Are you feeling like you are in the twilight of your ballet career? Are you barely hanging onto your dancing ability as you struggle to play the same game you did when you were younger…except now you are exhausted and don’t know how much longer you can last attempting to keep up with the younger generation? Well guess what – as a "seasoned professional" you shouldn’t be trying to play the same game as them anyway. You can definitely play on the same field…but you have to change your strategy.
You see, two things happen as you age just as a natural pattern of life:
- Your emotional/mental depth improves (provided you are open to experiences & learning!).
- Your physical body deteriorates.
It’s a terrible tragedy for dancers – the more you mature as an artist through your mental and emotional development, the less capable your body is of handling the physical demands of your art. And if you brutalize your body in your younger years (as many of us do!) in your efforts to be “good enough,” you only accelerate this aging process. After a certain point, besides losing your tolerance to withstand the pain, your physical body actually starts to break from all the abuse and disregard for its natural limits.
Plus, after decades of following the same routine, you just can’t maintain the training required to keep yourself in shape anymore. The hours and hours of dancing/exercising 7 days-a-week just become too much to handle. Feeling this sinking sensation of not being able to keep yourself in your prime, you can feel pushed out of your career before you are ready; before you realize your full artistry; before you are able to apply the mental & emotional depth you are just now beginning to grasp.
But instead of this seemingly inevitable decline, wouldn’t it be great if your physical performance could improve right along with your mental and emotional maturity as you age?
Guess what? It totally can…but not by using the same old (pun intended😉) tricks you are used to. You have to allow yourself to evolve from training methods that used to work in your past. As your body ages, it changes. And, you have to adjust your training to accommodate that:
How to Train for the Long Game
- Train in a way that preserves your body.
I’m often asked why I do my particular Bulletproof Ballerina method of cross-training instead of boot camps, CrossFit, cardio, or other styles. Could you do those other methods of cross-training and get results that benefit your dancing? Sure. There are tons of ways to improve your fitness levels. But, the real question is whether the damage you incur will be worth the payoff. Remember, exercise is a stress on your body. It carries consequences…both positive and negative. As a dancer who is already so rough on your body, you want to choose a cross-training method that minimizes those destructive consequences.
- Prioritize Recovery.
As you start feeling your dance technique and ability slip away with your youth, you are tempted to train more. You feel your slow decline creeping up on you and start to panic. Your old tricks aren’t working anymore…so you must need to do more to stay on top of your game. So you try to cram in more ballet classes, more cross-training, more cardio, more exercises into your routine until you have no more time (or energy) left in the day. Ironically, this is exactly the opposite of what you need to do. As you age in the dance world, as hard as this may be to believe and follow through on, you actually need to do less. The older you get, the longer it takes your body to recover from physically demanding activities. And if you don’t give it this time to recover, that’s when you start to feel even more worn down and broken. And you become unable to access your full power when your body is constantly under-recovered.
That being said, if you train less frequently, when you do train…you have to make it count. That means it has to be intense enough to cause a significant stimulus for your body to react and adapt to. Training less doesn’t mean you randomly cut back on activities and lounge around more. It means you have to be selective about the cross-training you do to ensure you minimize the repetitive wear and tear on your body while maximizing the intensity. No more two hour cardio classes at the gym. Get in and get out in a half an hour. But those 30 minutes need to be HARD. Then, you can spend more time on active recovery – self-massage, rolling, trigger-point therapy, ice/heat therapy, etc.
When asked what I do to stay in shape at this point in my career, my answer is always the same: “The older I get, the less and less I do.” It’s a hard concept to accept when you’ve spent so much time fine tuning your body your whole life. You will second (and triple and quadruple) guess yourself. And it will seem scary. But this is one of those things where you just have to do it – experiment and observe the results. Listen to your body & trust the signs it gives you…rather than listening to your hard-driving demons in a panic telling you to do more.
I’ll leave you with this analogy: When first learning to swim, you expend a lot of energy just trying not to drown. You flail about with rapid movements and nonstop action to keep your head above the water. But once you become more experienced, you begin to relax. The less you move about, the easier it is and the less energy you have to expend to stay afloat. In fact, it barely takes any effort at all to tread water. This allows you to conserve your energy for your sprint across the lake.
Likewise, with your ballet training as you age and gain experience in your field you want to conserve your energy for when you are on stage or rehearsing. You can’t afford to waste an ounce on things that aren’t actively improving your dancing. So, get rid of the panicked flailing, focus your training on what really matters, and trust your body to get the job done when needed.
Emotional & mental maturity can be priceless assets to an artist. But, you can’t get that far in your career if your body falls apart first. When training for the long-game…you have to preserve your body and prioritize recovery. Meaning – you have to train differently. Change the strategy...but don't get off the playing field.
Photo credit: Estilo Antunes