That time of year is approaching, and as a dancer, you either love it or hate it. Personally, I never get sick of The Nutcracker. Every season I dance the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy, it’s like putting on a cozy, worn-in pair of sweats. The more broken-in it gets, the comfier it feels. It never gets stale or old; it just molds to my body better and becomes more and more my own. I must have done this role more than 150 times…and that’s low-balling it. It might seem hard to keep something like that fresh, but for me, the more relaxed I get with it, the more my true art is revealed. Sure, I get the occasional neurotic twitch when I hear the Tchaikovsky music in department stores during holiday shopping. But, for the most part, I love this time of year!
Regardless of how you feel about The Nutcracker, let’s face it; it’s a huge portion of your yearly income as a dancer. So, even if it’s not your favorite ballet, you find yourself performing it over and over and over…and over again. So, let’s make things more comfortable for you, shall we?
I remember my first few seasons dancing the Grand Pas de Deux. Yes, I remember quite vividly feeling like I was about to collapse in the wings after my variation, gasping for air with my feet numb and cramping…and dreading going back out there to do the coda. You gotta love that exquisite pain, pressure, burning, breathlessness, fear, panic, and exhaustion. The Nutcracker Grand Pas is such a grueling sequence to get through. While no amount of preparation will ever make it easy, there are certain ways to prepare for it that will prevent you from gassing out mid-manèges.
Stamina (noun): staying power, perseverance, endurance, fortitude, tirelessness, tenacity, grit
It’s no doubt that you need a solid dose of stamina to improve your Sugar Plum game. But, what might surprise you is where that stamina comes from. All you know is that your heart is racing, you’re out of breath, and your muscles are burning. The first thing that pops into your mind is that you need cardio, right? Well, there’s more to it than that. We’ve all been told from an early age that we need to do cardio for fat loss, that it’s good for your heart and lungs, and a necessary part of your exercise routine. It turns out that there are a lot of misconceptions surrounding cardio. And, there are other tools you can use that will build your stamina more efficiently (and with less of a physical toll on your body) than jumping on the treadmill for an hour every day.
Here’s the dirty little secret behind this stamina struggle – it comes from a lack of strength. It’s not necessarily that you don’t have the cardio capacity to make it through the long run, but it’s that your muscles don’t have enough strength to carry you through the adagio, variation, and coda. Without the required muscular power, your body will be forced to use everything it has to get the job done, leaving you feeling wasted, rung out, and incapable of using your full facility because you are just in survival mode. Forget about nuances. Forget about artistic expression. Forget about flow. Forget about getting swept up in your art. You’re going to be gasping for air and fighting for your life! Your problem isn’t stamina; it’s weakness.
Now, this isn’t to say that cardio training is useless. The cost (physical toll on your body) is just usually higher than the actual benefit. That being said, there are some important factors about cardio that need to be understood when deciding whether to incorporate it into your cross-training routine.
- How your Body Improves from Cardio – Despite what you may have been told, your heart and lungs do not actually benefit much from cardio. The reason you have this perceived notion is because the rest of your body becomes more proficient. After a few weeks of “practicing” your cardio exercise, your muscles become stronger at doing that activity, and your circulatory system adapts to transport oxygen and chemicals more efficiently. As a result, your heart and lungs have to work less hard to pump blood and oxygen to your working muscles. As you can see, your body can still get stronger from doing cardio. In fact, your body is enhanced based on the same supercompensation model that creates positive changes in any type of training – challenge the body past its norm, and it will adapt to the challenge and build back stronger. But, the problem with cardio training is that it gets harder and harder to continue challenging the body after a certain point. In order to keep getting better, you must keep doing more to challenge yourself. And, the more in shape you are…the more difficult it is to challenge yourself. Once that mile run becomes easy, it’s not really giving you much benefit. So, you have to keep running longer distances or faster times to continue challenging yourself. Otherwise, you’re just spinning your wheels and wasting valuable energy. At a certain point, it just becomes unrealistic to keep spending longer times and more intensity biking, running, swimming, or whatever. In the end, the physical benefit you get from the cardio is nowhere near equal to the effort you have to put into it.
- Burning Calories – Related to what we just talked about above, the way most people do cardio (reading a magazine or watching Game of Thrones on the treadmill or bike) is not burning anywhere near the amount of calories you may think. One Pumpkin Spice Latte will totally offset the hour you just spent jogging. And, like we just said, the better in-shape you get, the harder it is to burn calories with cardio because your body just gets better at doing its job and doesn’t have to work as hard. Also, cardio tends to make you hungrier. And since you have this perception that you just burned so many calories in your workout because you put the allotted time in, you tend to over-consume post-exercise. So, from a fat loss perspective, you would have been better off spending the evening relaxing on the couch watching Game of Thrones rather than forcing yourself through the cardio workout.
- Wear and Tear – As a dancer, you already spend too much time breaking down your body. Cardio tends to be a lot of pounding and repetitive motion on the joints, wearing down the connective tissue, cartilage, and synovial fluids that cushion them. Plus, with so much of your life already spent exercising just with class requirements and rehearsals, you probably find it hard (and exhausting!) to squeeze extra cardio into your routine. Let’s face it, at the end of a long day of grueling rehearsals, the last thing in the world you are going to want to do is jump on the treadmill and give an all-out effort for a 5-mile run. If anything, you are only going to be able to mush through at a slow pace while you let your mind drift. At best, this “exercise” ends up being a waste of your time. At worst, it creates unnecessary stress, strain, and hormonal damage on your body. When you’re younger, you might be able to maintain this pace for a while. But as you become more seasoned, your time and the mortality of your physical body start to become more precious, and you are not going to tolerate this unnecessary wear and tear.
So, how do you solve this cross-training dilemma so that you can really enhance your Nutcracker season? Focus on STRENGTH; and focus on building it the right way. Change doesn’t happen overnight, and you can’t rush the process. As a dancer going into performance mode, you have to be particularly careful of the recovery phase. Don’t be tempted to skip this essential ingredient or you will find yourself in a worse predicament than when you started (trust me – I’ve learned my lesson here many times). The Bulletproof Ballerina workouts are designed with all of this in mind. The blueprint involves twice-a-week strength training sessions that are short but intense. With this fulfilling your cross-training requirement and need for extra classes, the rest of your time is spent recovering and doing what you love – dancing.
This season when your Sugar Plum needs a little boost, consider adding a little strength training to the mix, and see how far that takes you. Adding strength to your body will allow you to relax into your art instead of trying to squeeze and force things with every ounce of effort you have available to you. It's what will allow you to focus on expressing your art and give yourself over to your role.