Your Best Body: Creams, Lotions and Potions

Every dancer has some tube of pain-relieving gel or cream stashed inside her dance bag. It’s a quick, easy way to soothe sore muscles and achy joints. In fact, the simple act of massaging the products in helps to increase blood flow, which aids healing and relaxes overused muscles, says Craig Westin, orthopedic surgeon at the Chicago Center for Orthopedics at Weiss Memorial Hospital and medical director for The Joffrey Ballet.

But most of us rarely think twice about what we’re rubbing on—we just apply the same stuff that other dancers at the studio use. However, not all topical ointments are created equal. There are significant differences between products and all have slightly different effects.

Cool & Warm
Icy Hot, BENGAY and Tiger Balm fall into the same family: All contain menthol, an organic compound obtained from mint plants. Menthol is a counterirritant, which causes the skin to feel cool and then warm, helping to distract the user from pain in muscles, joints and tendons.

BENGAY and Icy Hot also contain 30 percent methyl salicylate, or wintergreen oil. It’s a pain reliever and a counterirritant with structural properties similar to aspirin: One teaspoon of pure wintergreen oil is equivalent to nearly 22 adult aspirin tablets.
Tiger Balm and Ultra Strength BENGAY cream both include camphor, which is chemically manufactured from turpentine oil. It acts as a slight local anesthetic and increases blood flow to the area, and is also a counterirritant.   

Although these cooling/warming creams may feel like they are working deep inside a muscle or tendon, for the most part the effect is really just skin deep. Their main purpose is to mask pain—which could get you in trouble if you’re applying them to ignore a serious injury. “If a dancer finds that these products help muscle aches or sore joints feel a little more comfortable, it’s okay if she uses them,” says Peter Breen, a physical therapist and owner of Backstage PT, a dance, orthopedic and sports physical therapy center in Boston. “But they’re not necessarily something I would recommend.”

A Homeopathic Approach
One of the first things Breen recommends when a dancer complains of minor aches and pains is arnica. This homeopathic remedy is used to soothe muscle aches, reduce inflammation and heal wounds, including bruises and sprains. While there hasn’t been much clinical research on the herb, Westin says that arnica works by causing the blood vessels to dilate, increasing circulation, which helps speed recovery.

Arnica comes from a perennial plant with yellow-orange flowers similar to daisies—the fresh or dried flower heads have been used medicinally since the 1500s. Arnica is generally safe when used topically as a cream, but prolonged use may irritate the skin, causing eczema, peeling, blisters or other skin conditions.

By Prescription Only
One ointment many dancers carry is Voltaren Gel, a topical nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug—the equivalent of having ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve) in a tube. The active ingredient is diclofenac sodium, which reduces pain and inflammation. Voltaren can only be obtained with a doctor’s prescription.

“It is most effective for a tendon irritation in the foot or ankle, for example, because it can better penetrate the skin there than in a large muscle,” Westin says. Voltaren is especially helpful if a dancer has problems taking NSAIDs orally, due to stomach ulcers or kidney sensitivities. Side effects are not that common, but can include skin irritation, allergic reactions, high blood pressure, asthma attacks or stomach pain.

Doubling Up
There are some days when rubbing on an ointment isn’t enough, and you need something more. Don’t worry: It’s safe to take oral anti-inflammatories at the same time as using most over-the-counter gels. “However, if you’re using a topical cream and taking anti-inflammatories daily, then there is something else going on and you need to see a dance medicine specialist,” says Brad R. Moser, director of Minnesota Dance Medicine.

If you have localized pain that lasts more than a few days, stop using non-prescribed products and schedule a doctor’s appointment. “If you don’t know the cause of your pain, whether it’s an injury or an issue with technique, you’re not getting to the root of the problem,” Westin says. “You want to make sure you have a proper diagnosis and you’re not just hiding your pain.”

Back To The Basics

Although tubes of cream are convenient to throw in a dance bag, your best line of defense may actually be ice. “It’s very hard to go wrong with ice,” Breen says. “Ninety-nine percent of the time it is applicable for any type of ailment, and it’s safe and efficient.” Ice constricts blood vessels to help prevent swelling. After 48 hours, switching to heat will help blood circulate to promote healing. Moser also notes that ice is as pure as possible—no synthetic additives to worry about. “It’s as benign as you can get.”


High Arches? Try This

Beautiful feet are both a blessing and a curse: Although we all want high insteps and arches, they come with a greater susceptibility to injuries like strains, sprains and stress fractures. Sigrid Scruggs, founder of Theatre Arts Physiotherapy in Millburn, NJ, recommends dancers with hyper-flexible feet guard against injury by practicing this “doming” exercise. It trains the intrinsic muscles of the feet to pull up evenly on both sides, which helps control and align wobbly ankles.
1.    Start by standing on flat. Find your balance on one leg.
2.    Without scrunching your toes, pull up the arch of your standing foot until your weight is balanced between your big toe, little toe and heel. The center of your foot should not be touching the floor.
3.    Hold for 5 seconds, then switch legs.
4.    Repeat 8 to 16 times.

Class, Then Core

Almost every dancer warms up with some sort of abdominal exercise before barre. But if you’re looking to really increase your core strength, consider doing a set of crunches after class, too. Muscles are at their optimal point for strengthening once they’re already warm because that’s when enzyme activity for muscle growth is at its peak. Even though you’re tired, remember that your most effective core workout could come after grand allégro.


The Milky Way

Dozens of drinks out there promise to be the perfect post-exercise fuel. Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin recently set out to determine which were the most effective: carbohydrate sports drinks, zero-calorie drinks or low-fat chocolate milk. The winner? Chocolate milk. Milk drinkers showed improved times while working out, were in better overall shape and their bodies had more muscle and less fat. The natural protein/carb mix offers significant benefits as a refuel tool. Drink up! 

Low-Cal Comfort
As coats and scarves come out of storage, so do cravings for comfort food. Don’t worry: You can indulge in fall favorites without packing on “insulation.” Just add veggies. According to a study at Penn State University, people who ate a meal filled with pureed vegetables inadvertently cut their intake by up to 350 calories. The added produce works as a natural appetite suppressant by bulking up dishes with low-cal—and filling—fiber. Researchers suggest adding pureed cauliflower or squash to macaroni and cheese, or baking pumpkin bread loaded with canned pumpkin.

Eat Like A Pro

Looking for a healthy new mid-rehearsal snack? Try this simple recipe for an open-faced avocado egg salad sandwich created by Royal Danish Ballet corps member Shelby Elsbree. “It’s got a lot of protein, healthy omega-3 oils and the perfect amount of carbs to keep you energized and satiated until your next meal!” she says. “It’s the perfect ‘power snack.’ ”
2 hard-boiled eggs
1/2 an avocado, sliced into cubes
1 teaspoon Dijon or honey mustard
1–2 tablespoons plain yogurt
1–2 finely chopped scallions
A dash of salt and pepper to taste
1 slice multi-grain bread
1. Combine all ingredients (except bread), adding more or less of each until you reach your desired consistency and flavor.
2. Toast the slice of bread and spread homemade egg salad generously on top.

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Lydia Abarca Mitchell, Arthur Mitchell's First Ballerina, Builds On Her Mentor's Legacy in Atlanta

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

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."

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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