Words of wisdom: As a morning mental warm-up, Stephanie Rae Williams, of Dance Theatre of Harlem, recites an affirmation, like "Today is a great day" or "You can and you will." After she suffered an injury onstage, she also started saying a mantra in the wings, such as "I am strong. I am healthy. I am capable." It helps quell her nerves backstage.
DTH's Stephanie Rae Williams shares her smart conditioning tips. Photo by Rachel Neville, Courtesy DTH.
Keep it moving: "I like to think of stretching as a circular, more rounded motion than 'I'll do the splits!' " says Williams. Extreme stretching has never worked for me—I've gotten more injuries, like pulled hamstrings, from stretching the wrong way." Instead of forcing her body into static positions, she gently moves through them. To release her calves, for instance, she faces the barre, leans into it and does a continuous sequence of plié, straighten, relevé. For her psoas, she rocks back and forth in a deep lunge, with her back knee on the ground.
Choreographed cardio: If she's dancing an exceptionally demanding ballet, like Balanchine's Valse-Fantaisie, Williams might run at the gym to build stamina. But most of her aerobic work happens during rehearsals. "If you choreograph your breath and really work smart, stamina is pretty easy to achieve," she says. "Pace yourself and know what steps are the resting steps and what steps are the more physical ones."
Williams with Choong Hoon Lee in "Return." Photo by Rachel Neville, Courtesy DTH.
Insta inspiration: "I tighten up quickly, so a nice cooldown at night through yoga poses usually helps me feel better the next day." She turns to Instagram for ideas on mixing up her sequencing and poses, often taking inspiration from former DTH dancer Paunika Jones, who posts clips of herself doing yoga.
Off-season action: During company breaks, Williams stays in shape through gigs with other troupes. When at home in New York City, she'll switch things up with contemporary class at Peridance Capezio Center.
Brushing your teeth can even be a chance for conditioning. Thinkstock.
Quirky balance trick: While recovering from a Lisfranc sprain in her right foot, Williams started doing this exercise suggested by her physical therapist: To rebuild her balance, she brushes her teeth while standing on one foot with her eyes closed. "It's really hard, actually!"
And don't forget...
The body's deep core muscles tend to get forgotten, says Williams, but those are the stabilizers that are so integral to dance. She likes this strengthener for her pelvic floor.
● Lie on your back with your feet off the floor and knees bent at 90 degrees in a tabletop position. Make sure your lower back is touching the floor.
● Keeping the same angle behind your knee, slowly lower one leg until the toes tap the floor.
● Return with control. Switch legs, and continue alternating for several reps.