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.

Ballet Careers
Lenai Alexis Wilkerson. Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Michelle Tabnick Public Relations.

This is one of a series of stories on recent graduates' on-campus experiences—and the connections they made that jump-started their dance careers. Lenai Alexis Wilkerson graduated from University of Southern California with a BFA in dance (dance performance concentration) and a political science minor in 2019.

As Lenai Alexis Wilkerson looked at colleges, she wanted a school that would prepare her for two totally different professions: dancing and law. "I knew, pretty much when I was 16, that I wanted to go to law school," she says. "So I wanted the opportunity to have a dual college experience, where I could have a conservatory training style within a university and I could focus equally on my academics." When she auditioned for the inaugural class of University of Southern California's Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, she knew it was the right fit.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Ballet Arizona
Tzu Chia Huang, Courtesy Ballet Arizona

These days, ballet dancers are asked to do more than they ever have—whether that's tackling versatile rep, taking on intense cross-training regimens or managing everything from their Instagram pages to their summer layoff gigs.

Without proper training, these demands can take a toll on both the mind and the body. But students can start preparing for them early—with the right summer intensive program.

The School of Ballet Arizona's summer intensive takes a well-rounded approach to training—not just focusing on technique and facility but nurturing overall dancer growth. "You cannot make a dancer just by screaming at them like they used to," says master ballet teacher Roberto Muñoz, who guests at the program every summer. "You have to take care of the person as well."

Keep reading... Show less
Nicolas Pelletier in Carmina Burana. Francisco Estevez, Courtesy Colorado Ballet.

Last week, Colorado Ballet interrupted Nutcracker rehearsals for an exciting announcement: Four dancers were being promoted. Though all made the jump from the company's corps de ballet, Nicolas Pelletier ascended directly to the rank of soloist, while Sean Omandam, Emily Speed and Melissa Zoebisch were promoted to demi-soloist. This news comes hot on the heels of last August's promotion of Francisco Estevez to principal.

Keep reading... Show less
Courtesy School of Pennsylvania Ballet

While many of us are deep in Nutcracker duties, The School of Pennsylvania Ballet director James Payne has been looking further ahead, finalizing preparations for the school's summer intensive programs. In January, he and his staff will embark on a 24-city audition tour to scour the country for the best young dancers, deciding whether or not to offer them a spot—maybe even a scholarship—in the school's rigorous 5-week intensive focused on high-caliber ballet instruction. Though he'll be evaluating aspirants, he urges that as a student, you should be equally selective in choosing programs that could galvanize your training—and possibly even your career.

We got Payne's advice on strategizing your summer intensive plan before the audition cycle kicks in:

Keep reading... Show less