Your Best Body: Total Body Tune-Up

Total Body Tune-Up


Thera-Band exercises that go beyond your toes


By Jen Peters


When most ballet dancers think of Thera-Bands, they picture toes pointing and flexing. But Thera-Bands aren’t just for your feet. They are an exercise tool that can tone your entire body without adding unwanted bulk.


Try these exercises with a light band, then advance to a stronger resistance once you can maintain
correct form. Do two or three sets of repetitions for each exercise, working until you feel your muscles burn. 

Upper-Body Balancers
In ballet, your lower body performs the brunt of the work—but don’t neglect the upper half. Strong shoulders, back and arms can improve your port de bras and lead to safer partnering.


Standing Push-Up: Place the band across your back and feed the ends under your armpits, holding one end in each hand. Start with your hands by your shoulders, then press straight forward as though you were performing a push-up. Slowly return to the starting position. This will prepare your arms for pushing down on a partner’s shoulders during a lift, as well as for floor work you might encounter in contemporary pieces.


Port de Bras: Begin with your arms en bas, holding the band slightly stretched between each hand. Raise your arms to first position, then fifth, maintaining the resistance throughout. Then slowly return to en bas. Paul Papoutsakis, physical therapist for National Ballet of Canada, recommends keeping the shoulder blades slightly squeezed together to work your shoulders and upper back—which will help your port de bras look stronger and more supported.
Down to the Core
Cambrés and arabesques can wreak havoc on your lower spine. Protect your back by building a strong core.


Roll-Up: While standing in parallel, place the band under your feet and hold the ends, one in each hand. Hang over your legs and slowly roll up with a rounded back. The band’s resistance will increase as you roll away from your feet, requiring the deep abdominals to engage. This will balance the arch in your lower spine and increase the articulation in your back. 


Plank: Tie the band in a loop around your wrists so there is resistance when your hands are shoulder-distance apart. Come into a full plank, then “walk” around—moving arms and legs together, going forward, backward or even sideways. A good plank works the entire body, especially the core. This is also an efficient way to prepare your rotator cuffs (shoulder-blade stabilizers) for lifts.

Long and Strong Legs   
Because ballet dancers are always turned out, most overwork their external rotators while neglecting their internal rotators. “Dancers develop muscular imbalances at the hip, which affect leg alignment and muscle development,” says Erika Kalkan, a physical therapist at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at the NYU Hospital for Joint Injuries. Working the leg muscles in all directions can correct these imbalances.


Clamshell: Lie on your side with knees bent, and your head, shoulders, hips and feet in a straight line. Tie the band around your ankles. Keeping the knees together, lift your top foot. Although this internal rotation will feel awkward at first, it will help to even out the muscles in your hips. To work external rotation, tie the band around your thighs just above the knees and lift the top knee into the band while keeping the feet together.


Tied-Up Tendu: In first position at the barre, tie the band in a loop around the working ankle and to a fixed point directly opposite from the tendu direction (for tendu front, tie it straight back; for tendu back, tie it front, etc.). Tendu slowly, working against the band’s resistance. “Standing exercises work multiple muscle groups and challenge balance,” says Kalkan. This exercise will give your standard tendus and dégagés extra bite.


Tough Skin
Despite what you might think, it’s possible to prevent blistered toes. The key is to toughen up your skin. When your feet are healthy—no open wounds—apply tincture of benzoin (available at your local pharmacy) directly to any blister-prone areas every day for a couple of weeks. Allow it to dry, and then rub in unscented lotion. You will eventually feel your skin get harder, making it less susceptible to blisters. (Stop using the tincture if you experience any redness, itching, pain or blistering, which could be a sign of dermatitis.) If your toes are still blistering regularly, check to make sure your pointe shoes fit properly: A box that is too narrow or wide is often the culprit.


TLC, Gingerly
The next time your muscles feel sore, consider munching on some ginger. Traditional medicine practices have used this herb for centuries to reduce inflammation associated with muscle pain.
How It Works: Ginger works the same way as anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen: by blocking certain chemicals (prostaglandins) that cause swelling and pain.
Other Uses: Ginger can also help prevent and relieve nausea, indigestion and cold symptoms.
How to Eat: Ginger can be used as a spice in cooking, eaten raw, crystallized and sweetened, or brewed in tea.


Become a Fat-Burning Machine
Want to burn more fat during your next class? Eat a meal that ranks low on the glycemic index, which rates carbohydrates on how they affect blood sugar levels.


A recent study published in The Journal of Nutrition found that women who consumed low-GI foods before working out burned 50 percent more fat than women who consumed a high-GI meal. This is most likely because high-GI foods spike your blood sugar, which your body then uses as fuel. But low-GI foods take longer to digest, so your body pulls energy from its fat stores instead.


Some healthy low-GI foods include:
1. Cereals made with oats, barley or bran
2. Bread made with whole grains, stone-ground flour or sourdough
3. Fruits and vegetables
4. Basmati or Doongara rice


Stick It
If you haven’t yet tried The Stick, you’re missing out. The latest fad in self-massage tools, it feels like the ultimate indulgence—but using it is one of the healthiest things you can do for your body.


The Stick works like a rolling pin, but with several independent spindles that turn freely around a semi-rigid core. This allows you to dig deep into your muscles and disperse the lactic acid that builds up after hours in the studio. Unlike balls or foam rollers, The Stick lets you  easily vary the amount of pressure you want to use. It comes in a variety of lengths, including a compact travel size that can fit inside your dance bag. Check out

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For more than 25 years, coaching at Ballethnic has been a lifeline back to Abarca Mitchell's days with DTH. She had a stellar career, both with the company and beyond, but left the stage at age 30 after an injury sustained performing in Dancin' on Broadway. Her husband's job transferred them to Atlanta, where she transitioned to a full-time job as a medical transcriptionist while raising a family. Now retired from her second career, Abarca Mitchell continues to forward Arthur Mitchell's legacy, not only through coaching but also by building community among DTH alumni and writing her memoirs—a fairy-tale story of a child who came from the Harlem public-housing projects and became a trailblazing Black ballerina.

Abarca Mitchell grew up during the 1950s and '60s, the oldest of seven in a tight-knit family. She always danced, taking cues from Hollywood figures until a fourth-grade teacher saw her talent and encouraged her to seek formal training. The family couldn't afford ballet lessons, but Abarca Mitchell earned a scholarship to attend The Juilliard School's Saturday youth program, and later the Harkness Ballet's professional training program. But for all of those ballet classes, Abarca Mitchell never had the opportunity to see or perform in a ballet production. She didn't understand the purpose behind ballet's tedious class exercises.

When the fast-growing Harkness Ballet moved its scholarship students to the June Taylor Studio on Broadway, Abarca Mitchell remembers hearing live drumming, clapping and laughter coming from the studio across the hall. It was a jazz class taught by Jaime Rogers, who'd played Loco in the West Side Story movie. Abarca Mitchell started sneaking into Rogers' classes.

When Harkness informed her that her scholarship was exclusively for ballet, Abarca Mitchell left the program. She saw no future for herself in the white-dominated ballet world, and focused on academics during her last two years of high school.

At 17, Abarca Mitchell met Arthur Mitchell. He had made history as the first Black principal dancer with New York City Ballet, which he had joined in 1955, and had just begun to shape what would become Dance Theatre of Harlem when he hired Abarca Mitchell in 1968. Within a month, she was back on pointe. Within two months, she was performing in Arthur Mitchell's Tones. "I didn't even know what ballet was until I was onstage," Abarca Mitchell says. "All of a sudden, it was my heart and soul."

Arthur Mitchell made sure his dancers saw NYCB perform, and subsequently brought Balanchine's Agon, Concerto Barocco and other NYCB works into the DTH repertoire. "Physically and emotionally, I felt the connection of jazz in Balanchine's choreography," Abarca Mitchell says. "His neoclassical style was just funky to me. I could totally relate."

For the first time, Abarca Mitchell danced with people who looked like her and shared the same aspirations, she says, with a leader who "saw us through his eyes of love and achievement."

In Abarca Mitchell's 30s, after a performing career that took her from DTH to the film version of The Wiz to Bob Fosse's Dancin' and beyond, her husband's job took their family to Atlanta. She soon connected with Gilreath and Waverly Lucas. The couple, also DTH alumni, were influenced by Arthur Mitchell's model when they founded Ballethnic, seeking to create access for dancers of all backgrounds to develop as classical dancers and perform a repertoire that represents the company's culturally diverse home city. Over time, Abarca Mitchell became a trusted advisor.

Abarca Mitchell goes in at least twice a year to coach Ballethnic's productions—such as Urban Nutcracker, set in Atlanta's historically Black Sweet Auburn neighborhood, and The Leopard Tale, which features the company's signature blend of classical pointe work with polyrhythmic dance forms of the African diaspora. These final rehearsals give Abarca Mitchell a way to fast-track the transfer of her mentor's values.

Two dancers in blue and black practice clothes and face masks, the woman in pointe shoes, pose together in a first arabesque tendu. Abarca Mitchell steps out of a mirrored pose as she adjusts the fingertips of the male dancer.

Lydia Abarca Mitchell works with Ballethnic's Calvin Gentry and Karla Tyson.

Courtesy Ballethnic Dance Company

She recalls that Arthur Mitchell taught his dancers to present themselves at their finest—to enter a room with their heads held high and shoulders back—and to dress, speak and walk with dignity and self-respect. He reminded them that they were pioneers and ambassadors for Blacks in ballet. As the company gained international stature—Abarca Mitchell was the first Black female ballerina to appear on the cover of Dance Magazine, in 1975—he insisted the dancers remain humble and in service to the greater mission. But he was also a taskmaster. "No nonsense, no excuses," Abarca Mitchell says. "There was no slack. If he was rehearsing something that you're not in, you'd better be on the side learning it."

"He didn't throw compliments around at all. You had to really kill yourself to get a smile from him." After a run-through, she says, "you didn't want to be singled out."

Abarca Mitchell takes a slightly different approach, though she doesn't compromise on the values her mentor instilled. When coaching large casts of all ages and different levels for Ballethnic, she has found ways to inspire people without tearing them down. She calls it a "tough love" approach.

"I've got to make them want to do it. I don't want to beat them into doing it," Abarca Mitchell says. "I tell them, 'You're here because you want to be, and because you auditioned and were accepted. Now, show me why I should keep you here.'"

"I tell them, 'I'm here to make sure you'll look good—you know: 'That looks fake. Let's make it look real. Think about what you're doing, so that it's not just a gesture.'"

Arthur Mitchell instilled this level of emotional honesty in his dancers, and it was key to the company's quick success. "We were bringing a thought forward," says Abarca Mitchell. "We were bringing a feeling forward, so that the audience could connect with us."

In addition to her position as rehearsal director for Ballethnic, Abarca Mitchell is today part of 152nd Street Black Ballet Legacy, a group of DTH alumni who seek to give voice to people responsible for the company's success in its early years. "It's incredible," she says, "how many people took something from DTH and applied it to their lives."

As Ballethnic prepares to co-host the International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference and Festival in January 2022, Abarca Mitchell hopes to help strengthen the network of dance companies associated with Ballethnic, such as Memphis' Collage Dance Collective. "The dream is for all of us to collaborate with each other," she says, "so that it becomes more normal to see a Black ballerina, so it's not just a token appearance."

Today's young dancers face different challenges from what Abarca Mitchell faced. She finds that they're more easily distracted, and sometimes act entitled, because they don't know or appreciate how hard earlier Black ballerinas like herself worked to clear a path for them. But what she's passing on will benefit them, whether they choose to pursue dance careers or become doctors, lawyers, professors or something else entirely. "The principles are the same," she says. "Work for what you want, and you will achieve it."

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