We get it: Ballet is exhausting, and sometimes all you want to do during a quick break between rehearsals is, well, nothing. Bill Evans, director of the Evans Somatic Dance Institute, recommends the following options, which are both relaxing and recuperative for the stresses dance puts on your body. From energizing restorative poses to deep breathing, here are five ways to make your downtime work for you.
Sock walk: As soon as she wakes up, Pazcoguin pulls on compression socks and takes her dog for an hour walk in Central Park. Their heavy elasticity alleviates recurring toe and joint pain in her right foot. “They help increase circulation at the start of the day,” she says.
Creative cooking: Pazcoguin wouldn’t dare skip breakfast. “I would be an absolute grouch and pass out.” She makes her own “breakfast rice” by blending raw cauliflower in her Vitamix and sautéing it. “I’ll add salt, pepper and healthy spices, like turmeric—it’s great for reducing inflammation—and poppy seeds, which also have antioxidants. Then I’ll put an egg on top.”
Therapy on the go: Whether she’s at work, on the road or even out to dinner, Pazcoguin always has her favorite massage tools in her bag. The Thumbby—“basically a silicone mini-cone that mimics a therapist’s thumb”—releases tension in her calves, shins and piriformis (one of the external rotators). Her Stress Buster Massage Ball targets her lower back and thighs.
Favorite workout: She swears by her Gyrotonic sessions with master teacher Emily Smith. “Not only is she great for building strength in my weak spots, but she fixes a lot of the issues in my body before a PT is needed.” Pazcoguin says Gyrotonic is “super for core strength.”
Always on her mind: Pazcoguin had a Lisfranc injury as a teenager that damaged the joints in her arch and still haunts her. “My entire right midfoot will shift over my big toe, so it’s a constant effort to get it to shift back so there’s support around my fourth and fifth metatarsals.” Aside from therapy and Thera-Band exercises, she also practices engaging her hamstring and turnout muscles, using her leg’s strength to maintain skeletal alignment when her foot gives her trouble.
How she gets through tough ballets: Breathing can be a challenge, says Pazcoguin, “especially when you’re trying to move as fast as these Balanchine roles require.” She applies techniques from singing—she’s appeared in Broadway’s On the Town and with musical theater troupe American Dance Machine for the 21st Century—like slowly compressing, then releasing and reactivating her abdominals. “It’s helping me engage my core in a much different way.”
Until recently, stretching was thought to be one of the best ways to counter plantar fasciitis, or heel pain caused when connective tissue under the foot becomes irritated. Just mention the condition and ballet dancers are likely to groan, since it often develops as a result of tension placed on the plantar fascia when repetitively landing jumps and rolling down from relevés.
Pilates has long been a go-to warm-up for ballet dancers, promising longer, stronger muscles and a more powerful, connected core. Experienced practitioners can even whiz through the beginning mat series—a group of 18 exercises—in just 10 to 12 minutes. But if you only have a few minutes to get warm, which exercises should you do? Many Pilates teachers recommend a compressed warm-up.
Stephanie West, an instructor and teacher trainer with Power Pilates in New York City, says that even with an abbreviated workout, you’re likely to notice improvements in your technique almost immediately, like being able to lift your arabesque higher while keeping the abs and ribs connected, or completing three pirouettes instead of two since the arms, legs and torso will have better coordination. West suggests a group of abdominal exercises, known as the “series of five,” with a built-in progression of stretch, stability, stamina and strength that will fire up the entire body. Throughout the series, think of pulling the abs in and up, and avoid using the common ballet cue to “bring the navel to the spine,” which could cause you to compress your spine into the mat.
1. Single-leg stretch (8 sets; right and left make 1 set)
Lift head and place both hands on right shin. Extend left leg out at a 45-degree angle. Exhale and pull the right leg in farther. Inhale to change legs.
Remember: Empty all the air out of the lungs before switching legs.
2. Double-leg stretch (8 reps)
Lift head and hug both shins into chest. Inhale and extend the arms on a high diagonal behind you and the legs to a 45-degree angle. Exhale and hug shins back in. Remember: Keep the head lifted the entire time.
3. Scissors (8 sets)
Lift head and straighten both legs toward ceiling. Place hands behind right thigh and reach left leg out at a 45-degree angle. Pull the right leg in twice and switch.
Remember: Resist the urge to stretch into a split. Instead, bring the upper body up to meet the leg.
4. Lower lift (8 reps)
Place both hands in a diamond shape under the hips for support. Lift head and reach both legs to 90 degrees. Lower legs to 45 degrees and then return.
Remember: Focus on curling the upper body higher even as the legs lower.
5. Crisscross (8 sets)
Place both hands behind the head and lift head up. Straighten right leg to 45-degree angle, keeping left knee bent into chest. Twist toward bent knee for 3 pulses. Come to center, bending both knees at a 90-degree angle. Then change legs and twist to other side.
Remember: Think of twisting your armpit to the opposite knee instead of the elbow to the knee.
Challenge yourself: Try the whole series as a bookend to your classes or rehearsals three times a week, says West. “It’s beneficial to do it before a long rehearsal to open up the lungs, to connect the rib cage and to scoop into the abdominals.” Repeating the series during your cooldown allows you to check back in with your body.
Got (Whole) Milk?
Glance inside any dancer’s fridge, and it’s probably stocked with healthy choices like low-fat yogurt and skim milk. But recent research from the Scandinavian Journal of Primary Health Care suggests that whole-fat dairy products may actually be more successful in warding off belly fat than low- or nonfat dairy versions of milk, yogurt, cream and butter. Researchers think this may happen because high-fat dairy foods make you feel fuller sooner, so you’re likely to eat less. Or, bioactive substances in milk fat may have an effect on your metabolism, so the body burns fat instead of storing it. Those are two guilt-free reasons to revamp your grocery list with some different dairy treats.
Wrap for Relief
If you bobble on your ballonné and end up with a sprained ankle during class, you’re likely to search for the nearest ice pack. But traditional ones can be messy, especially if they pop and the blue cooling gel spills all over your dance bag. Dr. Cool wraps provide a chemical-free alternative, combining the cold therapy of ice with the compression of an ACE bandage. Simply dip the wrap in cold water and place in a freezer for 20 minutes before wrapping the injured area. They’re designed to stay cool for about 20 minutes, so you don’t have to worry about frostbite from over-icing. And since they come in three sizes (from 3" by 25" to 6" by 50"), they’re suitable for many dancer trouble spots, like the ankle, knee, thigh, back and shoulder. Get yours at drcoolrecovery.com.
Teachers are constantly challenging their students to have a snappier spot, and for good reason. Not only does it keep dancers from becoming disoriented during a series of chaînés or fouettés, it actually changes how the brain deals with dizziness in general. A team of neurologists at Imperial College London recently studied the science behind spotting and learned that through years of training, ballet dancers’ brains are able to ignore signals from the inner ears’ balance organs and better ward off dizziness. After a group of dancers and nondancers were spun in a mechanical chair, brain scans showed a visible difference in the part of the brain that processes sensory information from the inner ear. Researchers are now considering dance classes, specifically those with turning, as a possible therapy for people with chronic dizziness.
Nutrition Label Makeover
This spring the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced a fresh take on the familiar Nutrition Facts food label. Health-savvy dancers will soon notice changes on the packaging of everything from string cheese to granola bars to frozen veggies. One dancer-friendly change is that the amount of potassium and vitamin D will now be included, making it easier to identify foods high in potassium, to reduce muscle cramps, and vitamin D, to help the body absorb calcium for strong bones. What else should you know about the new labels?
Hot ‘n’ Happy
It’s natural to feel discouraged after a bad class or performance, but as a dancer, you need to be able to bounce back quickly and step into your next rehearsal with renewed confidence. Eating hot sauce may do the trick. According to the American Chemical Society, jalapeño peppers, the active ingredient in spicy products like Sriracha sauce, can help provide an immediate mood boost. Why? After the hot and peppery taste hits your tongue, the nervous system releases endorphins to counter the heat. This creates a natural high, making you feel happier. Try drizzling some Sriracha on your wrap or sandwich at lunch, and you just might hit the barre feeling perkier. —Shannon Woods
Have a question? Click here to send it to Amy and she might answer it in an upcoming issue!
I’ve been dancing for eight years and still have poor turnout. I’ve tried many techniques and stretches, but nothing helps. Any advice? —Allison, Kansas
It’s so frustrating when our bodies refuse to bend to ballet’s will! Unfortunately, we’re born with a somewhat fixed degree of external rotation. Your turnout might be naturally limited. My advice is to do the best with what you have. Strengthen your rotator muscles to hold your maximum turnout. Before class, stand in your natural first and fifth positions, taking time to activate and feel your rotators. Maintain these positions during class, and resist the urge to crank your turnout from your knees and ankles or twist your working hip open. As you get stronger, your turnout will look better because you’ll hold it correctly in place. Also focus on your strengths. Do you have a beautiful stage presence or a great jump? Develop these more! Along with strong technique, they will draw attention away from any imperfections.
When doing relevés on pointe, my roll up from half pointe to full pointe is very jolting. I have strong ankles; it is just the last part of the relevé that I struggle with. What can I do? —Alina, California
I spoke with Liz Henry, director of Westside Dance Physical Therapy, who suspects your intrinsic flexors (the muscles that move your toes) are weak, and recommends an exercise called “doming.”
With your foot flat on the ground, lift the row of knuckles between your metatarsals and your toes. “Allow the toes to be long,” says Henry. “Glide the toes along the floor in the direction of the heel, and create a ‘dome’ at those knuckle joints.” Make sure your toes are not curled or hammered. If you’re having trouble, use your hands to help shape the dome until you find the right foot muscles.
From here, Henry says, “Return back to flat the same way you came, keeping the toes long and straight without picking them up.” Then, keeping the ball of the foot on the ground, lift the toes up and return to flat. Start with 10 to 25 reps, eventually working up to 100.
Also practice going from demi to full pointe in your pointe shoes while sitting in a chair. Apply the doming principle as you articulate your foot (10 to 25 reps). Then, with doming in mind, try relevés at the barre, first with two feet, then one. Once your feet get stronger, you’ll have less need for the barre.
I have a really hard time finding my balance. Do you have any tips?
—Madeline, New York
Your problem may stem from improper alignment or lack of strength. Pay attention to which way you fall. If you fall away from the barre, you’re probably not “on your leg,” meaning the weight of your body is not centered over the ball of your foot. If you fall towards the barre, you’re probably lifting your working hip or sitting into your standing hip. If you’re wobbly in your ankles and torso, work on gaining strength. Check the alignment of your feet, legs, hips, pelvis, rib cage and shoulders from both front and side views on flat and relevé.
Once you nail down the problem, practice! At the studio, in your kitchen, at the bus stop—whenever you can. Set goals (10 seconds, 30 seconds, 2 minutes), and be determined to meet them.
Another tip: Think of pressing down into the floor during relevé, rather than rising up. If you push into the balls of your feet, you’ll engage your entire leg up to the area right underneath the buttocks. You’ll feel taller and much more stable.
Pilates has officially replaced crunches as the top technique to tone your six-pack. A recent study at Auburn University at Montgomery proved “The Teaser” activates 39 percent more of your abdominal muscles and 266 percent more of your external obliques than traditional crunches. How to master the move: Lie face up with your legs in a tabletop position and arms overhead. Lift your arms and torso toward the ceiling and straighten your legs so that your body forms a V shape. Hold, then slowly roll back down. Aim for 8 to 10 reps.
Gobble down your Thanksgiving feast guilt-free this year. Researchers from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, recently found that women who performed moderate-intensity cardio exercise before overeating actually increased their metabolism. Instead of turning into love handles, the calories were used to refuel their muscles. So while the turkey is cooking in the oven, hit the bike or elliptical machine for at least 30 minutes.
If you start to fade during rehearsal, wake yourself up with a little yoga. “Certain poses refresh the body,” says TaraMarie Perri, who teaches a yoga curriculum called Mind Body Dancer at New York’s Joffrey Ballet School. “Going upside down into an inversion can revive you because it improves blood circulation and boosts energy.” She recommends the L-shaped handstand. Sit with your back against a wall, and place your hands as far from the wall as your feet. Then, keeping your hands in place, walk your feet up the wall until they’re level with your hips. Your hips should be directly over your shoulders, shoulders over hands. Hold for three to five breaths, then come down and relax in child’s pose.