Caring for the Dancer’s Body During the Holiday Break

To keep the body in good health is a duty... ~Buddha

     As the holidays grow closer, Nutcracker productions come to an end, dance schools close for a few weeks, students take a break from dance classes and everyone looks forward to some much deserved rest.  There is no doubt that our bodies benefit from rest and that our muscles need time to repair themselves after working strenuously, yet, I always hear dancers lament that as soon as Nutcracker season comes to an end, they become sick. 


     Exercise over a prolonged period of time has been shown to have a positive effect on the body’s immune system.  Moderate exercise stimulates T-cells which are produced by the thymus gland.  These cells seek out invading infectious cells and kill them off. 
However, bouts of intense exercise encourage the body to produce stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) that temporarily suppress the immune system.  A full run of Nutcracker would certainly fall into this category.

     When most dance students are on vacation, they tend to abandon all physical activity.  Since moderate continuous exercise stimulates the immune system, that benefit is lost.

     During the holidays, we also tend to eat more foods that are higher in sugar content than we normally consume.  Sugar interferes with the human body’s ability to absorb vitamin C which plays a big role in helping us fight disease.
     So….yes, dancers’ bodies deserve a rest from class, but dancers can stay healthy if they continue to exercise on some level each day.  A simple walk each morning, a yoga class or a Pilates class will keep the immune system stimulated.   It’s also helpful to think about how much sugar you might be consuming……but don’t go overboard!  If those Christmas cookies look good and smell good then you should definitely have some!  The holiday season, after all, only comes once a year.

Happy 2012
 May it be a year filled with healthy, intelligent dancers!

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Dance With Special Populations

    "People dance because dance can change things.  Dance can give hope."
                                                     - Adam Sevani (from the movie Step Up 3-D)      

           Dance can change the shape of our muscles.  Dance can change the nervous system.  Can dance change lives?

            A group of parents of special needs children in the Milford, Connecticut area would say yes.  Each week in the fall their children attend a dance class run by Debra Marchese through the City of Milford’s Adaptive Arts Program.  These children are either on the autism spectrum, have Down Syndrome or have been diagnosed with other disabilities.  As the weeks progress, the classes evolve into rehearsals for a very special production of  The Nutcracker.

            During the class the students are mentored by students from New England Ballet.  Some dance along side the students, some mirror the movements for the students, some provide verbal cues and others provide actual hands-on tactile instruction, guiding a foot to the perfect tendu or arms to the perfect fifth position.

            Not all of the students rush to the barre immediately.  Some hide under tables until coaxed out, and others prefer to continue to talk about the costumes they have been allowed to try on in preparation for the performance.  However, everyone’s excitement is evident through giggles and shouts of, “Is today my special day?”

            As Debra announces that it’s time for Snow, the students rush to the right side of the space to prepare for their entrances.  They are accompanied by their mentors and other members of New England Ballet’s Company.  The New England dancers will act as their co-dancers and their guides, once again providing either verbal, visual or tactile cues which culminate in a beautiful dance.

            The story is shorter than that of the traditional Nutcracker, and the choreography is less complex, but the contagious excitement is there as is the pride of the performers.  This year’s Sugar Plum Fairy pays careful attention to the position of her hands and fingers as she delicately flicks her wrists to the strains of Tchaikovsky’s score while grinning from ear to ear.

            New England Ballet will present the Adaptive Nutcracker Suite for the second year on Friday, December 16, at the Parsons Government Center in Milford at 7 pm. The Milford students will be joined on stage by students from similar classes held in Southport and Trumbull.

            The performance will, undoubtedly, bring tears to the eyes of the audience members, parents, teachers and mentors who will be moved seeing what these children have accomplished, but it will also do more.

            For one brief evening, these special students who must work very hard at socializing, adapting and performing everyday functions that most of us take for granted, will feel the excitement of waiting in the wings, the joy of dancing with their peers and the pride of being applauded by an enthusiastic and appreciative audience.  It is during those moments that others will be able to witness how dance can change lives.

            If you know of other productions like this, please leave me some information in the comment section.  I would love to read about them!

Using Dance to Strengthen the Nervous System

“Every dance movement I make helps me orient myself in reality, my own emotions, and my own body."- Joseph Baldock
Our bodies are amazing.  We are adaptable beings.  Our muscles can change shape and our nervous system continually grows and adapts.   This ability to adapt, or neural plasticity, is part of what makes dance such a great activity for special populations.
As soon as we are born, our bodies begin to develop through eight basic neurological patterns, or pathways, that establish our nervous system.

1)    Breathing – as soon as we leave the
2)    Sensory Integration – established  
       through tactile communication, or 
       touch- the reason that human contact
            is so important during the first 3 months              of life.
3)    Core-distal movement – movements that begin to use the
           arms and legs reaching away from the torso
4)    Head to tail movement – Curling and curving of the back to
            help align the spine
5)    Division of upper & lower body movements – teaches
            stabilization of body parts
6)    Division of right & left side body movements – helps to
            develop weight shifting ability and horizontal eye
7)    Cross-lateral movement patterns – since each side of the body
             is controlled by the opposite side of the brain, these 
             movements encourage the strengthening of
             pathways between the right and left brain hemispheres
8)    Vestibular movements – spinning or swinging movements
             that help develop balance, and muscle tone as well as

When one of these motor patterns is skipped, partially developed, or altered, it shows up as a limitation or a problem with perception, movement and/or thought processes.  The good news is that the pathways are never destroyed and can always be re-established through movement.

Working on re-establishing these patterns can help people with all types of disabilities ranging from sensory processing disorders to autism spectrum disorders to Alzheimer’s disease.  Using movement as a tool is exactly the premise behind occupational therapy programs that work with people who are struggling with these disabilities.

It is exciting to realize that we, as dance educators, can use our art form as a tool to help these populations.  Dance educator, Anne Green Gilbert, has developed a warm-up program called Brain Dance, which she uses at her studio in Seattle, Washington.  She incorporates movements that follow the eight developmental patterns in an effort to either reorganize or reinforce the basic neurological patterns.

Since most dance classes include movements that include these patterns, this reinforcement is easy to incorporate into our classes.  What a simple way to use our knowledge to contribute to the development and re-establishment of the nervous system and create healthy dancers among all populations!

Nutcracker Trivia Contest

Link to The Healthy Dancer Facebook Page to enter our Nutcracker Trivia Contest!