Tips & Advice

Tutu-top shape: Get yourself ready for ‘Nutcracker’ season

Queensland Ballet, The Nutcracker. Photo Justin Ridler
Queensland Ballet presents The Nutcracker. Photo by Justin Ridler.

The long days, the sore muscles, the logistical challenges involved with caring for our body through it all. To a certain extent, these Nutcracker-season challenges are inevitable. But we have tools to boost our own resiliency, and get through it all with a bit more grace and ease. Then we can truly enjoy why we do it — the joy, the magic, the beauty, the comradery and so much more. Read on for some tips on how this can be possible for you, too!

Cross-train smart — to restore, too!

Nutcracker performances require a lot of our body — strength, finesse, aerobic capacity and, perhaps most of all, endurance (muscular and aerobic). It’s all strong demonstration of the importance of cross-training for dancers. An extra challenge this time of year can be cold temperatures, and sometimes even snow.

In early and mid-fall, the weather can actually be comfortably temperate for running — not too cold but not so warm as to end up in a sweat bath (or in more extreme cases, heat exhaustion or heat stroke). This is also key prep time for Nutcracker, when rehearsals are running in earnest and these physical demands begin to become more apparent.

When the temperatures really drop, and snow falls, take your workouts inside. Barre, Vinyasa yoga, bootcamp and Pilates classes can be cross-training opportunities that offer balanced fitness. Weight training, spin and other aerobic machines at gyms can be great options to target any one particular area of fitness.

There’s a whole other aspect of balanced fitness, however, one that’s often overlooked — restoration. Significant periods of heavy physical demand can lead to lactic acid build-up, causing soreness and deterioration of refined movement abilities. In fact, most successful professional dancers with heavy rehearsal, class and performance schedules have a routine to help release muscular soreness and tension. A common strategy is rolling out muscles with a tennis ball. There are also contraptions with a handle on each side and little rotating discs that can work deeply into fascia and muscles.

Some dancers also go to bodyworkers and or get massages. Certain movement practices can be a restorative in themselves, such as “slow flow” and restorative yoga. The Alexander Technique and the Feldenkrais Method fall in this group as well. While one will most likely not build muscle and burn fat in these practices, in addition to restoration, they can offer invaluable insights about movement and one’s body. For dancers, especially when entering into key times like Nutcracker season, such insights can be truly game-changing.

Build your active winter wardrobe.

Dancers know that dressing for the dual conditions of being active and cold temperatures can be difficult, even irritating. Put on one layer, you’re too warm. Take it off, you’re chilly. There’s also the aspect that being most comfortable in terms of temperature will help you to dance your best; you’re less distracted, and muscles can work together with greater fluidity and grace. Dancers also have to be careful about going from a very warm temperature to a much colder one, which can truly shock the body. Yet, after dancing for hours, sheening in sweat, putting on heavy winter layers can be just about the last thing you want to do. The solution to just about all these conundrums? Multiple layers of breathable fabrics, such as cotton, rayon and linen.

In mid- to late fall, stock up on the basics in these types of fabrics — hats, gloves, leggings, socks, tees, long-sleeved shirts, cardigans and hoodies. Primark, Target and similar stores offer such clothing staples at relatively low prices. Look out for a good, sturdy coat that is machine-washable, water-repellent and relatively lightweight. That can save you on busy, cold months of running in and out of the cold (and possibly snow, sleet and the like) for rehearsals, costume fittings, promotional events, along with all of the other activity of the holiday season.

Your favorite dancewear retailer can provide studio essentials such as ballet wrap sweaters and leg warmers, sometimes with seasonal sales happening. With a little smart preparation, you’ll keep your body at a healthy and comfortable temperature — ready to nail that variation one more time, rather than shivering and wishing you had one more layer, or sweating and wishing you could take one off!

With meals and snacks, think small, balanced, frequent and portable.

Holiday season days can go like this: up early for school and/or work, quickly leaving the house to get there on time. Then rushing to Nutcracker rehearsal, with just enough time to get there. Maybe there’s time for an errand or picking up a holiday gift on the way. A full night of rehearsals, to get home with just enough energy to shower and get things ready for the next day. Collapsing into bed, to do it all again the next day. While some professional dancers aren’t at school or work the first part of the day, the schedule can be just as — if not more — rigorous.

There’s not exactly a whole lot of time for healthy cooking, meal-prep and mindful eating. These dynamics hold true for many people in the general population, yet dancers in particular need a steady supply of balanced fuel to be at the top of their game. An additional challenge is that filling up a lot at one time (a temptation when busy, to just not have to think about packing or having the chance to eat at a later time) is that you’re constantly active, and moving on a full stomach can lead to abdominal cramps and other digestive issues. What’s a dancer to do?

A very helpful solution: small, frequent, balanced and portable meals. Look into if you may have access to refrigeration during your day. If not, an option is to freeze a few Tupperware containers and let them naturally defrost at room temperature. You’ll have a few small lunches to enjoy. Or opt for something that doesn’t need refrigeration (each of the following about 400 calories, vegan-friendly and modifiable to be gluten-free): an almond butter sandwich on whole wheat bread; a handful each of carrot sticks, grapes and nuts; a handful each of cherry tomatoes and whole wheat crackers; and a protein bar (check labels for actual protein as well as sugar content – grams and percentage of daily values).

All of these mini-meals take, at most, a few minutes to put together. They’re also far less expensive than purchasing individual meals (and the truth is that it can be difficult to know when you can get food-to-go in the midst of busy days, and what options will be at the places to which you can get!). Some companies such as Starbucks sell such packaged mini-meals, yet these are significantly more expensive than what you could package yourself.

In less than 10 minutes, you can put together food for your day that’s convenient, satisfying, nourishing and relatively inexpensive. Yes, during Nutcracker season, it can seem difficult to stay fueled in healthy ways that don’t break the bank; but with portable mini-meals, it’s possible! Your body and your dancing will thank you!

By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.

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