By Suzanne Martin, PT, DPT
Tickets? Check. Reservations? Check. You’ve been waiting for months to rejuvenate, get remotivated, and reconnect with colleagues at the annual summertime conference. The time has finally arrived. All systems are go. It’s “you” time.
On the first day of a conference, probably after a hiatus from taking class, your dance skills come out of hibernation and you’re beyond motivated. At first everything goes swimmingly. It’s thrilling to get new and interesting choreography thrown your way, and each move seems more exhilarating than the last. The week looks promising. Used to pushing through long days in the studio, you’re convinced that the next day will be no problem.
Start getting ready for a conference at least two months in advance. Recruit a partner. Make a pact with this dance buddy and stick to it.
But no. “No problem” is not to be. The second day is usually when the telltale soreness and leg heaviness sets in. Over the course of the next few days your body sends a series of messages, all telling you that you haven’t prepared for an intense, packed week of dancing.
Ankle tendonitis, painful (even sprained) knees, plantar fasciitis, and sore backs are just a few of the complaints I hear from teacher clients when they return from summer conferences. The sad part is that with just a little bit of planning and action, these issues could probably be avoided. Here are suggestions to help you get ready for the next big conference.
Don’t confuse skill with conditioning; they are two very different things. It’s quite likely that you know how to do steps correctly and imbue them with artistry. But doing so for hours and days on end is another story. As the week progresses and soreness and tightness set in, you’ll find yourself moving farther and farther away from the world of fun and excitement you’d imagined—and into the realm of potential injury. It’s like “weekend warrior” syndrome—when people do too much of an activity without preparation, injuries happen.
Don’t deceive yourself; even something as basic as walking can lead to injuries when done excessively. For example, when I volunteered at the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer’s physical therapy tent, I saw a long line of walking injured enter the tent all day. Everyone can walk, right? Sure. But perhaps not for three consecutive six-hour days.
To minimize the discomfort and risk of injury, first map out a timeline. One reason teachers show up to summer conferences without proper conditioning is that many studios hold performances in late spring. Organizing your calendar well ahead of time can help keep your conditioning schedule on track despite the inevitable last-minute panic in preparing for your performances.
Start getting ready for a conference at least two months in advance. Recruit a partner. Make a pact with this dance buddy and stick to it. Meet with your partner every two weeks, during which you devise a schedule of conditioning focus areas that you’ll work on in rotation throughout those two weeks. Ideally, conditioning should be done about three times per week.
For example, over two months, your target areas could cover feet and ankles, backs and abs, hips and knees, and shoulders and arms. Give each other simple exercise routines that you’ll do three times per week.
Doing the work
Feet and ankles are by far the most vulnerable parts of the body. Since foot injuries are most prevalent in dance, feet need continual work. The more tenured a teacher, the more mileage these puppies have seen. Wobble board exercises can keep you in shape for pirouettes and jumps. But if you lack the time to do a whole wobble protocol, cut to the chase with simple exercises; some you can even do while teaching. During class, curl your toes in your shoes, as if grabbing marbles and then placing them down again; do small pliés as the students do theirs; elevé repeatedly to engage your foot and leg.
Or stand in an easy, turned-out second position. Hold onto the back of a chair and take a small grand plié. Lift both heels into a half-toe position 10 times. End with the heels lifted. Next, lower your hips two inches and lift two inches; repeat 10 times.
Backs get stiffer over time and are a major source of discomfort. Planks build strength, while spinal rolling exercises promote suppleness. Here’s a very simple spinal rolling exercise: stand with your feet hip width apart. Tuck your chin and roll down to the floor, one vertebra at a time, pulling the navel toward the spine to support and protect the spine. Reverse the action by thinking, “Tailbone is heavy/head is heavy.” Then drop your tailbone toward the floor and slowly straighten to standing, again one vertebra at a time.
Abdominal exercises, by improving core strength, take stress off the back; those that target the obliques are especially important for dancers. Be sure to include leg-lifting floor-barre moves to help with low-back stability during leg motions. For example: lie on your back in a “walk” position (pelvis in a neutral position—no tucking or over-arching—knees bent and turned out with the outside edge of the feet on the floor as if in first position grand plié). Lengthen one leg onto the floor. Flex the heel and slowly lift the leg toward the ceiling, then lower it, concentrating on keeping good form. Do 10 repetitions on each side.
Knees can also be cranky if they are not conditioned properly. Rolling the front and sides of the thighs on a foam roller significantly reduces knee pain.
This exercise strengthens the inner thighs (which support the knees) and aligns the legs: lying on your back with a four to six pound medicine ball held between your ankles, elevate your legs until they’re perpendicular to the floor. Lower and repeat 6 to 10 times, making sure your back remains supported and unstrained. Use a ball with a small diameter, one that keeps your legs roughly parallel.
Hip strength and mobility are best addressed from a standing position with a stretchy band looped around a leg of a table or stairwell banister. Place the looped band around your foot and pull against the band, turning your body and pressing your foot, ankle, and leg—in alignment—to the front, both sides, and back. The band will be looped around your heel when you’re pulling back and side, and your toes when pulling front. These exercises strengthen the supporting leg as well as the gesturing leg.
For arm and shoulder conditioning do planks from the front, side, and back, as well as push-ups and dips.
Working with your dance buddy
When you meet with your dance buddy, concentrate on working on one of these target areas with dance-specific exercises that will sharpen your dance skills. Choose a theme and some exercises. You might concentrate on one- and two-legged jumps for the foot/ankle session; standing extensions in all directions for hip work; pliés and across-the-floor moves for the knees. Jazz rib and hip isolations work for abs; arabesques and attitudes for backs; and port de bras with upper-body rotations augment an arm and upper-back session.
Reaping the rewards
If you vary and rotate the work around the body over at least two months’ time, you’ll avoid being overwhelmed and soon be on track. By the time only a week or two remain before you leave for “you” dance time, you’ll be ready to roll.
Being prepared will not only prevent injury, it will also allow you to concentrate on getting what you want from the conference experience: the creative satisfaction and fun of being exposed to new people, new choreography, new ideas, maybe even new dance styles. The even better news is that this is a great way to prepare for the rigorous dance school year ahead. Investing in yourself at a conference will rejuvenate you, restore the feeling of excitement in your own body that comes from dancing, and send you home with ideas for your student showcases.
Be smart. Be organized. Invest in yourself, your future, and your creative life.
I have faith in you.