The Workout
Critchlow in Balanchine's "Diamonds." Photo by Luke Isley, Courtesy Ballet West.

A fresh perspective: Last year, Katie Critchlow went through seven months of recovery for a debilitating ankle sprain, but the process transformed her outlook on cross-training: “You think that doing ballet class every day is enough, but it's not," she says. “Ballet dancers are hypermobile, and in order to execute everything onstage when you're tired and fatigued, you need a lot of strength to back that up."

Ready to run: About two months after her injury, Critchlow began jogging. “I had to start really, really slow on a treadmill." Her ankle sprain had affected her hip, too, causing her to veer in a diagonal until she balanced the alignment in her legs. Now she prefers to run outdoors around Salt Lake City. “It helps mobilize my joints, so I'll either go at the end of a light day or wait for the weekend."

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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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Sophia Lee. Photo by Aleli Estrada, Courtesy RWB.

The Royal Winnepeg Ballet principal adapts her cross-training for the company's frequent touring.

Travel savvy: Touring seven to eight weeks a year means Sophia Lee hits hotel gyms a lot. “I usually pack my runners and workout clothes," she says. Once she arrives at a tour stop, she'll hop on the elliptical for 20 to 30 minutes. If there's no gym, she'll walk around the city to relieve stiffness from the bus or plane ride.

Picture this: While she's traveling or in her hotel room, Lee does visualization exercises. “I close my eyes, listen to the music and imagine exactly how I'm going to execute each movement. I actually think about firing the same muscles and where I'll breathe in and breathe out."

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Photographed for Pointe by Nathan Sayers, Modeled by Petra Love

Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Lesley Rausch says she did plenty of curls to tone her arms ahead of her summer wedding, but her physical therapist gave her another way to use those light free-weights that had a major impact on her jumps in the studio. "I stand in parallel first position and hold a weight in each hand with my arms at my sides, then engage my core and glutes to hinge forward at the hips with a neutral spine, before slowly raising my upper body back to standing," says Rausch. It's essentially a dead lift using your torso but also your hamstrings and all-important glutes, which power jumps. "Even though I'm not a natural jumper, I noticed after a few weeks that my petit allégro was faster and more effortless."

While new fitness products and doodads are always coming to the market, there are myriad ways to use the fitness props you already own to revive a tired workout or stretching regimen. We asked Rausch and two physical therapists to share some inspiration for repurposing your foam rollers, Thera-Bands, physio balls, and other old standbys in the New Year.

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New York City Ballet principal Ashley Bouder, known for her buoyant jump (photo by Paul Kolnik)

I can't seem to get off the ground in petit allégro. Help! —Sara

Developing ballon begins with basic technique: correct alignment throughout the body, strong core and leg muscles, a deep plié, and proper articulation of the feet during push- off and landing. Then, of course, there's coordination and timing. Here are some basic things to think about:

Plié, plié, plié. Much of your power stems from having a deep plié from which to push off. It should feel elastic and juicy. If you're stingy with your plié, or hold lots of tension in your feet and Achilles tendon, you have less of a foundation to spring from.

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National Ballet of Canada's Emma Hawes swims to strengthen her loose shoulder joints (photo by Daniel Neuhaus)

Every dancer has their own cross-training regime, tailored to their workload, injury prevention, rehab or particular roles. It's up to you to talk to a physical therapist about what exercises you should be doing to meet your own technical goals. But in the meantime, here are some of our best tips for effective cross-training:

  1. Do it in the morning. There are lots of reasons why AM workouts can be more beneficial, but we're most compelled by evidence that morning workouts might be easier to stick with.
  2. Scale your approach up or down depending on what you're training for. When it's summer intensive time, gradually work your way up to peak intensity.
  3. Try something new to keep yourself inspired. Ever heard of aerial yoga? What about TRX suspension training?
  4. Pools are an amazing training resource for everything from cardio workouts to fine-tuning your alignment.

And if that's not enough #fitspo for you, dig into our Workout archive to find out how the pros keep their bodies in peak condition.

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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It's important to let your body find parallel, as well as turned out, positions. (Photo by Isaac Aoki)

You work hard on turnout in class every day. But once you leave the studio, make sure you’re in parallel. Walking around turned out stresses your hips, knees, ankles and feet, causing micro-trauma that could lead to injuries like tendonitis or knee pain. It could also hurt your technique. “You’re overusing the muscles you need for ballet class,” says Erika Kalkan, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at New York University Langone Medical Center’s Hospital for Joint Diseases. “Those muscles will be fatigued, so you won’t be able to use them as efficiently when you’re dancing.”

Kalkan explains that if your legs naturally turn out when you’re walking, your body is probably compensating for some weakness or tightness. Be sure to stretch your calves as well as your external rotators (sitting down with your left leg straight in front of you, cross your right foot over the left knee—making a number 4—and lean forward with a flat back, then switch sides). Kalkan also recommends strengthening your internal rotators with reverse clamshells (lying on your side with your knees bent and together, lift your top foot) and practicing doming exercises to build up the intrinsic muscles of your feet. Then, once you get on the street, consciously remind yourself to keep your toes facing forward until it becomes a habit. Your technique will thank you.

Photos by Nathan Sayers, modeled by Hannah Foster.

Even after years of pointework, ankle strengthening never stops. Freshen up your warm-up routine with these three daily exercises from Leigh Heflin Ponniah, MA, MSc, from the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries of the New York University Langone Medical Center. Although the movements are subtle, “these work on building stamina in the ankle and supporting muscles," she says. Each should be done barefoot or in ballet slippers.

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A correctly rotated, aligned and stabilized arabesque can feel elusive. It's tricky to find the right balance between strength and flexibility, so we combined two of our best tips to help you find your line. Read on for training advice, and visualization exercises to get that leg soaring higher.

Back Strength and Stability

You’ve probably heard it time and again throughout your training: Flexibility isn’t all that helpful unless you have the strength to support it. Leigh Heflin Ponniah, MA, MSc, from the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries of New York University’s Langone Medical Center, offers this exercise to build lower-back strength to better support and hold arabesques. Try it two to three times a week as part of your warm-up before class, and you’ll be on your way to a stronger arabesque balance.

Thinkstock
You’ll need:

a physio ball

a clear space where the wall meets the floor

1. Position a physio ball under your hips. Lie facedown on top of it with your chest slightly curved over the ball and hands by the ears. Your feet should be against a wall, with the toes on the floor, heels on the wall and legs slightly bent.

2. Use your lower-back extensors, which allow backward bending of the spine, and your gluteus muscles to slowly lift your chest up and away from the ball. The body should pass through a straight diagonal before the chest continues lifting into a slight arch without crunching in the lower back. The core should also be engaged.

3. Curve back down over the ball and do 10 repetitions, increasing up to 20 as you gain strength.

If you don’t have access to a physio ball, you can also do the exercise lying on the floor. However, Heflin says the ball allows for an increased range of motion in the lower back and challenges dancers’ stability. —Madeline Schrock

 

What It Really Means to Stay Square

"Square your hips!" Susan Jaffe, dean of dance at University of North Carolina School of the Arts gives a fresh take on the classic correction.

Fresh Take: Jaffe says to think of a twisting energy in your rib cage to counteract your open hip, “like an internal ‘S.’ ” For example, if your left leg is in arabesque, you “square off” by feeling an opposite, twisting energy pulling up through the left side of your ribs. “Otherwise you’ll collapse the rib cage on the lifted hip,” Jaffe explains. “You need to lift out of that.”

The Real Issue: “Square off” can be misleading when it comes to arabesque or attitude. “If you’re lifting your leg in arabesque, your hip bones cannot be square because your knee and the top of your arch will face the floor,” says Jaffe. “They have to face the audience, and in order for that to happen, you have to lift your hip. What is square is the rib cage.” —Katie Rolnick

Everybody wants a higher extension, but achieving your best line is a long-term effort that includes both flexibility and strength. Here are two of our best tips on how to improve your développé devant by engaging and releasing the hard-to-find psoas muscles.

Strength

Controlled extensions to the front are not only physically difficult, but they're sometimes hard to understand anatomically. Obviously, you want to work on increasing your flexibility with daily hamstring stretches. But often, the culprit is a weak iliopsoas—a group of deep core muscles that attach at the spine and run through the abdomen to the front of the hip. Your iliopsoas is crucial in lifting the leg, but it's tough to find, and even tougher to activate.

(Courtesy Karen Clippinger)
Try this iliopsoas strengthener recommended by kinesiologist Karen Clippinger, author of Dance Anatomy and Kinesiology: Tie a medium-weight Thera-Band around your legs just above the knee and lie back on your elbows with your knees bent and feet lifted off the ground. Your pelvis should be tucked under at first to help you find your iliopsoas. Pull one knee in towards your chest, straighten the leg without letting the knee move away from the torso (it's okay if you can't fully straighten it) and return to the starting position, repeating six times on each side (eventually increasing to 10 reps). As you gain strength, practice the exercise with a more neutral pelvis, and gradually progress from leaning on your elbows to a more vertical position leaning on your hands.
(Courtesy Karen Clippinger)
Another exercise is to simply place the leg on the barre in croisé devant, keeping the hips square and lifting out of the supporting hip. Rotating from the top of the hip, feel a lengthening, spiraling energy through the working leg and lift it off the barre. Hold for five counts and slowly lower. Don't worry if you can only lift it a few inches—this exercise will strengthen your deep turnout muscles, which will take pressure off the quad and create support from underneath.

Amy Brandt

Flexibility

(Photo courtesy Thinkstock)

If you constantly find yourself reaching for a foam roller, you're not alone. “Dancers' hip flexors are very often tight because of how much they use them every day," says Michelle Rodriguez, founder and director of Manhattan Physio Group. Each développé devant and cambré forward fires this set of muscles, so it's no wonder why dancers complain of the chronically tight spot. Here, Rodriguez offers her tips for a proper lunge that stretches not only the tensor fasciae latae, psoas and iliacus muscles, which all help flex the hip, but also the quadriceps. “Ideally this stretch should be done every day, even on your day off from dancing," says Rodriguez. Save it for after barre when your body is warm, or at the end of class or rehearsal.

Hip Flexor Stretch

1. To set up to stretch your right side, kneel on your right knee. Rodriguez says you can position a towel or legwarmer underneath to cushion it if necessary. Place the left leg in front of you with your knee bent to about 90 degrees. You can place your hands on top of your knee, or hold on to the barre with one hand for balance.

2. Firmly squeeze your lower right gluteals, and zip up your abdominals from your pubic bone to your belly button. “By activating these muscles, you will be able to place your pelvis in the best position to maximize the stretch," she says. You should now feel it in your right hip and thigh.

3. Throughout the stretch, keep the thigh you're kneeling on vertical. “A very common mistake dancers make is to go too far into a much deeper lunge," says Rodriguez. If you use a larger range of motion, you risk getting less of a stretch in the tensor fasciae latae, psoas, iliacus and quadriceps.

4. Once you can maintain the shape with proper muscular engagement, only then should you slowly lunge forward, says Rodriguez, towards the end of the stretch.

Repetitions: Hold for 30 to 60 seconds and repeat on the other side. Do two complete sets.

Madeline Schrock

For more news on all things ballet, don't miss a single issue.

Pipit-Suksun in company class at Ballet San Jose (photo by Alejandro Gomez)

Ballet San Jose principal Ommi Pipit-Suksun’s workout is carefully crafted—two parts mental preparation and one part each cardio and Pilates. She’s found the best times of day to sneak in extra moments of strength building, stretching and rejuvenation tailored to her current repertoire, whether it’s Jorma Elo’s Glow-Stop or Balanchine’s Serenade.

A delicate balance: When the company’s not performing, Pipit-Suksun hops on a stationary bike or StairMaster for 20 to 30 minutes two to three times per week to keep her quads strong and heart rate up. Once rehearsals are in full swing, she scales back. “If I do too much, it could backfire.”

Biggest challenge: “I’m more flexible than strong,” she says, so when her fellow company members stretch between combinations, Pipit-Suksun does bridges to strengthen her glutes and hamstrings.

Afternoon boost: During lunch breaks, she squeezes in Pilates mat exercises if her body needs extra work. “I pick and choose exercises to match what I’m working on at that moment and how my body feels. The ab series is my favorite because that always burns. If I can squeeze that in every day, then I’m good.”

Catching winks: A 30- to 45- minute nap three hours before curtain “puts me into the mental zone.”

Hot and cold recovery: After a show, Pipit-Suksun always ices her right knee for 15 minutes to keep a previous injury in check, and then takes a hot shower to soothe aching muscles.

Pilates secret: She’s prone to hyperextending her knees, but Pilates taught her not to lock into the joints. “If I keep my knees slightly soft, I feel like I’m able to use my inner thighs and glutes more.” 

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