- Jennifer Milner
Developing a Post-Show Recovery Routine
The curtain comes down. You race back to your dressing room, adrenaline still pumping. You untie your pointe shoes, hang up your tutu, and peel off the toe tape. You feel the energy drain out of you as you wipe off your makeup, throw on your street clothes, and close up your dance bag.
Everyone has different post-show rituals: some dancers insist on drinking a certain juice or tea after a show, while others have time-worn traditions involving a favorite late-night diner, or a standing date with a good book and a cozy chair. But all successful dancers have one thing in common: they know that their job doesn’t end when the curtain comes down. Many dancers, especially early on in their careers, think the most important thing to do after a show is rest. The show is open - now all that’s left is sleeping and warming up and doing it again! But that’s just one aspect of post-show maintenance. How you treat your body - the steps you take to help it stay healthy and running at peak performance - after a show can mean the difference between a healthy, pain-free run and a career laden with injuries. Here are a few common steps to consider adding to your own post-show routine:*
Many dancers take time to soak their feet in ice water every night. Icing helps bring down inflammation quickly and may help your feet bounce back more readily for another day of torture. I have a friend who danced in the grueling Rockettes Christmas show every year, and he’d force himself to take a full-body ice-water bath every night; he swore that when he did, he felt fine the next day and when he didn’t, he was so sore he couldn’t move. I’m not suggesting that kind of dedication (or craziness) - but some quick ice “love” may keep you on your toes longer!
Every dancer claims he or she stretches regularly, but when you ask to see that routine you realize it involves a lot of sitting in the straddle splits before class or grabbing a foot while standing and pulling it over the head. You should stretch not just the muscles that you need long to give you higher extension, but also the muscles that do all the labor and need some attention, like your quads. After a show, stretching out the muscles that have been working hard will help them relax and recover faster. I’m not talking about the hang-in-the-hypersplits-for-three-minutes thing: this is not the time to seek to increase extension. Think of it as the “well done, there, guys, you can relax now” treat you give those hard working muscles. Standing on a calf board, safely stretching your quads and hip flexors, pretzel-stretching your turnout muscles, and if you’re a guy, releasing those back and arm muscles after partnering, will go a long way to showing your muscles some love.
Similar to stretching, release work will loosen you up with the aid of a prop, such as a foam roller or small release balls. Foam rollers are great for bringing blood back to the legs and loosening up a knotted back, but they’re not my favorite for “sit there and dig into a trouble spot”. I like to use a foam roller to loosen up my fascia, my connective tissue: I’ll roll out my IT bands and quads and glutes and think about trying to separate my skin from the muscles underneath it. Sort of a rocking back and forth, trying to get the fascia more supple.
For deeper muscle work, I love using balls. I have Eric Franklin balls that are great for loosening up the neck; small, hard rubber balls that I swear are the best things for rolling out tired, knotted feet; and a black Yamuna ball for rolling out my glutes and piriformis.
And for my calves? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again - this calf roller machine is the diggety dog. It’s seriously worth the investment and more than one ballerina I know swears its nightly use is the thing that saves her during a long run of a show. Throw your legs on it, read a book, and forget about it.
Eating after a performance is vital, and WHAT you eat is almost as important. Every dancer is different so find what works for you; I would simply suggest that popcorn, chips, and snack-cakes or the like might not be most efficient fuel for your calories. Choose nutrient-dense foods that will give you a lot of bang for your buck while not stuffing you so full you can’t sleep at night. Have questions? Seek out a sports nutritionist who can help devise a fueling strategy that’s right for you.
You knew this was coming, didn’t you?? Hydration is critical for your muscles, connective tissue, joints, brain - everything. And since you can’t run to the bathroom several times during a show - those pesky tutus - you have to taper off a bit before the curtain goes up. I personally love coconut water and what it does for me; some dancers swear by enhanced waters while others save their cash and drink the old-fashioned h-2-o. Just make sure you hydrate plenty post-show.
Don’t discount the benefits of a hot bath for sore, aching muscles. Throw some magnesium salts in there - some studies suggest magnesium salt can help regulate electrolytes in your body, ensuring proper functioning of the muscles, nerves, and enzymes - and you’ll find yourself looking forward to this part of your routine every night.
Stick with me here - I know everyone breathes already. But doing deliberate, guided breathing can actually help your body recover faster. It’s no secret I use the Parasetter on many of my dancers and it’s an integral part of the Recovery Class I offer companies. Developed by the physical therapist for the New York City Ballet, just lying on the Parasetter is great for simply relaxing the muscles in your spine and ribs. But take yourself through some of the recommended breathing sequences on it, and you’re helping your body speed the recovery process.
In a nutshell, when our skeletal muscles work hard, they require more oxygen and glucose, so your body speeds up the heart rate and breathing to meet these needs, flooding your body with cortisol. Proper posterior breathing can encourage the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows heart rate and controls the body at rest and can decrease levels of the hormone cortisol, which can delay healing when present at high levels. Doing some cognitive breathing into the back of your ribs before bed can often help you sleep better, as well! A Parasetter isn’t needed for cognitive breathing; you can do posterior breathing without one. But I highly recommend it.
I don’t really have to list this, do I? You need your sleep. A one-time late-night hangout with friends is one thing; making a habit of it while getting up early every day to go to class is another. Your body needs its down time, and plenty of sleep so it can function efficiently.
Do you need all of this? The only person who can answer that is you. Most dancers who live life on tour with a show, or work for a full-time company, know that they need something to keep their body healthy beyond just getting through the weekend. New York City Ballet has offered recovery sessions after performances, to great effect on the dancers’ health. I know dancers I train who have worked out routines that have kept them healthy and strong when everyone else is falling apart from dancing on hard floors or through long hours. It needn’t be a multiple-hour ordeal; a few minutes a night could pay off for years down the road. Learning how to tailor a recovery routine to your body and your schedule will serve your career and your health for a long time, and keep the joy and the strength in your dancing.
*Just a reminder - I’m not a medical professional at all. Seek out professional help for specific issues, advice on how to do stretching or release moves, dietary recommendations, etc. Also? I don't make any money off the links - I just link to stuff 'cause I like it and want you to know about it.