Somehow, it is already time for the holiday season. As much as we relish picking our presents, preparing our favorite meals, and indulging in some time-honored traditions, there is one aspect that is often disliked or even dreaded: holiday travel. For dance artists with nontraditional working schedules, the holiday season already looks a little different, and travel is no exception. While most might hit the roads or the skies this November and December to return home or to visit family, many dancers also find themselves traveling for work.

Holiday shows like The Nutcracker can be lucrative for many dancers, so some use the months of November and December to clock in some serious stage time, but with that comes the absolute necessity of maintaining physical health. I sat down with Dr. Audrey Lugo to discuss some common issues that dance artists may face while embarking on holiday travel and how to best combat them.

Travel, just like any other change in schedule, is a disruption to one’s daily routine. Dancers, who tend to be particularly dedicated to specific itineraries with classes, rehearsals, and their personal routines, feel these disruptions more acutely. As Lugo notes, “Any type of travel, any kind of disruption to your routine is going to affect you physically, mentally, and emotionally…especially with dance when you’re so used to having a routine to prepare you for an upcoming performance, traveling is a big disruption to that.”

Naturally, there’s the mental stress of packing, making plans, and assuring that your affairs at home are in good order before leaving. Additionally, depending on the person or circumstance, there may be emotional stress tangled up with traveling as well: perhaps there is anxiety about seeing family, worry about leaving behind pets, or just a general fear of the unknown. Physical stress, though felt by everyone in travel, impacts dancers a little bit differently.

Physical stress, though felt by everyone in travel, impacts dancers a little bit differently.

Travel, whether by car or by plane, often involves sitting for a long period. On the surface, this can be uncomfortable for anyone. Aching backs, hips, and more come to mind, but as Lugo elucidates, “If you’re in a seated position for a long time, that can put some pressure on the back and it can shorten the muscles in your legs… especially for dancers, you’re not used to being still.” She recommends taking frequent breaks to stretch and move around. For those behind the wheel of a car, this means pulling over at rest stops or gas stations every so often to pop out and walk around. For those on long-haul flights, this can be a little more uncomfortable due to the tight quarters shared with strangers on a jet, but getting up from your seat and taking a quick walk down the aisles can help alleviate the discomfort. Obviously, it is in everyone’s best interest to only do this if it is safe to do so–wait for the captain to turn off the seatbelt sign and take your cues from the flight attendants.

As mentioned earlier, the physical implications of travel affect dance artists differently than other people. For one, dancers are more used to moving regularly–the idea of sitting still for long stretches can be uncomfortable in a different way than it would be for someone used to working an eight-hour shift behind a desk at an office. Additionally, a dance artist’s body is their instrument and critical to their work. So while traveling for work makes everyone sore and stiff, a dancer’s need to have their body in good condition for their job makes care a bit more critical. Lugo shares, “The difference is not in the body structure, it’s in what they do with their bodies…it’s not the makeup of the body, but how you use it…You want it to be optimal at all times because of the workload you place on it.”

So if achy, stiff muscles and fatigue are largely unavoidable, what can be done after the travel to put everything back in working order, especially if a dancer has a performance soon after arriving at their destination? Lugo recommends having a personal care routine to regularly follow. As she says, “This can’t be something that you only do on tour, you aren’t going to have time to figure it out on the fly, it should be something that you adhere to during your daily life, so it is there for you to fall back on when things get busy or difficult.”

Something else that Lugo recommends is looking into the resources provided by your employer. Many companies do hire physical therapists to work backstage, so sign up for a slot with them if it is available and utilize any tools or tips they might have for you. However, there are many freelancers and smaller companies who may not have the luxury of a PT on-site. So here is where a personal wellness and warm-up plan can come into play. In Lugo’s words, “We can only control our actions, so even though circumstances change…you’re only in charge of yourself, so you should be practicing something that works for you.”

Dancers should think ahead about their schedule and carve out plenty of time in advance for their personal care. Now, Lugo cautions that this will be different for everyone; what works for one dancer will not work for another, so a little bit of self-knowledge is key to building an effective routine. This might look like a series of barre exercises, some floorwork, or a pilates series that you know will serve you and put your body back in order. It is difficult to give a specific routine because there is no one-size-fits-all. It should also be noted that this may change with age, season, show, or injury–there should be some tolerance for variability in your plan.

On top of a physical routine, Lugo emphasizes that caring for the whole body is paramount. This includes seeking out good nutrition–which can be challenging on the road–as well as maintaining hydration and getting plenty of sleep. “The best way to recover is through sleep, and it's free and readily available!” Lugo says. So even though it might be hard to find healthy choices away from home and changing time zones can mess up your circadian rhythm, dance artists should make those necessities of life–food, water, and sleep–their top priorities if they want to recover from a brutal day of travel.

A dancer’s need to have their body in good condition for their job makes care a bit more critical.

All in all, forewarned is forearmed. Don’t wait until you’re feeling groggy and creaky to look for a solution, go into the situation with a plan in place. Even if you aren’t traveling for a holiday gig, a dancer’s vacation can often be short-lived thanks to work schedules, and no one wants to return to work in a week feeling like they’ve been hit by a bus. Thus, if you’re traveling to visit friends and family, be sure to take the time to rest and relax, eat and sleep well, and make some time for gentle movement.

So take a deep breath, stretch your legs, and try to enjoy those holiday travels knowing that you’re prepared to deal with the side effects when you get to where you’re going. Happy Holidays!

Audrey Lugo, PT, DPT, CSCS is a licensed Doctor of Physical Therapy, Dance Medicine Specialist, and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist in Miami, Florida. As a dancer for 20+ years, Audrey experienced several dance-related injuries and chronic pain which led her to her passion for physical therapy, strength, wellness, and conditioning.  Audrey believes each patient deserves a treatment plan tailored to their individual needs. Audrey specializes in functional training and therapy that incorporates strength, mobility, flexibility, and balance. You can find her on Instagram @dr.audreylugo. 

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