Health & Body
Pilates hundred intermediate set-up, modeled by Jordan Miller. Photo by Emily Giacalone.

The Pilates hundred is a popular exercise used by many dancers for conditioning and warming up, but it's also one of the most misunderstood. Pumping your arms for 100 counts sounds simple enough, but it requires coordinated breathwork, a leg position that suits your abilities and proper alignment. Marimba Gold-Watts, who works with New York City Ballet dancers at her Pilates studio, Articulating Body, breaks down this surprisingly hard exercise. When done correctly, the benefits are threefold: "If you're doing it before class," she says, "the hundred is a great way to get your blood flowing and work on breath control and abdominal support all at once."

To Start

Lie on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor. Nod your chin toward the front of your throat, and reach your fingertips long.

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Health & Body
Emma Love Suddarth and Dylan Wald in Price Suddarth's Signature. Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy Pacific Northwest Ballet.

Monday morning class after a three-day weekend? Stiff. After eight weeks off? Agonizing.

For most professional dancers on their summer layoff, a break from the daily grind is simultaneously exciting and unnerving. These months are often reserved for recovery and rest—a necessary opportunity to let the body repair and recharge. How dancers spend their summer break is mixed: some teach at summer intensives; some take the extended time to travel, visiting family or exploring internationally; some choose not to pause, performing at galas or festivals; and some just want to stay home, feet up, movies on. Depending on where you dance, the break might span a couple weeks or a couple months. Regardless of length, it involves a physical wind down, as well as a build back up. While it's never going to feel entirely easy, here are a few pro tips to help smooth the transition between 1 and 100 percent.

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Inside PT

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: 

(photo by Thinkstock)

Start lying down on your back with both knees into your chest.

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.

Inside PT

5-Minute Pilates

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.

Start lying down on your back with both knees into your chest.

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.

 

Spot On

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

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.

When San Francisco Ballet soloist Elizabeth Miner found herself huffing and puffing through David Bintley’s The Dance House, she knew it was time to increase her cross-training. “The piece was nonstop,” says Miner. “Just running it was not enough. I needed to build my aerobic capacity.” In addition to Pilates—which she already did—Miner began using the elliptical trainer for 30 minutes three times a week. She noticed a change almost immediately. “I could finish the ballet and not be completely exhausted,” says Miner. “I felt more in control, able to think about other things onstage, like the music and movement. Being tired is the last thing you want to focus on.”

Whether it’s running, yoga, spinning classes or weight lifting, non-dance exercise can help improve your technique. Marika Molnar, director of physical therapy at New York City Ballet, believes cross-training is an essential part of any dancer’s regime. “I don’t just recommend it, I insist on it,” says Molnar, who has been working with NYCB dancers for the past 30 years. “Because dancers perform the same movements using the same muscles all the time, strength, flexibility and motor coordination exercises help to nourish the body.” NYCB apprentices are offered a full wellness program that includes an individualized workout. “Once they experience how great it is, they make time for it,” Molnar adds.

A physical therapist or trainer can help you find the regimen that will be most effective for your body. Generally, exercises should be done two to three times a week, working to the point of fatigue to build strength while making sure your form is correct at all times.

Problem: Low Extensions

According to Molnar, strength at the end range of your flexibility is crucial to developing higher extensions. “Pilates reformer exercises are great,” she says. “One of my favorites is the single leg circle; it helps to improve abdominal stabilization while strengthening the whole leg through the range of motion.”

Athletic trainer Mike Howard and Pilates teacher James Harren, who both work with Houston Ballet dancers, recommend strengthening and stretching the psoas muscle through slow, deep sit-ups with the abdominal muscles contracted both on the way up and down. “Everything is connected, so extensions are easier with a stronger core,” Harren says. “Because the psoas attaches to the inner part of the thigh bone, it rotates the leg and lifts it.” Add the obliques in by twisting slightly to the left and right. Do two sets of ten three times a week.

Don’t leave out the strength of the standing leg. Harren recommends placing one leg on a medium-sized physio ball while lying down, the other leg in the air turned out and in first position, then lifting and lowering the pelvis in this position.

Problem: Low Jumps

Stretching correctly is the first step to improving your jumps. “Hanging out with your leg on the barre while chatting with friends will weaken ligaments and negatively impact your jumps,” warns Molnar. “Ideally, stretches should only be held for two to three minutes.” Molnar also believes plyometric training (which builds muscle power through quick, explosive movements) is essential to improve the strength, elasticity and activation of the muscles you use to jump. Try jumping with a two-pound weight, or jump on and off a six-inch box. “Have someone put their hands on your waist and push down to provide resistance,” Molnar suggests.

Howard advises strengthening the feet to improve your jumping. Try picking up marbles or cotton balls with your toes to engage the muscles in your arch.


Problem: Weak Port De Bras

Harren has dancers practice port de bras while lying on a roller. “Balancing on the roller will steady the core and build greater sensory motor coordination,” he says.

To strengthen the shoulder joint, stand up and do small shoulder circles with a dumbbell. Have a trainer determine the appropriate amount of weight. Any exercise where you pull something in front of you backwards, like on a rowing machine, will strengthen the muscles of the shoulder blades, creating a strong back.

Problem: Lack Of Stamina

Elliptical training, swimming and biking all offer low-impact ways to increase your stamina. Be sure to set the elliptical on a smaller incline and use light resistance. If you prefer the treadmill, Molnar recommends walking (both forward and backward), not running. “Running puts extreme force on the joints, especially the knees.” says Molnar. She advises staying away from the StairMaster altogether because it’s stressful on the knees and good form is hard to maintain.

In any aerobic exercise, try to achieve 65 percent of your maximum heart rate (you can determine your MHR by subtracting your age from 211). You need at least 15 to 30 minutes three times a week to see a difference in your endurance. “Make sure you are breathing in the lower lungs and not just the upper chest,” Molnar says. You can continue working on your endurance even while dealing with some injuries. Ask a doctor about low-impact swimming or biking.

Nancy Wozny covers the arts and health from Houston, TX.

Ever wonder what it would be like to take a Pilates class from Joe himself? Grueling. In 1962, Sports Illustrated took readers inside the Joseph H. Pilates Universal Gymnasium, and captured a great portrait of the exercise icon:

 

     "Where are you going—like an elephant?"

 

     "Oh, Joe," wails a ballerina, "now you're calling me an elephant."

 

     "I wouldn't insult the elephant. An elephant could walk through this room, and you wouldn't hear it. An elephant walks delicately. But you—clump, clump, clump!”

 

Read the whole brilliant thing in the SI vault.

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