Ballet Training
Advanced girls at the School of American Ballet summer course. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy SAB.

Summer intensives can be a shock. Switching from five classes a week to five a day is a big jump—especially if you spent a month relaxing after the school year ended. “Unfortunately, many students come out of shape, and they suffer because of that," says Pacific Northwest Ballet School principal Abbie Siegel.

To get the most out of an intensive, you need to arrive prepared. Fine-tune your body strategically by taking a play from the sports world: Use periodization, an approach to training and cross-training that relies on defined periods of rest and activity. It helps athletes make sure they're in top form at the height of their season. Megan Richardson, MS, ATC, who works with the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at New York University Langone Medical Center's Hospital for Joint Diseases, explains: “Periodization is training intensively, taking rest time and then building back up to elite performance level. The cyclical training and cross-training allow the body's tissues to repair and become stronger in a balanced way." By following this timeline, you will reach your peak fitness just in time for your summer program.

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Like many dancers, New York City Ballet soloist Antonio Carmena is constantly looking for ways to help his body run more efficiently. After watching a documentary about juice cleansing this March, Carmena decided to try his own three-day version during the last week of the company’s season. “I wasn’t trying to lose weight,” he says. “I just wanted to restart my body.”

Attempting to be as healthy as possible, Carmena created his own juices from spinach, kale, cucumbers and squash, occasionally throwing in berries, ginger or grapefruit. On the first day, he felt hungry but also more hydrated. By day two, though, he’d become stressed-out, and noticed that he had far less energy in rehearsal. “I felt weak, and couldn’t push as hard,” he says. “I realized a juice cleanse isn’t good while you’re dancing.”

Juice cleansing or fasting—where people drink only fruit and vegetable juice while avoiding solid foods—has been used in religious and cultural rituals since the Old Testament days. Dieters have co-opted the practice because it offers a quick way to drop pounds on a short-term basis, and some alternative-medicine practitioners believe that giving the body a break from solid foods allows it to focus on healing. Today, the fresh juice business, including premade juice cleanses, has become a $5 billion industry.

Dancing on the Diet

Juicing has gained traction among dancers. Some view it as an opportunity to get in top aesthetic form before an audition or performance. Others, like Carmena, see it as a chance to detox, although few scientific studies have tested that idea. The deluge of fluids, vitamins and minerals is also appealing to health-conscious perfectionists: All of those berries, citrus fruits and leafy greens can load the body up on antioxidants.

But an all-juice diet has serious consequences. Juices lack protein, digestion-enhancing fiber and healthy fat, and don’t include the combinations of elements that help your body take advantage of the health benefits of fruits and veggies. “Nutrients need to be in certain forms to be digested and enter the bloodstream,” explains Rebecca Dietzel, a biochemist in private practice in nutritional counseling. “Calcium from kale, for example, can’t get into its ionized form when it’s put through the juicer.”

What’s more, juice cleanses rarely offer substantial calories, causing a host of problems. Within 48 hours of starting a juice cleanse, your body is forced to burn muscle mass for energy, says Joy Dubost, PhD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “You’re losing essential nutrients and electrolytes,” she says, “which over time can affect the rhythm of your heart and cause muscle cramps.” Thinking it’s experiencing a famine, your body goes into a state of panic, and inflammation increases, making chronic injuries like tendonitis worse. “Your brain also says, ‘Let’s turn down any nonessential processes so we can conserve fuel,’ ” says Dietzel. “That includes hormone production and healing processes, both essential to dancers.”

Then why do so many dancers say that juicing makes them feel great? “It’s often because dancers are usually dehydrated, and during a juice cleanse they finally get the fluids their bodies crave,” says Dietzel, who adds that you can get the same effect by drinking adequate water. Some cleansers even feel euphoric after a few days. But this isn’t the result of improved health; it’s because the body has started dumping opiate-like hormones into the system to protect you from noticing that you’re “starving.”

The aftereffects of a juice cleanse can also backfire. Most dancers gain weight when they return to solid foods because they’ve slowed down their metabolism. “You’ve programmed your body to store fat; it thinks it needs to save fuel,” says Dietzel. Because your body has turned down the production of digestive enzymes, it also takes a few days to restart that process, making you feel sluggish and tired after eating.

A Smarter Cleanse

Not all of the principles of a juice cleanse are inherently misguided. Cutting out artificially processed foods in favor of fresh produce can be a healthy choice. If you’re interested in the idea of rebooting your diet, Dietzel suggests spending one day drinking lots of water and eating only fruits and veggies (a large variety). “You’ll get more hydrated, give your liver a break from fat metabolism and get a wide range of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds,” she says. “Plus, all that fiber supports intestinal and colon health by absorbing toxic compounds in the intestine and helping to create a healthy bowel movement.” However, she warns, just like a juice fast, this one-day diet doesn’t offer enough energy to fuel a full day of dance rehearsals. Only try it on a day off.

For the long term, incorporating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains with high fiber into your diet and drinking more water will keep your body on track. That way, you won’t need to resort to drastic cleanses in order to hit a risky “reset” button.

Originally published in the August/September 2013 issue of Pointe.

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

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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.

Inside PT

Dancers strive to be as healthy as possible. They’ll look into almost any piece of nutrition advice they think might help them perform better onstage. But, despite good intentions, sometimes the guidance we get is simply wrong, or we misunderstand information. Don’t let your efforts become counterproductive: Avoid these nutrition myths that get passed around backstage far too often.

Myth: Always Choose Whole Grains
While whole grains and complex carbohydrates are your best sources for prolonged energy, if you eat them at the wrong time, they might not help your dancing. Have to be onstage after the next scene? Simple, easily digestible carbohydrates, like white bread or pretzels, are actually the better choice. “The closer you are to performance, the more simple foods you should choose,” says Heidi Skolnik, a New York nutritionist who works with dancers at the School of American Ballet. Complex carbohydrates digest slowly, so it can take a long time before your muscles can use them for energy. “There is a difference between eating meals for nutrients—like having a high-fiber lunch—and eating for immediate fuel, like right before class,” explains Skolnik. “White carbs won’t give you whole-grain nutrients, but they do carry easily accessible energy and calories.” She says even a handful of jelly beans will give you a boost.

Remember, if the body doesn’t have enough carbohydrates to draw from onstage, you could end up feeling lethargic and having trouble concentrating. Plus, if you’re bloated from eating only whole grains too close to performance, those fouettés will be harder to nail.
 
Myth: Fresh Produce Is Always Best
Don’t look down on frozen, canned and dried fruits. “Frozen produce actually retains the most nutrients because it is harvested at peak freshness and doesn’t decay as quickly as fresh produce,” says Melissa Ireland, a sports dietitian who works with Los Angeles Ballet Academy. A recent report in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture found that fresh fruits and vegetables lose their nutrients during shipping and while sitting on shelves than frozen or canned produce. Some dried fruits end up having more nutrients as well—just watch for added sugar. And if sodium is a concern when eating canned vegetables, simply wash them in water!

Myth: Cutting Out Gluten Is a Good Idea
Going gluten-free is trendy right now. But unless you think you have a diagnosed gluten intolerance, eliminating gluten simply to lose weight can backfire. “Many foods with gluten are packed with fiber, phytonutrients and essential B vitamins that athletes need,” says Emily C. Harrison, dietitian at Atlanta Ballet’s Centre for Dance Nutrition. “And in order to make gluten-free foods palatable, many manufacturers add things like sugar, which increases the calorie count.” Go to a dietitian to investigate your true gluten needs before restricting or cutting it out of your diet.

Myth: Red Meat Is Bad for You
Many health-conscious dancers think they should steer clear of red meat’s hormones, antibiotics and animal fat. But the iron and zinc found in red meat is beneficial, especially for women. “We’re not talking about a slab of prime rib,” Skolnik says. “But three ounces of lean red meat has three to nine grams of fat (less than a Snickers bar), and is a great source of proteins and nutrients.”  Plus, because meat contains all of the essential amino acids, it is a complete source of protein, meaning your body can easily use it to build muscle.

Myth: Drink When You're Thirsty
Water is a dancer’s best friend: It transports oxygen and nutrients to working muscles and carries waste away. But if you wait to drink until you’re thirsty, you’ll already be dehydrated—which puts your body at risk of injury. “Dancers often restrict water intake to prevent frequent trips to the bathroom,” says Ireland. “But while the old adage of drinking eight cups of water holds true for non-athletes, active individuals need substantially more.” She suggests drinking one half to one ounce of water per pound of body weight instead—which can put the total at closer to 16 glasses a day.

Myth: Dancers Shouldn't Eat Fat
“Dancers are in such a competitive environment and so they think, ‘If I don’t eat fat, I won’t be fat,’ ” says Harrison. “But that’s not healthy.” Your body needs fat to absorb vitamins D, A, E and K, and to help maintain hormone levels. Plus, it also helps keep your stomach from growling in between meals because it fills you up better than protein or carbohydrates alone.

The key here is choosing wisely. Fats from sources like avocados, nuts, olive oil or a bit of cheese will help you digest and absorb nutrients from all those greens you pride yourself on eating—and it will help you feel more satisfied, too.

Myth: Never Eat Late at Night
The old school of thought said that eating late was a no-no. But it depends on your schedule. When you have night shows or evening rehearsals, you need to be more flexible. While you don’t want to eat straight up until bedtime, it’s completely appropriate to have a snack two hours before. “Just pace your day,” Skolnik says. “Two-thirds of your calories should be consumed by the time two-thirds of your day is over.” Planning for a post-performance bite will also help you avoid late-night panics. “If you make rules that are black and white,” warns Skolnik, “you will delay eating for so long that when you do eat, you might eat more.”

Myth: To Be Healthy, You Must Eat Healthy All the Time
While nutritious foods should make up the bulk of your meals, there is absolutely room for indulgences. Becoming obsessive or inflexible can lead to an eating disorder. According to Skolnik, 10 to 15 percent of your diet should be considered discretionary, so if you are eating 2,000 calories, let yourself spend 200 to 300 on your favorite treats.




Be the Worst
Taking class with more advanced dancers can be a humbling test of your pride. But don’t shy away from the challenge—it could help you improve. New research suggests that training alongside people you see as more skilled than yourself motivates you to work harder and longer. Sign up for a class outside your comfort zone at least once a week. And in any level, stand next to the best dancer in the studio. Then let your competitive energy push you to be even better.



The Antidote to Carbs   

Good news: This Nutcracker season, you can enjoy some Christmas cookies backstage without the second-act energy crash. How? Just wash them down with a glass of green tea. A study published in Molecular Nutrition & Food Research found that mice had about half the typical spike in blood glucose when their starchy food was accompanied by a green-tea compound. It turns out the top antioxidant in green tea, EGCG, slows down the digestion of carbohydrates, so it helps keep your blood sugar more stable. All you need is 12 ounces with your cookies, and you’ll make it through “Waltz of the Flowers” just fine.



Pilates vs. Yoga

Two of the most popular cross-training options for dancers are Pilates and yoga. But which one offers the best benefits? When you look at the scientific research, it turns out that the answer depends on your goal.

Pilates: If you want to increase your core strength, Pilates is your answer. The classes focus on building your abdominals and back muscles, and have been proven effective. Pilates is also known to improve alignment as well as muscular balance. However, there’s little evidence that the exercises significantly decrease body fat or add muscle in any other part of your body.

Yoga: The practice’s flowing exercises and plank positions have been shown to strengthen the entire upper body. In a 2011 study, young people who did sun salutations regularly for six months were able to bench-press significantly more weight and complete more push-ups than at the start of the study—even when they did no other resistance training. Yoga’s focus on regulated breathing and meditation also offers therapeutic effects, improving mood and reducing stress, which makes it a great option during intense rehearsal or performance periods.



The Science of Marking   
Marking is more than just a way to give your body a break during rehearsal—it might actually improve the quality of your performance. A recent study published in Psychological Science found that dancers who marked a variation ended up performing it more fluidly than a routine they’d only ever danced full-out. Setting aside time to focus on the mental challenge of learning choreography better ingrains the sequences in your memory. That means the steps will come more easily once you get onstage, leading to more seamless transitions. Just be sure to get the go-ahead from your choreographer before substituting hand positions for pirouettes.



Grape Lovers Are Healthier

Could grapes be the secret fountain of youth? Recently published research shows that frequent eaters of this vitamin-packed fruit are more likely to have healthier diets and consume more key nutrients than non-grape eaters. So far, researchers have not found the connection, but until they figure it out, it can’t be a bad idea to stash some in your dance bag. (Raisins do the trick, too.)

Inside PT

Like many dancers, New York City Ballet soloist Antonio Carmena is constantly looking for ways to help his body run more efficiently. After watching a documentary about juice cleansing this March, Carmena decided to try his own three-day version during the last week of the company’s season. “I wasn’t trying to lose weight,” he says. “I just wanted to restart my body.”

Attempting to be as healthy as possible, Carmena created his own juices from spinach, kale, cucumbers and squash, occasionally throwing in berries, ginger or grapefruit. On the first day, he felt hungry but also more hydrated. By day two, though, he’d become stressed-out, and noticed that he had far less energy in rehearsal. “I felt weak, and couldn’t push as hard,” he says. “I realized a juice cleanse isn’t good while you’re dancing.”

Juice cleansing or fasting—where people drink only fruit and vegetable juice while avoiding solid foods—has been used in religious and cultural rituals since the Old Testament days. Dieters have co-opted the practice because it offers a quick way to drop pounds on a short-term basis, and some alternative-medicine practitioners believe that giving the body a break from solid foods allows it to focus on healing. Today, the fresh juice business, including premade juice cleanses, has become a $5 billion industry.

Dancing on the Diet
Juicing has gained traction among dancers. Some view it as an opportunity to get in top aesthetic form before an audition or performance. Others, like Carmena, see it as a chance to detox, although few scientific studies have tested that idea. The deluge of fluids, vitamins and minerals is also appealing to health-conscious perfectionists: All of those berries, citrus fruits and leafy greens can load the body up on antioxidants.

But an all-juice diet has serious consequences. Juices lack protein, digestion-enhancing fiber and healthy fat, and don’t include the combinations of elements that help your body take advantage of the health benefits of fruits and veggies. “Nutrients need to be in certain forms to be digested and enter the bloodstream,” explains Rebecca Dietzel, a biochemist in private practice in nutritional counseling. “Calcium from kale, for example, can’t get into its ionized form when it’s put through the juicer.”

What’s more, juice cleanses rarely offer substantial calories, causing a host of problems. Within 48 hours of starting a juice cleanse, your body is forced to burn muscle mass for energy, says Joy Dubost, PhD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “You’re losing essential nutrients and electrolytes,” she says, “which over time can affect the rhythm of your heart and cause muscle cramps.” Thinking it’s experiencing a famine, your body goes into a state of panic, and inflammation increases, making chronic injuries like tendonitis worse. “Your brain also says, ‘Let’s turn down any nonessential processes so we can conserve fuel,’ ” says Dietzel. “That includes hormone production and healing processes, both essential to dancers.”

Then why do so many dancers say that juicing makes them feel great? “It’s often because dancers are usually dehydrated, and during a juice cleanse they finally get the fluids their bodies crave,” says Dietzel, who adds that you can get the same effect by drinking adequate water. Some cleansers even feel euphoric after a few days. But this isn’t the result of improved health; it’s because the body has started dumping opiate-like hormones into the system to protect you from noticing that you’re “starving.”

The aftereffects of a juice cleanse can also backfire. Most dancers gain weight when they return to solid foods because they’ve slowed down their metabolism. “You’ve programmed your body to store fat; it thinks it needs to save fuel,” says Dietzel. Because your body has turned down the production of digestive enzymes, it also takes a few days to restart that process, making you feel sluggish and tired after eating.

A Smarter Cleanse
Not all of the principles of a juice cleanse are inherently misguided. Cutting out artificially processed foods in favor of fresh produce can be a healthy choice. If you’re interested in the idea of rebooting your diet, Dietzel suggests spending one day drinking lots of water and eating only fruits and veggies (a large variety). “You’ll get more hydrated, give your liver a break from fat metabolism and get a wide range of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds,” she says. “Plus, all that fiber supports intestinal and colon health by absorbing toxic compounds in the intestine and helping to create a healthy bowel movement.” However, she warns, just like a juice fast, this one-day diet doesn’t offer enough energy to fuel a full day of dance rehearsals. Only try it on a day off.

For the long term, incorporating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains with high fiber into your diet and drinking more water will keep your body on track. That way, you won’t need to resort to drastic cleanses in order to hit a risky “reset” button.



Take a Hike
To become a professional ballet dancer, you have to put in countless hours at the studio. But you should also get outside once in a while, too. Why?

You need sunlight:
Researchers recently found that ballet dancers have a high risk of vitamin D deficiency because they spend so much time indoors. This has been linked to impaired muscular performance and an increased risk of injuries.

If you get injured, nature can help:
Simply having a view of trees has been shown to help patients heal significantly faster, and experience less depression and pain during recovery.

You’ll be able to focus on choreography better:
Studies have shown that regularly spending time in nature improves our attention, and helps us handle stress.

Psychologists believe these benefits come from the absence of stressful man-made demands, such as traffic jams and loud construction noises. Rather than bombarding your attention, nature lets you think as much or as little as you like. A simple hike or day at the beach gives you a chance to replenish your mental resources—making you that much more prepared to tackle technical challenges once you’re back in the studio.



The Early Bird Wins Again
Looking to shed vacation pounds before the fall season? Try eating your meals earlier. A recent study found that dieters who ate their lunch before 3 pm lost significantly more weight than those who ate it after, even though there was little difference in the overall calories. Researchers think glucose (sugar) may be processed differently later in the day, or the timing of our meals may impact our circadian rhythms, disrupting our metabolism. Either way, it’s a simple strategy to slim down while still getting the calories your body needs.



Watch Out: Dance Injuries On the Rise

As dance grows more popular?, injuries are becoming more common. A recent study found that the annual number of dance injuries in children and teenagers increased 37 percent from 1991 to 2007. Researchers suspect that increased competition has created a greater demand for impressive technique, leading to a heightened risk of chronic and acute injuries.

But there?’s a solution. A separate recent study done at Birmingham Royal Ballet?’s Jerwood Centre for the Prevention and Treatment of Dance Injuries found that by developing individual conditioning programs for the company’s dancers, researchers were able to decrease injuries by more than half. “Dancers move incredibly efficiently,”? explains lead researcher Nick Allen. ?“But they also need strength so that, by the hundredth time they do a grand jeté, they won’?t have to start compensating.?” He points out that all other sports use cross-training not only to reduce injury risk, but also to maximize athletic potential. “It’s time the ballet world realizes that dancers need strength training, too,”? he says. Before you get injured, make an appointment with a physical therapist who works with dancers to assess your body’?s unique weaknesses, and create a conditioning plan to build the strength you need.



The Sweet Spot
The sugar aisle can feel overwhelming. With so many options, which is the healthiest? Jan Hangen, Boston Ballet School’s consulting nutritionist, helps break down your choices:

Sugar: Whether it’s brown or white, added sugar should only be consumed in moderation. Nutritionists recommend no more than 20 to 25 grams a day, or roughly four to five teaspoons. Eating more could wreak havoc with your blood glucose and elevate your insulin, which makes and stores fat.

Aspartame, Sucralose & Saccharin:
These non-caloric substitutes are 200 to 600 times sweeter than sugar. Experts think that intensity might rewire your taste receptors to dislike less sweet foods, such as natural fruits. And because the sweetness prepares your gut for fuel that never arrives, you might be driven to overeat afterward. Also, the chemicals might predispose you to metabolic syndrome, which includes weight gain and type-2 diabetes.

Stevia: This recently popularized substitute is billed as natural, but although it comes from a plant, in extract form it’s actually a chemical. There is currently no data on its long-term use.
   
Best Choice: Agave Nectar. It has the same baking properties as sugar, but a lower glycemic index, so it won’t raise your blood glucose as much. And although it comes with slightly more calories than sugar, it’s 40 percent sweeter, so you’ll use less. Most importantly, agave nectar provides small amounts of calcium, iron, potassium and magnesium. As Hangen explains, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch. You’re safer with calories—we know how the body uses them.”

Inside PT

Summer intensives can be a shock. Switching from five classes a week to five a day is a big jump—especially if you spent a month relaxing after the school year ended. “Unfortunately, many students come out of shape, and they suffer because of that,” says Pacific Northwest Ballet School principal  Abbie Siegel.

To get the most out of an intensive, you need to arrive prepared. Fine-tune your body strategically by taking a play from the sports world: Use periodization, an approach to training and cross-training that relies on defined periods of rest and activity. It helps athletes make sure they’re in top form at the height of their season. Megan Richardson, MS, ATC, who works with the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at New York University Langone Medical Center’s Hospital for Joint Diseases, explains: “Periodization is training intensively, taking rest time and then building back up to elite performance level. The cyclical training and cross-training allow the body’s tissues to repair and become stronger in a balanced way.” By following this timeline, you  will reach your peak fitness just in time for your summer program.

First Week Off

After your school year ends, take a break for a week. It should be a time of relative rest—for both your ballet schedule and your supplementary workouts. “Cross-train at a low to moderate level. Yoga, Pilates, swimming and light weight-training are good options,” says Richardson. She suggests dancing about half to three-quarters less than normal. “You want to let your ballet shape rest,” explains Siegel. That way, overused muscles will have a chance to recover.

You’ll need to adjust the intensity based on how many weeks off you have. “If you have a few weeks, your training can remain moderate because you have more time to ramp up slowly,” explains Richardson. “But, if you have less time, you’ll need to ramp up faster, so really take that first week to rest.”

Regardless, continue working on your core. “A strong core acts as a foundation of all movement,” says Richardson. “Whenever we move any body part, the deep muscles of the core activate first. So ongoing core training is appropriate for all stages of periodization.” She recommends this marching exercise: Lie flat on your back with knees bent in a tabletop position in the air. Keeping your knees at right angles, lower one foot at a time down to the floor and return to the tabletop. Repeat as many times as you can with good form and a level pelvis. To increase intensity, straighten your legs.

Three to Five Weeks Before

After your rest, spend two to three weeks focused on cross-training. Only take about half of your typical load of ballet classes, but work out five days a week. Alternate between activities such as weight-training, Pilates, swimming and other workouts.

In particular, work on your stamina so that you can endure the upcoming string of classes and get through challenging variations. “If you can’t breathe, your limbs will take the brunt, leading to injury,” warns Siegel.

One of the quickest ways to increase stamina is with interval training. “Dance is anaerobic: You go all out for 30 seconds jumping and then wait your turn,” says Richardson. “So interval training is dance-specific cardio.” After a five-minute warm-up on an elliptical or bike, go as fast as you can for one minute, then spend three minutes at a moderate pace. Repeat the cycle for 30 minutes.

Also add in exercises integral to ballet, such as calf raises. “We?’ve seen that if dancers do 20 to 25 relevés a day, they decrease their risk of many injuries,”? says Richardson. She suggests this exercise: Standing on the bottom step of a flight of stairs, relevé with two feet, then shift to one foot and lower slowly until your heel dips below the step. Raise back up with two feet, repeating until you fatigue.

Use this time to branch out as well. Stephanie Wolf Spassoff, The Rock School for Dance Education director, suggests trying a modern or jazz class. Not only will this give your movement more fluidity, it will prepare you for new styles you might encounter.

Right Before

Finally, spend the week or two before the intensive refining your ballet technique. Gradually decrease your cross-training while building up to your full load of dance training. “Work at the level you’ll expect of yourself at the intensive for at least two or three days a week,” says Richardson. “You might not be able to match the volume of activity, but you can match the intensity and therefore get a good idea of what type of rest, food and recovery you’ll need, making you truly ready for a great summer.”

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Ballet Stars

Joy Womack: The Road to Russia
As the first American to graduate from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy’s main training program, Joy Womack found fame even before going pro. Although her journey was far from easy, she feels it was the right choice. “My time at the Bolshoi created me as a dancer,” she says. “I now have offers from two companies in Russia and I feel ready.”

Womack began her serious training at age 9 with former Balanchine dancer Yvonne Mounsey at Westside School of Ballet in Santa Monica, California. She soon added private sessions with Russian ballet master and prominent coach Yuri Grigoriev. Her dream was to join New York City Ballet, “do the ‘American’ thing,” she says.

But her family moved to Austin, Texas, when Womack was 12 and she couldn’t find any strong Balanchine studios in the area. “I thought it was the end of the world,” she says, with a laugh. Intrigued by videos of Russian dancers (“I fell in love with Diana Vishneva”), Womack enrolled at the Vaganova-based Austin School of Classical Ballet.

Just a year later she was offered a scholarship to the Kirov Academy of Ballet of Washington, D.C.  Yet she received little encouragement once there. “They told me I didn’t have enough turnout or flexibility,” she says. In her second year, she was told that she would need to look for another school. She was heartbroken.

Luckily, during American Ballet Theatre’s New York summer intensive, former ABT principal Leslie Browne had given Womack a vote of confidence, and encouraged her not to give up. So Womack returned to New York to audition for ABT’s school. While there, an unexpected opportunity arose: A master class with the Bolshoi’s Nathalia Arkhipova led to an invitation to study at Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet Academy.

Arkhipova took Womack under her wing, pushing her to prove herself. Womack was the first American to train in a class with Russian students at the famed academy. She spent tireless hours in the studio and hustled to learn the language. One of only 10 in her level, she was consistently given opportunities to dance leading roles during the school’s performances on the Bolshoi stage–in front of more senior Russian students.

Womack believes her winding road gave her the confidence to succeed in any situation: “That American encouragement and Russian work ethic was an important mix,” she says. “Sometimes it was hard to fit the mold and be successful at each school I went to. But I wouldn’t be the artist I am without all of these influences.”

[Editor's note: After this story went to press, Womack became the first American woman to sign a contract with the Bolshoi Ballet.]


Whitney Huell: School Smarts
As a serious African-American ballet student, Whitney Huell grew up with her heart set on joining Dance Theatre of Harlem. But just as she was about to graduate from the South Carolina Governor’s School For Arts and Humanities, the company went on hiatus. Huell was determined not to let the setback derail her dreams. She decided to continue her training in a college program that would prepare her for a professional life.

The South Carolina native entered Indiana University’s well-respected ballet program. “It wasn’t my favorite option at the time, and it was definitely unconventional in my mind,” she says. Yet she met with a happy surprise on campus. “I loved, loved, loved it,” she says, with a giggle. “I had always enjoyed school, and at IU I had a balance of academics and dance. Plus, I was able to graduate in three years; the ballet program staff know you have to get out into the real world.” IU turned out to be the perfect fit for Huell: She enjoyed full days of dancing, learned a variety of techniques and got plenty of performance opportunities, since the program is set up with an eye toward helping students achieve their career goals.

In her last year, Huell was snatched up by Ballet West director Adam Sklute for Ballet West II, and he soon promoted her to the main company. “When I started at Ballet West, I realized IU had been exactly like a company in terms of workload and amount of rehearsal,” she says. “It was like a company in size, too. All of the 40 students were motivated and passionate, just like professionals, and they pushed me to work my hardest.” Although she had initially feared college would take her away from the ballet world, it actually gave her a realistic taste of a professional dancer’s life.

College also gave her perspective. She grew as an artist through working with a variety of choreographers, such as former Paris Opéra Ballet dancer Jacques Cesbron and former NYCB dancer John Clifford. “The whole experience opened my eyes to things I’d never been exposed to,” she says, “from frat parties and friends outside ballet to choreography being set on us.”
Although it was tough to be older than other members of Ballet West II, “I know I made the right decision,” Huell says. “It serves me. After ballet I have a degree to fall back on!”

Emily Kadow: Daring Decisions
This season, Emily Kadow joined San Francisco Ballet as one of the rare dancers in the corps who didn’t come through the company school. Instead, she created her own path. From the very start of her training, Kadow sought out teachers who would serve her best.
Originally from Tampa, Florida, Kadow’s family moved to Pennsylvania when Kadow was 6 so that her sister could train at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. Kadow enrolled soon after. “Right away I wanted to dance seriously,” Kadow says. She studied under Marcia Dale Weary, with a style Kadow says “isn’t Balanchine, but has Balanchine influences. She makes you very strong with several classes a day.”

They moved back to Florida four years later, and Kadow studied privately under Javier and Isabel Dubrocq, gaining Cuban and Russian technique, a far cry from Dale Weary’s approach. “It was very slow compared with what I was used to,” she says. “But now Russian style—the port de bras, the footwork, the way they turn—is my favorite.” Kadow wanted to explore the technique even further, so she went to the Kirov Academy of Ballet of Washington, D.C.

A year later, after a chance meeting with master Vaganova teacher Edward Ellison, she joined his small academy in New York (at age 14, she was the youngest student). Training with Ellison resulted in a bronze medal at Youth America Grand Prix, and scholarships to both the Princess Grace Academy and The Royal Ballet School. Kadow attended their summer programs, but chose to stay with Ellison during the year. She felt she still had more to learn from him, and she wanted more of the lessons and style he offered.

Eventually Kadow switched to ABT’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School for the opportunity to train with director Franco De Vita. “Also, it was great to go back to a big school with kids my own age and other styles of dance,” she explains.

After a year, knowing it was her last chance to attend The Royal Ballet School’s year-round program, Kadow set up her own audition and was immediately asked to stay.

Today, Kadow is back on U.S. soil with SFB after a year dancing professionally with Ballet du Capitole in Toulouse, France. Her oscillation between techniques and school sizes while training helped her discover who she is as a dancer. “Sometimes it got confusing because I’d get contrasting instruction,” she says. “But I would just try both ways, and decide what worked best for me. You can stay at one school and be a great dancer. But if you want to experience different things, change! You have to decide for yourself.”

Lauren Kay is a dancer and writer in New York City.

Ballet Training

In her first solo at the 2010 Youth America Grand Prix semifinals, Miko Fogarty leaped onstage with a buoyant jeté. A suspended attitude turn followed; the 12-year-old dancer looked calm and steady. But moments later, after a simple pirouette, Fogarty slipped and belly flopped, landing hard on the marley floor. The audience gasped—and her fall was caught on film forever in the documentary First Position.

Falling in the middle of your variation can be humiliating. But know that you’re in good company down there. Achieving success in ballet requires pushing the body to daring extremes. If you dance full out, you’re likely to lose your balance at some point—especially during a competition, when you’re tackling difficult material and are filled with nerves.

After her onstage slip, Fogarty sprang back to her feet and continued dancing with power and fluidity. “Nothing hurt, so I thought, ‘Just keep going,’ ” says Fogarty, now 15 and a student at Westlake School for the Performing Arts. “It was a blur. It wasn’t until I got offstage that I even had time to process it.” Her graceful perseverance (and a stellar second solo) earned Fogarty a spot in the finals, where she won a bronze medal. As her experience proves, how you recover from a fall is equally if not more important than the fall itself.
    
Move On
Fogarty’s reaction was spot on, says Washington Ballet artistic director Septime Webre, a frequent judge. “Just get back on the horse,” he says. “Don’t acknowledge the fall with a face or sigh. Don’t cry, leave the stage or give up. When someone falls, they leave the variation for a moment. So getting back to it with as much enthusiasm as possible is the first priority.” Stay focused, and then bow with elegance and modesty after you finish.
    
Don’t Lose Your Artistry

Staying in character is essential. “If you’re Kitri, stay fiery as you get up,” says Webre. “If you’re Giselle, remain soft. Even when there’s a lapse in movement, there should be no lapse in artistry or character.” Laughing out of nerves only further disrupts the mood you’ve worked so hard to create onstage.
    
The Viewers Are on Your Side
“Judges and audiences appreciate the heroism of a good recovery,” says Webre. Judges understand how easy it is to fall, since most were dancers themselves. Nancy Raffa, a recent Prix de Lausanne juror, remembers her own worst fall. “It was my first solo with American Ballet Theatre, and Mikhail Baryshnikov was in the wings. I went to the center, got ready for turns in à la seconde with a dégagé to the side, and the next thing I knew, I was on the floor,” she says with a chuckle. “I thought the universe had exploded. But when I got into the wings, Misha laughed and asked me if I’d had a nice trip down! Then he told me, ‘It happens. We fall.’ I realized, if Misha has fallen, we all do.”

Raffa reminds dancers that ballet’s adjudication is subjective. “It’s not like the Olympics where they take a tenth of a point for every mistake,” she says. “We’re looking for potential. Often, we watch the candidates for a whole week. If they’ve been consistently dancing well, the judges won’t be very harsh over a fall.”

Be Proactive
Check out the stage conditions before performing. “I make sure I have rosin and I always check the floor,” says Fogarty. Bruce Marks, chair of the jury for the 4th Beijing International Ballet Invitational for Dance Schools, adds that, if there’s time between variations, it’s completely acceptable to ask for the stage to be mopped—especially if you notice the floor has become slick or sweaty. “If a dancer before you did floorwork with bare skin, requesting a sweep is worthwhile,” he says. “The worst they can do is say no.”

Don’t Ignore an Injury
Marks recommends assessing your physical condition quickly. “There’s no shame in stopping if you’re hurt,” he says. “Don’t dance injured just because you can do so from adrenaline. Consider your entire career, not just that one competition.” If you can walk, go offstage to ask for medical help. If you can’t, motion to the stage manager to bring the curtain or lights down.

Be Daring
Difficult technique and expansive artistry require pushing yourself beyond your limits. Don’t let fear make you tentative. “Some of my favorite dancers fell all the time,” says Marks. “There are falls that happen when you dance fully…and that’s worth it.”

 

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