How I teach yoga for dancers
Both students and professionals dance with too much tension,” says ballet teacher and Yoga for Dancers guru Hilary Cartwright. “Dancing requires a lot of effort, but it doesn’t have to be stressful on the body.” Cartwright, a former Royal Ballet soloist and ballet mistress, learned this information the hard way. Early in her career, she experienced a debilitating back injury and was told to stop dancing—a disk in her spine had slipped and was impinging a nerve. In search of pain relief, she studied yoga with master instructor Juliu Horvath. Together they began constructing the equipment for Gyrotonic, the system Horvath has become known for, and that work eventually led Cartwright to develop Yoga for Dancers. Today, NYC dancers of all disciplines flock to her to gain a greater sense of body awareness, flexibility and coordination.
Unfortunately, young dancers don’t always realize the benefits of somatic practice—such as Gyrotonic, Pilates, The Feldenkrais Method and yoga—until they experience a sidelining injury. However, the nuances of core strength and proper alignment, which these systems help dancers cultivate, can be the linchpin in a dancer’s training that propels her technique to the next level. In a Yoga for Dancers class, Cartwright helps practitioners focus on their breath as they move through relaxed seated, standing and lying postures. The constant motion—the fluidity of shifting positions—helps release tension in the body, while also challenging their strength and control.
If adding extra somatic classes to a teen dancer’s schedule isn’t feasible, Cartwright recommends that dance teachers introduce simple body awareness exercises into weekly classes. “Every teacher can find her own way of bringing in exercises that will help students progress,” she says. In her own ballet classes, Cartwright incorporates exercises based on what students need at the moment. “If I notice their bodies are out of place toward the end of barre, I’ll ask them to get down on the floor, do an exercise to square up and then put that directly into practice.”
When choosing exercises, Cartwright stresses the importance of balancing flexibility with muscle power. “Stretching should be mindful. Young people will say, ‘I’ve got to pull this until it hurts,’ but that’s not a good approach. There needs to be an elasticity in dancers’ muscles—stretchy and strong at the same time,” she says.
Here, Cartwright and student Maiko Hisaya demonstrate two exercises that target dancers’ hamstrings, psoas muscles and lower abdominals—muscles used to create long and healthy arabesques.
A native of southern England, Hilary Cartwright performed as a soloist with The Royal Ballet. After suffering two spine-damaging falls, she returned to serve as their ballet mistress and répétiteur. In 1982, she co-founded White Cloud studio in New York City with yoga teacher Juliu Horvath. There, Cartwright started teaching yoga classes and developed her own method, Yoga for Dancers. She has been a ballet mistress for Joffrey Ballet, director of Nederlands Dans Theater II and the associate artistic director of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in Canada. Though White Cloud studio closed in 2000, Cartwright continues to teach Yoga for Dancers and is a Gyrotonic master trainer at Fluid Fitness in Manhattan. She teaches for American Ballet Theatre’s summer intensive and leads ballet and yoga classes at the Gina Gibney Dance Center in NYC. Cartwright travels to teach class and set ballets internationally on professional companies, most recently for the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet in Colorado and New Mexico.
Maiko Hisaya, 16, is a student at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre.
Photo by Matthew Murphy in the Gina Gibney Dance Center studios.