Recently we kicked off the start of the 21/22 season here at the Estonian National Ballet. We are about 2 weeks in and as per usual, it is a total shock for the body. After six weeks off the first class back is often comical. You can see everyone desperately trying to stand in their no longer-existent fifth positions. Laughter fills the hallways as limping dancers pass each other.
Honestly, how the body gets out of shape so quickly I will never understand, but it got me thinking. Taking care of my body is something I want to get better at. And whether it’s a beautiful six-week summer vacation or a long Covid lockdown, I want to live and work in a way that facilitates longevity for a happy and healthy body.
A couple of weeks ago I was laying on the massage table getting my back checked by our Physio, Sirli Hinn. As she worked through my tight muscles we discussed better ways of coming back to work after a break. We broke them down into 5 practical tips that any dancer could easily apply.
1. Plan your summer.
Going from dancing six days a week to fully resting for six weeks then back to dancing again full time is pretty rough for the body. It works so hard! Show it some love and ease into rest and work gradually. Personally, in the past, I would keep my first two weeks of vacation active; gym, swimming, walks, etc. Then 2 weeks of total-do-nothing-eat-everything kind of rest, then the last two weeks I’d start coming back: gym, barre, and a light jog here and there.
This has been a fairly healthy approach for me, but obviously, everyone needs a different work/rest ratio. If I could narrow down “plan your summer” into two main targets it would be: ease in and out of work and keep the lower leg strong through the whole summer. The lower leg is predominantly where dancers get injured, so it is important to keep it healthy. Be creative. You can do things like calf raises while making your morning ice coffee or feet exercises on the beach. Incorporate it into your normal vacation day.
2. Keep a training diary.
Often when dancers come back to work we want to dive straight back into everything. Between feeling rested, excited for the new season, and the competition increasing with the arrival of new dancers and new rep, as well as this weird and unhealthy feeling of guilt about having rested at all (that’s a whole other conversation), it sends us into hyper work mode.
On top of that, it has been known that many companies struggle with time management and tend to throw all the hardest ballets right after summer. I remember one of my first years as a professional dancer we had Swan Lake, Bayadere, and Onegin all in September! Excuse me, what?!
So, between motivation, competition, and sometimes a poor schedule we tend to get overloaded very quickly.
What to do? Sirli suggested keeping a training diary. Planning out your physical workweek will help keep you accountable for both not overworking or underworking.
Make sure to plan your workouts for days that you don’t have too many rehearsals. Keep track of the exercises you are doing. Ask yourself questions.
-How are the workouts affecting your body and rehearsals?
-Which exhausts you more? Working out in the morning or evening?
-Are you eating enough?
-How is your sleep?
Try to notice patterns in yourself. Everyone is different. Everyone has different schedules. And noting these things down will help you get to know your body better.
Warm-up, warm up, warm up. It’s the same old story, people. Warm-up is proven to be even more important than cooling down. After summer when the body is no longer used to moving in the beautiful but obscure ways ballet demands, it is especially important. Warm-up will prepare the body and the mind to participate safely and efficiently in these movements. And no, sitting in the splits scrolling on IG does not count. Dynamic stretches are key. Dance is all about movement anyways, not sitting in one position. Being aware (putting away your phone helps 😉 ) of any weaknesses or pain, as well as your environment will show you the kind of warm-up you need. You want to get your body temperature up so the muscles feel warm and elastic. Then you are ready to start your class.
Once I had the privilege of watching the Mariinsky do class. It was fascinating watching them walk around the stage slowly simply listening to the body and feeling out any oddities. Being intentional with these instruments we call the body is so important.
4. Evaluating Technique
The start of the season is a great time to correct bad habits. It’s kind of a reset button.
As most of us know, injuries often come from unhealthy placement or incorrectly executing a movement over a long period of time. So now that you’re fresh, rested, and taking things slowly, take advantage of that time to correct your technique and build new, healthy habits.
5. Listen to your body
“Listen to your body”! The famous quote that we are all still trying to practically figure out, haha. Which pain is an ok pain? Which pain is bad? When to push through? When to hold back?
Keep this as a rule for life:
Acute, sharp, local pain, gets worse ⛔️
Dull, spread out pain, remains the same ✅
A key to injury prevention is early attention to minor complaints such as cramp, fatigue, stiffness and discomfort. Listening to these bodily complaints has proven to reduce injury rates.
For extra help, refer back to your training diary to see if you notice any patterns or if adjustments need to be made, keep evaluating your technique, and consult a Physio. Maybe take a slow walk around the studio and study the way your body feels.
That’s it! Wherever you find yourself now, on holiday, beginning a new season, in the middle of a long season, or in lockdown, I hope you know how incredible your body is and that it is very worth time and attention.
If you have more ideas and tips, comment below! If this post helped you in any way pass it along!
Happy dancing beautiful people.