This post might be a little late for some dancers who have been lucky enough to get back into the studio for class and rehearsals already. For others, myself included, we are still awaiting the day we will be able to squeeze into our pointe shoes, feel real Marley & a sprung floor under our feet, and have enough space to actually MOVE! So wherever you are, I hope this helps with your transition back to your peak performance condition.
Every dancer is going to be in a very different place, physically & emotionally, once allowed back into the studio depending on what you’ve been doing over these last 7 months of quarantine, your age, and how well you’ve been taking care of yourself (including sleep, nutrition, & stress management).
Some dancers have been able to slow down, relax, heal, explore. They've had lots of free time to take care of themselves, address issues they've been meaning to deal with, and experiment with new projects and hobbies to fill their creative void. Their main complaint during this quarantine time has been boredom. They might be dying to get back into dancing but maybe don't feel too confident in their technique or body after all this time.
Some dancers have been able to focus even more on dancing than usual without other work or obligations to distract them. With all the online class options available, they’ve thrown themselves into as many classes as possible each day. They have dealt with the "guilt" of not being able to take their regular daily class by doing it anyway...multiplied by 10. Their own little personal square of Marley in the kitchen has been beat up & worn out in the process...along with their bodies. They might be walking back into the studio with little niggling repetitive wear-and-tear issues from doing too much dancing already.
And some dancers have been in straight survival mode as they've struggled to find work, adjust to ever-changing working conditions & restrictions, reformat businesses, suffer through unfair & undeserved consequences of this shutdown. Basically it's been 7 months of trying to survive financially while their livelihood and dreams -- everything they’ve worked so hard to build for years -- have been ripped out from under them. Not only has this been a real financial strain but perhaps an even worse emotional strain. They haven't had the luxury to keep up with their dance training while fighting for survival. Some have been barely able to take care of their body & health. After 7 months of dancing layoff, they may feel even more exhausted and drained than ever...although eager for an opportunity to rebuild.
The point is that everyone is in a very different situation right now. And the kiss of death is going to be treating things like there’s a one-size-fits-all answer for returning to the studio. The second you start looking at the girl next to you and how you measure up is when you set yourself up not only for disappointment but also injury. The most crucial step to transitioning back into the studio is going to involve putting on your blinders so you can really home in on what YOU need…instead of worrying about how you compare to the dancer next to you and trying to keep up with her.
Side note: This is why I work with dancers one-on-one as opposed to group classes. There is always this individuality component not only in terms of the specific things a dancer needs to work on to level up…but also the circumstances they are coming from & currently dealing with.
Yes we are all working on a similar goal of trying to get up on that stage and blow the audience away with our art. But the life of a freelancer struggling to support herself in a big city is going to look very different from a dancer living at home with her parents not needing to work a second or third or fourth job. Their resources are going to be different; their energy levels are going to be different; their needs are going to be different.
This is why you can't treat your peers as if we're all on an equal playing field...because we're not. That's not a bad thing - it's just reality. So comparing yourself to the girl next to you is useless and inaccurate.
That being said, in terms of going back into the studios and the issues we will face physically, we can group our main challenges into 3 categories – STRENGTH, ENDURANCE, and SKILL:
- STRENGTH - your capability for accomplishing tasks & how resilient your body is to physical stress
- ENDURANCE - your stamina and aerobic capacity
- SKILL - your neurological development & miniscule muscle control
And as we talked about above, depending on what your experience has been over these last several months, that is going to determine which of these factors you'll need to focus on going forward in order to get into performance condition.
- If you’ve been cross-training* during this pandemic (*dependent on the kind of cross-training - not all exercise yields the same results), you may be stronger or have more endurance going back to the studio, but your skill component might be a bit rusty. It’s going to be important that you don’t try to crank out your biggest range of motion or most extreme extensions right away. While you might be strong enough to force it, your joints and miniscule muscles and connective tissues probably aren’t used to that specific movement. Without that detailed, sports-specific control in your body, you’ll risk tweaking something if you push too hard too soon. Work into your extreme positions & technique gradually. DON'T FORCE THINGS JUST BECAUSE YOU FEEL STRONG ENOUGH. Give your body time to remember the skill-specific aspects of your dance training (especially since so much of ballet involves non-anatomical positions & miniscule muscles that you aren't used to using in everyday life).
- If you have been able to continue dance training via all the online class options over the past several months, you're going to have to be careful in a different way. Doing ballet on your little 4x4 section of Marley is going to be very different from moving across the floor in a giant studio. While your detailed muscle control and skills might feel primed for movement, you’re probably going to be lacking the strength and endurance components. So, it's going to be crucial that you pay attention to when you start to get fatigued & tired. You'll have to be disciplined with yourself to back off and stop pushing before you get too exhausted and lose muscle control. Your body is going to be really vulnerable when it gets tired, meaning you might not have the strength and endurance to protect your joints. So even though you may feel confident in your technique, every jump & battement will be putting your body at risk for injury. Give your body time to build back gradually over the weeks ahead. To get this point across to my hardcore dancers (you know who you are!), when your muscles get shaky & wobbly, you might not want to charge full-speed-ahead across the floor in that 4th Grand Allegro pass. Tell your demons to bag it, or you'll be on the sidelines for a few more months with an injury.
In other words, the next step is to take a realistic stock of where YOU are at. Then, keeping that in mind, you can start to build a plan for yourself (or ask for help from a professional to guide you in your individual situation). Here is an example of my personal prescription for returning to the studio - not as a template to copy but to show all the factors and considerations involved in this evaluation and planning:
Taking Stock of Where I'm At:
I've had a horrifically stressful time over these past several months. Needless to say, my dancing took a backseat to the other necessities I was dealing with (honestly - I did not take a single online class). It's also worthwhile to note that I am a "seasoned" professional...so my body isn't as resilient as a younger dancer's. Plus, I've been incredibly stressed and emotional - so I'm not going to be walking into the studio at the peak of my health & vibrancy.
Luckily, my Bulletproof Ballerina cross-training system is built for a situation like this. (I developed my workout system as a way to stay in dancing shape when I couldn’t take class.) So, during this quarantine time, I was able to do 1 or 2 BB workouts per week to manage my strength and endurance. Other than that, I listened to my body and what it needed - sometimes doing simple stretches, foot/ankle work, breath-work, yoga flow, or nothing at all.
My main concern returning to the studio and stage is going to be taking care of my joints when I start jumping and doing high impact work. I can’t really imitate that kind of work without a properly sprung floor at this point in my career, so I know I’m going to have to build up slowly once I get in a studio. My cross-training will ensure I have the strength and stamina to make it through a class and rehearsal, but I'm going to be patient with jumping to extremes and demanding my full range of motion for things. Otherwise, my joints (especially my knees & hips) will pay a pretty big price for my stubbornness. And that's just not worth it. If I want to dance as long as I can as well as I can, I have to play the long game and take care of my body first and foremost. That requires listening to my body and trusting the feedback it gives me...and then adjusting my work accordingly.
The key concept here is that we all have to focus on OURSELVES and what we need individually. This social media age is toxic in that it encourages us to look around at what other people are doing and follow along. Most dancers are super competitive already. So when you see what Suzy Q is doing, you automatically feel pressure to best that. But that’s the exact demon talk that takes you out of your body and causes you to neglect your actual needs. Ironically this takes you further from your goals.
When I coach dancers one-on-one, the main goal is to get them in their individual bodies. Dancers are really good at pushing their bodies…but very few of us respect our bodies. And that respect & understanding of our uniqueness is critical for peak performance.
Try this mindset - focus on optimizing and understanding how your body works. You can push your body in a healthy way without destroying it in the process. It’s the difference between an internal, constructive focus versus an external drive that causes you to disrespect your body and health in pursuit of ballet perfection. Not only will this mindset make your transition back to the studio more successful...but it will make things a lot more enjoyable, too.
So, let's recap. The three steps you are going to focus on for transitioning back into the studio & building back to your peak performance state are:
- PUT YOUR F*CKIN' BLINDERS ON.
- TAKE STOCK OF WHERE YOU ARE AT.
- CREATE A PLAN THAT MAKES SENSE FOR YOUR UNIQUE BODY & SITUATION.
Hoping to see you at the barre, on Marley, in an open, collaborative rehearsal space very very soon!