by Alessa Rogers
That is what people think of when they think of ballet. And that is what we strive to be, with our tutus and tiaras and sweat and…wait what? Yes, dancers sweat, and we also curse sometimes too. Ballet is hard work after all!
But–back to effortless grace.
Yes, that is what we are. At least- that is–until halfway through Tharp’s In the Upper Room or maybe David Parson’s Caught or the Don Quixote third act pas de deux, when we are gasping for air like a fish out of water, with a variation and a coda left to go (and don’t forget those pesky bows that are next to impossible after a three hour long ballet).
No one wants to be that dancer that is visibly out of breath and increasingly out of control, making the audience worry if they need to call a doctor. But dancers for the most part tend to forget about stamina, focusing instead on technique and shape and choreography and musicality–and even injury prevention. These are all very important to consider, of course, but if a dancer is too exhausted to get through a piece then technique just isn’t going to be useful. Actually, as a dancer gets more tired, technique gets sloppy, choreography becomes harder to learn, and it’s definitely the time when injuries happen.
So a few years ago I set out to consciously improve my stamina. It was mostly out of necessity; a high-profile world premiere was looming where I would be onstage for all but four minutes of the entire full-length, no intermissions, ballet (and those off-stage minutes were for stressful costume changes!). A lot of the work was running and jumping. The first time I ran through the full ballet in the studio I went home and passed out at about 7 o’clock. I knew I had to get myself in shape.
Wouldn’t it be nice if dancers had trainers the way professional sports stars and Olympics athletes do–with scientists, analysts, nutritionists and trainers at our disposal? But we don’t. We only have ourselves, and our acute sensitivity to our bodies, to decide what works for us individually and what doesn’t. We have only ourselves to maintain accountability, to customize a plan that works for us and turn our bodies into fine-tuned machines.
Fast forward a few years and I’d say my stamina is now one of my strengths as a dancer. Other dancers often note how when they are bent over and panting I am still standing up and smiling. None of what I do now is scientifically proven–but they are the practices I’ve discovered that work for me.
See for yourself if some of these work for you:
1) Breath Control. This is probably my very most useful discovery. When your heart is beating so hard that you can practically see it beating through your chest and you’re breathing so heavily the audience can hear you, it can seem unfathomable that you still have more dancing left to do. What I do when this happens is I consciously slow my breathing down.
Even though you might be panting, nearly gasping for air, just force yourself to slow it down. Take a long slow inhale. Pause at the top of your breath and hold it in for a second or two. Exhale a long slow exhale through a slightly open mouth. Exhaling through your mouth will release some heat from the body. The longer you can make your inhales and exhales the better. It may be uncomfortable at first because your body is demanding oxygen. But after I take three breaths like this I almost always have managed to slow my breathing back down to a manageable rate and as a result, I feel less tired. Plus the deeper, fuller breaths seem to make my muscles cramp less than when I take shallow, quick breaths.
Find places to breathe deeply in each variation or piece that you are in. Of course it is all relative, but there are moments of stillness in every ballet if you just search for and identify where they are. In these moments, see if you can conserve a little bit of your energy. It doesn’t mean you are lazy or not giving your very best. On the contrary, it means you are being a smart, aware dancer who is pacing herself or himself and making conscious choices about dynamics within the piece.
Like anything, this breath work might not come in one day. It’s like a muscle you have to train. Yoga can help you learn more about deep breath work. Becoming aware of the way you breathe, even in class, will help your stamina. Pay attention to it and make it a priority as much as you pay attention to your port de bras. This is something you have to improve at. And you will.
2) Don’t Sit Down. When you are exhausted you will naturally want to fall into a heap as soon as you get off-stage. When Atlanta Ballet performed Alexei Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas there were sheets in the wings for that very reason. But try not to.
Training yourself to keep standing up during class and rehearsals will help you build stamina because you won’t ever let yourself be lulled into a state of relaxation. It’s an addictive place to be and once you sit down you’re not going to want to get back up. I almost never sit down the entire day when I’m at work–it’s so much harder to come back from a break when you’ve been sitting! I’ll save that for when my day is done and I can truly relax.
3) Practice when you’re tired. After you rehearse something, keep moving. It will keep your heart rate up and it will train you to be capable of vigorous activity for longer and longer periods of time. Keep jumping, jog around the studio or do jumping jacks. And, as stated above, remember not to sit down.
Don’t give your body the luxury of thinking that its job is done and that it can shut down. If you follow up your variation with ten jumping jacks, then the next time do twelve, then twenty–your heart, lungs and legs will have that much more stamina when you make it to the stage. But of course, the best training for stamina in ballet is the particular ballet itself. I know some dancers who do their variations twice in a row- the first time full-out and pushing, the second time a little under but every time gaining more endurance. Just make sure you are smart about which parts you are marking, especially if you have a partner. Never mark runs because if you throw that away in the studio it’s going to feel like a struggle on stage.
4) Don’t Tell Yourself You’re Tired. Dancers are mentally strong enough to put up with physical pain, high stress and demanding choreographers. Training our minds not to be tired is just one more form of cerebral fortitude we must practice in order to improve our endurance. We learn by repetition and habit so if you find yourself complaining often about being tired–sometimes even before you’ve done much that day–(and you don’t have a medical condition) you might be convincing yourself that you are more tired than you really are. Some days, yes, you really will get home from the studio and be so exhausted you fall asleep on the floor with a half eaten piece of pizza still in your hand. But that’s rare. Ballet is in short spurts–most of what we do is hard work for a few minutes and then we get a few minutes to breathe.
Don’t train your mind to immediately react to dancing and vigorous activity with being tired. It’s easy to say, “I’m tired”. It’s an excuse, it makes us feel important like we worked hard, and, hey, everyone else is saying it after all. But it’s even more strengthening and encouraging to say “I’m not tired, I can do this again.” Train yourself to have an attitude of energy, and don’t revert to a habit of exhaustion.
I know I am a big proponent of mind over matter. That being said, I also know when to slow down and take care of my body. I do mark things when appropriate. I hold theater week as sacred time so during those weeks I don’t exert myself too much outside of the theater with social activities or high energy events. Treating my body very well with baths, massages and icing or heating is very important. Be grateful to your body for everything you put it through.
5) Don’t try to impress people. I know the first time I do a studio run of a new ballet I usually get nervous. It’s the first time everything will be put together. The rest of the company might be seeing what I’ve been rehearsing in other studios for the first time and everyone is close-up. Sometimes important people like directors or choreographers are watching. But panicking about making mistakes or not getting through the ballet makes your heart race faster.
When I am nervous I forget to breathe and then I get tired and I do worse. It’s best to take a few long, slow breaths somewhere quiet before an audition or a show to get settled and get your breath in the right place. Then just trust yourself. Sometimes it helps me to dedicate my performance to someone who definitely does not make me nervous–maybe it’s a little girl in the front row that I don’t even know, or someone who loves me unconditionally, or even just to myself. Hey it could even be your dog!
6) Diet and Cross-Training
Most searches for improving stamina pay a lot of attention to things like diet and cross-training. That’s fine for some but I don’t like to diet and I don’t really like to exercise either. But I didn’t want to leave it out because it works for some people. Low-impact cardio like elliptical, stationary bike, swimming and interval training are favorites among some dancers who want to supplement their physical fitness.
A lot of people gravitate towards sugary energy drinks and chews for a boost of energy. But what I want is long-term endurance that I can always depend on. I’ve figured out over the course of many years what does work for me. For the ballet that got me started on this stamina thing I would absolutely depend on green smoothies before and after every single run. They are so hydrating and full of vitamins. I love to eat chia seeds (soaked in almond milk with honey, dates and raw cacao powder) a few hours before a show. They are an amazing little food, high in protein and other nutrients, and Aztec warriors used to eat them before going on hundred mile runs. That’s stamina! I also always bring pineapple juice to drink during intermission (with ginger to help with inflammation).
I do tend to eat lightly on show days; lots of small meals like smoothies and fruit or sprouted grain toast with nut butter so that I don’t feel heavy or sluggish. After a show I’ll have a more substantial meal like quinoa with roasted sweet potatoes and avocado. I want to make sure I have enough calories to keep me energized so show time is not the time to diet. I’ve spent a long time researching and being attuned to my body to figure out the fuel that makes me operate best. However it’s going to be different for everyone- some dancers I know absolutely have to have a steak after a show–but I’ve been a vegetarian since I was nine so that doesn’t work for me. You know your body best. Be honest with yourself and find out what works for you. Experiment. Make adjustments. Do this well before shows though. You can’t decide on opening night to try out a new diet and hope it’s going to work.
I drink a lot of water in general. However, sometimes during a show you just don’t have time to drink water, or it can be distracting. Still, I put water bottles on either side of stage just to have the option. Remember heavy costumes and stage lights are going to make you sweat more so hydrate before and after the show even if you can’t always during it.
Atlanta Ballet nutritionist Emily Cook Harrison, RD says a common problem for dancers is loading up on protein shakes at the expense of eating complex carbs. This can contribute to feeling tired. She also recommends ergogenic aids like beet juice that are popular with endurance athletes–and there are studies that have proved its efficacy. (Plus I’ve found beet juice doubles as an excellent natural lipstick!)
So there you have it! A few of my tools for improving stamina. Hopefully you can incorporate some of these into your dancing life. But as always, try to figure out some others that work for you, and share if you do!
Contributor Alessa Rogers began her dance training with Daphne Kendall and left home at fourteen to attend the North Carolina School of the Arts. Upon graduation she spent one season with North Carolina Dance Theatre II before joining Atlanta Ballet where she has been for the past eight years.
Favorite roles at Atlanta Ballet include Juliette in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Romeo et Juliette, Margaret in the world premiere of Helen Pickett’s The Exiled, Lucy in Michael Pink’s Dracula, Ophelia in Stephen Mills’ Hamlet, Lover Girl in David Bintley’s Carmina Burana, and Princess Irene in the world premiere of Twyla Tharp’s The Princess and the Goblin.
She has performed works by Jorma Elo, Wayne McGregor, Ohad Naharin, Christopher Wheeldon, Christopher Hampson, Dwight Rhoden and Tara Lee. She has been a guest artist with the National Choreographers Initiative in California and Terpsicorps Theatre of Dance in Asheville, N.C.
In her spare time she likes to read, write, cook vegetables, meditate, travel and rock climb.