- Jennifer Milner
What to Do With Your Down Time
Audition. Take class. Audition. Take class. Take class. Get a contract! Take class. Rehearse. Rehearse. Take class. Rehearse. Rehearse.
Opening night! Another show. Another show. Another show. Another show. Hiatus.
Dancers are constantly on the go, pushing to their limits, then pushing just a bit more. So when a dancer has down time, it’s easy to panic. Should I do two classes a day? Should I be resting? If I rest, will I get fat and out of shape? (Just speaking truth here- taking care of your mental health is a whole other blog). Is now the time to take extra coaching and try to get ahead? If I do nothing, won’t I just fall behind?
I know this is the point where you want me to lay out Three Easy Steps or Here’s What You Do, but it’s more complicated than that. Unfortunately, there’s no cookie-cutter answer for me to give you, since the answer greatly depends on your physical health at the time of your break, as well as what’s expected of you when you come back. So you need to listen to your body, and plan accordingly. But here are some things to talk over with, well, yourself, as you make your decisions:
What’s coming next?
This is the first question to ask yourself, simply because it’s going to determine where you need to be when your break is over. Do you have another show coming up two weeks after you’re back? Do you start summer intensive auditions two days after your first official class? Do you have three months to get ready for your next show/competition/audition? Obviously this will affect how you use your break time. No matter what, though, you need a break. Whether it’s a full-stop break, or a slowing down to give your body time to recover while still being ready to hit the ground running in two weeks, you need to allow for your body to heal. With that in mind, ask yourself:
How do I feel right now?
What’s your physical and mental state right now? Are you hovering on the edge of burnout? Are you exhausted? Do you feel something twinge-y in your knee? Have a tricky hip you’ve been ignoring to get through Snow? I know you’re not always honest with your parents/teachers/directors, but try to take an honest inventory right now. It’s really going to help you spend your time off wisely.
If you’re delirious with joy that it’s break time, you are not alone, believe me! And though it’s tempting to bury your dance bag in the closet and partake of an inordinate amount of candy canes and cheeseburgers while blithely ignoring the fact that you have Square Dance rehearsals starting in ten days, and crash on the couch binge-watching all the old Gilmore Girls in one continuous day, you are not doing your future self any favors. Your feet may have stopped moving, but your body still needs to be fueled - efficiently. Enjoy your favorite foods, but keep the nutrients coming, too, to avoid injuries and depletions when you get back. And cry away at the Last Four Words, but stretch while you’re doing it and make sure you get your butt into a few classes over the break. Zumba, yoga, pilates, whatever - keep it moving and you’ll have a healthy head start to the next season. Also, clean out your dance bag before you bury it. No one wants to return to that stink.
If you’re feeling on the edge of burnout, I encourage you to give your brain -and heart - a break. I’m not telling you to ignore your body for a month- not at all. But if you’ve lost your love of dance and feel a dull ache when you think about having to crank it back up in a couple weeks, then let’s get some fresh air in your life. Take some yoga classes, swim laps, join a walking group - do something physical, but give your brain a mental break. Stretch when you’re ready, continue to eat healthily, and keep yourself physically active while not forcing yourself into class. You’ll most likely hit a point where you’re craving a ballet class, and find yourself looking forward to a pair of pointe shoes again. And if those thoughts only bring you dread, well, it might be time to talk to someone about where you go from here.
If you’re ignoring something you know is a problem, a break is the perfect time to address it. Find a doctor, a PT, or whatever is needed, and get that hip/knee/infected toe looked at. Get a massage. Or three. If it’s not quite doc-worthy (and be HONEST here!) sign up with your trusty pilates or gyro or cross-trainer or coach and figure out what is going on with your technique that’s causing the issue. Take lower-level classes, if appropriate with your issue, but don’t push it. A break is the perfect time to address the stuff you’ve been ignoring and get yourself ready to hit the ground running.
If you’re plain physically worn out, well girl, you gotta rest. Constructive rest is a real
thing, there’s been lots of studies done on it, and you need to do it. Sleep when you want and ignore the teasing of your non-dancer friends. Fuel your body with lots of nutrient-dense foods. Get a massage. Or three. Take lots of hot baths with mineral salts. Stretch regularly, but not to push it - just to stay loose and limber. Go for walks, take a couple classes as you feel ready. If you’re in a situation where you can’t rest as much as you’d like (hello, holiday pressure/survival job/family time) take little breaks as possible: lie on the floor (or ideally on a parasetter) and give yourself breathing breaks. Make sure your neck is supported with your head slightly elevated so your neck is in line with the rest of your spine, and lie with your arms by your sides, palms up, knees bent. Take deep breaths into your back ribs. Even 15 minutes at a stretch here a couple times a day will help your body recover. If you’re on your feet a lot over the break, do the same position but with your feet up a wall.
If you’re feeling tired but still pretty good, well, congratulations, you trained and prepared for the big show push in exactly the right way! Now’s the time to let the body recover a bit, but no need to stop completely. Take a few classes a week, visit your favorite coach or trainer and toy with that new variation if you feel up to it. Keep your brain challenged and your body ready, but cut back so you don’t come back to the new year already in the hole. Sleep, eat, stay loose and in-tune.
Bottom line: all dancers need rest. It’s just as important as the training and tech rehearsals. I’ll do another article here on how to structure your year around your changing schedule, so you can learn how to ramp up and power down throughout the cycles, in a few weeks. For now, though, enjoy your time off and don’t feel guilty about it. Learning to power down and heal is an important part of the job
What are your favorite tricks for resting and recovering during a break? Please share below- I’d love to hear them!