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School’s Out!

So how do you stay in shape over the holidays?

By Paul Ransom.  

Do dancers take holidays? While the rest of us are pigging out over Christmas dinner and loading up at silly season parties, dancers – like athletes – are probably wondering how to survive the break in shape. (Or at least they should be, according to the experts).

After 45 years teaching generations of aspiring dancers, the doyenne of Sydney’s classical tuition scene, Tanya Pearson has arrived at a comfortable formula for surviving the holiday hiatus. She calls it “Limber, Stretch, Conditioning”.

“If my students go on holidays the one thing I say to them is ‘okay, your brain needs a holiday, probably your feet need a holiday, but to whatever music you like you can do the Limber, Stretch, Conditioning programme and that will keep you in shape and save you a lot of money going to Pilates, etc’.”

The core challenge here is to strike a balance between rest and maintenance. “I like them to rest for two weeks,” Pearson says. “No classes, no jumping, etc. Then, after that, I like them to ease back into classes; but mainly just for stretching and conditioning.”

Meanwhile, over in the searing dry heat of Adelaide, Move Through Life Dance Company don’t break for the summer. Artistic Director, Jo McDonald stresses, “I think it’s important to take time out and rejuvenate but of course this means you’ll lose condition. So it’s important to plan a holiday programme; for example, taking a break for a week while maintaining other exercise, like walking. It’s also important to plan your return to full training. Taking a complete break from dance and exercise can be dangerous because you are then primed for an injury when you return to class.”  

But of course dancing is not just about the body. “It’s important to maintain the mental focus,” McDonald emphasises. “Mental imagery and mental rehearsal can be very important. While you may not have the opportunity to practise exercises or choreography, it’s a good idea to mentally rehearse; maybe when you’re in the shower or something.”

One of the big challenges of the Christmas period is dealing with the temptation to over eat. Diet is considered to be an essential part of conditioning. Former SYTYCD star Anthony Ikin, who now runs his own schools on the Gold Coast and in Sydney, is no exception.

“We encourage our dancers to stay fit and healthy over the Christmas period,” he begins. “As we all know, it’s important to eat in moderation; y’know, two serves of fruit and five of veg every day. Remember to always stay hydrated too, especially over the warmer months.”

However, Tanya Pearson takes a slightly different view. Students at her Classical Coaching Academy are not entombed in the usual dietary pyramid. “I don’t look in their lunch boxes,” she says. “I believe you can be too extreme about that. You have to make the dancers accept responsibility for their own bodies rather than tell them. It’s the correct way of working that shapes your body, not just the diet. After hours, I say be a normal person.”

As much as the summer break might present hurdles, the warmer weather also provides advantages, particularly for those keen to stretch and limber. “Hot weather provides a great opportunity to work on flexibility,” Anthony Ikin points out.

However, there is a limit, as Jo McDonald is keen to stress. “Of course, no matter what exercise you do, during the more extreme hot days it’s really important to ensure you drink plenty of water before, during and after exercise.”

In addition, as Tanya Pearson notes, not all exercise is ideal for a dancer. Whilst Pilates and the various forms of yoga are great for core strength and muscle lengthening there are some things she believes dancers should avoid. “I don’t think it’s good for dancers to do much jogging because it affects their calves and shins.”

And then of course, there’s the question of summer workshops. Although these tend to be aimed at only the ‘student’ market there is enough variety on offer to give anyone something to enrol in. As Anthony Ikin says, “The holidays provide mass opportunity to take structure out of weekly compulsory classes and allow students to expand their knowledge and skill set by attending casual classes and workshops.”

According to Jo McDonald the holidays are also an excellent time to stop and think about what you want from training.  “Think about your strengths and weaknesses,” she advises. “Maybe it’s technical (like pirouettes), artistic, physical, or even psycho-social; for instance, are you getting enough sleep? Once you’ve considered these aspects you can set some reasonable goals for the coming year.”

Point being, whatever you get up to over the summer break, your focus, no doubt, will be on your plans for 2010. So, may you all step-ball change into the New Year with renewed energy and passion!
Photo: Dancers of Move Through Life Dance Company. Cathy Chittleborough, Karen Humphreys, Kelly Mortiz

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