Bodies run on different engines and as far as exercise goes, dancers needs premium fuel. You can’t just take a ballerina and tell her to do a squat. A squat needs a reason behind it. “So let’s take that reason and add to it,” said personal trainer Joel Prouty. “Let’s make it vulnerable, let’s make it meaningful, let’s make it add to what that client is doing in a season.”
Prouty, who works with many of New York’s most elite dancers — including New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns — is in high demand, both because of and despite the coronavirus pandemic. Social isolation is a strain on dancers. But with performances postponed indefinitely, cross-training — and particularly Prouty’s brand of it, tailored to ballet — is crucial for dancers to try to maintain their strength and stamina.
With that comes a frighteningly open-ended question, one that becomes more pressing as days turn into weeks: How can dancers truly stay in shape during quarantine?
Dancers typically rehearse and perform for more than seven hours a day. They stay in dancing shape by dancing. Prouty, a former ballet dancer, understands that. As he sees it, the question relates not only to the shape of their bodies but also to their minds.
“I saw six clients today and they were all dancers,” he said recently. “I think every single one of them is having a very hard time psychologically wrapping their head around this and feeling like there’s not much of an existence out there for them.”
Cross-training helps a dancer maintain health and longevity as well as prevent injuries. Prouty’s dream is that dancers — and their companies — begin to consider it as important as “their morning class,” he said. “Or almost as important.”
Perhaps the pandemic will make that clear. Certainly Prouty’s sessions are a reassuring constant in uncertain times: a way for dancers to put their bodies back together again. “It’s the most normal thing in this whole quarantine,” said Jacqueline Bologna, a City Ballet dancer. “Everything else is up in the air. The days feel superlong with unlimited possibilities.”
Not that major companies have abandoned their dancers. Aside from company class, City Ballet is offering strength training three times a week and a weekly yoga session; American Ballet Theater has company class and also offers conditioning three times a week.
Prouty, though, is not a fan of group exercise. “When I get you one on one, you and I are the only people on the planet,” he said. “I see everything. You see everything. I’m telling you what to look for.”
That holds true for virtual training, too, though the dynamic changes. Of course, there’s no actual contact, but there’s also no way to access a dancer’s mood or physicality before or after a session. “It’s hard not to watch them walk into the studio,” he said. “I would kind of watch them for 15, 30 seconds, and in that little bit of time it’s just, where are they? Are they limping? Are they wet from being in the rain? That tells me so much.”
He is also limited in terms of equipment. Before the citywide shutdown, Prouty was preparing to open his own Manhattan fitness space, Studio IX, which is in the final phase of construction on the Upper West Side. He packed as much equipment as he could into his car — Bosu balls and weights — and delivered them to clients himself.
More important, he has had to rethink the way he trains, which takes into consideration a dancer’s repertory and injuries, past and present. “I have programs that are perfect for a dancer while they’re doing ‘Jewels’ or ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ or a ballet dancer doing a modern program, or a modern dancer doing a very hard pedestrian-style program,” he said.
At this point, though, everyone basically has a similar routine. “You get yourself out of bed and take whatever Zoom class is offered from some ballet master’s living room,” he said. “Or do your own thing. But nonetheless, it’s severely diluted.”
Another problem is small spaces, because dancers are prevented from working on grand allegro movements like jumps. “So we’ve got to get a lot of explosive exercises,” he said. “We’ve got to get that angst out as well.”
And that is also a way to build endurance. “Now,” he said, “we’re developing a program for a global pandemic lockdown.”
Prouty, who has been staying in Westchester County, has increased the intensity of his workouts with extra repetitions and sets and has incorporated more ballet-based exercises to make up for the hours not dancing. His experience as a dancer and as a trainer is important. He has spent years developing a syllabus to make cross-training effective for dancers. It’s not, he said, about the squat or burning calories.
“When I was learning to become a trainer,” he said, “I studied metabolic adaptation. I was fascinated with how the body would react to imposed stress, so I really use a lot of the theory in creating the workouts that I have for the dancers.”
And while he realizes the importance of cross-training for the moment we’re in, the balance between training and dancing needs to be maintained. “As the amount of dancing drops, the amount of cross-training should also lessen,” he said, “so that all the dancers don’t come back looking like soccer players.”
Prouty has other clients, but dancers are his specialty, and he credits them with helping him to learn what they needed from cross-training. One thing he had to consider was fatigue. “I was getting them at the end of their long rehearsal day,” he said. “I had to learn that we’re not here to work with dancers more. We’re not here to overwork. We’re here to address what might be missing in their daily activity — not tying ropes to the wall and giving them high-intensity interval training at 8 p.m. after they have rehearsed five different ballets.”
As a former dancer, he knew what that felt like.
He started dancing at around age 6 in Phoenix and went on to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School in 1993. He was a little too young for it, he said, so he returned to Phoenix in “this crazy chaos of ’80s Mustang 5.0s and ZZ Top, and where am I?”
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“I ran away from home, got arrested, did all the things that you’re supposed to do when you’re a teenage boy and your single-mom parent is loving enough to give you that room and still keep you safe,” he said.
And dancing still had an allure. He returned to Winnipeg, eventually dancing with the company there before moving on to Houston Ballet and Boston Ballet, where he met his wife, Kelley Potter, who later danced with American Ballet Theater. Prouty moved to New York, where he performed as a guest with regional companies and joined the cast of “Come Fly Away,” Twyla Tharp’s Broadway show.
Tharp, he recalled, was obsessed with injury prevention. “Before rehearsal, she would start this funky type of warmup,” he said. “She painted the picture that it was about keeping dancers injury-free. I had knee surgery and ankle surgery, and everyone else I knew had lived through that same experience. So that’s sort of what sparked this.”
Tharp had a gym installed in the theatre. He took advantage. “I was downstairs jumping rope and exercising and lifting weights. The No. 1 thing was the aesthetic requirement. How can I do this and not end up looking like a bodybuilder?”
Building muscle mass, he said, comes down to eating. “You have to eat like an ox,” he said.
In other words, cross-training is not about bulking up. “What happens initially for a dancer is the line starts to change shape a little bit,” he said. “It’s not that the muscle has gotten bigger, it’s that the muscle has tone.”
Lauren Post, a Ballet Theater dancer who trained with Prouty in his early days, as did Marcelo Gomes and David Hallberg, summed that era up with a laugh. “He really didn’t know what he was doing.” But when she was struggling to recover from a knee injury in 2016, she called Prouty.
“After one session with him, I knew I had to continue because it was just unlike anything else I had been doing,” Post said. “Trainers are typically afraid of injury, which is a good thing, but in having his dance background, he knows what he’s doing and he can push you to a point where other people are afraid to go.”
Mearns, who has worked with Prouty since 2013, jokingly refers to him as the head of her pit crew. She particularly loves how he compares dancers’ bodies to Formula One race cars. “They have to perform at such a high level,” she said. “If one little thing is off, the whole system is off.”
Her sessions with Prouty on FaceTime — an hour long, twice a week — are different from being trained in person, but they’re working. “He’ll say, ‘Do you have a chair that doesn’t have a cushion on it that you can step up on?’” she said. “We use it like a bench to step up on and do arabesques and passés. He has me do the stamina stuff — the burpees and all that. He doesn’t exhaust me to the point where he knows my legs are going to give out, but we still do all that stuff, and I’m not in pain. My back doesn’t hurt. My knees don’t hurt.”
Over the years she has posted videos of herself doing Prouty’s workouts — heroic box jumps or balances on a Bosu with a kettle bell — that show not only her strength but also her control. At first, she regarded the exercises that her workouts begin with, like two-legged and one-legged squats, as boring.
“People don’t see all that stuff on Instagram because it’s not quote-unquote exciting or tricky, but that’s what we do for more than half the session,” she said. “When you get to the third set of it, and he keeps adding little things like relevés or jumps, you’re just dying. I’m shaking, I’m sweating.
“It’s kind of stripping everything away and just bringing it down to the simple, bare minimum, and it still works. His method still definitely works.”