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No matter what I try, I have trouble turning. What exercises can I do to improve my pirouettes? What should I think about when I'm turning? —Kiana, CA
Turns are tricky—there's a lot of room for things to go wrong. For me, I've learned that I have to always make a good preparation, with square hips and shoulders and a substantial plié. Whenever my preparation is hesitant or sloppy, my turn is usually a mess. I asked Laszlo Berdo, a full-time faculty member at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, for his pirouette tips. “You want to think of the passé as a working position, not a resting position," he says, comparing it to pulling a bow and arrow. “The supporting leg presses down into the floor, with the passé leg going up into the center. The higher the relevé, the stronger the balance."
He also uses imagery to help his students. “Think of a pirouette as a spiral," he says. “It's a corkscrew going up towards the ceiling, with its highest point being the last pirouette." This will help you pull up from your supporting leg.
Your port de bras can help you, too. “The arm opposite your passé is the working arm," says Berdo. “It cuts through the circle." Press the shoulders down, and relax your head and neck for a faster, more coordinated spot. Make extra time to practice your pirouettes during and after class. Ask a teacher to watch you to help pinpoint the possible reasons why you're having trouble.
I've heard that running is bad for dancers, that it builds bulky quads and shortens hamstrings. I naturally build muscle quickly, and I'm afraid that if I start running, my quads will get too big. But I want to exercise more to lose a little bit of weight. What is your view? —Gabrielle, CA
I've tried running before and personally, I find it too stressful on my joints. Since dancing is already hard on my body, I prefer to do lower-impact cross-training routines, like Pilates.
While sprinters are prone to developing bulky thighs, Heidi L. Green, a New York City physical therapist and freelance dancer, says that 20- to 30-minute jogs on flat surfaces shouldn't cause excessive muscle mass or tightness as long as you warm up properly beforehand and stretch afterwards. However, she agrees that running is hard on a dancer's body. “Choose a better option," she says, “like yoga, Pilates, swimming, the elliptical machine, riding the bicycle—something that's not going to add additional compression on the joints and lower extremities."
Green emphasizes that if you are trying to shed weight, the key is to add variety to your exercise routine, and if you don't cross-train, start. “Otherwise," she says, “your body is going to plateau." Try weight training in addition to aerobic exercise. “Weight-resistance exercise is great for weight loss because it burns more fat," says Green. “If you want to avoid bulk, do more repetitions with lighter weights." Consult with a personal trainer to develop an individualized exercise plan that will help you reach your goals in a healthy way.
I've had trouble with my back for months. I've been going to the chiropractor to correct it but it just isn't stabilizing. It's so frustrating and heartbreaking because I'm 17 and don't want this to hold me back from having a professional career. I'm icing, wrapping it when I dance, taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatories, etc. Is there anything else I can do? —Rachael, PA
It's hard for me to give you solid advice without knowing exactly what type of back problem you're having. Which makes me wonder: Do you know? Have you seen a doctor and gotten a proper diagnosis? I suggest you make an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon, ideally one who has experience working with dancers. Don't be afraid of the word “surgeon"—that doesn't mean you'll need surgery. (I've been to an orthopedist countless times and have yet to go under the knife.) The doctor will give you a consultation and may order tests, like an X-ray or an MRI, to determine the source and severity of your injury. He or she may also prescribe medication to help your symptoms, or refer you to a physical therapist to provide treatment and exercises for your back.
Be prepared: They may advise you to take some time off, which sounds scary but could be what your back needs to heal. You need a strong, healthy body to become a professional dancer, so take the necessary time to treat your injury.