Artist and Athlete: The Health and Wellness of Dancers

Male dancer in grey leotard leaning forward on barres in the studio.

Soloist Irlan Silva

Photo credit: Ian Travis Barnard

Discover what it takes physically and mentally for dancers to thrive as both artists and athletes.

Director of Physical Therapy Heather Southwick works with Artist Desean Taber

Photo credit: Brooke Trisolini

TB12 Body Coach Dave Merson, PT, DPT, ATC, works with Soloist Isaac Akiba.

Photo credit: Brooke Trisolini

Director of Physical Therapy Heather Southwick works with Artist Desean Taber

Photo credit: Brooke Trisolini

TB12 Body Coach Dave Merson, PT, DPT, ATC, works with Soloist Isaac Akiba.

Photo credit: Brooke Trisolini

Ballet requires artistry, intense discipline and immense athleticism. That is why Boston Ballet always strives to be at the forefront of health and wellness, offering numerous programs and opportunities that foster Company dancers’ overall wellbeing. Go behind the scenes to discover the strength and dedication required for professional dancers to shine on stage.

Keys to success

The rigorous training of an elite dancer rivals that of any other professional athlete. In addition to a routine technique class each morning, dancers dedicate a minimum of six hours a day to rehearsals. To help maintain overall health and wellness, the Company relies on Director of Physical Therapy Heather Southwick and and Kerri Williams, PT, DPT, PMA-CPT.

“Professional ballet dancers are often referred to as artistic athletes,” Southwick explains. “To excel as a professional dancer, phenomenal strength, flexibility, and control is needed that far exceeds most sports. The risk for injury is less than some sports; however, the repetition and the demands of choreography can increase potential for injury.”

Southwick is a former dancer and member of the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science and the Performing Arts Medical Association. She manages and facilitates a comprehensive program of health and wellness for the Company dancers that is comprised of physicians and allied health professionals in areas including massage, acupuncture, chiropractic care, Pilates, and the Gyrotonic Method

She also works closely with Company Physician Dr. Bridget Quinn, MD from the Division of Sports Medicine, Boston Children's Hospital, who helps coordinate a wider network of physicians from sports medicine programs at all major hospitals in Boston.

Finding the right balance between strength, flexibility, and pliability is key to preventing injury. Cross-training is a great way for dancers to exercise their muscles in ways they do not normally in ballet class, counteracting potential muscle imbalances.

Boston Ballet’s onsite Health and Wellness Center includes cardio equipment, a Pilates gym, Gyrotonic equipment, free weights, and a barre area. “We encourage cross training with lower impact cardiovascular activities like swimming, biking, and use of an elliptical. We also educate the dancers in classical Pilates, Gyrotonic Method, and other exercises to strengthen core muscles,” Southwick says. 

Soloist Isaac Akiba prefers Pilates for cross training. “The fundamentals of Pilates can be incorporated into my ballet technique. It helps you practice how to hold yourself and isolate certain muscles,” he says.

Kerri Williams, a Pilates instructor with a certification in Gyrotonics, is a valuable onsite resource for the dancers. In addition to Kerri's extensive experience as a classically trained Pilates instructor, the dancers also work with Master Trainer Lisa Pari from Gyrotonic Boston Central both on and off site. 

Health and wellness extends well beyond physical training. Southwick offers counseling on sleep, hydration, and nutrition. Laura Morietti, RD from the Division of Sports Medicine, Boston Children's Hospital advises the Company on nutrition and makes site visits twice a month. Dancers know that proper nutrition is vital for optimal performance onstage and allows for quick muscle recovery. Poor nutrition contributes to muscle injuries as well as fatigue, making it difficult for dancers to achieve long-term success.

Staying healthy during performances, especially those with longer runs like The Nutcracker, can be especially challenging both physically and mentally. Southwick explains, “Nutcracker season is a marathon with more than 40 shows in six weeks, so it is essential for dancers to address nutrition, sleep, recovery, and physical stamina. The key to success is figuring out how to sustain your body and your mental outlook.”

Boston Ballet in Company Class by Liza Voll

Company Class is an important part of a dancer’s daily routine.

Photo credit: Liza Voll

Boston Ballet and Tom Brady have this in common

Boston Ballet constantly strives to be on the cutting edge in health and wellness, applying the best sports medicine techniques to dance medicine. Southwick works towards that goal by partnering with an external network of physicians, counselors, and therapists. One of her latest collaborations is with Dave Merson, PT, DPT, ATC, who is a Body Coach at TB12, the performance lifestyle company founded 6 years ago by six-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady and his longtime Body Coach Alex Guerrero.

At TB12, Body Coaches help athletes of all ages and levels recover from injuries, and also learn how to prevent injuries before they occur. The TB12 lifestyle is a comprehensive approach to health and wellness that integrates revolutionary concepts in deep-force muscle pliability work, hydration, nutrition, functional strength and conditioning, and cognitive health.

Dave Merson, PT, DPT, ATC, volunteers his time to bring the program to Boston Ballet every two weeks, working closely with a few dancers each visit. Akiba is just one of many who have benefited from the additional outside program. “I feel much better after I see Dave. He has a pretty unique technique,” Akiba says.

One of TB12’s main techniques is to improve tissue pliability. Through deep-force manual therapy, vibrating rollers, proper nutrition, and cross-training, tissue pliability allows muscles to lengthen, and overall benefits vascular, nervous system, and joint health. The introduction of this therapy helps dancers maintain balance and prevent overload on their bodies.

In addition to Boston Ballet dancers, Merson works with competitive figure skaters and athletes across different sports, and witnesses firsthand the similarities between dance and sports medicine. “A dancer’s mindset and workload is really no different than that of any other professional athlete,” he says.

Words for us all to live by

Everyone, even non-dancers, can benefit from a dancer’s outlook on health and wellness. Southwick’s number one advice? “Balance and consistency. Two simple words, but they are hard to live by. Make sure that your life has a balance and consistency of physical and stationary activity, healthy foods, work and leisure.” Whether your workout routine consists of walking the dog, taking an adult ballet class, or training for a marathon, make sure you are having fun. Southwick emphasizes, “Do something you really enjoy, and it will help to keep you consistent with it.”

The illusion we create is intended to deepen your understanding of reality.

Mikko Nissinen, Artistic Director