Your Best Body: Moving Beyond "No Pain, No Gain"

Moving Beyond “No  Pain, No Gain”

 

When you get injured, not dancing can be the smartest career move.

 

By Nancy Wozny and Rosie Gaynor

 

On opening night of Coppélia last June, the light, sprightly Pacific Northwest Ballet powerhouse Kaori Nakamura tore a calf muscle midway through Act I. “I couldn’t point my foot,” she says. “It was so painful and numb.” During a moment offstage, the company director asked Nakamura the fateful question: Do you want to stop?

 

Every dancer gets injured at some point in her career, and the decision to pull out of a performance can be wrenching. But while dancers may be tempted, pushing through the pain can lead to a more serious injury that requires weeks of time off, months of physical therapy, possible surgery and even cause permanent damage. It’s a roll of the dice—and the risks are huge.

 

Even though they are aware of the consequences, many dancers choose to power through anyway. Eight weeks pregnant, Nakamura knew her next performance was a year away. “Of course I wanted to finish! I had worked so hard for this,” she says. She made it through the next two acts, but when the curtain went down, so did Nakamura. “I couldn’t walk,” she says. “I couldn’t even touch my calf, it was so painful.”

 

Pain, as Dr. William Hamilton, orthopedic consultant for New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, points out, “is Mother Nature sending you the message that something is wrong, and that what you’re doing is keeping it from healing.”

 

But like any athlete, dancers deal with aches and pains almost daily. How do you recognize pain that is telling you to stop now? Traumatic pain like a snapped Achilles or ACL is obvious and impossible to ignore. “If you hear a pull, pop or the pain persists when you return to the activity, it needs to be evaluated,” says Dr. Patrick McCulloch, MD, an orthopedic surgeon with the Center for Performing Arts Medicine at The Methodist Hospital in Houston, TX. “Swelling and bruising are also signs that something is structurally wrong.” Slow-onset injuries are less startling, but can be just as dangerous to dance on. If it’s chronic pain that gradually worsens, “look for a certain sharpness and intensity of the symptoms that maybe you haven’t felt before,” says Boyd Bender, a physical therapist at PNB. “Another telltale sign is that this pain causes you to consciously compensate with another part of your body.”

 

Any pain that persists after 24 to 48 hours of rest, ice, compression, elevation and anti-inflammatories needs the help of a doctor. Dancers too often avoid seeking medical attention, afraid the doctor will put them on bed rest. But not getting a diagnosis is a dangerous choice. “Lower leg pain could just be shin splints—or it could be a stress fracture,” says McCulloch. Bender once worked with a dancer who refused to seek help for shin pains and eventually fractured his tibia, which required far more time off for surgery and healing. In a scary coda to the story, his tibia fractured again—onstage.

 

While talking to other dancers about symptoms and remedies can seem like a shortcut to a solution, your colleagues don’t necessarily have better information than you do. Plus, what works for someone else’s body might not work for yours. And dancers’ standard practices sometimes backfire. After consulting with a physical therapist on his back pain, for example, PNB principal Lucien Postlewaite discovered that the gently-stretch-it-when-it-hurts strategy “was actually the exact opposite of what I should have been doing; it was contributing to my injury!”

 

The paradox is that the very qualities it takes to be a dancer can turn against you here. The idea of persevering through pain is deeply ingrained in ballet culture—the show must go on, and self sacrifice is often romanticized, even considered heroic. Let’s face it: In order to gain the strength and flexibility needed to succeed in ballet, dancers endure tremendous discomfort, which they’re trained to ignore. But that same willingness to push yourself to the limit can end up affecting the longevity of your career.

 

To get back on your feet quickly, seek treatment as early as possible. “When you injure yourself, your body sort of turns on the healing switch,” says Hamilton. A change in your hormones results in “a great capacity for healing in the first month or so—if proper attention is given to the injury.” So, the sooner you rest up, the sooner you’ll be back onstage—and the longer you’re likely to be there.

 

 

Balancing Act
If you want to improve your balance, hop on a Bosu ball—the funny-looking exercise prop that looks like a Pilates ball cut in half. The unsteady surface challenges your control and forces your core to work overtime to find stability. Test your balance by standing on one foot (in parallel) on the Bosu’s bull’s-eye. Try a few simple ballet exercises, such as modified low battements and développés en avant, à la seconde and derrière. Then step off the ball and perform the same movements—they will suddenly feel like a piece of cake on the floor’s solid surface!

 

 

Timing Is Everything
Smart dancers already know that eating lean protein is a strategic way to fill up on a relatively small number of calories. But Purdue University researchers recently discovered that when you eat it can make a difference. Including lean protein in your breakfast will keep you satisfied longer than if you only add it to meals later in the day. Eat some eggs or low-fat yogurt in the morning to keep your stomach from grumbling later on in rehearsal.

 

 

Unkink Your Calves

The next time your lower legs are full of knots at the end of the day, try going to sleep on your stomach with your toes hanging off the edge of the bed. Gravity will lightly pull down on your feet, gently stretching your calves all night long.

 

 

Full Steam Ahead
Running out of energy halfway through grand allégro? Make sure you’re getting your daily dose of antioxidants. Researchers recently found that cyclists who amped up their antioxidant intake were able to pedal at the same pace with less effort than those who didn’t. That’s because antioxidants protect muscle proteins from the free radical damage that can lead to fatigue. Get your fill by eating at least five servings of fruits and veggies a day.

 

 

Sweetly Satisfied
Sometimes it seems like Valentine’s Day should be renamed National Chocolate Day. Instead of denying yourself, indulge in a few bites of
quality dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa). Your body may thank you! Here’s why:

1. Chocolate increases blood flow to the brain, boosting memory, reaction time and attention span, according to research at Wheeling Jesuit University.

2. Eating small amounts daily decreases stress hormones, according to a study in the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Proteome Research.

3. Small, regular doses of dark chocolate can help reduce inflammation, according to researchers from the National Cancer Institute in Milan, Italy.

 

Tip: What VitaminsShould Dancers Take?
In addition to a healthy, balanced diet, all you need is a women’s once-a-day multivitamin with at least 18 mg of iron for energy, plus a calcium supplement with 1,300 mg of calcium and 400–800 IUs of vitamin D for strong bones. Take them at different times of the day for maximum absorption. —Emily Harrison, registered dietitian with The Centre for Dance Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyles at Atlanta Ballet



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Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.


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."

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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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