Oregon Ballet Theatre's Kelsie Nobriga and Matthew Pawlicki-Sinclair rehearse Bournonville's Napoli. Yu Yin, Courtesy OBT.

Pushed to the Limit: How Cardio Training and Healthy Eating Can Help Dancers Improve Their Stamina

Kelsie Nobriga's first run-through of Nacho Duato's Rassemblement was a wake-up call. Until then, the Oregon Ballet Theatre soloist had only rehearsed individual sections of the ballet, unaware that she'd have little time to recover in between each one. Discovering just how tiring the 27-minute ballet would be was terrifying. "The first time we ran it I felt like I was going to pass out or throw up," she recalls. "My quads would just give out. I was really nervous about how I was going to perform it onstage."

When you're gasping for breath, not only do the simplest steps feel impossible, but your risk of injury also increases. Stamina is a crucial part of a dancer's performance tool kit, though typical ballet classes don't do much to develop it. With some advance planning outside the studio, you can build up your cardiovascular and muscular endurance to make a marathon ballet less daunting.


Why Stamina Is Important

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Poor stamina leads to fatigue, the top cause of injury in professional dancers, says physical therapist Kester Cotton, dance program coordinator at Spaulding Rehabilitation Network in Boston. "Ballet dancers in particular are shown to have lower levels of cardiorespiratory fitness than other athletes or types of dancers," he says. That's because the stop/start pace of ballet class does little to replicate choreography's cardiovascular demands. "If dancers aren't in good cardio shape when they begin a tough rehearsal period, they'll fatigue faster and their tendons and joints are more likely to experience load and damage."

But cardiovascular and muscular endurance go hand in hand: Pushing through repeated relevés or jumps when you're tired invites a sprained ankle (or worse). Good calf strength (a basic measure of local muscular endurance) should be a priority along with aerobic capacity, Cotton says. "If you can consistently do 25 slow, controlled calf raises—straight-legged, no plié—even when fatigued, the incidence of ankle injury is much, much lower."

Plan Ahead—Way Ahead

American Ballet Theatre's Stephanie Williams and Blaine Hoven in Swan Lake

Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT

Supplementing ballet class with cardio training can help improve stamina. "I run three to four miles a day," says American Ballet Theatre corps member Stephanie Williams. "For me, that's a baseline where I know I'm in good shape. If I can do that, I feel confident I can push my body onstage."

While running may not be for everyone, a solid base of cardio fitness should be. Boyd Bender, director of physical therapy services at Pacific Northwest Ballet, says dancers should be able to sustain a moderate pace on a stationary bike or elliptical machine for 30 to 45 minutes, three to four times a week. "But that's just the first part," he explains. "From there, they can start pushing harder to replicate what they'll need onstage."

Cotton emphasizes that it's critical to improve your cardiovascular capacity for a demanding ballet before rehearsals start. Plan to begin training four to six weeks beforehand to establish an endurance base and to avoid over-exercising once you're working in the studio. Interval or Tabata-style workouts (which include repeated short spurts of high- and moderate-intensity exercise) most closely replicate the pacing of a performance. (Check out a sample endurance workout here.)

Your stamina will increase with about 150 minutes a week of high-intensity exercise, which includes rehearsals. That means once you start working on a tough ballet, adjust your gym time accordingly to avoid overtraining. "Sprints on the bike or elliptical will train your heart so you can really go for it onstage, but you don't want to do that when you're rehearsing," says Cotton. "That's too much energy. The goal is not to increase your volume of exercise indefinitely."

The Endurance-Food Connection

via Unsplash

Marie Scioscia, a registered dietitian who consults with dancers, says that good stamina is also built on a lifestyle of sound nutrition, not just during a hard rehearsal or performance run. "When a dancer complains of energy or endurance issues, it's almost always directly related to consuming too few calories and restricting carbohydrates," says Scioscia. "Diets that provide 1,600 calories or less per day will not support metabolism, energy or focus." Increased energy, she continues, will come from how well someone fed themselves over time and every day.

She also notes that if a dancer is putting in extra time at the gym, they'll need extra caloric intake in the form of both protein and carbs. "To create sustained energy, dancers need to consume whole-grain starchy carbohydrates (like bread, rice, cereal, pasta and potatoes) with protein and a bit of good-quality fat," she says. "The take-home message is to eat all foods, eat every meal and every day, hydrate with water and prioritize sleep and rest."

Mental Approach

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"Everyone has different limits and levels of stamina, so you need to listen to your body and figure out what you need," says Williams. Pacing herself is key during ABT's weeks-long Met season, when she rehearses every day while performing eight shows a week. "If I feel I can only give 70 percent during rehearsal, I still dance full-out, but without punching it— like giving the pattern with my body but without the performance quality."

Knowing that you're prepared physically can help override a sense of dread over an especially puffy ballet. Despite Nobriga's first discouraging Rassemblement run-through, she felt her strength and courage increase as she forged ahead with rehearsals. While the ballet never stopped being exhausting, focusing on how much she loved the intensely musical choreography made performances feel joyous.

Williams also relies on the power of the stage: "I lose myself and go somewhere else, which is how I'm able to get through next-level exhaustion. I don't dread it. It's not scary—I'm excited to do it."

Eating for Better Stamina

Prudence Earl via Unsplash

In her book Eat Right Dance Right, registered dietitian Marie Scioscia details how to support endurance training and performance with good nutrition.

  • Include protein, healthy fat and whole-grain starchy carbohydrates in each meal. "Any diet restricting carbs in favor of fat and protein is robbing the dancer of their number one source of fuel and could not be worse for their energy," she says.
  • Vegetables are needed for health but do not contain much usable energy, so they shouldn't be substituted for whole-grain carbs.
  • Prioritize rest and increase carbohydrate intake leading up to a big performance so you enter your "marathon" with adequate stores of fuel.
  • A cup of coffee 30 minutes before a performance can help focus and energy, but it should never be a substitute for food (and if caffeine affects your nerves, avoid it altogether).
  • If you can't eat a meal or a snack of whole foods pre-show, Scioscia suggests a liquid snack with a carb/protein balance: a smoothie of milk or yogurt mixed with peanut butter and fruit, for example. Sips of fruit juice or nibbles of dried fruit during a long rehearsal or show can help keep blood sugar stable.

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Eighteen-year-old Sarah Patterson (foreground), with her classmates at New Ballet School. She's decided to stay home this summer to take advantage of outdoor, in-person classes. Courtesy New Ballet School.

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When it comes to navigating summer intensives, 2021 may be more complicated for ballet students than last year. On the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic's spring spike in 2020, summer programs went all-virtual or had very limited capacity. This year is more of a mixed bag, with regulations and restrictions varying widely across state and county lines and changing week by week.

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After a year of shuttered studios, virtual-only classes, and waving to ballet buddies over Zoom, summer intensives are back. For adult students, packing up for a few days of intensive training might seem like a pipe dream, as many of us spent the last year trying to fit in ballet classes while juggling work and, for those of us with kids, remote learning. With the country opening up again, let's start planning (safely!) for workshops that allow us to jump into technique, conditioning and, of course, high-elbowing some new friends.

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CALIFORNIA

Alonzo King LINES Ballet Adult Dance Intensive (virtual only, via Zoom)

May 28–31, San Francisco

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KENTUCKY

Lexington Ballet Adult Ballet Intensive

July 12–16, Lexington

Why should thoroughbreds have all the fun of training in the horse capital of the world? Reach new heights in your training at Lexington Ballet's Adult Ballet Intensive. Join school directors Luis and Nancy Dominguez and principal instructor Ayoko Lloyd for a five-day workshop that includes conditioning, Pilates, technique and repertoire. All classes are held in the evenings, and the program welcomes beginning through advanced students.

A group of eight smiling adult ballet students\u2014seven women and one man in the middle\u2014pose in a line and stand on their right leg in tendu crois\u00e9 devant.

A group of dancers pose at a past Lexington Ballet Adult Dance Intensive.

Ayoko Lloyd, Courtesy Lexington Ballet

Louisville Ballet Adult Summer Intensive

May 31–June 4, Louisville

Polish off a glass of sweet tea (or two), and then work up a sweet sweat at Louisville Ballet's Adult Summer Intensive. Geared towards beginning through advanced levels, students ages 18+ can take part in half- or full days of training. Classes offered include technique, pointe and jump strengthening, modern, Pilates and yoga. Students will also perform in a livestreamed performance on the final day.

MASSACHUSETTS

Brookline Ballet School Adult Summer Ballet Intensive

June 23–27, Brookline

The Red Sox and New England Patriots may get a bulk of the glory in Beantown, but the city is also a mecca for ballet. At Brookline Ballet School's Adult Summer Ballet Intensive, students (beginner or intermediate level) will spend three weeknights and two weekend mornings in technique and repertoire classes, wrapping up with an informal performance on Sunday afternoon.

NEW YORK

Kat Wildish Presents (virtual, via Zoom)

June 14–25 and July 12–23

Join master ballet teacher Kat Wildish in a virtual intensive that aims to take your training to the next level. Each day, in one-hour classes, Kat will lead students of all levels from basic to advanced in various ballet exercises. The group will be limited to 20 dancers, so each person will get personal attention.

A group of older adult ballet students in leotards, tights or leggings, stand in two lines with their left foot in B+ position and holding hands, as if rehearsing a ballet.

Kat Wildish (far left) working with adult students at Peridance Capezio Center

Matthew Venanzi, Courtesy Kat Wildish

OHIO

artÉmotion Adult Ballet Summer Workshop

June 14–19, Cleveland

Head to the Buckeye State for a week of training under the tutelage of Ballet West first soloist Allison DeBona and principal Rex Tilton. In this Adult Ballet Summer Workshop, beginner and intermediate/advanced students will fine-tune their skills in two classes every morning: a 90-minute technique class followed by a one-hour class in one of the following disciplines: pointe/pre-pointe, acting, men's and women's variations, conditioning.

PENNSYLVANIA

Amy Novinski

May 24–28 and June 28–July 2, Philadelphia

Those interested in the Vaganova technique may want to check out Amy Novinski's Adult Workshops. For the five-day May workshop, newbie dancers can look forward to classes devoted to ballet, jazz and yoga. For those more advanced, the June workshop offers more rigorous technique, contemporary ballet, pre-pointe/beginner pointe and jazz.

SOUTH CAROLINA

Ballet Academy of Charleston Adult Summer Intensive

July 26–30 and August 2–6, Charleston

Embrace the low-country charm in historic Charleston, where a weeklong Adult Summer Intensive at the Ballet Academy of Charleston invites beginning through advanced students to take classes in technique, stretching/Pilates/yoga, pre-pointe or pointe (for advanced students), variations, jazz, modern, contemporary and choreography. You may choose the half-day or full-day program.

TEXAS

Houston Ballet Adult Intensive

June 1–5, Houston

For intermediate/advanced students with at least three years of ballet training, Houston Ballet's Adult Intensive might be the perfect place to hone your skills. The school has two-, three- or five-day options, and includes ballet technique, variations, yoga and Zumba.

UTAH

May 31–June 5, Salt Lake City

Ballet West welcomes students of all levels to artÉmotion's one-week Adult Ballet Summer Intensive. Classes include ballet, contemporary, pointe, jazz, modern, acting, and men and women's variations. Available in full-day or half-day options, those dancing only in the morning will take two 90-minute technique classes. The full-day experience offers the opportunity to be choreographed on for an in-studio performance on Saturday, June 5. All students will also have a professional dance photo shoot with Logan Sorenson.

A group of four men in dance practicewear face the right corner of the room and raise their arm as if beckoning someone. Three of the men stand in parallel, which the man in the middle sits in a wheelchair.

A men's class at artÉmotion Adult Summer Ballet Intensive

Logan Sorenson, Courtesy artÉmotion

INTERNATIONAL

The August Ballet Retreat in Leeds

August 28–30, Leeds, UK

The three-day August Ballet Retreat in Leeds offers classes for students of all abilities. The mornings are devoted to technique, and in the afternoon, students will focus on repertoire. In the past, The Ballet Retreat has taught solos from Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet and Giselle. One detail is still tentative: If the retreat is unable to take place in person due to the pandemic, it will be offered virtually over Zoom.

Morlaix International Adult Ballet Camp

July 2–10, Morlaix, France

The Morlaix International Adult Ballet Camp is in the heart of France's Brittany region. In this full-day intensive, intermediate through advanced-level students will be led by an international faculty. Dancers can look forward to morning ballet classes and rehearsals in the afternoon. The week of training wraps up with a performance of Bournonville's Napoli at a nearby theater. Please contact the school for information about room and board.

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