Sorry I’ve been so quiet lately, but if you happen to receive emails from me then you already know that I’M IN THAILAND, and not putting a priority on writing blog posts. But after a week of travelling I feel a bit in writing withdrawal, so I want to take a few moments to review the Healthy Dancer Canada annual conference that I spoke at last Sunday in beautiful Vancouver.
For those of you who inquired whether I could get a video/audio recording of my presentation, I regret to inform you that although I did get part of it recorded (camera ran out of film), the audio quality is terrible, just west of useless. If I figure out how, I will attempt to present it online, webinar style or something, though my knowledge of how to do so is limited. And that’s putting it nicely…
So anyway, this post is brought to you from Bangkok, Thailand, where the weather is hot, the streets are smelly, and the ever-present Tuk Tuk drivers will rip you off and take you to buy clothes at the Armani factory, when all you really wanted was to go see the Grand Palace… Ohhh, Bangkok.
So back to the conference. What a great day of talking mad dancer wellness with people who truly care about the future and health of dancers. Because many of you probably weren’t able to make it to Vancouver, please enjoy this brief recap of what you missed:
Do We Wear Dance as a Noun or a Verb? Mental Health Implications of Dancers’ Creative Identies- Chantale Lussier
This was one of my favourite presentations of the day, and was a synopsis of Chantale’s PHD research (for which she also won the HDC research award. GO Chantale).
Chantale, of Elysian Insight– a mental performance consulting company based in Ottawa- spoke about the potential danger of getting too attached to the “I am a dancer” identity. We all love to flaunt the fact that we’re dancers. We walk with our feet pointed out, take every opportunity to show off our flexibility, and wear our buns with pride. This was both a psychological and philosophical discussion of what it means to call yourself a dancer, and why that should matter to you.
Some important points Chantale brought up presentation:
- “If I don’t dance on Sundays, am I still a dancer that day?”,
- “If I become injured and can’t dance, who am I?”
- The difference between saying “I am a dancer” and the French way, “Je danse” (I dance). What does it mean to describe yourself using a noun versus a verb, and which is healthier in the long run?
- The fluid nature of identity and the need for dancers to embrace this for optimal wellness and longevity
Interview With Ballet BC Artist in Residence Dario Dinuzzi- A Dancer’s Perspective on Health and Wellness
It was a nice change to hear things from a dancer’s perspective, which was something we didn’t get at last year’s conference. It’s great and all to hear what the health pros have to say, but it’s arguably more meaningful to hear recanted the first hand experiences in a dancer’s own words. By listening carefully to what dancers are saying, we are better able to help improve their quality of life and help them do what they do best.
Dario told us about his experiences dealing with injuries, building relationships with choreographers, and what to do when they ask you to perform physical stunts that you know deep down to be unsafe.
I took a video of a portion of his interview, and again, the volume is unfortunately low so if you can open it in another player like VLC to boost the sound maybe you’ll get more out of it. Dario is a really entertaining guy to hear talk, which I’m sure is partly due to his Italian heritage.
The Missing Link in the Foundations of Dance Training: Movement Workshop- Mariah-Jane Thies
This was a fascinating presentation. I had never heard of Brain Gym prior to Mariah-Janes Thies’ movement workshop. The concepts she presented are one’s that I definitely dig learning more about, and I can see how they would benefit dancers of all levels, especially young ones or dancers who have reached plateaus and need help at the brain level to push through it.
Mariah-Jane spoke about the importance of using a neuro-developmental model to enhance the brain’s function, to make movements more reflexive, rather than have to use a high-threshold, high stress, bracing technique to achieve them. A huge part, she explained, is the ability of the right and left brains to communicate, or bridge, effectively.
An interesting dance-specific idea she brought up was that foot sickling is something that brain gym can help with, as she believes this inability to control rolling over the outside of the foot is a result of the left and right brains not bridging, which can be traced back to a human developmental phase and then corrected through Brain Gym techniques. As a dancer who has trouble with sickling, I want to know more. Very interesting stuff, indeed.
Scoliosis In Ballet- Susie Higgins, Erika Mayall, Astrid Sherman
Guess what: If you have scoliosis and you dance, you don’t need to feel like you’re at a disadvantage. Susie, Erika and Astrid work with dancers with scoliosis and help them to learn how to work with their bodies and dance to the best of their abilities.
These three ladies run what sounds like the most integrated ballet school I have ever heard of. It combines high quality ballet instruction with physical therapy and cross training, with outstanding communication and compassion.
The biggest take-aways from this presentations that you should know:
- Quite a few professional ballet dancers have scoliosis (something I didn’t know)
- Scoliosis IS manageable with exercise intervention, and it is important for dancers to understand how to take ownership of their homework exercises and understand their bodies to avoid plateau-ing and becoming injured.
- Curvature of the lumbar spine is often more manageable for dancers that in the thoracic spine.
- It’s important for the dance teacher to understand ways to tweak technique, such as arabesque line, to allow the dancer to work WITH their curve and not fight against it. You lines don’t need to look the same as everyone else’s, and this should be embraced.
Integrating Long-Term Athletic Development into Dance- ME
While I really don’t feel like getting into the details of my presentation (because remember, I’m hoping to post the slideshow somehow), I will offer an oversimplified synopsis:
- Dancers are athletes (a point upon which the entire basis of my presentation rests).
- Dancers should have some form of long term athletic development model to give them a system that helps them achieve success and longevity. Like nearly every other athlete does.
- We should pay attention to the developmental stages children and adolescents progress through and not push dancers into competition too soon, before they’re ready.
- We should realize that dance is an early specializing activity (or sport, if you’d rather) and, because of this and the highly complex nature of dance, we must emphasize movement literacy, screening, and maintenance to support it.
- To create and implement an LTAD for dancers, we need to be able to communicate effectively- teachers, dancers, parents, dance educators, health care providers- because together we have so much more to offer than working alone (much like the three lovely ladies from the scoliosis presentation demonstrate).
Addressing Dancers’ Glute Medius Weakness and Fear of Hip Internal Rotation with In Class Exercise- Marla Eist
Funny story. Marla Eist teaches dance at Simon Fraser University, and actually taught one of my dance teachers while she was once a student at SFU back in the day. Crazy small world sometimes.
But anywho, Marla’s presentation addressed some exercises dance teachers can use in class to help their students to own the use of parallel (requiring them to use internal rotation at the hip- yes, blasphemous, I know), and optimize glute med function for improved hip stability, injury prevention, and all that fun sexy stuff.
The exercises she showed were great because they mimicked some common dance moves, but in a way that will help balance muscle development, and help dancers realize that working in parallel is actually a good thing sometimes.Maybe it’s as simple as making sure to include parallel glissades as well as turned out… For any dance teachers who want to learn more about this, you might want to contact Marla directly.
And that’s a wrap, I think. Overall, it was an excellent day spent learning with people much smarter than me. As said once by Julien Smith, “Aim to be the dumbest person in the room every once in a while”, and while I didn’t necessarily feel dumb, nothing inspires one to learn more and become better quite like being surrounded by folks much smarter than you.
If you have any questions about my presentation, the conference, or if you just want to say hello, also please feel free to email me anytime. Cheers from Thailand.
In case you weren’t aware, the dance world is far from perfect.
The injury rate is the higher than many contact sports, nutritional guidance is generally non-existent, dancers are encouraged not to cross-train (God forbid a ballerina should pick up a dumbbell), and to be a dancer is considered one of the most stressful jobs. But that short-list doesn’t touch on the biggest problem: Very little is being done to change anything.
One of the things I often hear dance professionals discussing is that it’s so hard to raise awareness on the importance of strength training (in whatever form you choose) for dancers.
Science(!) has shown that strength training is an excellent means of injury prevention, ensuring career longevity, maintaining good mental and emotional health, and excelling technically. And yet, even with science on our side, yelling as loud as we can, our audience is blind and deaf.
But here’s the other thing- It’s not only a lack of awareness, but a lack of role models to set a good example.
When I was a young dancer, there were no good role models at my studio. The “big girls” at my studio did not practice self-care. Most of the girls I looked up to didn’t do supplemental strengthening exercises, they didn’t eat well, they were stressed and over-trained, and a few of them just weren’t nice people.
Last week I sent out a call to action, and I want to thank those who responded. My mission was to find dancers, dance teachers, studio owners, trainers, and anyone else in the dance world with a passion for strength training, or for teaching dancers the importance of strength development.
Today’s post features these lovely people and the excellent work they are doing, setting an example for the next generation of dancers. What we need to make a change in the industry is to bring together those who are leading by example, because as much as scientific evidence rocks, people are generally more likely to act on something when they see real-life evidence.
We need to hear success stories and have strong, intelligent, and talented role models for new dancers and veteran dancers alike. Hear this: You don’t need to stress about getting injured and having to stop dancing. You don’t need to worry because there is something you can do about it. Learn to get stronger. Learn how to improve your nutrition. And by the powers of your improved physical state, your mind will have more energy to cope with the mental and emotional stress of the competition, expectation, and often rejection that comes with dance.
Yes, dance is a struggle. But you shouldn’t have to suffer. And if you reach out to anyone in the list below, they’ll tell you all about it. This is a diverse list, including teachers, recreational dancers, professional dancers, some dancers I’ve had the pleasure of working with, and some prominent figures in the strength training world who are passionate about improving the way dancers are trained. These folks just might inspire you, if you’re not careful.
Here are your featured dance role models:
Dancers that lift (weights):
1. Maura Garcia
“Lifting weights has transformed my arms. I am stronger and see a difference in tone and consequentially in the definition of the lines they form. However, most importantly, strength training has allowed me to better harness my body’s energy and redirect it powerfully through my arms.”
2. Lavinia Magliocco
“I’m fifty years old, veteran of two bowel excisions and resections for Crohn’s disease, and danced six years at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. I lift weights, practice yoga and resistance training in my Pilates studio 6 days a week. Thanks to all that, in spite of deep incision scars and a few broken metatarsals, I teach and demonstrate (also occasionally on pointe) full out for my dance students at Portland Festival Ballet, as well as continue to dance, do inversions, and tango pain free.”
3. Selina Twum
“Why do I love deadlifting so much? I deadlift because it’s a full body exercise, it educates my spine on what neutral position should feel like, drives me to beat last week’s number of plates and makes me feel pretty bad a**! Through deadlifting I achieve better balance in dance, am empowered to work hard in class knowing what I do in the gym will help me reach my full potential and above all it boosts my confidence in pursuing a career in dance! :D”
4. Kaila June Gidley
“Resistance training has transformed every aspect of my dancing from increasing my balance and stability, to improving my alignment and motor recruitment patterns, and by enhancing my power and performance. Professionally I am a personal trainer and movement educator with a passionate goal for improving dancer health and wellness, and resistance training is one of the best tools in my box!”
5. Tina Clark
“I’m a 51 year old dancer, choreographer and teacher. Every other day of Pilates with intense weights has kept my over body strong, aligned and performance ready. I teach my 3 year olds all the way up to 91 yrs old the importance of their own body type being absolutely perfect with correct alignment and knowledge of how the engage their pelvic floor to gain overall control of all their dancing limbs.”
6. Alana DelZotto
“Lifting weights was a great way to improve my dancing as a whole. It improved my overall strength, stability, and gave me a greater awareness of how to use muscles properly to execute dance movement.”
7. Miguel Aragoncillo
“Dancers develop the most unique neuromuscular compensation strategies for movement. Setting the appropriate foundation through strength training protocols has allowed myself and others I’ve closely worked with to understand the effect of “restoring” movement, which has great influence on muscular endurance, power, and strength during auditions, showcases, and routines.”
Note from Monika: You should take advantage of Miguel’s brain. He is always sharing great content for dancers on his blog, and his domain of expertise is breakdancing (and deadlifting).
8. Laia Imhoff
“As a competitive and professional figure skater, strength training isn’t only a great way to improve muscle tone, but it increases bone density, avoiding injury and providing my body with better flexibility and endurance. An athlete that strength trains has a better understanding of what his or her body needs in order to perform at its best, and is an athlete that will have a longer, more successful career.”
9. Jennifer Bezaire
“Chronic injuries, pain, exhaustion, and threats of surgery are past memories since pilates based resistance training and eccentric loading dramatically improved my dance life! I enjoy solid sleep, have energy and balance for awesome turns, stamina for soaring allegro, strength for partnering, and endurance for beautifully controlled adage with higher extensions too! The key is building strength and efficient muscular coordination while maintaining neutral alignment; it’s all about balance – both on and off stage, inside and outside the studio too!”
10. Sarah Weinrauch
“Riddled with injuries -acute and chronic – I was ready to accept defeat and quit dancing. With one last hope and the rest of my cash, I hired a personal trainer and focused my time on strength training. My injuries have virtually disappeared, I feel way more confident in my execution and control of my body, and best of all… I’m still doing what I love!”
11. Kendall Alway
“I am a former professional dancer who is now a PT specializing in the treatment of dancers. I have recently started giving lectures at the University level to help train the next generation of PT’s in the safe and effective treatment of dancers. I am a member of IADMS and on the DANCE USA task force on dancer’s health. I also run (with Rick Coughlin, MD) the FREE ODC Healthy Dancers’ Clinic. “
12. Sivagami Sreenivasan
“I have 3 torn ligaments (ACL-full snap, PCL and MCL partial tears) on the left knee, worn and torn meniscus on both knees. The sports doctor told me I would have difficulty climbing stairs, running and dancing would be out of the question. Today, with consistent Yoga practice and strength training, I’m able to dance and perform with ease and for hours at end!!”
13. Elisa Klemm
“I have found aerial hoop to be the ultimate combination of strength and grace. Resistance training has made me stronger, more powerful and gives me more endurance to perform beautiful movements in the air. Being strong and having proper body awareness is so important for preventing falls and injuries when I’m on the aerial hoop.”
14. Chris Bland
“I can’t dance, I never could and I’m doubtful for the future. What I love is to lift things off the floor and if I’m feeling cocky put it above my head. While being strong has never made me a better dancer; I have shared my passion with countless dancers who have never looked back.”
Note from Monika: You rock Chris! Thanks for supporting us dancers. And, uh, nice picture 😉
15. Kelly Weckesser Hall
“I didn’t fully realized just how much benefit I was gaining from my strength training until I attended the Pilobolus Summer Intensive. I was able to support other dancers and be fearless in lifts, because I could support my own body weight and be confident in my strength. It was when dancing with other strong confident and beautiful dancers that I was truly able to see just how much I needed to continue training, learning, and sharing my knowledge with others.”
16. Elyse Sparkes
“As a young dancer I was frail, exhausted energetically, and constantly getting injured. I started to include strength training into my routine and not only felt stronger and more balanced physically, but I also became more grounded and stable in my confidence, self-esteem, and sense of self worth. I believe everyone can use the power of strength training to find awareness, compassion, balance, and joy in their bodies and their lives.”
17. Samantha Kutner
“As someone with plenty of flexibility, but not a lot of strength, I struggled a lot to execute pirouettes, leaps and level changes. When I finally started to add strength training in the form of squats and leg raises I saw a different from the first week on. I’m happy I can do those moves full out and don’t have to fake it anymore!”
18. Noel St. Jean
“As I approach my mid-thirties, I rely on strength training to keep my body in peak physical condition for dance. By taking advantage of classes at my local YMCA, I have discovered an inner strength that keeps me energized throughout hours of teaching and rehearsals; I can demonstrate more fully, spot acrobats with more confidence and maintain my stamina throughout performances. I believe that all dancers should cross train in order to keep their bodies strong and balanced, a trait that will keep them healthy in movement for years to come.”
19. Jessica McGrath
“A year ago a dance class would leave me limping in pain on the way home. I was compensating (badly), instead of using muscles I didn’t even know I had. Since I started lifting weights and strengthening the muscles my dancing was neglecting, I dance pain-free and much more responsively.”
20. Marissa Gough
“I had trained in dance for 6 years,truly loving it but never getting the professional quality of movement and unfortunately I was perpetually injured and my body was a huge mess. About 4 years ago I met my trainer and current partner Said Debbach who is a 3rd generation circus performer,he gave me a proper foundation for acro dance,hand balancing ,Adagio and aerial skills. Now 4 years injury free with an intensely strong core,a better physical vocabulary than anyone could ever hope to have, now I can truly fly!”
21. Yvette Thompson
“I’m stronger now at 47 than I ever was at 26. I’ve had 3 kids, teach ballet, tap and musical theater but it wasn’t until I became a group fitness instructor for a group of older ladies about 5 years ago that it all began to fall into place. I study everything I can to make what I do and what I teach the best and healthiest for myself and each of my students from the youngest to the oldest. Thanks, and never stop doing cartwheels!”
22. Robin Horner
“Strength training has made me stronger so I can dance longer. It has given me the ability to perform more tricks in hip hop and acro dance. Most of all, it has given me the strength to leap higher and achieve all of my dance dreams!”
23. Jory Kettles
“I recently returned to the dance world after a 4 year hiatus while pursuing post-secondary education, by earning a spot in my University’s dance company. During the last 3 years I have picked up on strength training, which (to my surprise) lead to more power and more strength when I returned the stage: higher jumps, upper body strength to lift the girls, etc. – not to mention no longer being self-conscious about dancing on stage without a shirt! As an Exercise Science major in University and a personal trainer, I see the value strength training has in performance parameters in dance, and have chosen to investigate it further for my senior research thesis.”
24. Morgan Timberg
“Strength training has not only made me a stronger dancer, but it has also brought me greater self-awareness of my body when moving and dancing. I have gained a lot more self confidence, which I bring to both my dancing and everyday life!”
25. Eva Connelly-Miller
“I feel so much stronger in general, and feel like I’m finally starting to realize what it means to work more efficiently without tensing or gripping in the “wrong” places. I feel that although I still am working on maintaining neutral alignment while dancing I can now find it again far more easily! Another big change is that I now understand how important the lats are in efficient movement. I can visualize the areas we worked on during training engaging during class, rather than just squeezing my shoulder blades together. Overall, I feel more in control of my body.”
26. Marissa Joseph
“I started strength training when I was already a seriously injured dancer. In a year, I worked myself up to consistently lifting 20lbs more than my body weight. It was at that point that I was noticeably at my strongest: my jumps were higher, my stamina greater and my technical control was evident. Most importantly, strength training kept me moving and out of considerable pain!”
Note from Monika: Marissa is like the American version of me. We dream of meeting one day to dance and deadlift together. She writes really excellent stuff on her blog- A really great resource for y’all (see what I did there? The Americanization?).
27. Roxana Marin
“I dance and promote dance, as it is truly my passion (I am a PR practitioner with a full time job when I don’t dance). I complete my dance work-out with weekly yoga classes (for flexibility and mobility), a daily routine of exercise for legs (to get them stronger for ballet) and arms workout with weights (I found out that stronger arms help with lifting while doing pirouettes).”
28. Joel Minden
“I use a multi-joint resistance training program of deadlifts, squats, presses, chin-ups, and rows to build power in my dancing. Strength training has had a huge impact on my ability to initiate power through the standing leg and hip, and to produce power through the upper back and shoulders during rotational figures.”
Note from Monika: Joel has an excellent blog for dancers. Particularly those of the ballroom/dancesport denomination. You really should check it out.
29. Jenny Kirillova
“I am a Latin American Amateur dancer. I have been struggling with my high point spirals for ages. Thanks to dead lifts I have strong legs to spiral on now. Thanks to push-ups I have toned arms and strong back and am not afraid to wear revealing Latin dresses.”
30. Kristen Lewis
“I started weight training in November, inspired by Monika Volkmar’s Dance Training Project blog and website. After 3 months of weight training, I now feel the strongest and healthiest I ever have in the dance studio. I am nearing 35 and looking forward to many more great years of hard-core dance training, strong and injury free thanks in part to my new friend the weight room. (Plus the feeling in my butt of being able to squat way more than I weigh helps me deal with the inevitable failures and setbacks that go along with being a successful and committed performing artist—the weights have helped me push through on an emotional level in a way that feels life-affirming and powerful, never body-denying or self-abusive as certain other training practices can feel). “
31. Katelyn Good
“I have found that gaining strength as a dancer has helped me to find height and speed in my movement as well as more pelvic control and more control in lower and deeper forms of movement. In this way I feel more connected with more pressure into the floor and more grounded. An understanding of my center and core strength has helped me control my movement better, allowing myself to still use my flexibility but with more articulation in my legs and a stronger held posture in my upper body and strength in my back. Most importantly strength has given me all of this and helped me to improve with a better sense of knowing how and where my body should properly be held in order to maintain my healthiest, least injury-prone positioning and alignment, while still being able to work my limbs to their maximum.”
Super huge thanks (and high five) to everyone who supported this project and made it happen. If you want to stay connected with me, and other dancers who are into not being weak, I encourage you to join us on Facebook. I like to think I keep things interesting on the DTP page, but I guess you’ll have to like it and see for yourself…
Keep dancing stronger!
Photo from Fivex3.com
The following is a guest-post from my friend Emily Socolinsky. Emily is a fantastic, uber intelligent trainer who owns the gym Fivex3 Training in Baltimore. She is also a dancer and has spent many years dealing with disordered eating. Sound familiar? We’re pretty much the same person. Except Emily’s maybe 100000 times smarter, stronger and wiser than I.
Emily has been kind enough and brave enough to share her story with us all, and I think you’ll find it touching and beautifully written. She shares how as a young dancer she was told to lose weight, and how this idea stuck with her, defining a portion of her life (kind of like me). She now lifts heavy (like me), realizes that dancers are better off when they strength train (like I’ve found), and is now able to find balance with her diet (like me) though every day is a new challenge.
Oh, and she recently became certified with Precision Nutrition, so if you want nutrition help, shoot her an email ;).
But I won’t say any more, because I think her story speaks for itself. Thank you for sharing, Emily!
Living with a food obsession….
“One, two, three, four. Pull in your stomach. Stretch those legs. Five, six, seven, eight.”
As she walked around the studio, she poked and prodded, pulled arms, lifted chins. Then, as she passed by me, she paused. She stepped back and looked me up and down. I stood a little taller and pulled my stomach in.
“You could stand to lose a few,” she remarked coldly and then continued to the next dancer at the barre.
What did she just say to you, my brain screamed at me. I froze. For how long, I don’t know. After a few seconds or so, I continued with my tendues. But my mind was racing. I was 14 years old. I was a freshman at the Baltimore School for the Arts. I was 5’6” tall. I weighed about 110 pounds. And until this day, NO ONE had ever commented about my weight before. EVER. To this day, I think back at that day in the dance studio, and I wish to God it had never happened. I wish that she had not opened her big, fat mouth. I wish that this did not exist in the dance world, in the world of gymnastics, in the world in general. But it does. It has. And unfortunately, it always will. My world changed forever that day in the dance studio. 24 years later, I still struggle.
I broke down into tears a year later in my mom’s gynecologist’s office, sobbing over my weight. “I can’t weigh more than 120 pounds,” I wailed. “He said so.” Somehow, I had gotten it into my head that the head of the dance department had instituted a weight requirement for the dancers (he had not.) But I was convinced he had in my mixed up, fucked my 15 year old head. My mother was scared. I was going away that summer for five weeks to a ballet intensive dance program in upstate New York, away from her, away from my friends, away from sanity. She did not want me to go but it was paid for, of course I was going. I should go. It was important to dance during the summer.
“Promise me you will eat, Emily,” my mom pleaded with me.
“I promise,” I told her. But honestly, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I wasn’t sure what my reaction would be to the othr girls, to my dance teachers, to being away for the first time. There was so much to think about that the last thing I really thought about was eating.
My dad drove me up to Skidmore College that summer because my mom had undergone unexpected stomach surgery and could not travel. I sat in the window of my dorm room and cried as I watched his truck drive away. There was a pit in my stomach and I ached for home. But as the days went on, I made friends, got wrapped up in my dance classes and settled into my home for the summer. Most importantly and surprisingly, I ATE. I did not even think about. We had all of our meals in the cafeteria and this was really the only time that we had a chance to eat. The first time we all made our way to breakfast, I knew I was going to keep my promise to my mom. I watched the other girls pick up orange juice, nothing else, maybe a piece of fruit. At dinner one night, I observed one dancer eating only a bowl of rice. I looked down at my plate of chicken and green beans and realized that I was the healthy one, not them. I told myself that I would eat my food, all of my food, just to show them that this is how a healthy dancer eats. I looked at their hip bones poking through their leotards and knew that did not want to look like that. I did not want to deprive myself of good, whole foods. I recognized that what I was eating was good and should not avoid it. I actually remember smiling at myself for doing this. But I will not lie to you and tell you that I still did not obsess over my food. This was my true disordered thinking. And this obsession went on (and unfortunately rears its ugly head from time to time) for many, many years after that summer.
When I returned home from that summer, my food obsession was just beginning to bloom. This struggle between eating/not eating and my love/hate relationship would continue to tear me a part all through high school, into college, into my 20’s living in NY, into my late 20’s as a teacher to today. My junior year of high school, I did not get my period for months at a time. And when I would get it, the period was heavy, so heavy that all I could do was curl up into a little ball in my bed and hold my stomach. Who knows how much of this had to do with my eating habits. I was definitely underweight for my height and was dancing 5-6 hours a day, five days a week. And when I say love/hate, I really mean it. There were days when I would just break into tears, so unhappy with the way I looked, so unhappy with my attitude towards food. I wanted to eat it but at the same time, I was so mad that I could not tell myself to NOT eat it.
I injured myself my senior year of high school and continued to eat the same way I always had except I was not dancing anymore so the food I ate made me gain weight because I was not exercising. By the time I started college, I had gained a good 10 pounds which would then turn into 15. College was spent not eating, trying to lose weight, being happy with the way I looked one minute to then sobbing uncontrollably in the bathroom down the hall from the dance studios an hour later. I could never predict how I was going to feel one day to the next in regards to my body. I would make myself feel so guilty for eating. I walked around all the time with a large bottle of Evian in my mind, sucking down bottle of water after bottle of water. (Now, I struggle to drink even a glass of water. Yes, I am one of those people. 😉 I drink a lot of tea and water with lemon. But I drink enough to keep my hydrated.) I would cut up fruit and eat it like it was going out of style. Bowls and bowls of fruit would be consumed on a daily basis. (No wonder I could not get a handle on my weight.) I can remember going to the bookstore on campus which also sold food and buying a bagel, a banana and a Power Bar. This was my breakfast, snack and maybe lunch too, all rolled into one. I drank tons of soda. I ate Power Bars. At night, partying with my friends, I would drink tequila straight from the bottle. I abused my body. I remember sitting in my doctor’s office telling him that everything I ate made me sick. EVERYTHING. He looked at me and told me that I was crazy like my old man. (My parents were patients of his too.) And you know what? He was right. He was fucking right. I was crazy. There was nothing wrong with me physically. It was all in my head. But I could not see it. I did not want to believe it. It took me almost 20 years later to finally understand the extent of my obsession.
I moved to NY when I graduated from college and spent my early 20’s talking to GI doctor after GI doctor. I had a colonoscopy when I was around 22. I took Citrucel and Metamucil like it was going out of style. I took laxatives. I convinced myself that I had some sort of Celiac or Chron’s disease after reading a book that I bought about the diseases after I was diagnosed (FINALLY) with IBS. (Of course, I would understand years later, all doctors who diagnose their patients with IBS do so because there really is nothing wrong with the patient but they want some kind of label put on their ailments. Hmm.) And in my case, this was absolutely true. I had no IBS. No stomach disorder. No Chron’s disease. But I still insisted on eating nothing but tuna fish from a can for a week until I realized I was starving myself. I was mentally wired wrong in the head. I thought about food ALL the time. What I ate, when I was going to eat again, what I was NOT going to eat anymore. There is now a running joke with my family about my ability to remember past events in my life by what I was eating at the time. It is a joke but at the same time, it is not so funny. When you think about food 24/7, one has a hard time understanding how to truly enjoy eating. Food was the enemy. And it was beating me.
(The funny thing was that when I was living in NYC, I kept a journal and in this journal were pictures of women’s bodies that I wanted. When I looked back at those pictures, I was stunned. They were pictures of athletes, basketball players, swimmers, Gabby Reece, the volleyball player. I wanted to look like those women. Real women with arms and legs and muscles. At least I can take pride in the fact that I never wanted to look like a runway model. But I had no idea how to eat to look like them. For some reason I thought that starving myself was the answer).
My parents arranged me to talk to a therapist when I was in high school. That quickly ended after my mom found out I was using that time to talk about my parents religious differences and that somehow THIS was the cause of my eating issues. (It wasn’t.) In college, I tried to meet with a few counselors but I could not really talk about my problem because, well, I did not think I had a real problem. I met with a social worker in New York when I moved there after college. I would go to her small apartment in the West Village and sit and cry and talk about useless things, never really getting to the source of my issues with food. I eventually stopped going to her. It was a waste of time and money. I wasn’t letting anyone help me. Then, in 2004, I broke up with my boyfriend of three years, had a complete mental breakdown and started meeting with a new social worker whom I worked with from November of 2004 until May of 2011. She was amazing. It was the longest I had ever been in therapy, and we covered the gamut of my many issues. However, during this time, I never really spent that much time talking about my food obsession. Not specifically. However, I did come to the realization that my obsession with food is directly correlated with how I am doing in my life – financially, physically, emotionally. If I am happy, my eating problems are not a priority. If I am unhappy with my job, my life or I am injured, my eating problems surface and it is very scary. Yes, this does mean around the clock checking in with myself. I am in control now for the first time in my life. Food does not control me. Although it still wants too sometimes.
Fast forward to today. At age 38, I am learning to finally come to terms with my eating habits and my issues with eating. I have worked very hard to find a balanced and healthy way of eating that works for me and today, I eat better than I ever have. I am happy with my progress and my new attitude towards my eating and how it relates to my progress in the gym and in my daily life. But to be fair and honest, it is still very difficult for me to be completely comfortable with my eating, and I would be lying to you and to myself if I said that I have it all figured out. I am not going to say that when I look in the mirror at myself each day that I love what I see because I don’t But I like what I see 99% of the time and that is HUGE progress. I am not going to tell you that I don’t count calories or think about calories because I do. I can tell you EXACTLY how many calories are in a ¼ of an avocado and one large egg. But 99% of the time, I don’t worry about it and just eat the avocado and the egg because I know they are super foods and I LOVE super foods. I am going to tell you that I am better off than I was last month, last year, three years ago, 10 years ago. And that is progress. I rarely compare myself to other women anymore (that was a huge part of my issue too.) I enjoy eating out with my friends and husband. I choose good foods to eat and occasionally have my burger and fries and enjoy them too. Most importantly, I am married to an amazing man, my best friend, who loves me more than words can describe and has to be one of the most patient and understanding men I know… he knows it too. 😉 Each day I am reminded that he is here for me and that he understands me. And he really does. He really does. For me, it will always be one day at a time, one hour at a time, one minute at a time.
You can check out Emily’s website and blog HERE, and see what she’s up to over at Fivex3 Training. Thanks again for sharing Emily :). And if you have a story of your own you’d like to share, please send me an email:
I’ve gone to physio many, many times. Throw some chiropractic adjustments and acupuncture into the mix too. I just had an impromptu ART session yesterday! One of the perks of working at a gym with multi-disciplined trainers.
I’ve had a lot of dance-related (and non dance-related) injuries. Too many. I don’t even want to talk about it.
Actually, yes I do. But more for your sake than for mine. As much as I love talking about myself. Just kidding… I’m actually pretty boring in real life.
When I was 14 (or 15?) I first went to physio for low back pain. Like many dancers, this is age when the aches and pains begin, and most often it’s the lower back that is the first to go.
At that age, my back pain didn’t really worry me too much, and I didn’t let it slow me down. I also remember at the age of 15 (while studying at the Banff Center’s summer program), that I couldn’t walk without significant pain in my right hip unless I turned my right foot out to about 45 degrees. And that was ok with me.
I even remember my parents saying something like, “Oh that’s not good, Monika, we should really take you to get that looked at.” To which I replied, “No it’s fine as long as I walk like this!”. Zombie stylez.
This is the mindset of too many dancers. Pain is the expectation. Especially the young dancers who don’t necessarily understand what’s happening inside their bodies. At that age there are too many other things to worry about, like, OMG did you know that Gretta wears a thong?? I totally saw it the other day. I know, right!!?!!? What a sl^#*… I mean…
But in all seriousness, when I was 14, I could have cared less about the impending doom stemming from my unchecked injuries. Many people don’t even know how to differentiate between “good pain”, and “bad pain” until it’s too late.
Anyhoo, so when I was 14 I went to physio for my back, and was given a few exercises and stretches that I’m sure would have helped me a lot. If I actually did them…
Which leads me to problemo numero uno with the whole physiotherapy thing:
1) No body likes doing physio exercises. This isn’t necessarily a problem with the physiotherapist in question, or saying that physio is a BAD idea, but more an issue with own laziness, lack of self-efficacy, and not being educated on the importance of rehabilitation. I know the damn exercises take forever to get through, like Ben Hur, but just do them! I don’t think I did the exercises once. And my back got worse. Go figure.
2) It’s too late, you’ve already hurt yourself. Wouldn’t it be better to NOT get hurt in the first place? The fact that you’re in the physio office is proof of your ineptitude to take care of your body’s needs- Namely, understanding how it functions, and then doing the things that hurt it.
3) Some physiotherapists won’t even give you exercises. I had a physiotherapist once, whom I explicitly asked to give me stretches and exercises (for my hamstring), and he said, “Well, you don’t really need to do any right now, just keep coming for treatments.” It isn’t until now that I really understood where his priorities lay, aka, my wallet. I trusted him to help me recover in the speediest way possible, but he was only interested in booking me for soft tissue therapy. You need to be careful that you’re going to someone reputable, and especially someone who knows dancers. I happen to know a miracle worker. Email me if you want her deets.
4) Some physiotherapists don’t continue their education after becoming licensed. They don’t make an effort to keep up with the latest findings, and latest techniques and research. They are set in their ways and don’t want to change. You probably know people like that.
So we’ve established that going to physio is undesirable. What’s the solution? Well, hind-sight is 20/20. Knowing what I know now, I would have told 13 year old Monika to start strengthening my body while I was young and relatively uninjured.
I encourage young dancers to learn how their bodies work as early as possible. Make your body resistant to injuries by doing some sensible core training, especially if you’re prone to lower back pain. It’s way more fun to strength train before you’re hurt, than it is to do physio exercises or lie in the traction machine. I promise.
And do your research! Ask your physiotherapist questions before deciding to trust them with your body. Better yet, just start strength training NOW so that you can limit your future exposure to the physio.
I was talking with my mother the other day about how young is too young for someone to begin strength training. “You’re not talking about using WEIGHTS, are you??” she said. To which I replied, yes, of course! How do you think you get stronger? Is there some unwritten rule that children (I’m talking 10 years and up) shouldn’t be strong? That they shouldn’t be body-aware? Should they save these skills for later in life? I don’t think so…
In reality, strength training is probably much healthier for the body than dancing (especially ballet). The dominating thought is that dancers should start doing pointe as soon as they are strong enough (and many start doing it when they’re not yet strong enough). Between 11 and 13 is when girls generally are deemed worthy. And yet, somehow, it’s NOT ok for them to develop full body strength (strength train with weights). Strength that would make doing pointe much safer at a young age, and prevent the myriad of injuries associated with it.
It’s enough to make me want to cut off all my hair. Which I really want to do anyway. Long hair is SO hard to maintain. The number of times per day it gets stuck in zippers… Don’t get me started.
Yes, I think dancers should start strength training young. Yes, I think strength training will probably make so that you won’ thave to go to physio as often later on. At some point, most people are going to have to go see a physiotherapist for something. There’s no way you can prevent every injury. I’m just saying, it’s better to integrate your body structurally as early as possible, and I think we can all agree that saving money on physio fees is a sweet, sweet thing. Just something to think about.
Strength training and learning cool new things about your body is also way more fun than phsyio. If it isn’t, I want to meet your physiotherapist, cause he sounds awesome!
One of the most important things you can do to better yourself is to talk to a lot of people that are way smarter than you. Be the stupidest one in the room every once in a while (but not all the time…).
That’s exactly what I set out to do when I contacted Donna Krasnow. We sat down in her hotel room discussed things to do with training dancers. It was great.
Donna Krasnow is a former professional dancer, full professor at
York University’s Dance Department, choreographer, and creator of C-I Training
(Conditioning With Imagery for Dancers). She is the co-author of the new book
Conditioning with Imagery for Dancers, with professional dancer Jordana Deveau. Visit her website here for more info.
Krasnow specializes in dance science research, concentrating on injury prevention, conditioning for dancers, and motor learning and motor control. Her most recent research focus has been the adolescent dancer, psychological issues surrounding injury and dance training, and motor control in elite dancers. She received her M.S. degree in Dance Science in 1994 from the University of Oregon and is a Level I Certified GYROTONIC® Trainer . Her articles have been published in Medical Problems of Performing Artists; Journal of Dance Medicine & Science; Impulse: the International Journal of Dance Science, Medicine, and Education; Journal of Dance Education; Bulletin of Osaka University of Health and Sport Sciences; Medecine des Arts; and Dance Research Journal.
If you haven’t gathered, Donna is way smarter than me, and chances are way smarter than the majority of you reading this too.
She was in Toronto this week teaching the Conditioning With Imagery teacher training course. This course teaches other dance science enthusiasts and teachers her training method, which she has used to help countless dancers improve their technique and understanding of the moving body, as well as to prevent unnecessary injuries. Though I only had an hour to speak with her, it was enlightening, to say the least.
Here now is a summary of our chat:
What caused her to first become interested in the physiology and science of dancing?
Donna told me that her reason was actually kind of selfish- She, like many dancers, was tired of getting injured! She has a list of injuries that could go on and on, but her back was a big issue for her in the past.
This led her to start reading and learning about new methods of training the body to make it more resilient. She studied in yoga, pilates, floor-barre classes, Qi Gong and somatic practices, among other things, and eventually began to put it all together which created the foundations of what is now her Conditioning with Imagery philosophy.
So what is “Conditioning with Imagery”?
Donna explained that conditioning with imagery is a blending of science with somatics. It borrows from the best of several techniques.
She retold to me the story of being in Philadelphia for a convention and having the opportunity to experience presentations of many different training methods, one of which was by Sally Fitt (author of Dance Kinesiology) and was all about the science side of training, and another was an Alexander technique presentation, which is all about using imagery to reprogram the body.
This got her to thinking, why must the two- science and imagery- be separate? Hence the creation of conditioning with imagery
For those of you who don’t care much for the science side of dance, the rest of this article may not be for you, so skim at your leisure, as I press forward into more specific aspects of training dancers.
I asked Donna what she thought of training hip drive and posterior chain power. Did she think it was useful, as it often is for other athletes? Olympic style lifting or plyometric training in particular.
“Yes. If the dancer has a need for it.”
She explained to me that many dancers are naturally good jumpers and it would not be a productive use of their time to work on something they are already good at. Hip drive power does help with vertical jump height, which is of importance to dancers, but if they don’t need much extra help in that regard, it is not necessary.
She states that the training must be specific to dancing. For this very reason, she is not in favour of ballet dancers doing much plyometric training. Her experience is that it will not transfer over to a dance setting as one would like it to, for the feet are in a parallel position which is not very helpful for dancers who work in turn-out.
I asked about doing plyometric work in a turned out position, and we both agreed that it would probably not be safe for the knees.
Olympic lifting could however be quite beneficial for dancers needing help with their jumps.
There is still much research to do in this area. Perhaps I’ll do some more reading of my own and see what I can find. Stay tuned for that.
Can you guess what Donna thinks about dancers developing upper body strength?
She’s all for it! Donna points out that dancers often need arm strength for lifts and to fall safely to the floor, among other choreographic elements.
However, she explained how the traditional methods of upper body training are not appropriate for dancers. That is to say, the traditional method is aimed towards male trainees who want to build muscle (hypertrophy) without any kind of functional end-goal.
Dancers do not need to hypertrophy their upper body muscles, but rather need endurance and strength. She pointed out the common misconception that women dancers shy from strength training in the fear of becoming bulky, but this is only because they look at male bodybuilders who follow a set and rep scheme with the aim of getting bigger muscles.
Donna suggests that for dancers it is optimal to use a rep range geared toward muscle endurance (12-15 reps), with a lower weight, and to do 2 sets.
The arms need strength, endurance and control. To avoid upper body training is a common mistake.
Other imbalances that are prominent in dancers, and which Donna stresses should be addressed include:
- The spine and core
- Lateral quads dominant over medial quads
- Excessive foot pronation
- Weak adductors and gluteus medius
I then selfishly asked:
What is your favourite core strengthening/motor control exercise?
Her reply: “I don’t have a single favourite!” (rats…)
She explained that she is in her third day of teaching the CI Training course (and intensive course which runs for 6 days), and she’s aleady gone through about 7 core exercises. She states there has to be versatility, because that is the nature of dance. You must have a range of movements.
Not only that, but “core training” has to be always happening. Even if it is not a “core” exercise, the core must be cued to work. A good core exercise is one that transfers over to the dance setting.
So what about Crunches? Crunches are fine if done correctly, but by themselves are not sufficient for dancers’ needs. They need a variety of exercises that deal with core support, trunk stabilization, and balance control. Perhaps not the most efficient use of your time.
We got to talking more about core conditioning, and Stuart McGill’s name came up (to whom she refers fondly as Stu. They’ve met, and I’m a little jealous). McGill is a big name in the athletic performance training, and lower back pain prevention and rehabilitation game.
I have dabbled in implementing his method of “abdominal bracing” to prevent lower back injuries while training training my own dancers.
I asked her what she thought of the idea of abdominal bracing, and if it was effective for dancers.
In her mind, bracing the abdominals is actually counterproductive for dancers early in their training, and they should rather be instructed to lengthen. This simple use of imagining the spine elongating, and the narrowing of the waist, she states, has been much more effective in her experience.
She explains that you must look at the function of the spine for the dance population: The spine does a lot of moving through all planes, and this motion often needs to be fluid. It makes sense that bracing the abdominals without understanding how to control it segmentally would hinder a dancer’s ability to control his/her body effectively.
Donna talked about how many of the athletes McGill is training do not require the fluidity of the spine that dancers do, and so for a shot-putter, for example, bracing the spine would be highly effective.
There is a place for bracing the abdominals in dance training, however it should be learned after the dancer first understands how to control the spine’s individual segments. She refers to the work of Australian, Paul Hodges, which focuses on deep segmental stability and “hollowing” of the abdominals, rather than bracing them.
Her method is to start by training the deep muscles that control and stabilize the spine as it curves and arches, and then do more McGill type things, like planks and birddogs.
Thanks for that tip, Donna!
At the gym I work at, they have one of those full body vibration plates that supposedly give faster results by exercising on a vibrating surface. I asked Donna if she knew anything of the science behind these contraptions.
To which she replied: “I have no comment until I see the research.”
Donna is the kind of person who needs to see concrete evidence before she jumps on a bandwagon. This is a good quality to have in order to avoid a lot of the bull-shit that marketed to us these days. Remember when we thought this was a good idea?
I mentioned to Donna that I had read the abstract of a study which used the vibration plate in a training protocol for dancers and found that they were able to increase their ankle stability to a higher degree than a group of dancers who did conventional exercises, not vibrating. She replied to this that she could see how it may have some benefits in terms of proprioceptive issues, as the vibrations create a more unstable surface.
Here’s another study that found dancers could improve their vertical jump height by using the vibrating plate in their training…
Perhaps I will read more on this topic, seeing as I have access to one of these (expensive) machines. Are they worth it? Who knows. I’m still sceptical, and my opinion is that this machine was created by people who are lazy and don’t like hard work. But who knows!
Like Donna said, “I don’t know until I see the research”.
I asked Donna if she could describe a particular “a-ha!” moment on her journey to understanding movement.
She exhaled deeply and replied that there were too many to even mention. One in particular that she shared with me was the realization of the “neuromuscular”, and just how important motor control was.
It is not simply enough to strengthen the weak muscle, or stretch the tight ones. That’s only part of the picture. Donna expressed that it is equally important to make changes to habitual movement patterns. Retrain the way you move in everyday life, as well as in a dance setting.
As she put it, in class, you work hard to do good for your body for 3 hours a day. But if for the rest of the day you’re slumped over, in awkward positions, walking strangely and adopting a generally poor posture, you’re not helping yourself, and you’re undoing any of the positive work you did in class.
In recent months, I’ve discovered how much the mind needs to make changes as well as the body. Many dancers are in a less than optimal emotional and psychological state which does not allow them to perform physically at their highest potential. I asked Donna what role she thought psychology and emotional health played in dance training, and if she felt it deserved more attention.
She agreed, but said that the emotional health of a dancer must be approached indirectly. It’s in how you relate to your dancers or clients that will affect them psychologically.
Donna expressed how she felt that many dance teachers do a bad job of this. The learning environment is created through the language used by the teacher, and often this language is one that is critical, and negative. For example, she told me story of how a young girl she was coaching had quite a pronounced pelvic tilt that caused her stomach to protrude slightly. What did her previous teachers tell her? Push your stomach in! Push your bum in!
According to Donna, the language you use should not ask the dancer to hide any part of them. Don’t ask the dancer to hold in their stomach, this is counterproductive not only physically, but it will foster a negative emotional environment. Instead, she suggested the image of lengthening the body.
She also explained that many dancers have “issues of beauty”. What this means is that they are so stuck to notions that for a position, such as a perfectly turned out 5th, to be beautiful, they need to crank their bodies in unnatural ways, and this is more important than being safe and protecting their bodies. This notion needs to be retaught. As I mentioned earlier in this post, you mustn’t be stuck to the idea that you need 180 degree turnout, most of us can never obtain this safely and it’s just not worth it.
Donna stated that many postural dysfunctions are in fact rooted in emotional trauma, and that she found many were able to change emotionally by changing the way their bodies move. This rang 100% true to me. If you want to test this theory, try walking around all week with absolutely perfect posture. Really focus on it. I challenge you to tell me you don’t feel like a whole new person by the end of the week.
Donna also stressed the importance of the spiritual aspect of dance. Many of us have lost this. Dance began as a spiritual practice, and it should always have that same importance. Again, we have issues with beauty. Actually expressing the spirit through dance will always be more moving that a perfectly executed triple pirouette.
What Donna felt was most lacking in dancers, and what could be considered their biggest issue, is that they lack education on the things that really matter. They have tons of skill acquisition, but very little knowledge. I asked her to share what she felt were the 3 best pieces of advice she could give dancers wishing for longevity in their careers, and here they are, just for you:
- Be vigilant about warm-up and conditioning.
- Work only with people who honour the body.
- Never put aesthetics and fashion above health.
This post is once again becoming lengthy, and so I want to wind things down by sharing with you what Donna said to be the most rewarding part of her career so far (and she’s done a lot, from choreography, to performance, to teaching, to conditioning, to research, creating her own training method, writing a book, and more…)
For her, it was not the material accomplishments that were most rewarding, but the giving and the receiving, in both directions, that has taken place throughout her career. The science aspect of things combined with the beauty of performing and choreographing was what she felt was the most fulfilling.
I will close with what I think is a recurring theme of this blog, and which Donna stresses as extremely important: The art of dance is just as important as the science.
If you want to learn more about Donna, her teacher training course, or read her book, head to her website for more information.
I want to thank Donna graciously for taking time out of her busy schedule to speak with me. It was fantastic.
I urge you all strongly now to check out Julien Smith’s blog . Take cold showers daily, talk to strangers, do things that scare the crap out of you, and hang out with people that are way smarter than you.
Oh, and like me on facebook .