For those who don't know me, my name is Jessica Woodman and welcome to my blog, Barre Fly. I'm a professional dancer, teacher, and fitness instructor based in the SF Bay Area. You can read my full bio in the About section of this website. Over the last few years I have spent a lot of time furthering my education through various certifications, a college degree, and other experiences. At the same time, the company I danced with for five years folded and caused me to rethink what I want out of my career as a dancer. Especially, now that I am no longer in the beginnings of my career (dirty thirty, here we come!). Now that my schooling is coming to an end, at least for the moment, I've got some extra time and thought I'd start a blog to talk about the things I've learned over the course of my career. While this is mostly a cathartic exercise for myself, I hope those of you taking the time to read this are, at the very least, semi entertained.
I decided to start with my journey of finding a cross training method that helped reshape my dancing and heal injuries that were anywhere from a few weeks to many years old. Injuries are nothing new in the dance world as almost every dancer I know has had to overcome something. Through my own experiences and watching others, I've come to the conclusion that it is possible to overcome almost any injury with the right cross training and a willingness to let go of the dancer you were before the injury occurred. For myself, this has been a bit of a process because the first severe injury I had was when I was 13. Being so young I had not yet figured out exactly who I was as an artist, so letting go of the dancer I used to be wasn't the problem. Instead it was about letting go of the dancer I wanted to be and that has been a very long journey.
Until more recently than I care to admit, I continued to struggle with wanting to be a different dancer than what I ultimately became. I don't mean wanting to be a jazz dancer and instead becoming a ballet dancer. I mean wanting to be a ballet dancer and feeling as though my body was holding me back from doing that at the level I had deemed "acceptable" in my head. Part of the reason for feeling this way is because of my approach to dealing with my injuries. Working around and working through an injury are two very different things. When we work around an injury we develop ways to physically and mentally avoid the problem. Unfortunately, this causes more harm because it allows for other physical imbalances to occur and increases the likelihood that we will be injured again. Another byproduct of this, at least for myself, is that it makes being injured part of our identity. Our pain becomes a sort of badge of honor that we convince ourselves makes us better artists.
Over the years I tried many different cross training methods, from swimming to weight lifting to Pilates. While I would get ok results, nothing worked well enough to make me want to continue doing it for very long. I discovered the GYROTONIC® method through a chance conversation with a fellow dancer. Usually, you can guess a dancers training background based on stylistic choices and how they approach their technique. This dancer had a way of approaching her work with such calm intention and quality that it was immediately apparent she had something in her background that was different from the norm. In talking to her, I learned she had been practicing "gyro" for a few years and suggested I try it. It also just so happened that she knew of a trainer who had just opened a studio close to where I was living at the time. I'm not a superstitious person by any means, but I sort of took it as a sign and set up a session.
My first "gyro" session was interesting. It was a very different approach to movement than I had ever experienced and required a level of concentration similar to ballet. But, it "advantageously" lacked the anxiety and desire for perfection that can accompany ballet depending on the approach. The prevailing idea in Gyrotonic is that movement should heal the body, not hurt it. While no dance teacher would tell you to hurt yourself, there is still an underlying idea that you should work through pain no matter what. In some cases, pain is superficial and you should push through it to the best of your abilities. But, I think those cases are more rare than what a lot of dancers and directors/teachers like to think. I walked out of that first session feeling better than I had in a long time and knew I was going to continue coming back.
As I continued with weekly and bi-weekly sessions I began to notice a change not just in my technique, but also in the actual shape of my leg muscles. Over the years my quads had become so over developed that my hamstrings and glutes were almost useless. Normal glute strengthening exercises like squats didn't work because my glutes would not fire and I would end up doing the entire exercise with only my quads. While this might sound kind of funny (I think it does), it is actually a really common problem among dancers and even non-dancers. This can cause back, knee, and/or hip issues which can limit a dancer's ability to progress or even maintain their technique long term. I was already having back and hip issues from compensating for the ankle I had injured at 13 and was starting to question how much longer I could dance professionally before my body gave out. However, it didn't take long for me to realize that each session made my body function better and hurt less.
As I continued with my sessions and eventually getting certified in the work, my dancing continued to change for the better. Not only did my technique improve but I felt myself start to expand as an artist in ways that only happen when you are not in pain and not feeling as though your body is betraying you. The idea that to be a good artist means we must suffer is, in my opinion (if you'll excuse the language), horse shit. I don't know a single person who does their best work when they are struggling mentally or physically. This is not to say that we should avoid being uncomfortable, but that we need tools that allow us to work through real healing processes that make us stronger and smarter in the end. For dancers, good cross training can help us heal and appreciate what we and our bodies are truly capable of. I feel better now than I have in years, and now when things hurt I know the pain is temporary and that I can fix it. And that has made all the difference.