popular form of cross-training for ballet dancers, thanks to its stretching, strengthening and stress-relieving benefits. But it also poses challenges: How do you adapt your flexibility and turnout and shed your competitive nature to get the most out of class? Jennifer Goodman, a Chicago-based yoga instructor, freelance dancer and former Joffrey Ballet member, shares her tips for what you should and shouldn't be doing when you roll out your mat.
Don't push your flexibility to the max. It might feel nice to sink into a pose, but it won't do you any good. When you dial back your extensions, says Goodman, you start to gain strength to support your flexibility. And pushing too far could lead to injury. “Especially if you're in a heated yoga class, you can overstretch," she says, citing a fellow dancer who pulled her hamstring but didn't realize it until afterwards.
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.”
Most dancers can’t go a day without stretching, but they often completely ignore the aches and pains in their feet. Give your tootsies some TLC with YogaPro’s YogaToes, which increase circulation, straighten bent toes and realign joints. Dr. Frank Sinkoe, podiatrist for Atlanta Ballet, says several of his dancers use them. “They relax the four layers of muscle on the bottom of the foot that insert into the toes,” he says. This helps the toes recover from stress, strain and overuse—also known as pointe shoe abuse. Wear them for a few minutes before class to engage the foot muscles, and for about half an hour after class to stretch and relax your toes.
If you start to fade during rehearsal, wake yourself up with a little yoga. “Certain poses refresh the body,” says TaraMarie Perri, who teaches a yoga curriculum called Mind Body Dancer at New York’s Joffrey Ballet School. “Going upside down into an inversion can revive you because it improves blood circulation and boosts energy.” She recommends the L-shaped handstand. Sit with your back against a wall, and place your hands as far from the wall as your feet. Then, keeping your hands in place, walk your feet up the wall until they’re level with your hips. Your hips should be directly over your shoulders, shoulders over hands. Hold for three to five breaths, then come down and relax in child’s pose.
If you want to improve everything from performance to the time it takes to recover from an injury, look no further than your own head. The secret is a simple thing called imagery, or imaging, and it is something that you already use all the time.
“Everyone uses imagery, just not systematically,” says Eric Franklin, director of the Franklin Method Institute in Uster, Switzerland, and a member of the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science. “You cannot think or do anything without it.”
Imaging is the process of mentally going through a movement, an emotional state or a future scenario. On a basic level, you do this when you recall a friend’s face or think ahead to how nervous you are going to be on opening night. Research of sports and dance psychologists has shown such mental activity creates changes in the brain that are similar to those happening when a movement is actually performed, which means that effective visualization, or imaging, can help you do something you have never been able to do before.
Franklin, who is a former dancer, works with students and professional dancers around the world to help them harness this natural ability to improve their dancing. In June, he will teach an intensive course on imagery for dancers and teachers at the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen.
“Dancers need to start realizing that they are not going to get better just by executing a step over and over again, but also because of what they are thinking, what they are feeling and what they are picturing while doing it,” he says. “If those three things are not supporting the action, the result is not good.”
Imagery is perfect for improving self-confidence and technical skill. For example, to achieve a higher extension à la seconde, begin by standing in fifth position. Next, without physically doing anything, mentally go through executing a développé à la seconde. Try to fill in as many details in your mind as you “see” the action from fifth to the completed développé. Then “see” yourself doing it again, this time taking your leg a little higher, and again higher still.
“You could even imagine there is an imaginary coach who lifts your leg up for you,” says Franklin. “Or you can imagine that your hip joint is super flexible or that a string is attached to your toes, pulling your leg up.” After mentally practicing your développé four or five times, Franklin guarantees that your extension in second with that leg will be better than it was before.
Note that in the example above, you are in an active state as you visualize your improved extension, rather than
sitting and picturing a beautiful développé with your eyes closed. It’s important to make your image as realistic as you can and to have your body at the level of activity that it would be in when doing the movement.
“To work on your technique, I wouldn’t practice imaging lying down, and I would do it with the eyes open,” says Franklin. “You dance with your eyes open, so if you practice with closed eyes, then it won’t be realistic.”
Successful imaging requires that your image be based on an understanding of biomechanics, literally how your bones and muscles work together to accomplish a movement. Once you’ve developed an image that works, put it into action using an approach that sparks your imagination. In the example above, you could have imagined someone helping you lift your leg, a string pulling your toe up or a flexible hip joint. Each of these is a different kind of image; experiment to discover what approach connects the image to a physical response.
“Basically, you want a change in the way your nerve cells are organized to create movement,” says Franklin. “To do that, you really do need a new feeling. Until you’ve done that, you haven’t made a fundamental change.”
The easiest and most basic kind of imaging is outer, or external, perspective, in which you see yourself from the outside, as if you are watching a movie. Dancers who are just beginning to image can use an external perspective to help themselves conquer stage fright. But remember, “You must create a reality,” says Franklin, “otherwise, it is a mental fantasy, not mental preparation.”
When preparing for performance, “It’s a great idea to imagine seeing yourself onstage, that things are going really well and the audience is clapping,” Franklin says. “But it is not ideal to think of yourself feeling perfect and everything going wonderfully, because come performance day, your heart is going to be speeding, the lights are confusing and there are strange sounds from the audience—not at all like what you imaged in preparation. Instead, imagine yourself in the real environment: The lights are a little bothersome; there are lots of distracting sounds; your heart is beating, but nevertheless, you are doing great; everything is working out even though all of these stresses are all around.”
For more: www.franklin-method.com
Yesterday Pointe had a photo shoot with a handful of super-talented dancers from Ballet Academy East. They were each fantastic: technically brilliant with strong, fit bodies and completely game for all of the crazy things we threw at them. (Be sure to check out the photos when our April/May issue comes out!).
I don’t want to give away the brilliant theme of the shoot—conceived by our always imaginative Style Editor Khara Hanlon—but suffice it to say I had the girls modeling a few different yoga poses. As they moved from warrior one to tree pose to upward dog, it got me thinking about how much yoga can do for dancers.
I started taking yoga classes as a way to improve my core strength. But over time I realized that for dancers the real benefits go way beyond improving your muscle tone. In yoga (especially vinyasa) I was finally able to find a feeling of fullness to my movement—something I had struggled to attain in modern class, but never quite “got.” Once I became used to finding length in every position during the slow flow through the poses, I could translate that sensation back to the studio, and became able to move bigger, with longer lines. Yoga taught me to really feel what was going on in my body, and to become aware of where I was placing it in space. The emphasis on intention and being present helped me find greater focus in the studio, and more importantly, onstage. Through yoga I discovered a feeling in my body and a connection to my mind, that for me, I don’t think I could have found anywhere else.
What have been your experiences taking yoga as a dancer?
Need a quick workout on the go? Download Yogify, a free app for the iPhone or iPad produced by EA Sports. It comes with five sample classes ranging from 15 to 45 minutes long, beginner to advanced level—plus the option to purchase up to 40 additional classes. Although it's not the same as having a live teacher in the room, the program makes everything super clear. Before you even start the video, you can preview the series of poses with a step-by-step list of pictures (including tips on how to perform each correctly). Best of all? You can set your personal playlist behind the teacher's voice so you're moving to your own music.