Your Best Body: Port de Bras Tune-Up

Published in the April/May 2012 issue.

A Pilates ring adds resistance to traditional ballet arm positions. (Photo by Nathan Sayers.)

Ballet naturally creates strong legs. Arms, however, are another story. Many dancers are relatively weak in their upper bodies. They struggle with messy, floppy or stiff port de bras—or the dreaded “chicken wings.”  The good news? Targeted cross-training exercises can build strength in your upper body without adding bulk, and open your chest, upper back and sides. They offer a shortcut to smoother, freer, more supported port de bras.

Side Lying Arm Circle

Many dancers keep tension in their upper backs, so it’s important to warm up the area before dancing, says Jennifer Green, a physical therapist who owns New York City’s PhysioArts. Before class, lie on your right side with your left leg bent in a loose parallel passé. With the left hand, trace a circle along the floor from your knee, over your head, behind your back, then returning to your knee. Reverse the circle, repeat three to five times, then switch sides.

As your arm reaches around, extend through the upper back and twist your trunk. Keep your breath and eyes connected to the movement the whole time so that you train your body to relate your arms to your spine. This arm circle is a great way to start the day—it gently warms and limbers the upper back and chest muscles, allowing you to move your arms in their full range of motion. It also releases tension that can cause stiff port de bras.  

Pilates Magic Circle Series

No reformer handy? A Pilates ring is an excellent standby. Ashley Pierson, a Pilates coordinator at Equinox in New York City, recommends using the ring to add resistance to traditional ballet arm positions. Begin by holding the ring en bas (with slightly rounded elbows). Squeeze the ring 10 times. Lift your arms to first, then fifth, repeating the 10 pulses in each position. Or, you can try pulsing continuously while moving through your port de bras from en bas to fifth. Whichever version you choose, be sure to maintain proper placement in your torso: Don’t let the shoulders or ribs rise as the arms lift. Instead, draw the shoulder blades down and plug the upper arm bone into the socket. In addition to toning your arms, this exercise trains your trunk to maintain correct alignment as your arms rise over your head.

Many dancers have loose shoulder joints but tight chests, creating dangerous joint imbalances that leave them susceptible to injury. Open your chest and strengthen your back with this exercise: Put your hands on either side of the ring, holding it behind you. With slightly bent elbows, attempt to squeeze the ring (without letting your shoulders roll forward). The ring will not move! Pierson suggests three sets of 10 squeezes. This strengthens the rhomboids and trapezius muscles to help keep your shoulder blades in place. The trapezius also helps you support your arms from the back—which means it’s easier to hold proper positions, especially second. The best part? This will make you stronger without adding significant muscle mass. “These exercises work smaller, stabilizing muscles of the shoulder girdle,” says Pierson, “so don’t worry about bulking!”

Tabletop Extensions

For multi-tasking dancers, tabletop exercises (on hands and knees) can provide a full core, back and shoulder warm-up. “Don’t do heavy-duty strengthening before class,” Green says. “Go for muscle warmth, not fatigue.” Start in a tabletop position with your knees directly underneath your hips and your hands directly underneath your shoulders. Engage your deep core muscles to maintain a neutral spine as you extend one limb at a time without shifting your body. Next, reach the right arm forward while the left leg reaches back, then switch sides. Because your torso is parallel to the floor, this exercise challenges the entire core, working your abdominals, obliques, shoulders and back. It will give you the strength to keep the spine quiet as your limbs move through space.  

Resistance On-The-Go
Thera-Bands are many dancers’ go-to, portable resistance tools. They’re also a favorite of physical therapists because their possibilities are endless. Try the “classic” external rotator cuff exercise. Hold a looped, light to medium band in your hands, with your elbows bent to 90 degrees by your sides. Stretch the band apart by rotating the upper arm bone outward in the shoulder socket. Your elbows should not move. Hold for a moment, then slowly resist the band’s pull as you bring it back to the starting position. Aim for three sets of 10 rotations. A strong rotator cuff equals a healthy, balanced shoulder joint, preventing injuries from partnering and quick arm movements.

To strengthen the second position port de bras, Green has dancers wrap a semi-light band behind their back and hold the ends. Start with your elbows bent to 90 degrees and hands facing forward, and then extend the arms to a true second with rounded elbows. This exercise will give your second position more support and create resistance through your port de bras so that your arms don’t look weak or floppy.

Practiced regularly, these exercises will awaken integral stabilizing muscles and help you eliminate noodley, weak arms. Then you can transform your shoulder and core strength into true port de bras artistry.

A Smarter Flip-Flop

Sandal season is nearly here. But before you slip out of sneakers and into a pair of Havaianas, beware—flimsy flip-flops can aggravate foot problems. They offer no cushion or protection, and they force you to grip your toes as you walk. Luckily, there’s a healthy new open-toed option: FitFlops. The quirky brand was originally designed to tone your glutes, although the claim has not been proved. Nonetheless, it’s become a favorite with podiatrists because the design provides substantial stability and arch support. Who knew?

Love And Lose
Looking to slim down before spring performances? Instead of zeroing in on what you want to change, focus on what you already like about your body. A recent study from the Technical University of Lisbon and Bangor University found that women who worked on their body image were able to lose more weight than those who didn’t. Obsessing over your shape makes you feel anxious, which means that you’re more likely to give in to emotional eating, hindering your efforts to shed pounds.

Whey Ahead

New research shows that whey might have a nutritional edge on other forms of protein, such as soy or meat. One recent study found that whey may help you build muscle faster, while another showed it helps fight belly fat and reduce overall weight. The richest food source for whey is ricotta cheese, at 28 grams per cup. Other options include milk, yogurt and some other cheeses, as well as powder supplements.

Sweat Control

Splashing your neighbors during pirouettes? Try switching up the time you swipe on antiperspirant. Most formulas are more effective if you apply them before bed rather than in the morning or before class. The antiperspirant soaks into your sweat glands better if your skin is dry, which is more likely during sleep.

Train Like a Pro
Maki Onuki
The Washington Ballet’s Maki Onuki is a natural powerhouse. Most of the cross-training she does outside the studio focuses on relaxing her muscles rather than challenging them. “We’re a small company, so we work a lot,” Onuki says. “There’s only so much besides ballet I can do.”
Typical Gym Routine: “About once a week, I do the stationary bike or elliptical for 30 minutes on a light to medium resistance. I like to work on making my muscles long and strong for ballet by going lighter for a longer time rather than hard and heavy.”
Gym Alternative: “If my legs are tired, and I don’t feel like putting any more weight on them, I’ll go to the pool. I’m not a very good swimmer, though. I’ll swim a lap (50 meters), rest and then come back, for about four or five laps total. I like working against the water’s resistance. At the same time it relaxes my body because there’s
no weight.”
Weekend Favorite: “Hot yoga. There’s a lot of arm strengthening, so it’s good for my upper body.”
Rehearsal Antidote: “Sometimes after rehearsal I get in the hot tub at my pool. It relaxes my muscles immediately. But the next day I’m too loose, almost like jelly, so I can only do that right before the weekend.”
Post-Season Must: “After the season ends, I rest completely for a week. One or two days off isn’t enough—my muscles loosen up just a little bit without really recovering.”
What She Wishes She’d Do More Of: “Pilates and Gyrotonic. They’re better than anything else because they strengthen the particular muscles we need for ballet.”