You turned out the light hours ago, but you're still tossing and turning in bed. Every time you're about to doze off, the corrections you got in class today pop into your mind—and just like that, you're wide awake again.
If you have trouble falling or staying asleep, and you often wake up feeling less than refreshed, you may have insomnia. And the reasons are often connected to your mental and emotional well-being, which means there are few quick fixes. But there are some things you can do to get the rest you need to dance your best.
School, dance classes, rehearsals, homework, family activities—a million things can push your daily wake-up time earlier and your bedtime later. You might feel like getting a good night’s sleep is an impossible dream. But you shouldn’t just accept sleep deprivation as a fact of life. Sleep is one of the things that keeps your body at its best.
“Over time, poor sleep can limit your ability to learn and concentrate,” says Lauri Leadley, a sleep technologist and president of Valley Sleep Center in Arizona. “You can forget important information, like homework or choreography. Lack of sleep can lead to aggressive or inappropriate behavior, like yelling at friends or family. It can also cause you to eat too much, contribute to acne problems and even lead to illness.”
It takes conscious effort to improve your sleep habits, but if you decide to sleep smart, you’ll find yourself not only feeling better, but also performing better.
Most sleep experts agree that teens need eight to nine hours of sleep a night. The busier your schedule, the harder it can be to get those hours. But that’s not the only factor conspiring against you getting the sleep you need. According to Dr. Alon Avidan, director of the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center, your circadian clock—the timekeeper in your brain that determines when you want to naturally wake up and fall asleep—shifts forward by about two hours during your teen years. That means you might not feel tired until after midnight, and you definitely won’t want to get up for school at 6 am.
Unfortunately, you can’t “make up” lost sleep—an eight-hour night is not the same as a six-hour night plus a two-hour nap later in the day. “For every hour of lost sleep per night, you need a full 24-hour period that includes good sleep to recover,” Avidan says. So how are you supposed to fit sleep into your busy life?
Set a schedule. Do your best to go to bed and wake up around the same time every day—even on the weekends. Sleeping until noon on Saturday will only confuse your body and make it harder to get up on Monday morning.
Strengthen your routine. Do the same activities, such as taking a shower or reading, before bed every night. “A nightly routine signals to your body and your brain that it’s time to sleep,” Leadley says.
Stop snoozing. “The more you press the snooze button, the more your brain falls back asleep,” Leadley says. “To feel more awake in the mornings, get moving right away.”
Stick to power naps. If you feel sleepy by mid-afternoon, it’s OK to take a nap—but keep it short. “With power naps, you get a burst of energy and alleviate sleepiness,” Avidan says. “If you go beyond 15 or 20 minutes, you’re more likely to fall into deep sleep and wake up groggy.”
Does the position you sleep in affect the quality of your sleep? It can—especially if you tend to snore when you sleep on your back. But for dancers, the proper sleep position can also set your body up to perform at its best, pain-free. “Sleeping in the right position can aid in recovery from injury and fatigue,” says Dr. Jamie Blau of Upper Westside Chiropractic in NYC.
“Dancers should try to sleep either on their sides or on their backs, with one pillow under their necks,” Blau says. “This encourages proper spinal and muscular alignment, which means less stress on the body overall.” Blau strongly discourages stomach sleeping. “When you sleep on your stomach, your neck is very rotated,” she says. “You can develop neck and shoulder pain that can eventually radiate down the arm. If you sleep half on your stomach with one leg up, you might also see lower back problems.”
If you’re a lifelong stomach sleeper, fear not: Bad sleep habits can be broken. “Use
pillows to prop yourself in the right position,” Blau advises. “For side sleep, put a pillow between your knees to keep yourself from rolling over. If you wake up on your stomach, shift onto your side or back again.” Your body will thank you in the morning.
Good sleep isn’t just about timing and position. Leadley recommends making your bedroom a “sleep haven”—cool, dark and quiet during sleep hours. “Avoid too much light and noise at bedtime, because those things stimulate the brain,” she says. “Even your computer or cell phone can make your brain think it’s time to wake up.” (So save the iPad and Kindle reading for daytime, and opt for easy-on-the-eyes books and magazines at bedtime.) Meanwhile, maximizing light exposure in the morning can make it easier to get out of bed.
“In general, don’t watch TV, talk on the phone, play video games or do homework in bed,” Avidan adds. “Use the bed only for sleep.” It’s crucial to teach your brain that your bed—and the bedroom environment as a whole—is a calm, restful place.
Despite all of these guidelines, sleep needs can vary from person to person. If you’re not sure what sleep strategies work best for you, try keeping a sleep diary. Jot down what time you go to bed, when you wake up and how (by alarm clock or naturally), your sleep position and how rested you feel. When you find a set of variables that work well together, stick with them. Better nights mean better days.
It's January 1. We all just want to snuggle up and wait until spring. And I know you all
stayed up really late fell asleep at 8:00pm last night like I did, so you have no reason to be tired. But just in case you are, here's a roundup of ballerinas who need to stay in bed more than you do.
Aurora from The Sleeping Beauty. Duh. Though, I guess she's been asleep long enough.
Members of The Australian Ballet in the company's older version of The Sleeping Beauty (photo by Jim McFarlane)
The ballerinas of Jerome Robbins' The Concert (Or, The Perils of Everybody). Dance is hard. Sometimes you need a booty to snooze on.
San Francisco Ballet in The Concert (photo by Erik Tomasson)
The Sleepwalker in La Sonnambula. She's totally creepy but sleep is what gives her that mysterious quality.
Carla Körbes and Robert Fairchild in George Balanchine's La Sonnambula (photo by Erin Baiano for The New York Times)
Alice, of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Did she dream up Wonderland, or did she really go there? We'll never know.
Jillian Vanstone and Aleksandar Antonijevic in Christopher Wheeldon's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (photo by Cylia von Tiedemann)
Here's to a year full of big dreams and good rest!
(Photo courtesy Wavebreakermedia LTD/Thinkstock)
Excellence > Perfection
The annual post-holiday self-help craze is upon us—cue the gym memberships, health books, relationship advice columns and extra pointe classes. While committing to a New Year’s resolution can be a positive choice for many, it starts being harmful when taken too far. Perfectionism “becomes destructive striving when the goal, or resolution, is unattainable,” says Dr. Sharon A. Chirban, a sports psychologist and consultant to Boston Ballet company members.
Perfectionists come in all shapes and sizes, but certain dancers are more susceptible than others. Perfectionism is most common among what Chirban calls “precision dancers”—dancers involved in styles that require strict adherence to a set of standards, like ballerinas or dance-team dancers. “Forms that prioritize spontaneity and expression are less likely to breed perfectionist dancers,” Chirban says.
Try ringing in the New Year with an excellentist mentality, instead. Whereas a perfectionist seeks absolute perfection, an excellentist strives to be her most excellent self, which is an ever-changing target. (Are double pirouettes tricky for you? Be proud of yourself when you nail ’em, and don’t obsess over triples until doubles are no longer challenging.) An excellentist works toward self-improvement, understanding that the process—including mistakes and setbacks along the way—is more important than any end result. Instead of fearing criticism, an excellentist seeks it out, knowing that the only way to improve is to understand her weaknesses. “Excellentist dancers are usually more successful in the long run,” Chirban says. “They’re less likely to burn out or succumb to self-hate.”
Are you a perfectionist? Take this quiz to find out.
True or false:
1. You’re very worried about what others think of you.
2. You don’t enjoy the process of reaching your goals.
3. You criticize yourself when assessing your progress.
4. Even after you achieve a goal, you’re still afraid of failing.
5. When it comes down to it, you feel like you’re just not good enough.
If you answered “true” to most of these questions, it’s time to get your perfectionism in check.
Did You Know?
Crying can be good for your health. Beyond the obvious cathartic release of emotions, crying also flushes out built-up chemicals—such as manganese, a mood-altering mineral—leading to reduced stress and improved mood.
It can also boost your friendships. According to a study published in Evolutionary Psychology, tears are an evolutionary response, designed to draw others to you for compassion and support. So while you probably don’t want to become that girl who always cries in class, when the feelings hit, don’t be afraid to have a good sob.
Soreness in the ischial tuberosity, or sitz bone, is (literally) a pain in the butt. In dancers, it’s often caused by a hamstring strain, and it can make it difficult to lift your leg to the front or side.
Try this self-massage trick: Sit on the floor with a tennis ball centered on one of your sitz bones. Use your feet and hands on the floor to balance as you swivel your hips in a circular motion, releasing any knots in the muscles and ligaments that attach to that area (including those oh-so-important adductor and abductor hamstring muscles).
Eat This, Not That: The Common Cold Edition
When you’re dealing with a stuffy nose, sore throat and cough, you probably don’t feel much like eating. But your body needs fuel to fight off that pesky bug. Here are five foods to reach for—and five to avoid—when battling the common cold.
(Photos courtesy Thinkstock)
The Nice List
These foods will soothe your cold symptoms and get you back on your feet:
Chicken soup has a whole lot to offer. An electrolyte-dense fluid, it’ll keep your body hydrated. It also contains the amino acid cysteine, which relieves mucus buildup in your lungs. Most important, it’s easy to digest.
Garlic has antibiotic properties, and it’s been shown to lessen the severity of cold symptoms.
Green tea contains infection-fighting antioxidants, and its warmth can relieve a sore throat and ease congestion.
Honey has antibacterial and antimicrobial properties and can serve as a cough suppressant.
All-natural fruit popsicles can help you stay hydrated, and the coldness can help numb a sore throat. They’re also a great way to get some extra vitamins when fibrous whole fruits are too tricky to digest.
(Photos courtesy Thinkstock)
The Naughty List
These foods may irritate your cold symptoms or hinder your recovery:
Spicy or acidic foods may temporarily clear your sinuses, but they can also irritate your mucous membranes, leading to increased pain and discomfort in your nasal passages, throat and lungs.
Juice and other beverages with lots of added sugar can cause inflammation and weaken your immune system.
Fatty meats and deep-fried foods are difficult to digest, and your body can’t spare the extra energy. Plus, they can lead to increased inflammation.
Caffeine is a diuretic and a stimulant. What you need is hydration and rest, so steer
clear of soda.
Dairy may thicken the mucus in your throat, adding to your discomfort.
The jury’s still out on whether dairy is a true member of the naughty list. Some doctors say its protein and vitamin D can help boost the immune system.
Can't Sleep? Take a Breather.
After a day jam-packed with school, dance and homework, you probably feel exhausted by bedtime. But that doesn’t always mean sleep comes easily. Insomnia—persistent difficulty falling asleep and/or staying asleep—can be incredibly frustrating and stressful, especially for busy dancers.
While the age-old trick of counting sheep may be effective for some, others can get to sheep 1,000 and still be wide awake. The key is to quiet your thoughts so you can begin to drift into dreamland. Different tricks work for different people, but for many, breathing patterns are important. Next time you find yourself burning the midnight oil, try this simple breathing exercise:
• Exhale completely through your mouth.
• Close your mouth and inhale through your nose for four counts.
• Hold your breath at the top for seven counts.
• Exhale through your mouth for eight counts.
• Repeat the entire sequence three times.
Why Focus on breath?
When you’re stressed or anxious, deep breathing can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms you down. Plus, focusing on counting the length of your breaths can distract you from whatever’s on your mind.
When it comes to staying healthy, it’s a good rule of thumb to “eat the rainbow”: A colorful diet offers a variety of nutrients. But in honor of Halloween, we’re taking a trip to the dark side of nutrition. And as it turns out, many black foods are antioxidant powerhouses in disguise.
Black beans are a great source of lean protein, with 15 grams in one cup and no saturated fat. Their black skins contain bioflavonoid pigments, which have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Blackberries contain polyphenols, chemicals good for your brain. They also have a high concentration of fiber—one cup contains nearly a third of your daily recommended value. Black grapes are higher in antioxidants than red or green grapes because of their dark skin (and they taste a little sweeter!). Like blackberries, they contain high concentrations of brain-boosting polyphenols.
Black rice, like brown rice, has the nutrient- and fiber-rich hull that white rice lacks. But black rice has the added benefit of vitamin E, which supports the immune system.
Nori, most commonly known as the seaweed used to wrap sushi, is rich in minerals and vitamins—including B-12, which protects your nerves and blood cells and helps make DNA. Nori is a great option for vegetarians, who are prone to vitamin B-12 deficiencies.
Orange You Curious?
Black may be the new black this season, but we’d be wrong to ignore its colorful counterpart. Orange foods have long been respected as nutrient-rich noms.
Like most orange foods, pumpkins contain beta-carotene, which is good for eyesight. Plus, they’re full of fiber, and the seeds are packed with protein, magnesium and potassium.
Apricots are a good source of potassium, which can help prevent muscle cramps.
One medium orange provides 130 percent of your daily recommended vitamin C.
Sweet potatoes are also good sources of beta-carotene, vitamin C and potassium. Plus, they contain iron, which helps keep energy levels up, and magnesium, which combats stress.
(Photo by Erin Baiano)
Your Aches and Pains Addressed: Hip Flexor Pain
What is it?
Usually a strain in the psoas major (which controls hip flexion and external rotation) or the rectus femoris (which also helps with hip flexion), but the pain could come from any of the muscles surrounding the hip that help facilitate hip flexion.
What causes it?
Overuse. When dancers repeat a certain action over and over again, it creates a muscular imbalance. The psoas major is responsible for stabilizing and mobilizing both the spine and the hip joint, and if it’s not properly stretched and strengthened, repetitive flexion at the hip—such as a series of grands battements—can lead to strains. However, because dancers use their hips in so many different ways, there’s no one cause or source of hip flexor pain.
How to deal
To alleviate the pain, you need to restore a balance of strength and flexibility in the muscles surrounding your hip. Always warm up slowly and easily before you dance, with a special focus on the hip joint. Take care to stretch your hips after exercising, especially if they feel tight or sore; self-massage, rollers, tennis balls and ice can go a long way. If the pain persists for longer than 7 to 10 days, see your doctor to make sure you aren’t exacerbating the problem. Your doctor will likely refer you to a physical therapist, who can provide you with exercises tailored to your needs.
Sometimes, hip flexor pain is a sign of something more serious: a labral tear. The labrum is the ring of cartilage around your hip socket. It can’t heal itself because it doesn’t have a blood supply. In this case, surgery may be the only option for some people, but with proper rehabilitation, you’ll probably be able to restore function to your hip.
Consultant: Sean Gallagher, BFA, PT, CFT, CPT, is the founder and director of Performing Arts Physical Therapy in NYC and the owner of The New York Pilates Studio®. He has worked with dancers from Pennsylvania Ballet, Paul Taylor Dance Company, Parsons Dance, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and a number of Broadway shows.
Did You Know?
Pulling an all-nighter may cause brain damage. According to a study published in Sleep, individuals skipping out on sleep have higher concentrations of a molecule commonly associated with head injuries. Of course, staying up late every once in a while isn’t nearly as harmful as a head injury, but repetitive sleepless nights will start to add up. Long story short: Sometimes the best move is to stop cramming, close the book and get some shut-eye!
Choreographers: Feeling stumped by that next eight-count? Take a walk! According to a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, just 5 to 16 minutes of walking will help get those creative juices flowing.
Speak up about any pain you might be feeling and get it checked by a professional.
Photo by Nanette Grebe/Thinkstock
Do you ever wonder if you are getting enough calcium? What about enough sleep? Did you know it's possible overstretch your legs to the point of injury?
Those were just a few of the topics addressed at last night's Injury Prevention Workshop, part of the Complete Dancer Series at the School at Steps in NYC. During the event, we heard from a professor of orthopedic surgery, a representative from the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries, a Pilates instructor and New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns about what dancers can do to prevent injuries and enjoy long, strong and healthy careers. Dance Spirit was there to get the lowdown:
- Women accrue more than half of their skeletal mass during puberty. What does this mean? We need to increase our calcium intake as much as possible since it can help prevent stress fractures now, and osteoporosis later. We also need lots of protein. Now, this doesn't mean you need to scarf down a hamburger and seven glasses of milk with dinner each night. Green leafy veggies are a better source of calcium than milk. Try adding some kale to your morning smoothies—you won't even know it's in there.
- According to The Harkness Center, 60 percent of all dance injuries are chronic—caused by overuse (or misuse) over a long period of time—like tendonitis, bursitis, or stress fractures. (Compare that to 35 percent of acute injuries—one-and-done-type injuries, like ankle sprains.) So this means three things:
Robin Powell leads a Pilates demonstration.
Photo by A. Greenwald, courtesy The School at Steps.
Working correctly with proper technique and alignment, plus dancing on good flooring, can help prevent chronic injuries caused by misuse. Think about this: One dancer does 200 jumps in one class. Umm...that's a lot of stress on your joints!
- Taking class all the time without any other activity is not healthy. Work in parallel, too—not only turnout. Play sports. Go to yoga class. If you do the same motions over and over again, you're creating muscular imbalances which can lead to injury. Strengthen your whole body—not just a few select muscles.
- Fatigue is a HUGE cause of injury. You get injured when you're tired—when your muscles and joints are tired and when YOU are tired. So...
- Get lots of sleep. Teen dancers need 9.25 hours every night. It may seem like a lot, but it can help.
From left: Dr. Andrew Price, Leigh Heflin, Robin Powell, Sara Mearns and Kate Thomas.
Photo by A. Greenwald, courtesy of The School at Steps.
As dancers, we are often "Type A" people—and perfectionists. Stress can be a healthy motivator for us. But stress also makes us tired. So remember that our parents and our teachers are our allies, not our enemies. If you feel extremely tired in class one day—maybe you woke up four times the night before and then didn't get to eat breakfast—tell someone! If you try to push through a hard class and you're not all "there," you could be putting yourself at risk for injury.
- Think of your muscles like Play Dough. When it's cold and right out of the tub, the dough breaks easily when stretched. You have to mush it and mold it before it becomes pliable and stretchable. So after a long day of class and rehearsal, don't go home and stretch more—you'll be too cold. Plus, your body needs time to repair so you can be at your best the next day. Eat, do your homework and chill out. Save the stretching for the studio.
- If you feel something, say something. If something hurts, speak up and tell your teacher. Overuse injuries are often easier to fix if they're caught early on. Of course, lots of times dancers are just sore. So how do you know when "sore" is really an injury? A good rule of thumb is that if it hurts for more than five days, see a doctor or medical professional. Chronic injuries are hard to detect, but if the soreness keeps happening, or it goes away and comes back more intense, there's cause for concern. Make an appointment ASAP—sometimes you won't be able to be seen for a few more days—and tell your teachers.
- Take time off. It's suggested that all athletes need three months off to perform at their highest level. This doesn't mean you have to suddenly become a couch potato for three months each summer. But schedule a week here or there when you don't dance. Take Pilates, do yoga, go bike riding. Stay active, but stay out of the dance studio. It may sound blasphemous, but it can really help in the long run.
Sara Mearns spoke about her injury prevention regimen: a full-body massage using foam rollers and balls every morning following a hot shower.
Photo by A. Greenwald, courtesy The School at Steps.
Want to find out more? The Harkness Center for Dance Injuries (in NYC) offers one-on-one injury prevention assessments. They're free! You can make an appointment to look at your flexibility, strength, mobility or hypermobility and discuss what you need to stay healthy. Check their website for more info and details.
Let’s face it: Nobody’s perfect. Most dancers are guilty of some bad health habit, whether it’s late-night snacking or not taking the time to warm up properly. We asked you about your worst habits and sought easy-to-manage solutions from health professionals. See if your problem made our Top 10 list—and learn what you can do about it.
1. Eating too much sugar
When you’re really hungry and want something quick, it’s easy to reach for a bag of gummy bears or a bar of chocolate. “Sugar is highly addictive,” says Emily Cook Harrison, registered dietician at the Centre for Dance Nutrition in Atlanta. “It gives you a quick rush, but it’s not long-term energy.”
To avoid that 3 pm sugar craving, eat smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day, and don’t go for more than three hours without eating. Instead of candy, grab a piece of fruit. “The fiber will help slow down digestion and make you feel fuller longer,” Harrison says.
2. Not warming up
Dancing with cold muscles can increase your chance of injury. “Warming up increases blood flow to all muscles in the body, which makes them more pliable,” says Julie Green, physical therapist for Pennsylvania Ballet. “Walk, jog in place or do some leg swings to increase circulation.” Allow yourself at least 10 to 15 minutes to do warm-up exercises before class, and do an extra barre if you have a big break during the day.
3. Not cooling down
It might be tempting to just fall over after running a marathon routine, but you should keep moving at a slower pace to give your body time to regulate itself. Take a walk around the studio or in the hallway, mark through some choreography or gently jog in place. “Cooling down is safer for your heart after cardiovascular exercise, rather than drastically bringing your heart rate down and crashing,” Green says.
4. Not drinking enough water
The first sign of dehydration isn’t thirst but fatigue and poor balance. “Before you feel thirsty, you’ve already lost one to two liters of fluid,” Harrison says. “You see a difference in muscles’ ability to fire.” (Take note if you feel sluggish or are unable to attack your choreography.) To prevent muscle cramping, keep a water bottle in your dance bag and take a few sips during every break. Avoid drinking too many sports drinks in place of water, since you’ll get more calories and sugar than you may need. Caffeinated beverages also lead to fluid loss, so give up that afternoon Coke or cup of coffee.
5. Late-night snacking
Indulging late-night cravings can cause weight gain and water retention, especially if you munch on junk food. Try having a small bowl of cereal, soup, fruit salad or popcorn instead. Foods that are high in fiber and low in calories will make you feel full longer. “If you snack because you’re bored, you can distract yourself by writing in a journal or finding another activity,” Harrison says. “But if you need to refuel after a long day of dancing, go ahead and eat something healthy. Your metabolism doesn’t shut down at a certain hour. You’re burning calories even in your sleep.” Just try to make smart choices.
Leaving makeup on overnight can clog pores and cause breakouts. It can also irritate your eyes and make them look bloodshot in the morning. If you’re too tired to take your makeup off before bed, try doing it earlier in the night. Set your cleanser next to the sink so you’ll see it when you use the bathroom, or get into the habit of washing your face when you get into your pajamas or after you brush your teeth.
7. Not taking time off for an injury
It’s hard to take a break from dancing, even for an injury. But if you push through pain and ignore the warning signs, you’ll only make it worse. “The body is amazing at finding ways to compensate for pain,” Green says. “But you could develop poor technique or cause another injury.” Always see a doctor and follow his or her plan for recovery. You’ll feel better in the long run—and dance better, too.
8. Not getting enough sleep
Lack of sleep affects everything from mood to energy to food cravings. “People who don’t get adequate sleep—an hour or two fewer than what they really need—have a much harder time achieving a healthy body weight in the long term,” Harrison says. Being tired also makes you forgetful, easily distracted and impatient. Try to fall asleep at the same time each night. Establishing a routine will help set your internal clock and ensure you get the 8 to 10 hours you need.
You might think sitting in a split for an hour is a good idea, but it’s not. Too much stretching can actually cause injury. “Your muscles get longer when you stretch, and that means they get weaker,” Green says. “If you don’t incorporate strength training as well, you’ll set yourself up for an injury.” Go ahead and practice your splits, but follow them with some bridges (lie on your back with your feet flat on the ground and your knees bent, then use your hamstrings to lift your seat off the ground) or other exercises to strengthen your hamstrings.
10. Taking too many anti-inflammatories
When your body hurts, it’s easy to pop a few anti-inflammatories and forget about the pain. But you could be masking a serious problem and increasing your chance for injury. “Long-term anti-inflammatory use can also lead to stomach bleeding and stomach ulcers,” Green says. Talk to a doctor about how much you actually need. Try icing, taping, massage and acupuncture as alternative ways to reduce pain. You might find that a combination approach works best for you.