Boys Can Do It Too: Interview with Danny Perez and Chris Miller

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        Danny Perez (left), Christopher Miller (right)

These guys can probably jump higher than your favorite basketball player and they can lift you over their head. They’re not afraid to tell you they’re ballet dancers.

Danny and Chris are full-time students at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Florida. They take technique classes every day (on top of their academic classes), and they perform with the Dance Theatre of Santa Fe.

“There are days when we dance more than we sleep,” says Chris. “When we’re rehearsing for a show, it’s like – wake up, dance, eat, dance, sleep, repeat. It’s hard work, but it’s so rewarding.”

They were both recently accepted to the Bachelor of Fine Arts in Dance program at Florida State University.

So, what do you guys do with dance?

CM: I’ve done a lot of freelance work with companies in Tampa and Gainesville, and I’m always performing with DTSF [Dance Theatre of Sante Fe]. What I’d really like is to become an equity performer, or to have a contract with a company. Right now I’m working on finishing my degree at SF and then moving to Tallahassee to attend FSU.

DP: I have one more semester with Santa Fe before I start working on my BFA. Eventually, I want to do the same thing: company or equity performer. Really, it doesn’t matter to me where I am or who I’m with as long as I get to keep dancing.

How is ballet different for men vs. women?

DP: Men are like a commodity in ballet because there aren’t a lot of us. Teachers usually want to take advantage of the fact that we can partner so we sometimes wind up doing more than the girls.

CM: Our training is also a little different. There are some steps that are traditionally done only by women and some that are done only by men. Men are expected to jump higher, and we definitely need more upper-body strength because we need to be able to lift. Sometimes we get to take special men’s classes just to focus on those areas.

What about the stigma of ballet being for girls?

DP: Honestly, when kids used to tease me for doing ballet, it motivated me. I used it as ammunition to work harder and get stronger. If you’ve ever taken a ballet class then you know it’s not for wimps. Every single class, guys and girls are walking out drenched in sweat, and you’re sore pretty much all the time. It only looks so easy because we work so hard to make it that way.

CM: And think about it, you’re catching and lifting beautiful women over your head. Name something more manly than that.

What is it like being the minority in your field?

CM: It’s awesome. Strong male dancers are always in demand and there’s always an opportunity to partner someone. I love when there are a lot of guys in my class, though. You can make more interesting choreography when there is a big group of guys and girls.

DP: I think more is expected of us because we’re so few. We have to be able to do what girls can do and we also have to be ready for anything. When someone is depending on you to lift them, they’re trusting you with their career. It’s a lot of focus.

What made you decide to make dance your career and not just a hobby?

CM: For me it was when I got to Santa Fe and saw all the different kinds of opportunities that are out there for dancers. I’ve always loved dancing and I knew I wanted to keep doing it as an adult, but I didn’t really become set on finding a career until I met my teachers at SF.

DP: I’ve just always loved it, I don’t know what flipped the switch. I feel good when I’m doing it and I learn about life from dance. I have a tattoo of this quote my brother made me, and it describes how I feel perfectly: “Dancing is the most exciting form of art. The stage is your canvas, your body is your brush, and your heart is your color.”

Do you have any advice for guys who want to start ballet?

DP: Do it! Just find that thing that motivates you and use it to make yourself better. Focus on what you like about dancing and why you do it instead of what people might think of you. Then when you’re doing awesome ballet stuff that most guys can’t do, you know your passion is what got you there. And hey, girls love that drive.

CM: I say definitely try it if you think you’d enjoy it. I started when I was 10, an age where it was so uncool to be a ballet dancer, and I was surprised by how much I liked it. How I felt when I was dancing made me not care about anything outside the studio. Don’t get intimidated by what people might think and you might find something you really like.

Finding the Best Fit for Your Ballet Soft Shoes

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Fitting the right ballet shoe is somewhat like finding a brassière or the right shade of makeup: it’s almost impossible to buy the right one unless you’ve tried plenty of them on. Even if you have a pair of shoes that you’ve worn before and that seem to work well, it’s always a good idea to try on multiple pairs before deciding on one. There are always new and enhanced styles that might suit you better than your last pair, and you might just find a new favorite.

If you’ve never been professionally fitted before, trying to find your own pair can be overwhelming. Dancewear sizes are typically different from street clothing or shoe sizes and the numbers vary between companies and styles. Because all of this can make you crazy with confusion, here are some tips for making sense of the process:

1. If you’re enrolled in a formal class, check with your instructor before you buy anything. They or the studio might have rules or preferences about footwear and you’ll want to know what they find acceptable. They might even be able to recommend a specific brand or style that they think will fit your individual needs.

2. Consider the many, many style options. Soft shoes vary in more than just size – most companies make shoes in several colors, materials and sole types, and many of them incorporate fancy features like elastic or mesh arches. Here are the basic factors you should use to get started:

Material

Typically, soft shoes come in either leather or canvas. Both are perfectly suitable for regular practice, but they each offer different benefits.

Leather shoes provide a good grip on wood floors, but they might be too sticky for a vinyl Marley-style floor. This material will stretch and shape to your foot as you dance in them, so keep this in mind when you’re sizing them. Leather shoes also tend to last longer than canvas.

Canvas shoes are usually better suited for vinyl floors as they may slip too easily on wood. There isn’t much give in the fabric, so make sure the fit is perfect before you buy them. Canvas shoes are often shaped with more pleats than leather, which generally makes them able to accommodate wider feet. One great thing about this material is that there’s practically no break-in period, so how they feel when you first buy them is how they’ll feel until they wear out. Canvas can also be easily cleaned in the washer and set out to air dry – just be sure to avoid the dryer.

Color

The most common soft shoe colors are black and pink. There are also endless shades of pinks ranging from tan to bubblegum pink; the particular pink you choose typically depends on your preference, but you may want to check with your instructor to see if they have a particular preference (although generally, adult studios tend to be more relaxed about it).

Sole

Two basic sole types are full-sole and split-sole. For young beginners, teachers usually recommend a full-sole shoe because it offers more resistance and helps build arch strength early on. However, split-sole shoes are most commonly used by teens and adults as they tend to look nicer on the foot.

3. The sizing chart is a good guide for trying on your first pair, but don’t trust it blindly. Try to avoid buying shoes online unless you are very familiar with the company’s sizing or don’t mind returning a few pairs. Like any other shoe, ballet shoe sizes vary from company to company and many of them are measured in inches or European sizing charts. So if you’ve never been fitted before, it’s best to go to a dance supply store and try on the shoes in person. Most brands run 1-3 sizes smaller than street shoes, so use the company’s sizing chart to tell you where to start.

4. Once you’ve found your size, stand in them and try out a few pliés and relevés. Your toes should have enough room to spread out flat on the floor. If your toes feel crunched now, imagine how they’ll feel after a two-hour class! Point and flex your foot to make sure the heel doesn’t slip off or cut into your skin. A great measure for shoe length is to pinch the fabric at the back of the heel where the seam is. The ideal fit will allow you to pinch a thumb-width section together when your foot is pointed, yet have no gathered fabric when your foot is flexed.

5. Pull the drawstring just tight enough so that there are no gaps at your arches. You’ll probably want to tie a bow instead of a knot in case you need to adjust later. Remember to tuck the ends inside the shoe when you wear them for class.

Image via Flickr User Quinn Dombrowski

5 Easy Remedies for Your Post-Class Soreness

For a ballerina, there’s no bigger pill to swallow than starting a warmup with all-over muscle soreness. You worked your buns off the day before, and today, you’re feeling the consequence. Your legs each weigh a ton, your arms are like cooked noodles and your abs are so sore that even a chuckle sends you into the fetal position.

How are you supposed to dance when your body feels like this?

Despite what you might think, muscle soreness can be a  good thing. It can be frustrating and dreadful at times, but it’s a sign that your body has been challenged and is doing the repairs it needs in order to build muscle tissue.

Of course, by stretching and working responsibly, you can prevent unnecessary damage to this tissue — but if you’re pushing for significant improvement, it’s almost impossible to totally avoid soreness altogether. Because we all experience it at some point, here’s a list of our favorite remedies for those pesky aches:

1. Water

We all know that our bodies are largely composed of water and that it’s crucial to stay hydrated especially when we’re active. Get as much of it as you can during your rest periods and you’ll decrease the amount of soreness you experience after your workouts. By drinking lots of water, you’re flushing out the buildup of lactic acid in your muscles, which is what causes soreness. Try an electrolyte-infused water to replace what your body loses in sweat, and you’ll keep your muscles lubricated for your next session.

Beyond drinking it, the next best thing for sore muscles is soaking in it. Epsom salt baths are extremely beneficial as they provide the crucial minerals magnesium and sulfate, which help to form proteins and to flush toxins such as lactic acid from the body. Try adding about two cups of Epsom salt to a warm bath (it will dissolve more quickly under running water) and soak for at least 12 minutes. Your muscles will instantly feel more relaxed when you’re weightless in the warm water.

2. Massage

It might seem counter-intuitive to squeeze and rub your muscles when they’re already throbbing, but it’s the best way to push out that lactic acid that makes you weep in pain. Aside from the tried-and-true method of manual massage, here are some really helpful tools that can do the work for you.

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  • Foam roller

This one’s especially great for pressing out that IT Band, the “turnout” muscle. It gets knotted up easily, and ballerinas can benefit from massaging it regularly.

  • “The Stick”

For lack of a better name, The Stick is an awesome alternative to the foam roller. It’s thinner and made of a firmer material, so it reaches smaller areas with more pressure. Also, it’s handheld, so you can do it just about anywhere you can sit down.

  • Tennis ball

If you have one of these babies laying around, try using it to get localized pressure on those tiny areas your hands can’t find. Though most people use them to massage sore arches, there are tons of ways to use them. Experiment with lying on floor with the ball underneath your back — the spaces between your shoulder blades and spine carry a lot of tension, and the tennis ball works wonders here. Depending on the kind of pressure you like, a bouncy ball or golf ball will also work.

3. Stretching

Sometimes it feels great to sit in a straddle when your inner thighs are sore and you might think that stretching is exactly what you need. This is partially true, but in general, try to stay away from static stretching when you’re sore. For the most part, muscle soreness is caused by tiny tears in your muscle fibers. By sitting in a stretch for a long period of time, you’re probably only adding to the torn tissue, and your soreness will probably only get worse. Instead, try some dynamic stretches to warm your body and bring blood flow to your muscles. A great place to start is with sun salutation or some grand pliés.

4. Nutrition

What you eat is a extremely important to how you heal. Make sure you’re getting a balanced mix of lean proteins and complex carbohydrates. Eating foods such as bananas or spinach which are high in potassium will help soothe muscle cramps and anything with vitamin E will help reduce inflammation. Nuts, for example, are a great after-class snack because they have tons of protein and vitamin E.

5. Rest

What your mother always told you is actually true. Beyond all else, rest is what your body needs most in order to recuperate, whether it’s from illness, injury, or just exhaustion. When your muscles are telling you to stop pushing them, listen. Sometimes trying to push through the pain will only create more pain, and it’s important to know when to just stop and rest. Allow yourself plenty of rest and sleep, and if after two full days of rest you still feel too sore to move, ask your doctor about how to treat the pain. If your soreness is actually a more serious injury, you should find out as soon as possible so that it can heal properly.

3 Essential Stretches to Improve Your Turnout

Whether you’re trying to improve your flexibility, warm up for class, or just relieve some muscle soreness, stretching can be extremely beneficial. For this tutorial, we’ve picked our favorite basic hip-opening stretches inspired by our favorite yoga poses and in-class exercises.

Each of these poses can be modified to be either more or less intense, so choose the best variation for you. As always, listen to your body and keep in mind these tips for safe stretching:

  • Repeat the stretch on both sides. Don’t give up on one side when it can’t quite do what the other can. Symmetry makes for good alignment!
  • Breathe. It seems obvious, but it’s a natural tendency to hold your breath during a deep stretch. Taking deep breaths sends oxygen through your blood and to your muscles, which both feels great and helps your stretch.
  • Move slowly in and out of stretches, and never force yourself past the point of pain. Protect your instrument!

Drop-Second Plié

Stand in a wide second position, turning out only as much as your hips will allow. Hold onto a barre, table, chair, etc. for support as you bend into a deep grand plié. This stretch will be wider and lower than a proper grand plié, and you’ll want the weight of your pelvis to drop between your heels. Be careful of over-rotation — always keep the arches lifted, with all five toes rooted into the floor.

If you feel stable enough to balance in this position, try lifting your hands off the barre and placing them at your chest, palms together. Place your elbows at the insides of your knees and push your hands downward to push the knees back and open. Remember to breathe! To recover, gently take your elbows away from your knees, place your hands back on the barre, and use your glutes to rise and straighten your knees.

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Body Positivity in the Classroom

Screenshot 2015-06-23 11.18.37In the studio, we all want to do our best. We’re always looking in the mirror, trying to make our bodies do something new or challenging, and we’re always raising the standard for ourselves. It’s what makes us grow. Unfortunately, sometimes this feeling of ambition and expectation can make us feel inadequate. Sometimes we analyze our bodies so closely that we think there’s something wrong with us.

We talked body image with Katrina Errico, instructor and choreographer at Studio 19 Centre for Performing Arts in Eustis, Florida. She shared her experience with her own students and gave us some valuable advice about keeping a healthy attitude.

Is this a common issue among your students?

I see this a lot, especially with my teenage girls. For our adult students, we’re a lot more lenient with our dress code because we know how intimidating tights and a leotard can be. A lot of our adult students are women who have had children, haven’t danced in years or even have never danced before, and they don’t feel comfortable having their bodies on full display in class. If they can wear their favorite yoga pants and a tank top, they feel more secure and confident, and the experience can be about learning, not about comparing body types.

Why do you think we feel the need to compare ourselves?

Unfortunately, I think it’s natural to want to compare yourself. You’re in a room full of mirrors with a bunch of people you barely know, and you want to measure up. It can make you feel vulnerable — I don’t think there’s one of us out there who hasn’t looked at their body and wished they could change something about it.

Any tips for beginners or ballerinas intimidated by the big mirror?

  1. The most important thing to remember is that every single body is unique and special. Be grateful for the things your body can do for you, and recognize your unique talents. Maybe you’ve got a great extension, or a flexible back, or elegant epaulement. Whatever it is, your body is amazing for it.
  2. Compare yourself only to yourself; watch your progress and be proud of it. Don’t hold yourself to expectations meant for someone else’s body, and never talk down to yourself when you don’t get it right.
  3. Know your nutrition. Every successful ballerina knows that health comes first, and that a well-balanced meal is what your body needs to grow stronger between classes.
  4. Be patient with your body. Muscle tone and flexibility aren’t achieved overnight, and pushing yourself to rush the process can cause serious injury. We want healthy, happy bodies that can dance for a lifetime.

Image via Katrina Errico

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