Ballet Training
Oregon Ballet Theatre's Kelsie Nobriga and Matthew Pawlicki-Sinclair rehearse Bournonville's Napoli. Yu Yin, Courtesy OBT.

Kelsie Nobriga's first run-through of Nacho Duato's Rassemblement was a wake-up call. Until then, the Oregon Ballet Theatre soloist had only rehearsed individual sections of the ballet, unaware that she'd have little time to recover in between each one. Discovering just how tiring the 27-minute ballet would be was terrifying. "The first time we ran it I felt like I was going to pass out or throw up," she recalls. "My quads would just give out. I was really nervous about how I was going to perform it onstage."

When you're gasping for breath, not only do the simplest steps feel impossible, but your risk of injury also increases. Stamina is a crucial part of a dancer's performance tool kit, though typical ballet classes don't do much to develop it. With some advance planning outside the studio, you can build up your cardiovascular and muscular endurance to make a marathon ballet less daunting.

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If you're about to learn a tough ballet, cross-training ahead of your rehearsal period can help you gain the extra stamina you need. Repeated short spurts of high- and moderate-intensity exercise most closely replicate the pacing of a pas de deux, variation and coda, or the "push" and "rest" sections of an ensemble piece. Kester Cotton, dance program coordinator at Spaulding Rehabilitation Network in Boston, explains how to use both interval training and steady-state endurance workouts to build the stamina that you don't get in class. This can be done on an elliptical machine, a bike or an Arc Trainer. (Be sure to clear participation in a cardio program with your physician before getting started).

1. Determine your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220. Then calculate your "training zone," which is between 70–85 percent of your max. Cotton strongly recommends using a heart rate monitor or fitness tracking device to accurately measure how hard you're working (and prevent overdoing it).

2. Aim for 2–3 steady-state endurance workouts per week with your heart rate at 70–80 percent of your max for approximately 30–45 minutes.

3. One to two times a week, follow the basic 2:1 work/rest ratio for interval workouts:

  • 10-minute warmup, gradually getting to 70 percent heart rate.
  • Challenging but not hard effort for 1 minute, followed by 30 seconds of easier effort. Repeat 5 times.
  • Hard effort for 40 seconds, 20 seconds easier. Repeat 10 times.
  • Very hard effort (upwards of 80 percent of your max heart rate) for 20 seconds, 10 seconds easier. Repeat 10 times.
  • Five-minute cool-down to get your heart rate well under 70 percent of your max. (Cotton emphasizes the importance of not abruptly ending your workout with your heart rate near its max.)
Photo by Jesper Stechmann via Unsplash

If you're looking for a cardiovascular workout, swimming laps can be a great option. But it shouldn't be your primary source of cardio exercise, says Michael Velsmid, DPT, MS and owner of Boston Sports Medicine, a clinic that provides aquatic therapy to Boston Ballet dancers. “The dancer's body needs to have a certain amount of stress imparted on it," he says. “But if you're recovering from a heavy workout, the pool is great. Where you might typically want to skip a day to rest and recover, you can go in the pool without any additional delay in your recovery."

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I'm preparing to dance my first lead and I'm worried about my stamina. Do you have any tips for keeping your energy up during a taxing role? —Kennedy

Building stamina is a gradual process—it's not something you can whip up overnight. Ideally you should have several weeks to prepare your body and mind. When I first started learning the role of Sugarplum Fairy, I was so exhausted that I could barely feel my feet during the coda. But by the time I got onstage three weeks later, I felt in the best shape of my life.

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