The stage was spinning.
The whole theater was swirling before my eyes, and nothing made sense.
I forced myself to push through the familiar choreography, which by then was in my muscle memory, feeling entirely disoriented. Up was down and down was up. Something was very wrong.
The curtain closed on the final night of Odyssey Dance Theatre's 2012 Thriller season, and my nightmare started.
Ah, feet—we point, stomp and crack them (and everything in between). And though dancing all day makes them strong, they need special attention to help prevent injury. DS spoke with former professional ballerina and conditioning expert Rachel Hamrick, who recommends these four exercises to keep your feet in tip-top shape—and improve their overall look, from arches to insteps.
As dancers, we talk a lot about “finding our centers”—but what does that actually mean? It refers to the invisible pole of support in your core that makes you feel like you could
balance for days. Once you experience the freedom that sense of stability can provide, you’ll want to find a way to access it every time you dance. Professional dancer and Figure 4 Barre instructor Lindsey L. Miller shares three stabilizing exercises to help you conquer even the toughest balance challenges.
The Toe-Heel Rock
Purpose: This exercise strengthens the muscles in your ankle to promote stability in relevé.
(Photos by Lucas Chilczuck)
Stand sideways about one foot away from a wall. Lightly touch the wall with your right hand and lift your left leg to a parallel coupé. Place your left hand on your left hip.
Rock forward onto the toes of your right foot, lifting your right heel as high as you can.
Miller Says: “When balancing on your heel, it’s natural to want to stick out your butt. To keep your weight centered over your foot, think of almost tucking your pelvis.”
Rock backward to the starting position, then lift the ball of your right foot off the floor as high as you can, keeping your body upright and your hips centered over your foot.
Repeat 10 times, then switch sides.
Because dancers’ big toes tend to be stronger than their pinky toes, rocking back to the heel often looks like this, with the pinky-toe side of the foot tilted toward the floor.
Focus on lifting up the pinky-toe side so your metatarsal stays even.
Purpose: This exercise helps you access your deep transverse abdominal muscles, which are essential to balance.
(Photos by Lucas Chilczuck)
Stand with your back against a wall, your feet parallel and hips-width apart and your arms by your sides.
Curve your head forward and begin to roll down through your spine. Keep your hips and heels connected to the wall.
Miller Says: “It’s difficult not to fall forward during this exercise. To find your balance, focus on contracting your lower abs and pressing your hips and heels into the wall behind you.”
Once you reach the bottom of the roll-down, grab on to opposite elbows to keep from relying on the floor for balance.
Beginning at the base of your spine, roll your body back up to the starting position.
Repeat two more times.
The Horizontal Tilt
Purpose: This exercise promotes balance in turnout by strengthening your oblique muscles and the external rotators in your hip.
Begin in a “T” position, standing on a straight, parallel right leg with your left leg reaching behind you (foot flexed and parallel). Tilt your torso forward, so your body—from the crown of your head to your heel—forms a straight line parallel to the floor. Reach your arms toward the floor with your palms facing each other.
Bend your right leg, making sure your knee tracks over the center of your right foot and your left leg stays in line with your torso. Hold the rest of your body still.
(Photos by Lucas Chilczuck)
Miller Says: “To give yourself an even greater balance challenge, try looking up at your top hand when you unfold into the turned-out position.”
Stretch your right leg to return to the starting position.
Open and unfold your body by turning out your left leg and reaching your left arm to the ceiling, so your body faces out instead of down. Gaze down at your right arm as you continue to reach it toward the floor, and squeeze your abdominals. Hold for a count of three.
Return to the starting position.
Repeat five times, then switch legs.
We’ve all seen her: that dancer whose jumps just seem to defy gravity. From suspended sautés to soaring grands jetés, she takes the audience’s breath away every time her feet leave the ground. What’s her secret? She’s got backup—of the gluteus maximus variety.
Strong glutes can take your jumps to the next level, giving you the lift you need to squeeze in a switch leap or an extra tour en l’air. We turned to Giulia Pline, a yoga- and barre-certified instructor in NYC, for four exercises that will give your booty a boost.
(Photos by Lucas Chilczuk)
Bridge-Pose Leg Raise
1. Lie on your back with your feet planted beneath your hips and your fingertips reaching toward your heels. Raise your hips so they form a straight line with your torso and thighs, balancing on your shoulders.
2. Lift your right leg to the ceiling, pointing your foot and extending the back of your knee.
3. Inhale as you raise your hips even higher, then exhale as you lower your right leg so it’s parallel with your left thigh. Do 10 of these leg raises. Repeat with the left leg raised, then repeat the whole sequence again, coming down between each side to give your legs a rest.
Pline Says: “Engage your glutes to keep your pelvis lifted and your hips square throughout the exercise.”
(Photo by Lucas Chilczuk)
For an extra challenge, lift the ball of your supporting foot off the floor so you’re balancing on your heel.
Pline Says: “Balancing on your heel helps activate the hamstring and glute of your supporting side.”
(Photos by Lucas Chilczuk)
1. Get on all fours, with your shoulders over your wrists and your knees under your hips
2. Lift your right leg in line with your torso, bending your knee to form a right angle. Flex your right foot.
3. Inhale as you push through your flexed foot, raising it toward the ceiling.
Pline Says: “Keep your spine lengthened and your abs engaged throughout this exercise. Don’t allow the pulsing of your leg to arch your back.”
4. Exhale as you lower your right leg, bringing your thigh back in line with your torso. Do 50 pulses. Repeat with the left leg raised, then repeat the whole sequence again.
(Photos by Lucas Chilczuk)
You’ll need: a tennis ball
1. Begin in the same starting position as the tabletop pulse.
2. Place a tennis ball behind your right knee, squeezing your hamstring and calf together to keep the ball in place.
3. Lift your right leg so your thigh is in line with your torso, flexing your foot.
Pline Says: “Really concentrate on squeezing the ball throughout this exercise. The added effort will activate the hamstring and glutes of your working leg.
4. Inhale and pulse your leg up, then exhale and bring it down and across your standing knee.
5. Lift your right leg so that your thigh is back in line with your torso. Do 15 lift-crosses. Repeat with the left leg raised, then repeat the whole sequence again.
(Photos by Lucas Chilczuk)
Grand Plié Wrap
1. Begin in a wide second position with your hands on your hips.
2. Do a grand plié, tracking your knees over your second toes. At the bottom of the plié, pulse your knees outward, so that they now track over your pinky toes. Pulse 20 times, then come up and repeat.
Pline Says: “Think of the wrap coming from the backs of your legs. This will help you initiate your gluteus muscles.”
(Photo by Lucas Chilczuk)
For an added challenge, lift your heels at the base of your grand plié, holding strong through your ankles as you wrap your knees outward. Pulse 20 times, then repeat.
Have you ever seen a ballerina’s arabesque and thought, Wow, her back is so flexible—does she even have a spine? Believe it or not, a bendy back isn’t the only key to a killer arabesque. “Dancers who focus exclusively on stretching often fall into improper alignment, crunching the lumbar spine and splaying the ribs to maximize arabesque height,” says Rachel Hamrick, a conditioning expert and former professional ballet dancer. “To achieve the desired aesthetic, you need strength in the hamstrings, inner thighs, abdominals and back, as well as flexibility in the hip flexors.” (All photos by Nathan Sayers.)
Practice the following four exercises, which focus on stretching and strengthening these supporting muscle groups, and you’ll be passing 90 degrees in no time!
You'll need: an FLX Ball or a medicine ball and a Thera-Band
Plant your left knee in the corner where the wall meets the floor, with the top of your foot pressed against the wall. Step your right leg forward and bend it at a right angle, so your knee is directly above your ankle. Place your hands on either side of your right foot. Keeping both legs parallel, push your hips forward and down. Hold for 10–15 slow breaths. Repeat the stretch twice on each side.
Hamrick says: “If you’re performing this exercise on a hard floor, place a towel or mat under your knee to cushion it.”
For extra stretch, keep your legs in the same position, but place your hands on top of your right thigh. Push your hands away from your body to lift your chest, keeping your shoulders relaxed as you sink your hips forward.
Hamrick says: “Lengthen through the left hip flexor so that your pelvis is vertical.”
Hamrick says: “Imagine stitching your inner thighs together to keep your right knee in line with the midline of your body.”
1. Lie on your left side, resting your head in your left hand. Place your knees in front of your hips and your ankles directly below your knees, forming two right angles. Lift your right leg slightly so that your legs are hips-width apart, and use your right hand to place the ball behind your right knee.
2. Flex your right foot and squeeze the ball behind your knee, feeling the activation of your hamstring and the connection between your right heel and sitz bone. Place your right hand on the floor in front of your belly button to stabilize yourself.
4. Return to the starting position. Repeat 10 times on each side.
Hamrick says: “Engage your abs to keep your torso from arching and activate the inner thigh muscles to keep your legs parallel and hips-width apart.”
1. Lie on your stomach with your legs turned out and your feet pointed, hips-width apart. Place the ball under your chest. Stack your hands on top of each other and rest your forehead on them, keeping your elbows out to the sides and your neck in line with the rest of your spine.
3. Lower with control to your starting position. Do three sets of 10 reps.
Hamrick says: “Don’t crunch in your lower spine to lift your torso. Imagine your spine lengthening as you rise.”
2B. Inhale and lift your torso, keeping your shoulders drawn down your back and your neck long.
Hamrick says: “Don’t puff out your lower abs to push yourself up. Imagine hollowing them out so they don’t touch the floor throughout the exercise.”
Single Leg Lift
1. Lie on your stomach with your legs hips width apart and turned out, and your feet pointed. Fold the Thera-Band in half lengthwise and hold one end in each hand. Prop yourself up on your elbows, placing them by your sides, underneath your shoulders. Place your forearms at a slight outward angle to create resistance in the Thera-Band. Press down through your arms and feel your chest pulling forward.
3. Lengthen your leg as you lower to the starting position. Do two to four sets of 10 reps on each leg.
Hamrick says: “Keep your spine long throughout this exercise. Don’t allow the lifting of your leg to cause you to crunch in your lower back. Hold your abs, and imagine lengthening to bring your leg up, rather than lifting.”
“There’s nothing worse than trying to partner a dancer who has a loose upper body,” says Mary Leonard, owner of the U.S. Athletic Training Center in NYC. Don’t be that girl! Solve this common problem by giving your pectorals a boost. These muscles, which sit directly underneath your chest, need to be toned like any other muscle in your body, and doing so will improve your partnering skills. Plus, Leonard says, “toned pecs help you look stronger without adding bulk.” All photos by Erin Baiano.
Leonard says: “Hold your abs and glutes tight to keep your body in one line.”
2) Thera-Band Fly: You’ll need one light-resistance Thera-Band
Plant your feet in a sturdy parallel stance. Wrap the Thera-Band around the back of your waist, holding the ends firmly in each hand. Start with your arms in second position. Bring your hands together as though you’re moving around the edge of a large circle from second to first position. When your hands meet, twist them so that the palms face up. Hold for 2 seconds, and then return to starting position. Aim for 20–25 reps.
3) Dumbbell Wide Fly: You’ll need two 3- to 8-lb. weights (choose what’s comfortable for you).
Leonard says: “Make sure you move slowly, as though the air were really thick.”
4) Overhead Pulls
Lie flat on your back as in the last exercise. Crisscross the weights over each other and hold them behind your head, just above the floor, with a slight bend in the elbows. Keep your core tight so you don’t arch your back.
Leonard says: “Your shoulders should be down, and your wrists should stay straight and strong.”
Click here to see Mary Leonard walk Karla through these exercises.
Whether you’re rocking pink tights or booty shorts, a pair of toned hamstrings can be your best accessory onstage. Strong hamstrings give you a long, lean look by evening out your thighs and keeping your quads from getting bulky. Even better? They power développés that reach toward the sky, not the horizon. “Once your leg passes 90 degrees, it’s the hamstrings—not the quads—that hold it there,” says Jessica Sander, a personal trainer and freelance dancer in NYC. “They’re the keys to high extensions.”
Build these exercises into your routine three to four times a week, and you’ll start to see—and feel—results in about a month. Just make sure you don’t simply go through the motions. “The hamstrings don’t always fire on their own—other parts of the body like to take the work,” warns Sander. “So for all of these, pay close attention to your form.”
1. a stability ball
2. a set of 10-lb. weights
Do each move 15–20 times. Rest, then repeat.
Stand in parallel with your feet directly under your hips. Hold a 10-lb. weight in each hand, with your palms facing your thighs.
Hinge from your hips with a flat back and lower the weights to just above your feet, keeping your hands close to your shins and your head in line with your spine. Initiate from your hamstrings to slowly return to the standing position.
Sander says: “In the flat back position, let your legs be relaxed, but pull your abs in.”
Lie on your back with one leg reaching straight up to the ceiling, and the opposite foot flat on the floor with the knee bent.
Slowly raise your hips until your knees, hips and shoulders come into a straight diagonal line, then return to the floor. Switch legs after a set of 15–20 reps. You should feel the burn in your supporting leg.
Quadraped Hamstring Curl
Start on your hands and knees, making sure your hips are over your knees and your shoulders are over your wrists. Reach one leg straight back, lifting it off the floor so it’s parallel to the ground and in line with your hip.Without letting your quad drop or your hips move, engage your glutes and bend your working knee until your shin is perpendicular to the floor, then straighten. Switch legs after a set of 15–20 reps.Sander says: “Keep your abs pulling up the whole time so your back doesn’t arch.”
Start by lying on your back, with your knees bent in tight and a stability ball under your heels, as close to you as possible.
As you exhale, press your feet into the ball to lift your hips. Keep your shoulders and neck relaxed—there should be space between your chest and chin.
Keeping your core engaged, straighten your legs to roll the ball away from you, and then draw it back. Repeat 15–20 times. The goal is to keep your hips up in the air the entire time, but if you need to modify the exercise, you can come down between repetitions.
Watch it! Click here to see Jessica Sander walk our fabulously fit model, Elizabeth Yilmaz, through these moves.
Jessica Sander, a personal trainer certified by ACE, AFFA and Stott Pilates, holds a BFA in dance from Towson University. Elizabeth Yilmaz is a freelance dancer based in NYC.
Photography by Erin Baiano. Hair and makeup by Chuck Jensen for Mark Edward Inc. Modeled by Elizabeth Yilmaz. Clothing provided by Jo+Jax.