Dance is something that one cannot express with words alone. There are definitions for dance, but I don’t think these definitions clearly encompass everything that dancing is and does. Dance is challenging, healing, restoring, communicating. It is an art form, an entertainment form, and a sport. Albert Einstein didn’t call dancers the athletes of god without reason, you know. Dance requires extreme attention to oneself and the universe. You need to realize where you body is, where you mind is, and how you are controlling the energies around you. The best dancers make this look utterly effortless.
But dance is also a physical and mental labor. Overtime, just like a musical instrument needs to be re-tuned or restrung, the human body needs careful attention. Misusing one’s self does great damage. Dancers are extending their careers into ages we’d never seen before because we are finally learning how to protect our bodies. Here are some things I’ve picked up from other dancers about self-care and self-love:
1. Cross train.
Dance is a wonderful workout, but merely dancing is not going to get you the body you need to dance. Exercise physiologists and dance scientists have reported time and time again how those who simply dance cannot build up the endurance and strength required for performances.
This is where cross-training is highly effective. Aiming for higher repetitions at varying tempos with lighter weights will give your body a streamlined look while training both slow and fast twitch muscle fibers to increase endurance. Do planks and bridge while recruiting the pelvic floor and glutes. Practice plyometrics and calisthenics to increase your overall power output. Take a Pilates class and learn how to breathe and move and balance. Do yoga to safely stretch.
Most of all, learn your body. Understand how it moves and why. I’m not saying do an intense workout every single day either. Sometimes a 20 minute stretching routine can enlighten you to where your body is and what it needs.
2. Eat mindfully.
How often do you find yourself scrounging for junk food after coming home from a grueling rehearsal? As tempting as it is to cram an entire blueberry muffin into your mouth, please remember that your body is a temple enshrining a beautiful spirit. Not only that, your body is the instrument by which you communicate. It’s your livelihood.
I’m not saying to not indulge once in a while. What I’m saying is, is that food is fuel. If you eat McDonalds before a competition or recital, you’re not going to be dancing at your maximum capacity. Concentrate of nutrient dense but light meals if your busy with company practice, but don’t sacrifice your health for a role. You will chip years of your dance career away like that, because malnutrition leads to more than just being under or overweight.
Not eating properly means losing valuable minerals and nutrients like potassium, calcium and magnesium, all of which are essential to homeostasis. If you don’t absorb enough calcium, your bones will get brittle. If you lack potassium and magnesium, you’re going to cramp up. If you lack magnesium and zinc, you’ll suffer from severe bouts of brain fog. If you don’t eat enough carbohydrates, guess what? You’re going to be lethargic.
A beautiful dancer is a healthy one.
3. Do isolated movements and articulation exercises.
Not only are these exercise great for learning how to move parts independently from others, they strengthen the small muscles and aid in warming up a cool body. If you’re looking to start warming up slowly, then isolations involving the delicate muscles of the neck, torso, waist, wrists, ankles, and metatarsals should be welcomed additions to your routine. There’s a reason why modern dancers do roll-downs in their warm-up and why people foam roll before class. Gently but dynamically warming up the body prepares the mind and body while giving up a one up on the people who’ve just been sitting around before class starts.
You’ll also be more alert from the get-go, meaning you can retain more valuable input from the instructor.
4. Drink plenty of hydrating fluids.
Athletes need to rehydrate themselves more than the average individual. Yes, dancers are athletes and should consider themselves just as hard working in their training as Olympians. Dehydration leads to exhausted muscles and uncoordinated movements. Your muscles will get sore more quickly, and your ligaments and tendons won’t want to stretch to their full capacity. Chances are that recalling choreography will become a task within itself—for both your brain and body.
When I first starting improvising, I didn’t know what to expect. My original presumption was that ‘dance improvisation’ was merely moving on a whim. No premeditated thinking required. I could not have been any farther from the bull’s eye. Even if it’s just 5 minutes of your time, improvisation can open your mind up to new movement possibilities and unique transitions. You can find your habits, break through barriers, and learn how to move with more functionality. Twyla Tharp does it. Anna Halprin, Steve Paxton, Nancy Stark Smith, Simone Forti, and Ann Cooper Alright are all fascinating movers in the Contact Improvisation and Improvisational Dance arena. Each of them report experiences with the liminal state, where your mind and body are one and you move with total awareness of space and time and universe. Many a great modern choreographers and companies are utilizing the power of improvisation to enhance their repertoire.
No matter how dance enriches your life, taking care of yourself is a must. Even if you don’t consider yourself a dancer, treating your body as a home is important to your physical and mental wellness. By cherishing the skin you are in and all of your unique quirks is what makes you stand out from the crowd. After all, the greatest performers are not the ones with the best technique but with the most heart passion–and your health plays a humongous role in how you display it.