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Sarah Beth Oppenheim

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Training To Dance For Mikhail Baryshnikov

Posted: 08/09/2011 8:24 am

I am dancing for Mikhail Baryshnikov in three days. But, I've been preparing for this performance my entire life. I started vamping about in ballet shoes around three years of age -- about the same time Peter Pan convinced me I could fly -- and also coinciding with the release date of "White Nights."

I encountered problems quickly. Mediocre arches, poor turnout, my dad's thighs, and a serious tendency to clench and grip my ungraceful way through every combination. Oh, I also hated fruits and vegetables and subsisted entirely on carbs, power bars, and frozen yogurt. And one more thing -- I had zero desire to be pretty in a tutu. But I tried as mightily as possible, wanted to dance more than anything, and finally found my niche in the abandon and conceptual freedom of modern dance.

Twenty five years later, I've danced my away around the aesthetic issues and my fridge is filled with greens, if nothing else (which really cuts into -- or helps create!-- my starving artist budget.) Dance is not aerobic, and since it's as natural to me as walking, it's not the activity that keeps me in shape. Between the five jobs to pay rent , afford class, and pay for rehearsal space for my dance company, I need to find the time and money to work out at the gym. I spend the hours before sunrise and well after sunset in my kitchen preparing food to provide me the proper energy replenishment required on the go. And, since I've been doing this for so long, my routine also has to accommodate the corporeal attention and diet to sustain a body ravaged by wayward knees, a twice pulled left groin, sprained back, cracked rib, fractured spine, stiff neck, only once-pulled right groin, and no less than seven ankle sprains! In short, navigating the physical and emotional fitness of being a freelance N.Y.C. dancer is complicated choreography.

But ok, the number of Baryshnikov's knee surgeries nearly rivals the number of pirouettes in his 1985 feature film. He never let an injury inhibit his passion. However, while he makes a living from dance, I make a living for dance. And I've really had to bolster my preparation for the two-week residency with Nelly van Bommel's NOA Dance in his arts center. Upping the ante on an already revved up schedule and tightened budget has been an exercise in balance and priority readjustment.

Body:
So, I met with a personal trainer at the Fort Greene Crunch Gym. (First session free after joining.) I've still got my dad's thighs. I'll call them powerful. She called them helpful -- for keeping me connected to my center of gravity. What can I do to tone this body that won't wear me out for my six hours of dance work, but will condition, safeguard, and challenge me at the same time? Enter Caroline Nelson, a lovely woman and fellow dance professional. After carefully listening to my litany of aches, pains, schedule extremes, personal goals (can she please help me tone my glutes and get rid of my back lady roll?) and problem joints, she decided on a cross training program focusing on alignment and strength -- a program that would transition seamlessly into a dance studio. She didn't split the workout into upper and lower body, rather each exercise engaged me from the top of my spine to the bottom of my sole -- and everything was powered by a strong core. I found the leg toning exercises (one legged lunges and extensions with a balance ball) to fulfill both my aesthetic goals and her joint alignment agenda. I used cables for lateral pull downs and oblique twists, I braved the Magic Circle for several sets of crunches and roll downs, and I even braced myself in the Captain's Chair to navigate toward more fortified core musculature. I finished the session sweaty and energized --perfectly primed for a day of dancing.

I asked Caroline how she catered a workout specifically for a dancer's body. "For dancers, it's about conditioning from the inside out, not the outside in," she told me. She is careful to create a workout that will ensure career longevity and prevent injury through strength and healthy practices that mimic dance steps, but also carve a physique. Indeed, even the space between reps was filled with active rest in the form of planks -- the workout really simulated a dance class in its pacing. This was all new for me -- before Caroline, I had only observed personal training sessions where the grunt and strain of working the fast-twitch muscles toward explosive movement seemed a big disconnect between the poise and graceful strength required of a dancer. I also asked Caroline if her philosophy held for non-dancer workouts. She smiled mischievously. Here's the thing about dancers: they are intuitive, read body language well, and have years of experience in weight shifting and unique body adjustment. Whether you're looking for a granola workout or a Boot Camp, your mind and body will benefit under Caroline's tutelage and philosophy. And she adds a great dose of humor to the burn. (To schedule a session with Caroline, call 718.797.9464 or email her at caroline.ayn.nelson@gmail.com)


Food:
I changed my relationship to it more than my intake. I am not one who can deny myself craved ingredients, and then reap the benefits only of that denial's change on my body. But, enjoying what I do eat has been key. I no longer chow down in front of Hulu, but I have slowed down my meal times at an actual table -- eating with colleagues and friends when I can. A normal serving size lasts me longer this way. I always carry a brown bag lunch -- I'm more likely to stick to my dietary plan and save money if I've already spent the change and the time in my un-air-conditioned kitchen beforehand. I concentrate my menu on what will get me through the intense physicality of my days (gym workout, dance class, "real job" and then dance rehearsal). I need the carbs, protein, and fats to get me through without feeling sluggish and with no small amount of enjoyment. I've shed the nutritional bars for fresh ingredients and color. And so, I've shed a few pounds a bit more healthfully.


Emotional Fitness:
It's one thing to find your balance en pointe -- quite another to juggle city life with intense physicality and still find your arabesque without (heart)ache. I know, I know: sleep, healthy food, decreasing stress. But that's a laugh with my schedule. Enter reprioritizing: these factors directly affect emotional acuity in the studio -- the next two weeks are all about being on top of my feet quite literally. So, I'm attacking this dance/conditioning/work problem with a scale, and I'm going to make sure that scale is tipping toward the why of dance. It's exploratory, challenging, mentally exhaustive, and I feel most myself when it's movement without the words. It's painfully easy to forget all of that in the rush and hours of paying rent. And so I concede, I may be dancing in front of Misha, but not for him. That I reserve for myself.

Seeing other work and staying connected to the global zeitgeist are hugely important. Dance becomes culturally relevant when one can place a project on the socio-cultural-historical continuum. Out of the thousands of NYC dancers and a never-ending bill of performances from which to choose, don't we want to make sure we're not repeating ourselves without adding on, or at least commenting ironically? What about reference, relativity, poetry and pique of an apropos moment? The vacuum of a singular method, concept, or theory can be debilitating to body and mind. Create a personal cartography of your dance life: where is your spine, where is your coast?

Checking in with family and mentors is a helpful reminder of the why and the how. If I call with stage fright, my mom will immediately put me back in my place with an eye roll and a hearty "Merde!" My college mentor Stephanie Tooman never fails to remind me that life's frustrations metamorphose into exactly the kind of experience an artist wants on hand at the start of a new process in a new studio.

Lastly, I champion rival obsessions. It's helpful to find something else to help you destress -- I don't know...like watching Misha on "Sex and the City"...and wondering if SJP will show up to the August 11th performance too!

To make reservations for the free August 11th Studio Showing, please call 646.731.3224. Thursday, August 11th at 5:30 p.m. at the Baryshnikov Arts Center: 450 West 37th St., New York City.


 
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