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  • Jennifer Milner

Preventative Maintenance On the Road

Dancing away from your home base: it’s exhilarating, exciting, and fraught with uncertainty. Will the stage be too hard? Will there be time between classes to stretch properly? Will the teachers understand my twinge-y hamstring/floppy ankle/loose shoulder and work with me on it? Will there be healthy, quick food choices near each theatre or rehearsal space?

How many of my therapy toys can I justify bringing?

Leaving your regular routine can feel like you’ve got a lot of things outside of your control - and dancers never like to feel like they’re out of control! But if you take the time to do a bit of planning before you go, you’ll find maintaining your health in a strange city might be a lot more routine than you think. So as you pack your toe tape and blister pads, here are some things to keep in mind:

Think through your fueling routine BEFORE you go. Every dancer fuels a bit differently, but we all need a plan. Think about what sort of a situation you’re heading into and try to prepare accordingly. Living in a dorm with regulated cafeteria times, no mini fridge, and a need for several small meals a day? Figure out what nonperishable snacks you can bring with you to stash in your dance bag every day. Dried fruit, trail mix, and protein bars are all easily shipped and can last a whole summer without special storage. If you know you’ve got a mini-fridge, talk to friends who’ve been there and try to pinpoint a convenience store or grocery store in walking distance, so you can stock up on yogurts, string cheese, fresh fruit, hard-boiled eggs, whatever works for you. Research what you can, look at your sample schedule, and try to build in places you can grab a quick and healthy energy boost that won’t leave you rushing to find a restaurant or crashing from a sugar high an hour later.

But what if you’re on tour and will be in multiple cities where every situation’s different? Figure out what’s the same in each city and work with what you’ve got. Odds are you’ll be staying at a hotel within walking or easy public transportation of the theatre. Most likely, it’ll be downtown, which abounds with daytime coffee shops and corner stores, and nighttime restaurants for after-show meals. Think through what foods fuel you best and give yourself a loose plan so you’re not surprised and/or tempted each day. Because as fun as it is to go out for drinks and appetizers after a show once or twice, making it a nightly thing will make it hard for you to get to sleep and means you’re doing a post-show re-fuel on greasy foods and carbs. Figure out what your body needs at each point in the day: a light something before class, a medium something after rehearsal, a pick-me-up before the show, and a small meal afterwards, for example - and you’ll be confident heading into any city.

Bottom line? Thinking through a general plan before you head out will give you the confidence to make quick choices once you’re there. Not sure where to start? A sports nutritionist will be happy to talk through your needs and give you suggestions. And also? Give yourself room to enjoy life. If you’re in a town that has an award-winning bakery, for heaven’s sake, eat a cookie.

Evaluate what’s currently giving you problems, and discuss how to stay on top of it. Tricky hip/tight calves/funky shoulder, I’m talking to you. Before you head into an unknown situation, talk to your support team (you have a support team, yes? If not, that’s another blog) and figure out what’s going to need ongoing attention when you’re away from home base. Your teacher, company director, pilates trainer, physical therapist, etc. etc. can quickly give you a list of the “must manage” problems with your body. Work with them to come up with a simple, manageable routine you can handle on your own.

For instance, if you’ve got a history of shin splints, ask your circle to give you suggestions on preventative stretches or exercises you can do to counteract the upcoming hard stages you’ll be dancing on. If you’re recently returned from a back injury, plan a short list of maintenance exercises with your therapist, write them down with notes, and video yourself doing them correctly. The key here is “short”: a well-intentioned 90-minute daily workout plan will last, oh, about two days. Figure out what’s crucial, what’s realistic, and what’s doable, and nail that down.

And on this topic, create a small (SMALL!) list of necessary toys based on your needs: theraband? Calf board? Stretch strap? Roller? Parasetter? Be realistic, and prioritise. And consider sharing with a roommate - you bring the small balls, she packs the calf board, everyone wins.

Just make sure someone brings the calf roller. I know I mention it every post, but seriously, unless you’ve got a PT and/or massage therapist traveling with you, bring it.

Define your pre-class “necessities” and make them a habit NOW. This is similar to “staying on top of your stuff”, but in a pre-emptive, let’s-make-sure-there’s-no-NEW-stuff kinda way.

New cities/studios/intensives are intimidating and getting used to a rotating roster of new teachers can be hard. You may not always start out a rehearsal/class getting warmed up the way you’d like. So figure out your essentials and put together a short (!) routine with your circle (there’s that circle again!) that you know will get you there. Stayed up waaay too late on opening night, and are now facing class and rehearsal onstage in twenty minutes? Bring out your routine - favorite feet warmups, centering breaths, dynamic stretches, quick turnout exercise, roll out the piriformis and you’re ready. Facing that teacher who gives you a fifteen-minute barre then throws you straight into grande allegro for forty-five minutes? Thank heavens for your cheat sheet that’ll have you in alignment and warmed up with a fighting chance in fifteen minutes. Again, keep it short so it’s doable. And practice it NOW so it’s a comforting habit when you’re in a strange situation.

Gather your out-of-town contacts and referrals BEFORE you need them. I can’t tell you how many times my dancers call me from Cleveland/Minneapolis/Switzerland and ask me if I know a good PT/masseuse/chiropractor in the area. If you’re going somewhere that friends have been, ask them who’s their favorite PT on staff there. Find out if there’s a massage therapist that makes house calls. If you’re in one place the whole time, talk to your gyrotonics or pilates teacher and ask for a personal referral in that town. If you’re going to be traveling a lot, then have all the contact info for your support circle (you know I’m thinking it) plugged into your phone so you can call if something comes up. Because the best time to gather the info? Is BEFORE something happens.

Think through your hydration. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? But hear me out - while you might be beautifully hydrated in your regular life (I’m giving you the massive benefit of the doubt here), moving to a new schedule can throw all that off. To be blunt, you’re never sure when you’ll be able to pee, which means you just cut back on the water, which means you get dehydrated. Muscles use fluid and electrolytes to function properly. Your brain depends on being hydrated - dehydration can lead to short-term memory loss. Which means? You’re distracted and forgetting combinations in class, prone to pulled muscles, and more. Again, look at your sample schedule and figure out where your breaks are, and make sure you build plenty of chances to hydrate into your day.

Do what it takes to make sure you get enough rest. Going out on tour with friends? Perhaps plan on one or two post-show nights out each week, and commit to getting yourself a solid 10 or more hours of down time the other nights. Give yourself time to stretch, read, knit, whatever, as well as sleep each night so your body has a chance to heal well from the day’s demands. Figure out what your “usual” sleep needs are, and make sure you’ve got space in your routine to accommodate that.

Sharing a room with three strangers for the first time? Bring what you need to help achieve some quality shut-eye. A favorite hypo-allergenic pillow, eye shades, ear plugs, a “sleepy time” playlist loaded onto your iPod - know what you need and guarantee you’ve got it.

So are you ready? You can totally do this. Whether you’re preparing for a summer intensive, a six-week tour, or a short contract in a new city, advance planning is key. Taking the time to think through things before you leave and make some strategic decisions could mean the difference between flying home healthy and limping home injured.

Happy travels!

P.S. One of my dancers recently asked me if there was anything she could do this July to help herself stay in top health at her national summer intensive. When pressed to elaborate on what she was looking for, she laid it out - “You know, what can I do outside of all the dance classes to make sure I stay on top of my ‘stuff’ and don’t get injured?”

Now, I know this young lady and have worked with her for a while so I asked HER to tell ME what she should do. “If this were one of my blog posts, what would it say?” I asked. And sure enough, she knew the basics of what she needed to do - she just needed to process through it with someone before jumping into her new routine.

So thanks, A, for helping me write this!

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