This article was written by ESB teacher and physiotherapist Devin McFarlane.
How to be the best healthy, happy dancer you can be
This is the time of year when we all feel the winter blues. The holidays are over, choreography and syllabus has all been learned, and now is time to repeat and repeat and repeat all your dances and exercises more times than you can count. It’s important that we remember to take care of our bodies to make sure the second half of the year is even stronger than the first; and we don’t become plagues with injury and illness. So, here are a few tips on how to best take care of yourself and your body - you only get one of them! Some, or all of these, may not sound new to you, but take a minute to complete a mental checklist of how many of these things you’re actually sticking to.
1. Nutrition and hydration. Your body will not be able to do what you need it to if you are not properly stocked with the foods and fluids your system needs. Drink lots of water, and eat healthy, well balanced meals and snacks. I’ve always stuck to the motto of “you get out what you put in”. So, if you opt for a little junk food snack between classes, your dancing will reflect just that.
2. Rest smart. This both refers to getting enough good quality sleep, and active rest time during the day. Use your downtime wisely - disconnect and let your brain and body unwind. There are lots of different techniques to help you relax and de-stress, and different things work for different people. One of my go-to’s is progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). Start by lying on the floor in any position that’s comfortable to you. Draw your attention to your muscles, and starting at your feet, actively force yourself to relax each muscle in your body. Move up your legs, through your trunk and arms, and finally into your neck. You may find that even 5 minutes of PMR can help you feel more rested.
3. Keep your “core” muscles balanced. This doesn’t just mean your abs! Think about each of these areas as their own core for a different part of your body: ankles, knees, hips, shoulders. I could go into way more detail than you’d like on this, but I’ll stick to a few of the most important basics:
A. Ankles: This is one of the most common areas of injury with dancers. There is a system of ligaments and tendons that surround your ankle to provide support. However, there is a lot of inherent weakness in the ankle with the movements required in dance, particularly with fatigue. Every time you do a rise or relevé, really focus on activating the muscles that surround your ankle on all sides rather than just popping up onto the ball of your foot. An easy way to strengthen? Grab a theraband for some resistance, and use it to resist ankle movements in all directions - pointing, flexing, outward sickle, and inward sickle. You can attach the other end of the theraband to a sturdy surface like a couch leg, table leg, or dresser leg to make it easier on yourself.
B. Knees: Many common knee injuries come from 2 sources. Firstly, misalignment of your knee joint in relation to your ankle and hip. This mostly happens when knees “drop in” when you are in plié - this can happen in both parallel and turnout. How to combat this? As you’ve probably heard in ballet class before, always make sure you are pressing your knees open to ensure good alignment in pliés. Sometimes focusing on activating your glutes (bum muscles) can help to ensure your knees stay in line. The second knee injury comes from muscular imbalance. Typically in dance, our guard muscles (up the front of your thighs) get tight, more so on the outside than the inside. Stretching your quads regularly and properly can help to combat the knee pain associated with muscle imbalance. While you are standing on one leg, grab the other leg with the same hand as leg. Think of tucking your bum in while you pull your knee into alignment with your other leg. You can also do this lying on the floor. Also try stretching the outside of your quads by switching hands - grabbing your leg with the opposite arm as leg and crossing your heel to the opposite side of your bum. You should feel more of a stretch along the outside of your leg this time.
C. Your “true” core. I can’t leave this one untouched. You can do as many “abs” as you want, but if you don’t actually think about using those muscles when you dance, all your effort will be wasted! The key thing about your abs in dance is to focus on muscular endurance - most of our dances are 4+ minutes long, not to mention dance exams that can take upwards of 60 - 90 minutes; you need to be able to sustain good abdominal muscle activity that whole time in order to maintain your technique and control. Try strengthening activities like planks, aiming to hold with good control for upwards of 30 seconds. Planks require full body muscle activity, and are a great all in one conditioning tool. See the pictures below to make sure you are maintaining good technique.
I hope you’ve learned something new, or remembered something old! Even if you take away one new tip to try from this post, it’s a success.
Happy (and healthy) dancing!