6 Travel Tips for Dancers: Staying Well on the Road

As a child, going to the airport filled me with wonder and excitement. The smell of jet fuel and the hustle and bustle of the airport still means, in the words of Bilbo Baggins, “I’m going on an adventure!”

As an adult, I’ve spent a big part of my dancing career traveling to cities at odd hours to teach and perform in places I’ve never been before. It’s a fantastic job, and I am grateful for every moment of it.

With all my years of travel, I’ve learned a few things over the years. I’ve also learned that as I get older, my body doesn’t recover from travel as quickly as it used to. I’ve come up with survival techniques to keep limber and agile, even after being on a plane for 10 hours straight.

So, even if you’re not a dancer, or if you don’t even travel all that often, but just don’t want your body to feel like crap when you arrive, these little travel tips will help you keep moving. Just in time for your return back from your holiday vacations.

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Traveling While Dancing: 6 Tips for Moving Bodies

Doubles as a wine bottle carrier.

6 Travel Tips for Dancers (and other people with bodies)

1) Rollers and other self-massage devices. This might sound dirty, but self-massage devices are the best thing for a weary traveler. No, not that kind of massager. I’m talking the kind that you roll out your cranky and sore muscles.

My favorite is the TP Therapy GRID roller. It’s short, and hollow on the inside. I can fill it up with small clothing items so it takes up very little space in my luggage. Plus, if you happen to pick up a bottle of your favorite libation while on the road, the GRID roller doubles as a protective carrying case… Not that I’ve ever done that before.

Other small, but effective, tools include lacrosse balls and stick rollers. I love this Gaiam spiky stick roller, but you’re best off packing it in your checked luggage.

2) 4-Wheel Spinner Luggage. Nothing frustrates me more than a bag that won’t stand up on its own, and worse if it’s difficult to maneuver through crowded airport and train terminals. After a trip to Europe when I had to manipulate two unwieldy, unbalanced suitcases full of costumes and products for sale, I resolved to replace my bags with upright spinners as soon as I got back to the US. Because I refuse to be stingy when it comes to luggage and shoes (see #5 in this post), I’m still using those bags, seven years later.

A quality spinner will be nearly effortless to move, and your body will be grateful for not having to drag your stuff along behind you. If you’re on a budget, because luggage isn’t cheap, check out your local Ross, Marshall’s, or TJMaxx. There’s no reason to pay full price for name-brand luggage.

3) Water water water. This one’s obvious, but flying can make us feel like human raisins. Muscles, fascia, and tendons need constant hydration to stay at tip top shape, so don’t be like me and make the mistake of not drinking enough water while traveling. Most of my injuries can probably be traced back to not staying sufficiently hydrated.

Bring a refillable water bottle (empty, so you don’t get busted at the TSA checkpoint, or you’ll find yourself chugging 16+ ounces of water very, very quickly), and don’t be afraid to ask restaurants in the terminals to fill it up for you. Some terminals have filtered water stations (San Francisco International marks them on airport maps as “Hydration Stations.” How very Silicon Valley of them.)

If you need extra hydration, pack along some Emergen-C or other electrolyte formulas. The ones that come in tablet form travel best, but individual packets of powders work well, too. Make sure your bottle is rugged enough to get beat up. I travel with an insulated bottle that I can fill with cold or hot drinks.

4) Snacks. Snacks on a plane! Haha… ha… nevermind. Anyhoo… Like many 21st-century Californians, I have dietary restrictions. I can’t eat wheat because it triggers my chronic inflammation, and I avoid dairy, eggs, and meat.

Even if you can eat anything without feeling like someone is stabbing you in the large intestine, you might have noticed that plane food is expensive and unsatisfying. If you’re lucky to be flying out of an airport with decent restaurants (i.e., not Chicago O’Hare which has almost nothing for the gluten-free traveler), eat a large-ish meal in the terminal before you board… and be prepared for the rest of your trip with ample snacks.

I bring nuts, dried fruit, granola bars, instant oatmeal, and chocolate (of course!). I also bring along my favorite tea bags to keep some semblance of normalcy and comfort when I arrive at my destination (which I brew in my insulated water bottle). Remember that you can’t bring liquids or pastes on the plane, so leave that hummus at home, you fellow food weirdo.

Merrell discontinued these boots, so I bought an extra pair. Looks like Amazon still has some, though!

5) Shoes. I have a lot of feelings about shoes and travel. Our feet are our first line of defense against gravity, and a crappy pair of shoes will make your entire body ache. Dancers don’t have time for that. Heck, parents, businesspeople, and vacationers don’t have time for that either! I also don’t have time or packing space for bringing lots of different shoes with me when traveling. Personally, I get grumpy if I have to bring more than the shoes that I wear on the plane and maybe an extra pair of flip-flops for times I don’t need to go far, like from a hotel room to the breakfast buffet.

My requirements for shoes? Easy to take off and put back on (because airport security), versatile for the purpose of my trip, flat soled, supportive, and comfortable like slippers. A good pair of shoes should last for over two years, minimum. I’m particular to the Merrell brand for my weird, narrow feet, but for the love of all that is holy, don’t be one of those people that wears flip-flops or 4-inch stiletto high heels. You don’t want to have to run to a connection with shoes like that, and both will likely make your joints very grumpy.

6) STRETCH. You know that weirdo in the back of the plane, near the galley and the lavatories, contorting themselves into some weird yoga poses as you try to get by? Don’t be afraid to be that person. Keep your blood flowing and stretch, particularly your hip flexors and hamstrings, which inevitably are shorted when you sit in those tiny little airplane seats. In addition, those seats fit about 1% of the population. The rest of us are too short or too tall. Plus, if you get up and head to the back of the plane for a bit, you can ask the flight attendants for more water… or for the wonder that is tomato juice, which we all know you only drink when you’re on a plane.

How I want to dress on planes. (Randy from A Christmas Story.)

Bonus: 7) Stay Warm. If you’re one of those people who is always cold, you understand. And for dancers, the cold can be a formidable foe for our bodies. Bring a jacket on the plane that you can also use as a blanket, as well as a big scarf that can keep your neck and head warm if you get blasted by the plane ventilation system. If it’s too cold to stay seated, and it’s safe to move about the cabin, get up and go stretch out near the galley.

Traveling dancers: What are your favorite tips for keeping limber and ready to move when you travel?





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Flock You! How to Be a Better Dance Company Member

I’ve spent most of my movement “career” as a soloist, only responsible for the placement of my own body in space.

As a figure skater, I had to learn quickly how to dodge other skaters, maneuver around small children on skates for the first time on crowded public sessions, and predict the pathway of experienced national and international stars preparing for triple-revolution jumps. As I navigated around the other skaters, I had to avoid the crowds, and work through them to take advantage of space and openings to practice my own jumps, spins, and programs. Occasionally, I would perform group numbers with other skaters, but that didn’t always go so well for me. (One of these days I’ll tell a story about that…)

As a belly dancer, too, I’ve spent most of my time as a soloist. But for the past several years, I’ve been performing as a core member of a company, and my responsibilities are quite the opposite. Instead of avoiding other dancers, I must move in unison with them, predicting their movement not to get out of their way, but to match their body angles, arm and leg lines, and facings.

Learning how to move as one with a group of people, while remembering choreography, facings, staging, and other complexities is not easy. But it taps into a kind of sixth sense that we humans do have.

Flock

Moving With Others Is Instinctual

Humans are social creatures. We learn at a very young age how to read the body language of our parents and the other people around us. By mimicking and interpreting the gestures, facial expressions, and other physical movements of our fellow humans, we learn to integrate into increasingly larger and larger social circles.

One way that we integrate into social situations is by literally imitating the physical actions of those around us.  In dance improvisation, we call this “flocking.” Of course, we see flocking in nature, too, in the flight patterns of migrating birds and in swirling schools of fish. And several recent studies of human behavior indicate that this instinct is inherently human, should we allow it to manifest. We see it in the behaviors of demonstrators, concert-goers, and Black Friday deal-hunters….whether we like it or not.

The ability to harness this human instinct conscientiously and flock and change direction within a crowd is essential to being a strong member of a dance company.

Then, if it is born into us, why is it sometimes so difficult to match our fellow dancers in rehearsal or on stage?

Well, when we add in additional cognitive and physical actions, such as remembering choreography, counting music, playing finger cymbals, additional blocking or staging, the brain is doing much more than just following the crowd. We must not only keep track of where we are in space in relation to our fellow dancers, but also trust our technical training, engage with the audience, and put on an entertaining show. This takes time, but with practice and mindfulness, you can improve your ability to read your fellow company members.

Fostering the Flocking Feeling

How can we work on our flocking instinct and become more integrated members of our dance company?

  • Start in class. When you’re in class, you are not alone. Sure, you are there to work on your own technique and progress, but you are also part of a group. Also, we are often in class with other students who are in our respective dance companies. Being in class is regular, low-pressure opportunity to “vibe” out your fellow company members, and get in sync with them as you drill, work across the floor, or dance a combination. In many of the modern classes I’ve taken, the instructor will encourage following the other dancers over following the music.
  • In rehearsal, when running group choreographies, pay special attention to the upper backs of your fellow dancers. The width of the upper back, including the shoulders, often determines the facing the body, and when performing set choreographies with changing facings, it’s important that everyone’s upper bodies are all facing the same direction at the same time. You’ll notice that if one dancer’s back is slightly off from the rest of the group, the entire group will look look less cohesive.
  • If you’re a company director, take some time with your dancers to try some improvisational flocking games. Try the second game on this page, aptly called “Flocking.” Encourage your dancers to play with facings, arm pathways, traveling directions, and level changes. See how tightly the group can move together, and how closely the dancers can follow one another.

Of course, some choreographies, such as modern and contemporary pieces, don’t always rely so heavily on strictly-timed, unison movement. Each dancer might be dancing a different phrase, or the same phrase in different timings. But many dance forms do feature this choreographic device, such as the tight unison of this hula halau at the Merry Monarch Festival in Hawai’i.

Next time you rehearse, remember these shoals of anchovies and mumurations of starlings in the wild, and know that the ability to follow your fellow dancers is already in you.

 

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How Dance Company Rehearsals Aren’t Technique Class

We dancers rely on repetition. When we work on the same movements again and again, refining and expanding them, we help integrate them into our muscle memory. From that memory, we can call upon those movements when we need them, be it when performing a choreography, improvising, or creating new work.

Sometimes it feels like because we are practicing the same choreographies again and again that attending company and troupe rehearsals might also be a substitute for taking technique classes. Yes, rehearsals require refinement of movement, learning the skills of working with others, matching their lines, flocking, and also showcasing your clean technique. But rehearsals and technique class have different objectives, and your mindset in each should be slightly different.

TechniqueNotRehearsal

Attending rehearsal is not the same as attending a regular technique class.

In most dance forms, skipping technique isn’t even an option. Professional dance companies, from ballet to modern to hula, almost always require their members to take at least one weekly class. If you’re skipping out on technique, you’ll be missing out on opportunities to work on the essential movement elements you need to use in rehearsal. Plus, rehearsals just aren’t the time to be learning how to do the movements.

Here’s what you’re missing if you regularly skip technique:

Working on you. When you attend a technique class, you are there to push yourself with the instructor’s guidance. You don’t need to worry about what anyone else in the class is working on at that moment. You are there to work on what you need to work on and receive feedback from your instructor to make you a better dancer. You are pretty much only responsible for your own learning. You are solo, unencumbered by responsibility to the group (apart from the usual classroom courtesies and etiquette of not running into people, managing your personal space, and staying in lines and groups as necessary). In rehearsal, however, you are one member of a larger unit. A whole. Everyone in a company rehearsal is responsible for everyone else. It is not a solo venture. Let technique class be a time to work on what you need to work on.

Expanding your physical and embodied knowledge beyond what is necessary for the next performance. When a student attends more rehearsals than technique classes, they are only working for the short-term. What’s the next show? What dances are we performing? What are we working on next? If you’re only attending rehearsals, you’re very likely working on choreographies that might be using one side of the body more than the other, and it’s very unlikely that the choreographies you’re working on are going to include the wide breadth and scope of technical skill required of your dance form. Technique classes challenge your body and your physical skills, so that when you attend rehearsal, you can bring those skills in right away.

Building your movement vocabulary. This is certainly related to the previous point. If you’re only ever attending rehearsals, you’re not working on an a wide range of movement vocabulary. Even if you’re running an evening-length show. Technique classes keep your body primed for whatever the next choreography might be, so that you can just jump right into doing that dance without figuring out how to do it. That’s not what rehearsal is for; that’s why you attend technique classes.

Pushing yourself in a relatively risk-free space. Sure, when you attend dance class, it can feel like you need to get everything right each time you try something. But technique class is an opportunity for you to experiment. What happens if you reach your arms a little more, breath deeper, extend through your toes more, or press up into your forced arch just a little higher than you did last week? Does it work? If not, why not? If so, how can you find that sensation again when you need it? What could you do to make your next round of movement clearer, cleaner, more effortless, and more confident? You also learn how you work under various stresses. Maybe it’s a bad day at work, a bad night’s sleep, an injury. You still come to class and do the work. How does that work change from week-to-week? You won’t know unless you attend regular classes. In a technique class, you should be pushing yourself beyond your technical limit so that when you do perform, either in a company or solo, you can be so confident with your movement that you don’t have to think about it. You bring these discoveries to rehearsal, rather than making them there.

When you miss technique class, you miss an opportunity to work on yourself. Plus, you might find that when you are tired and maybe even a little bit grumpy, that taking that time for you will make you feel uplifted and reinvigorated. Make technique class as high a priority as attending rehearsals. Your body will thank you, and it will make learning that new company choreography so much easier.

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How Sitting Out Can Make You A Better Dancer

When you’re a dancer, sitting out might make you feel like you’re not doing enough. You want to get the most out of every class you take. And sometimes, that means you can be really hard on yourself when you might be laid up by an injury or having a difficult day with your body. Well, I know I can be really hard on myself.

The reality is, though, as dancers we do get injured, have off days, and if we are consistently training and taking classes, our bodies will need breaks…. but we’re still expected to attend classes and rehearsals.

How sitting out can make you a better dancer.

Sitting Out Is Still Participating

While earning my MA at Mills, I had to take a set number of technique classes, and our grade depended on our participation. That meant showing up for class, even if we were injured. If we had to sit out, our instructors required us to take notes, so that we could still engage mentally with the movement material. They didn’t let us leave halfway through class, and there were only so many absences we could take without it affecting our grade.

When I tore my hamstring (again) in February 2015, I sat out for nearly three weeks of technique classes. While I felt completely devastated by not being able to participate, I now realize that this was an opportunity to refine my eye for watching dance and learning material in a new way.

It also gave me an opportunity to work smarter when I was healed enough to participate.

5 Ways Watching Class Can Improve Your Skills

  1. You can rest your body while still observing and learning. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in pushing ourselves and our bodies that we forget that recovery is essential to being strong dancers. Plus, being in the studio classroom with your hard-working, talented colleagues is a great antidote to self-pity.
  2. You can see how others apply the cues and techniques presented in class. Then you can ask yourself if you are doing the same when you return to the floor. I noticed in one of my technique classes at Mills that several students allowed their pelvis to over-tuck during battement exercises, and now I pay better attention to that in my own body. You can also feel how the energy of the room shifts when an instructor asks dancers to be bigger, commit more, and think less.
  3. You can be present and supportive of your fellow dancers. Energy in the room depends on who is there and how engaged they are with the material. If you’re not there, your energy isn’t there. I know that when my fellow dancers are sitting out, I can still feel their engagement and support from the sidelines.
  4. You can take notes in your dance journal. Taking notes is another form of motor memory. When you sit out and observe, you can write what you see, which helps commit new ideas to memory. I know I will be referring to my notes for years to come. Plus, notes are far more permanent than a combination that you learn once and never repeat.
  5. Your instructors will not think you are a failure. They won’t think you’re weak, or that you aren’t dedicated if you sit out. It’s more likely that they will appreciate that you took care of yourself that day, and that you were present for everyone else in class.

Additional Sitting Out Strategies

This isn’t to say that you should sit out whenever you’re tired or not feeling up to dancing. And I don’t think that taking notes are a wholesale substitute for dancing. When there’s a choice between dancing and not dancing, the answer should be “dance, of course!” But if you attend a regular class, and are laid up with an injury, I recommend still going to class.

Be polite and quiet if you are sitting on the sidelines. Communicate with your instructor what is happening with your body, as well as what you are doing to actively rehabilitate yourself. Remind them if a recurring injury flairs up.

If you don’t have a plan, your instructor can help direct you to body workers, PTs, and other professionals who can help. Your instructor will appreciate that you let them know your situation, and they will also note that you still showed up for class, even if you weren’t able to do everything.

That kind of commitment goes a long way, not only in the dance studio, but also on the stage, and your life outside the studio.

Have you had to sit out class because of injury? What did you learn from that experience?

Tell us in the comments!

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