Dancer Ashley Taylor On The Self-Care & Exercise Routines Of Professional Dancers and Performance Artists
An Interview With Maria Angelova
Commitment to excellence: This is the foundation and the bottom line; we want to be good at what we do and have it feel as natural as possible so we can best express what we’re trying to say.
Professional Dancers and Performance Artists have to perform at the highest levels. While not all of us will share their athletic and performance skills, we can learn insights from their self-care routines — movement, mindfulness, discipline, eating, sleeping, and so forth. — about how we can improve our own performance levels. In this interview series, we are talking to Professional Dancers and Performance Artists about the self-care routines that they use to help them achieve top-level performance. As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Ashley Taylor.
Ashley Taylor is a freelance dancer, choreographer, and writer. She danced professionally with Ballet Theatre of Maryland for four years and has been a guest performer and choreographer with several other companies, in addition to directing two independent dance concerts. She earned her B.A. in Dance from The University of Alabama, where she was a recipient of the Edith Barnes Award for Choreography. She and her husband have two young children and live in Brooklyn, New York.
Thank you so much for joining us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and the story of how you became a professional performer?
Absolutely! I have been dancing since I was four years old, and decided at the age of sixteen — after performing my dream role of Cinderella in our dance studio’s annual ballet performance — that I wanted to pursue dance as a career. I majored in dance at The University of Alabama, which gave me incredible pre-professional performing and choreography experience and helped me become a more versatile artist. I auditioned for several ballet companies and accepted a full-time contract with Ballet Theatre of Maryland following graduation.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
There are many stories I could tell, but the first one that comes to mind is actually what could at first glance look like a “failure”. I went on a road trip with a friend to audition for a dance company that I thought might be my “dream job”. The audition circumstances ended up changing at the last minute to something less than ideal, and I didn’t do what I would consider my best. Then, during the interview portion, it became very clear that the director hadn’t read the resume I had sent and was unfamiliar with my experience level, and I didn’t realize I needed to advocate for myself by explaining what I had assumed she would already know. The end result was that I was offered a position well below my experience level and point in my career development. For one of the first times in my life, I knew my own value and knew that the director had not been able to see what I could really offer — nor was I certain that she was the kind of person I really wanted to work for, after having experienced a bit of the company’s typical day. Rather than second-guessing myself and falling into insecurity, I was able to refuse the offer immediately and confidently. I learned a lot from that trip, but one of the biggest was that my dream company doesn’t exist — and if there’s something I want that I haven’t been able to find out in the world, then I need to create it myself.
You are a successful artist. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Work ethic: Being a performing artist requires an enormous amount of time, practice, learning, and attention to detail. Technique comes much more easily to some people than it does to others, and I’m one of those people who has had to really work on it, because I don’t have “the ideal dancer body” or a lot of impressive tricks up my sleeve. But I always work hard and apply myself, and that has gotten me far. I’m not sure who originally said, “Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard” — but it’s really true!
Flexibility: In live performance, it’s almost inevitable that something won’t go quite right! I’ve twice had a shoe’s heel come off in the middle of a dance and had to make a split-second decision on what to do. Once I stepped offstage to fix it, and the second time I just kicked the shoe off entirely into the wings and kept dancing with one shoe and one foot only in tights. You just have to go with the flow as best you can and laugh it off later; it’s part of the job!
Persistence: You can’t give up easily, even when it seems like you’re not achieving your goals or that no one is acknowledging how hard you’re working (and I’ve felt like this more often than I haven’t!). Every day, you have to show up and keep working at it. Some days you’ll have less to give than others, and that’s okay. Staying persistent and persevering even when it’s really tough is the key that will carry you through.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or takeaway did you learn from that?
My company was on tour to perform “The Sleeping Beauty”, and I was playing multiple roles, which was both exhausting and exhilarating. In one show, I was feeling great but misstepped into a turn and fell right on my hands and knees. I’m sure it was both loud and ugly! But again, you only have a split second to figure out your next move, so without even thinking I just popped back up and kept going. To be honest, that was the first time I truly felt like a professional dancer! Mistakes and accidents and unforeseen circumstances are bound to happen, in art and in life, and your job is to respond with poise, grace, and flexibility.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that might help people?
I’m looking to grow as a choreographer, including applying for opportunities and renting studio space to further develop my style. I’ve also recently started an Instagram account (@seabirddance) to try and create a space where dancers can discuss how to make meaningful art without sacrificing our own physical, mental, or emotional health as artists. I feel like there’s a lot of social media accounts of dancers showing off what they can do, but not enough room to discuss the daily grind and holistic toll of being a dancer. I’m hoping to shed some light on those feelings, as well as start conversations about what elements can make dance truly impactful.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of our interview about the self-care routines of professional dancers and performance artists. Can you share with our readers the routine that you use to help you perform at peak levels? Can you help articulate how each part of your routine contributes to your performance?
Yes, absolutely. The first thing is that I am a huge fan of chiropractic adjustments and massages! I’ve been under regular chiropractic care since I was a toddler and I can’t say enough good things about it. I truly believe it has helped prevent and mitigate many injuries by keeping my spine in alignment so my muscles aren’t tight and jammed in weird places. I know some people are suspicious of chiropractors, but I would advocate giving it a try and seeing how much better it might help you feel.
Secondly, I incorporate cross-training several times a week into my routine. I sadly didn’t really learn the importance of this until after college, and I know it would have helped me so much with building strength, toning, and stamina for dance. My personal preference is to do workouts at home; I already spend a lot of time moving my body around in front of other people, so I’d rather be in my T-shirt bubble at home than make the effort to get out to a gym. (But do what works for you!) I like to follow a structured video-based workout plan from a trainer I trust, and I’ve invested in enough equipment at home (dumbbells, resistance bands, a stationary bike, a yoga mat) to make that work well for me.
Stretching is super important as a dancer to maintain and increase flexibility, and I do that before and after every dance class. I also roll my muscles out with a foam roller (though not as often as I should!). Of course, I take regular dance classes to maintain my technique — usually I do ballet, as it’s the basis of every other form of dance, but I also like to challenge myself with other styles to keep my brain and body sharp.
Finally, good nutrition is vital. I’m still figuring out how to eat well without breaking my bank or my schedule — I don’t have four hours to meal plan and prep on Sundays! — but I mostly focus on getting a lot of protein in my diet, which noticeably helps me look and feel stronger, as well as repair my muscles from the stress I put them under. I don’t believe in diets that severely cut back on any macronutrient. I love my carbs and my healthy fats! I always, always eat breakfast and have plenty of healthy snacks with me for long days.
What do you do to prevent injuries?
I cross-train to strengthen my body, make sure I warm up properly before I dance or exercise, fuel my body well, stretch, and foam roll.
What type of regime has helped you to rehabilitate from injury?
I’ve been fortunate to have had few major injuries so far, but I have dealt with a vertebral stress reaction and chronic hamstring tendinosis. I have found physical therapy to be the most valuable rehabilitation aid, and specifically a P.T. practice that will actually challenge and strengthen me to correct the underlying issue. (Don’t be afraid to switch practices if you feel like that’s not happening — I recently had to do that and it was the best decision!) I also like to use ice, heat, and anti-inflammatories, depending on the injury. Gentle stretching and massage on the affected area can help.
Dancers are known for their high pain tolerance and attitude of “just push through it”, but we really need to normalize rest and take a true break when we need it. Rest does wonders for injuries. It’s okay to not train or dance for a couple of weeks and instead just take gentle walks and stretch. In my experience, I’ve come back stronger after periods of rest.
I’ve also given birth to two babies, and it feels funny to call pregnancy and birth an “injury”, but it certainly takes a toll on the body. I’ve had great results building my body back postpartum by following GlowBodyPT’s 12 Week Post Pregnancy Plan (https://www.glowbodypt.com/12-week-post-pregnancy-plan-2). I wanted to take all the guesswork out of getting back in shape in a safe and efficient way, and this plan has been super effective and invaluable to me. I’m in better shape now than I was before I had my first baby.
Do you practice mindfulness or meditation as part of your overall self-care routine? Can you explain what you do?
My preferred form of mindfulness is to journal my prayers. Essentially, I’m processing my days, my season of life, my dreams and fears, and my career in the form of a written conversation with God. This has done wonders for my emotional and spiritual health, always grounding me and bringing me back to what’s true.
I also like to take time just to be and think in silence, perhaps sitting on the couch with a cup of coffee or going for a rambling walk. And, as a creative person, sometimes it’s really life-giving to create just for the sake of creating and not necessarily to show anyone — either in my preferred mediums of dance or witing, or in another one entirely: painting, scrapbooking, knitting, even sticker-by-number. Find something you really enjoy and let it help you relax and just be.
As a Pilates instructor, I’m particularly interested in this question. What exercises do you do to strengthen your core?
I do a lot of crunches! Doing different variations (legs bent, legs straight up, butterfly, oblique crunches, bicycles, etc.) has actually led to compliments on my abs, so I’ll never call them ineffective. I also like to do planks and plank variations. The post-pregnancy plan I mentioned has also led me through a series of workouts to safely build back the core postpartum without aggravating diastasis recti (separation of the ab muscles during pregnancy), starting with simple exercises like marches lying on your back, windshield wipers, and scissors and progressing up to harder exercises like bear crawls and plank shoulder taps. I still incorporate some of these into my routine.
Can you please share your “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful Career As A Professional Dancer and Performance Artist?”
- Willingness to fail: If you never try, you’ll never grow and you’ll never know what you’re capable of. Learn to be okay with putting yourself out there. I’ve had ballet teachers encourage us to try for something difficult, like an extra revolution in a pirouette, by reminding us, “The worst thing that can happen is you’ll fall.” And then you’ll get back up, and you’ve learned how not to do it the next time!
- Self-motivation: At the end of the day, you’re the only one who can truly spur you on to make progress. Remember why you want to pursue this and let that motivate you to keep going and keep growing.
- Flexibility: Hold your exact plans and dreams loosely, because opportunities might come your way that look different than what you expected. But if you stay open to them, they just might bring you one step closer to finding your sweet spot. For instance, I had to dance full-time for four years to realize that I wasn’t cut out for the ballet company life, which for a lot of people is “the dream”. But I’ve learned to embrace who I am and be flexible with my idea of what a dance career looks like, and now I’m free to craft a life with room for me to be more than just a performer but also a choreographer, writer, and mama.
- Team player spirit: As much as we’d all like to be soloists, we’re going to have to work with a lot of people in our careers, some of whom — especially in the performing arts — may be difficult, narcissistic, and insecure. Make yourself as easy to work with as you can, and commit to working with everyone as a team so you can all strive for success. You’re likely to find deep camaraderie and enjoy yourself a whole lot more with this mindset.
- Commitment to excellence: This is the foundation and the bottom line; we want to be good at what we do and have it feel as natural as possible so we can best express what we’re trying to say.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would really like to build a community around dance where we empower each other as peers to create, experiment, and perform, keeping both our own well-being and the audience’s perspective in mind so we can create truly beautiful and meaningful works of art. I think this could be accomplished through a variety of channels, including producing shows where we can work with our peers and have opportunities to choreograph, hosting master classes and workshops to grow as performing artists and choreographers, holding discussions around identity and holistic health in dancers, and building an online presence.
What is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?
Through my aforementioned Instagram account (https://www.instagram.com/seabirddance/). I would love for you to join the conversation and contribute your thoughts, even if only as a dance appreciator!
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.
About The Interviewer: Maria Angelova, MBA is a disruptor, author, motivational speaker, body-mind expert, Pilates teacher and founder and CEO of Rebellious Intl. As a disruptor, Maria is on a mission to change the face of the wellness industry by shifting the self-care mindset for consumers and providers alike. As a mind-body coach, Maria’s superpower is alignment which helps clients create a strong body and a calm mind so they can live a life of freedom, happiness and fulfillment. Prior to founding Rebellious Intl, Maria was a Finance Director and a professional with 17+ years of progressive corporate experience in the Telecommunications, Finance, and Insurance industries. Born in Bulgaria, Maria moved to the United States in 1992. She graduated summa cum laude from both Georgia State University (MBA, Finance) and the University of Georgia (BBA, Finance). Maria’s favorite job is being a mom. Maria enjoys learning, coaching, creating authentic connections, working out, Latin dancing, traveling, and spending time with her tribe. To contact Maria, email her at [email protected]. To schedule a free consultation, click here.
Dancer Ashley Taylor On The Self-Care & Exercise Routines Of Professional Dancers and Performance… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.