(photo by Jayme Thornton)
I have good technique, but I carry a lot of tension in my wrists and hands—they look like claws! How can I fix them?
This is such a common problem. At the School of American Ballet, we were taught to separate all five fingers, so we didn’t look like mannequins. To achieve that look without getting into claw territory, pretend you’re gently cradling a golf ball in the palm of your hand. If you imagine holding anything bigger (a softball, an orange), your fingers will tense up. Aim for a subtle, soft roundness—which will help with wrist tension, too.
Also, make sure your hand always follows your arm, rather than the other way around. For example, when moving from second position to bras bas, the elbow should lead the way, followed by the wrist and hand. That prevents stiff “Barbie arms.” Maintaining a sense of resistance in your port de bras—as though your arms are moving through water—will help those transitions happen naturally.
I love dancing, but it’s such a huge time commitment, and I’m always canceling on my non-dance friends. Is it worth missing things like prom for dance? Am I going to have regrets?
Sacrificing “normal” high school experiences is a problem every serious dancer faces. And we all react differently when asked to choose between our dance lives and our non-dance lives.
If you’re feeling bad about missing football games and dances, that’s OK! In fact, evaluating those feelings can help you figure out if you want to pursue dance professionally. As a professional, you’ll constantly be expected to give up “normal” experiences for your job. Your life will revolve around dance; your social life will center on rehearsals and performances with your colleagues.
If you decide that’s not what you want, you’ve learned something valuable about yourself. And if you decide that is what you want, you’ve learned something just as valuable. The most important thing is that you’re happy and fulfilled in the path you ultimately take.
For what it’s worth, I don’t regret any of it. I always wanted to be in class or rehearsal—I’d have been far more worried if I’d had to miss class to attend prom! Most of my best friends were dancers, so I didn’t feel like I was missing all that much. Whenever I’d get a little pang of doubt, I’d work on reframing my thinking. For example, I may not have gone to “official” prom, but my version of prom was wearing a tutu onstage with New York City Ballet. Not too shabby!
I’m almost six feet tall (6' 6" on pointe)! I’m frustrated—I’m put in the back of every group, and none of the guys are tall enough to partner me. Do I have a future in ballet?
Oh, what many dancers wouldn’t give for an extra few inches of leg! I’m sure you look stunning onstage. But I know this is a “grass is always greener” situation, and I understand that being a tall dancer can pose problems, too.
I definitely think you have a future in ballet. Companies tend to look at technique and artistry first, and then worry about height. My advice would be to seek out companies that already have taller dancers—companies you know will have no qualms about taking a beautiful Amazon. Many European groups have very tall women, and Pacific Northwest Ballet and The Joffrey Ballet have lots of leggy dancers, too.
The most important thing you can do right now is “dance your height.” Don’t try to shrink yourself; slouching and slumping are never pretty. If you stand tall, the audience will be drawn to you—and company directors will be, too. Be proud of those legs!
I think I'm ready to move up a level—my dance classes aren't challenging me. But how can I talk to my teacher about that? I'm nervous.
Good for you for taking your training into your own hands! But I understand your anxiety—these situations can be delicate. I'd suggest approaching your teacher in a way that puts this all squarely on you. You could say, “My dancing isn't improving the way I want it to, and I feel as though I need to challenge myself more. Would it be possible for me to take a class or two in a higher level?" That'll carry more weight with your teacher than anything that implies blame—“You're not challenging me" or “The classes aren't hard enough." If you show your teacher that you're ambitious and self-motivated, odds are good that she'll be willing to give you a shot at a higher level.
Sauts de chat are so much fun, but I can't get the same height in my grands jetés. What's the secret?
Grand jeté and saut de chat may look similar in the air, but the grand jeté takeoff is completely different than the saut de chat takeoff. First, make sure you're really using your plié. Push hard off the back leg, which will help launch your body into the air. Then, think about getting the front leg to 90 degrees as quickly as you can. A lot of dancers are slow getting that leg up, which keeps them from achieving good height at the apex of the jump. You should essentially initiate your jeté with a high grand battement.
The other grand jeté secret is to think “out," not “up." Sauts de chat go “up" thanks to the rapid développé of the front leg, which gives them their distinctive pop. But because you brush rather than développé your front leg in grand jeté, you have to think about moving “out" over that leg to be able to achieve a full split in the air. Yes, you want height, but you also want to travel!
I have a bad stress fracture in one of my metatarsals, and the doctor says the only way to heal it is to stop dancing for at least a month. I can't imagine doing that! Do I need to give up dance cold turkey? What can I do to keep up my technique?
Injuries are the most frustrating things in the world—especially ones you can't do anything about. But if your doctor says you need to rest, you must rest. It's the only way you'll heal. Difficult as it is, put your time away from dance in context by thinking of your career long-term. If you don't stop now, you could be setting yourself up for a much more serious injury in the future.
You may not be able to dance, but there are still physical activities that don't put any pressure on that injured foot, and they'll help you stay in tune with your body. Swimming, Pilates mat work and arm exercises could be great options for you. (I swore by Pilates every time I was injured.) If you keep your muscles and joints strong and stretched, you'll find that once you're allowed to return to the studio, you'll be able regain your technique relatively quickly.
My parents have been supportive of my dancing through high school, but now I want to audition for professional companies, and they just don't understand. They want me to apply to colleges—they don't see dance as a "real" career. How can I convince them that this is what I'm meant to do?
One of the things that many dancers struggle with is convincing people, especially parents, that dance is a real job. My advice would be to approach this as an adult. I would sit them down and calmly, rationally, explain to them that this is your dream. You could even do some research about different companies, dancer salaries and so on, and create a little presentation. Not only will that better explain ballet as a career to them, but it'll also show them how serious you are about it. If they see the time and effort you put in to even explaining your dream to them, then they might start to see how much this means to you. Another thing you can do is talk to your teacher. Maybe he or she can have a meeting with your parents about career paths. That way you add a third party into the mix. They might be more willing to listen then. Hang on to your dream!
I'm constantly eating, and I like the way my body looks, but my doctor says I'm underweight. She's worried because I'm 18 and still haven't gotten my period. Is there a healthy way to gain a little weight? And if I do, will it throw off my dancing?
Not to worry! You can absolutely gain weight the healthy way. And if you do it correctly, it won't throw off your dancing. If anything, it can help you get stronger. Start by focusing on gaining muscle. I'm not a nutritionist, but try eating foods that can help your body weight go up without gaining “bad" fat. Focus on higher-calorie whole foods like nuts and nut butters, lean meats, olive oil, etc., that have a lot of good fats. These will give you energy and help your health, as well. You don't need to eat sugars and junk food. I would also cut back on any type of cardio (which tends to burn fat) and start doing Pilates, yoga or any muscle-building exercises. Getting your period is crucial to your health, so gaining weight might be necessary. But don't worry—it will probably make you an even better dancer.
I can't turn, and it's TERRIBLE. I've tried all the usual tricks—holding my core, making sure my spotting is strong, etc.—but nothing's helped. At this point, I feel like I have a mental block that's keeping me from “getting" pirouettes. How can I find my inner turner?
I am so sorry you're struggling with your turns! But you're not alone. The first thing to remember is that turning is 90 percent mental. Once you can get over that hurdle, your turns will improve. Start with some positive thinking. The worst that can happen is that you just don't get around. It's OK! You'll get there. So, start by saying “I only have to go up, turn twice and come down." I had a teacher at School of American Ballet who used to say “Don't panic. Just plié." And he was right! The other thing that can help is counting backwards. If you're doing a double, say in your head “two, one, down" as you turn. This tells your brain that you're going to do two instead of that you'll maybe do two. Also be sure to actually finish. I think people anticipate the landing so much that they end up doing only one and a half turns. Let yourself finish the turn, and then come down. Just keep practicing!
(photo by Jayme Thornton)
My extensions are totally uneven. I’m great to the front and side with my right leg, but can barely reach 90 degrees in arabesque, and my left leg is strong in arabesque but weak to the front and side. What can I do to balance myself out?
I had exactly the same problem—in fact, almost every dancer does! Most people are naturally a little lopsided. The solution is to develop both your flexibility and your strength. For your arabesque, focus on working the large muscles in your back, which will help you support every inch of the height you do have in arabesque. Odds are good that your left hip is tighter than it should be, too, which can limit your range of
motion to the back on the right side. Use a tennis ball or foam roller to loosen up that left hip joint, and you might find that your arabesque rises an inch or two.
Opposition is equally important when it comes to front and side extensions. So, to improve your leg height to the front and side on the left, work on strengthening your right leg and hip, and stretching and rolling out your left hamstring.
I’ve found that Pilates is especially great for the kind of back and hip strengthening that benefits extension. Explain the issues you’re having to your Pilates teacher, and ask if she can create a customized set of exercises for you. You also might want to have a teacher or physical therapist look at your alignment, to make sure there aren’t larger technical or physical issues to blame for your unevenness.
I go to the same high school as two girls from my dance studio. They’re really friendly with me in dance class, but at school, they’re completely different—they either ignore me or make fun of me. It’s so confusing and upsetting. How can I deal with their two-faced behavior?
Even good friendships can be complicated, but it sounds like these girls aren’t true friends. I’d suggest dealing with them carefully. Always be friendly and polite, but don’t waste energy trying to understand their motives. Think of them as acquaintances, not allies. If their cattiness starts to bleed into your studio relationship, and they try to gossip with you about other girls in dance class, don’t engage with them.
Hard as it is, try not to take their nastiness personally. Two-faced people are usually very insecure. Frequently their negativity stems from jealousy, or from a need to put others down to make themselves feel better. Stand tall and be proud of who you are.
Even after a big growth spurt last year, I’m still barely 5 feet tall. I hate being short! My arms and legs look so stumpy. Is there any hope for me in the professional dance world?
I’m guessing you know the names Maria Kochetkova, Alina Cojocaru and Iana Salenko, right? All three of them are gorgeous, successful professional dancers—and all three of them are tiny! But they don’t let their height limit them. They dance tall, moving expansively and projecting upwards and outwards.
Use them as your inspiration. Make everything bigger, all the time. Stretch your limbs to the fullest. Instead of breaking your wrists or winging too much at your ankles, focus on creating continuous lines, which will help your arms and legs look longer.
Practically speaking, being shorter isn’t a bad thing. Sometimes it’s even an advantage. Finding a partner, for example, will never be an issue for you. And you’re probably great at lightning-speed choreography—the smaller you are, the easier it is to move quickly. There’s definitely hope for you in the dance world!
(photo by Jayme Thornton)
Former New York City Ballet soloist Kathryn Morgan answers your pressing dance questions.
I’m going to my first summer intensive this year, and I can’t wait! But I’m also really, really nervous. I’ve never lived away from home, and I’m not sure how I’ll measure up against the other dancers. What advice do you have about how to succeed at a summer program?
Summer courses are such great opportunities to improve your training. But it’s normal to be nervous—you certainly aren’t alone!
First, don’t let the scale of your summer program overwhelm you. Take things one day at a time. Rather than worrying about your jam-packed class schedule or getting intimidated by all the other dancers at the intensive, focus on your own progress in each individual class. Make an effort to live in the moment.
Be proactive about making friends, too. Many dancers are naturally shy, but if you keep to yourself, it’ll be a long, lonely summer. And you have so much in common with the other students! They have the same goals and dreams that you do, and you’re all in this crazy summer experience together. Be each other’s sounding boards. It’s nice to have people to talk to about your classes and the things you find challenging each day.
Finally, be memorable in a good way. Make an effort to absorb everything. Every class, every teacher, every correction (even the ones given to others)—take it all in. There will be days when you’re frustrated, but work to maintain a positive attitude, and always show respect for your instructors. Teachers correct you because they want to help you. Let them! Be the dancer they remember as ready, willing and eager. You never know what doors they might open for you down the road.
My older sister is also a dancer, and we train at the same studio. Sometimes it’s great,
but it can also be awful. The teachers like her better than me, and she knows it. It feels like we’re competing with each other all the time. I don’t know how much longer I can deal with the pressure. What should I do?
That kind of direct comparison can be difficult to handle—it feels so personal. But remember, you and your sister are not the same person. You have your own special qualities!
Clichéd as it sounds, the key here is to focus on what you need to do to get better and stronger. As a professional, you’ll constantly be up against many other dancers, so it’s actually good that you’re being forced to learn how to depend on yourself. Figuring out how to cope with sibling rivalry now will give you the tools you need to handle the pressures of competition throughout your career.
If you feel like your teachers’ focus on your sister is hurting your training, set up a formal meeting with them. Ask about specific things you can do to improve. And it might be worth getting your parents involved in the discussion. They know you and your sister inside and out, so they understand the dynamics of your relationship better than anyone.
I have the world’s ugliest bunions. They make pointework incredibly painful! Is there anything I can do to make them go away? And if not, what’s the best way to cope?
Ugh—I know from experience how painful bunions can be. The most important thing is to make sure your pointe shoes fit. Shoes that are too small or too big can irritate bunions, so getting refitted is a good idea.
That said, bunions usually begin to form because of the way your toes are squeezed in your shoes—even shoes that fit properly. While you’re dancing, try using toe spacers between your first and second toes to counteract some of that pressure. At night, wear five-toed pedicure spacers while you’re watching TV or doing your homework to stretch out your feet. (Even if you don’t have bunions, they feel so good.)
Take bunions seriously, because severe ones can be crippling. If the problem continues or worsens, talk to a podiatrist.