Health & Body
Photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe. Modeled by Hannah Seiden.

Photographed by Nathan Sayers, modeled by Hannah Seiden.

As choreography becomes increasingly demanding, dancers must adjust their flexibility and strength to match. One major aspect of 21st-century ballet is a pliable back. Michelle Rodriguez, MPT, OCS, CMPT, founder and director of Manhattan Physio Group, and her colleague Sarah Walker, DPT, recommend these exercises to build a balance of fluidity and support in the spine. If you dream of dancing work by the likes of William Forsythe and Wayne McGregor, these are for you.

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Ballet Training
San Francisco Ballet rehearsing Raymonda. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

The way you stand makes a huge impression, whether you're in an audition or just walking down the street. Awareness of your posture will help you achieve a more engaged and gracious épaulement, project confidence and strengthen your upper back. Read on for our best tips and exercises.

Two Exercises for a Strong Upper Back

1. When you begin your first plié combination of the day, you're likely feeling refreshed and ready to go—not to mention standing tall with good posture. But as class goes on, and the mind fatigues, bad habits can creep in. By center, your upper back may be slumping forward, and your posture less than perfect.

Julie O'Connell, director of performing arts medicine at Athletico Physical Therapy in Chicago, says she often sees dancers standing with their shoulder blades too far forward and the chest caved in. She suggests this exercise to help correct this postural problem. Though the motion is minimal, it can have a big impact on your overall épaulement. If you feel your upper back rounding during class, you can even do a few reps in between combos, to remind your body of the proper alignment.

  • Stand straight against a wall, using it as a contact point for your shoulder blades.
  • Lift both arms in front of you to a 90-degree angle. The wrists should be in line with the shoulders and the elbows should be extended.
  • Using the serratus anterior muscles (which wrap from the upper ribs around the scapulas), slowly reach both arms forward in a punching motion, feeling your shoulder blades move away from each other as they glide along your rib cage.
  • Return to the starting position, so your shoulder blades are resting alongside the spine. This is correct, engaged alignment. Do 2 sets of 10 repetitions.
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Ballet Training

Have a question? Click here to send it to Amy and she might answer it in an upcoming issue!

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.

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