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An Interview with Choreographer Hassan Christopher
Sports have been a large part of my life as long as I can remember. Whether playing ball or just acting as a spectator, my spare time has always seemed to revolve around athletics. Coincidentally, I have also been a lifelong fan of the art of dance. My father - a champion salsa dancer - used his fleet footwork to not only seduce my Mom, but also to keep my siblings and I mesmerized at every Campos family function. Furthermore - and I'm not ashamed to admit it - Saturday Night Fever is one of my favorite movies ever.
It's no surprise then, I gravitated towards a profession that centered on the function and movement of the human body. Also in that vein, it made sense that I would lean towards specializing in a sports related chiropractic practice. After receiving my post-graduate degree, I really wasn't sure of which type of athlete I should focus my attentions on attracting. But as luck has it, I didn't have to worry too much about it - my favorite type of athlete would actually come find me.
In 2004, my wife and I were planning our wedding and wanted to do something special for our dance together. We picked a beautiful song by Latin singing-sensation, Alejandro Sans (aaahhh... you thought I was going to say Ricky Martin didn't you? Psyche!). Anyway, we needed someone to teach us how to dance to this particular song. We approached a client in my office who was a dance student at the time (thanks Janna!). We asked her if she knew anyone who might be able to help us with this formidable task. She recommended a dear friend of hers, Hassan Christopher.
Now we didn't know it at the time but, aside from being a dance-stud extraordinaire, Mr. Christopher is also an award-winning choreographer. Man, what luck - not only did he choreograph the most beautiful dance we could have imagined, he also became a regular chiropractic client at my office. And it is because of him that I am now blessed with a practice teeming with the greatest and most graceful athletes of all - my beloved dancers.
I couldn't resist asking Mr. Christopher to allow me the honor of picking his brain on such subjects as health, working out, and the world of dance and choreography. The following interview will have relevance to not only dancers, but to anyone having an interest in their health, well being, or an optimization of the activities they are currently involved in. Please join me in pondering the words of advice from an absolutely electrifying performer and talented artist who knows a thing or two about keeping healthy. Ladies and Gentlemen, I bring you, Hassan Christopher.
Doctor Campos (DC): Hassan, how are you doing?
Hassan Christopher (HC): Great!
DC: Hassan, where do you showcase your talents?
HC: I perform at several local venues in California. My company has performed at the Red Cat Theater downtown at Disney Hall. Also we have performed at Highways Performance Space and the Electric Lodge in Venice.
DC: You're also a teacher, right?
HC: Yes, I teach at UCLA and LMU. I teach at The Edge Contemporary Dance Studio and I also teach at Focus Fish in Hollywood. And then I travel abroad to teach as well - I'll be going to Ireland this summer to teach.
DC: What kind of dance do you teach?
HC: Hip-hop, contemporary, and jazz.
DC: You also do privates.
HC: I do private instruction, yes.
DC: I met you because you taught my wife and I some dance steps. I won't say you taught us how to dance, but you choreographed our wedding dance for us, anyway.
HC: Which you did very well.
DC: Thank you... you're too kind. So, that's a service you offer for people as well, yes?
HC: Yes, absolutely... I do private instruction, training for special events, industrials...
DC: What does that entail when someone hires you for that?
HC: Well, private instruction happens at my place or yours... just depending on what you like. It's also possible to rent dance studios and that kind of thing. In terms of getting a hold of me, you can always go to my dance company's website, http://www.companyofstrangers.org/ and drop me an e-mail.
DC: So, I treat a lot of dancers in my practice... thanks in large part to you, as you've sent many of them in to see me. But anyway, I've been trained as an athletic practitioner or sports doctor so I approach dancers as athletes. Would you say that's a correct assessment of them? Are dancers athletes?
HC: Oh absolutely! I mean dancers are completely athletes. You know I'd say dancers are most similar to basketball players in terms of their intermittent level of activity, you know, the use of the feet, the jumping, the running, the sprinting...
DC: So you've got to be in good shape?
HC: Yeah absolutely.
DC: What kind of things do you do outside of your work that keeps you in shape?
HC: Well... ha, ha... it's pretty much just the dancing. I mean, taking class for the dancer is the ideal, although in Los Angeles that maybe doesn't happen as much as it should because things are so spread out and time is so limited. When I was dancing more than choreographing, I would go to the gym, I would work out, I would take dance classes, yoga, Pilates. Now I go and do lots of chiropractic, obviously, it keeps me running smoothly.
DC: Tell me what sorts of things you would do with weight training that might have been of benefit.
HC: When I was with a dance company that was more acrobatic, called Diavolo Dance Theater, I would weight train; I would basically work the major muscle groups for both endurance and strength.
DC: Full body stuff? You know, would you focus on shoulders, back, legs... ?
HC: Yes, absolutely, everything... crosstraining.
DC: I've seen you perform lots of times, and you guys are truly acrobatic. You're amazingly strong and agile. I imagine you have to do quite a bit of shoulder strengthening.
HC: Much of the strength comes from the practice itself. The best practice is to be balanced, you know, to do the right side as much as you do the left, but often times that doesn't happen in rehearsals. You just do one side over and over again... you may overuse one particular muscle group on your strong side. It's just up to the dancer really, to kind of balance their body the best way they can.
DC: So you've done yoga... tell me about it. How can yoga affect one's performance?
HC: I think the yoga craze has been a good thing. I tend to stay away from a lot of the power yoga. I've always been more interested in the simple postures that allow me to go more deeply into my body, as opposed to feeling like I'm achieving great tricks in my yoga but... you know... different strokes for different folks. I like the integration of the body and the mind, that's why I practice yoga. And I find the flexibility aspect helpful. Because I dance, I don't really need it as much for that. It's more about the mental discipline.
DC: You have to be very flexible and I imagine that your flexibility comes from years and years and years of training. Do you still have a stretching routine?
HC: Yes, I have a way of stretching. I do mostly passive stretches. Passive stretches do not really force the muscle to stretch but find ways to use gravity instead. For example to stretch my hamstrings, I'll lie on my back with my legs on the wall, and allow gravity to stretch my legs basically, instead of forcing them... straining and pushing...
DC: How about when you were first starting out... did you have an actual regimen that you adhered to?
HC: Well sure... that all happens in classes when you're training. The teachers lead you through stretches. Different teachers have different philosophies of stretching. The idea of kind of pushing and forcing your way through the stretch is pretty old school. A lot of classes use that approach... and it's just like, if it hurts, then it's good. If it's not hurting you then probably you're not working hard enough. That mentality, I think, is dying out... especially as we learn more about how the body works.
DC: Are many dance instructors doing passive stretching?
HC: No... this is something I've discovered in my own research. It really depends on what style of dance you're taking. You know, with ballet the training starts at such a young age that the joint structures are more mobile and able to take more intense stretching. You're more flexible, so you're molding your body to be able to stretch in these extreme positions. Whereas if you're a modern dancer, and you start dancing later in life... a lot of modern dancers come from an athletic background... their joint structures aren't prepared for really intense rigorous stretching. So for them, it's better to do the more passive release based stretching.
DC: What would you suggest for someone who is not a professional dancer, somebody who just likes to do it as a form of exercise?
HC: The biggest thing is getting your muscles warm first. You see people go to the gym all the time and they think, "Oh I should stretch before I move", when really they should get their muscles warm and then stretch.
DC: Good point... absolutely. Dancing is something I'm going to assume you do every day.
HC: Yup... pretty much.
DC: And that keeps you in shape... I mean, you're in great shape. You are a pretty svelte guy... obviously you don't need anything physically beyond that. But what about nutritionally, is there anything that you do on that end that contributes?
HC: Well... I was fortunate to be raised by my mother who is a holistic physician, so I spent most of my life being, well... probably obsessively healthy. My eating habits - I was a vegetarian for many, many, many years, but not anymore - I started eating meat when I felt that I was not getting enough protein for the amount of activity that I was doing physically. I just try to keep a balance of vegetables and carbs and liquids, although I should probably drink more water, you know, like many people...
DC: Do you ever use sports replacement drinks?
HC: I take a lot of vitamins - drink juice and water, that's it.
DC: You were raised holistically and you were fortunate to have that upbringing, but do you think most dancers understand the benefits of those habits?
HC: No, I don't... it depends on the background of the dancer. I've learned that most ballet dancers tend not to eat enough, period. I think it's a sad thing that they are taught not to eat, you know, to keep their weight down.
DC: Is that the consequence of the profession itself?
HC: Yeah... it's a body image thing...
DC: What would you say to somebody trying to break into the profession... you know, maybe they're not exactly on the thin side... and maybe they have the idea that the only way to make it is to be super-thin?
HC: First, you have to look at what your body type is. There are some people who are just built a little larger, and that's fine. You can't change who you are in essence. I think they're going to have a better chance as a modern dancer, where the whole focus is a very humanist art form, it's accepting your individuality and your uniqueness, and bringing that to the table as a performer. It's more about the stories and experiences that people go through as opposed to being a perfect form. So yeah... I think there is room for everybody - different body types - in the dance world. You just have to find your niche.
DC: How long have you been under chiropractic care? You know I couldn't wait to plug this one.
HC: I don't know... how long has it been now, Nick, like a year now... a year in a half?
DC: It's been one year. What has your experience been like?
HC: It has been a relief... .mostly just how I feel in my own skin... feeling more clear, more relaxed. And stronger in the sense that... you know, sometimes if I don't have chiropractic care for a while, I just feel kind of tight. And my range of motion is limited... my body feels more limited.
DC: Not good for a professional dancer...
HC: No... and I do so much extreme movement that I don't feel as strong when I'm not getting it done. When I'm under pretty consistent chiropractic care, I just feel freer in my body, which makes me feel stronger.
DC: So you would say it helps you professionally?
HC: Oh... absolutely. I just wish I had been doing it a lot longer. It's maintenance and prevention of injury. Alignment is so important in the dance profession. So many injuries can be prevented if you have proper alignment. So if the spine is out of whack, then everything else is out of whack. If the signals are traveling through your nervous system incorrectly, you are not able to respond to situations as well, especially if you are doing high-risk dance and movement.
DC: Like maybe... break dancing?
HC: Yeah, if you're break dancing, or if you are doing hyper-physical modern dance, where you are flying off of large objects or working with props... or catching people, you know, it takes a lot of coordination and reflex. So, you better have all the wiring correct.
DC: Right... absolutely... have you ever been injured as a result of dancing?
HC: No. The only injury I ever had was from falling off a bike, but I see them in dancers all the time. I think it's a combination of just knowing your body... I've been lucky to have really amazing teachers in my life who have taught me how to move correctly, move efficiently, and move in a smart way so that I don't injure myself. Even when I was doing very dangerous work with the company, Diavolo, I was always super-aware of where to put my body, so I didn't get injured. So a lot of it is just knowing how to use your body correctly. Also being in good condition, in terms of taking care of yourself... and diet... and chiropractic care.
DC: By the way, the idea of "knowing your body" holds true for everybody in all walks of life and professions, whether you're a dancer or construction worker, whatever... like you said, it's not only prevention but it's knowing what your body needs at any given time. What's a common injury among dancers?
HC: I think a lot of tendonitis... joint issues... ankles, knees...
Aimee Zannoni (a fellow performer in the Company of Strangers who has been sitting with us): In classical dance, I think it's a little more prevalent for lower body injuries like hips, lower backs, knees, ankles... shin splints, muscles pulling away from bones... tendons being overstretched, ligaments being overstretched, things like that.
DC: So what would you suggest to up and coming dancers?
AZ: It depends on what your goals are... if your goal is to be a mega-superstar prima ballerina at age 14, then you're really going to have to force the body to do things it's not supposed to do. Unfortunately your career will be very short, but if that's what you think you want then that's the way to do it. It's part of the game. But if your looking for longevity and using your body as a form of expression throughout your entire life, then you may, in some respects, have to give up some of the classical ideas of line and form and not force your body to do things its not ready to do. So... patience... a lot of patience is needed.
DC: That's a very good point. Any suggestions, Hassan, that you would give to up-and-comers to prevent injuries.
HC: I think the most important thing is learning to move efficiently, and learning how not to over-muscle things. I mean, the study of the isolation of the muscle groups as you are moving is a real important study... to be able to isolate and use the muscle that you need for the task you have to perform... it will save you so much wear and tear. It's just how to coordinate or having good technique.
HC: Also, I said it earlier... just doing things like chiropractic, yoga, having a massage, making sure you have enough minerals and vitamins in your system, so the muscles can recover quickly... vitamin C, the B vitamins... vitamins are so important... lot's of sleep...
DC: Oh, we're going to get to that one...
AZ: Something that has amazed me as I've gotten older... I've been an athlete my whole life - a gymnast, then a dancer - and up until working with Hassan, I never really took the time out in private and quiet to go through all the parts in my body; where my joints stop and what point may be too far, that is, as far as range of motion is concerned. Movement can be clear and beautiful without pushing those limits. It's not necessary to overextend yourself. For me, I think, a lot of it was slowing down, instead of being so anxious to get it right, to be at full energy and form, to be beautiful and strong, and to be percussive, you know, using a lot of my energy. That energy and that desire to do it right and do it perfectly - to jump higher and bigger or whatever - is the exact opposite of what you need to be doing to really understand your placement in your body.
DC: It's a very good metaphor for life as well, by the way...
HC: Sometimes less is more...
DC: With all the different projects that you are involved in - the choreography, the fundraising for your company - it must get very stressful... what do you do to balance that out? Do you meditate?
HC: Yes, meditation is a big part of my health and balance practice. In the middle of the day, I just try and kind of take a few breaths and center myself...
DC: Every day.
HC: Every day... absolutely, I mean, maybe in the past I've been a bit obsessive about meditating. You know, I wanted to... well I'm an achiever... and so somehow, I wanted to achieve it. I was 19 when I first started meditating, and so now it's just a part of my daily life. I use it to bring myself back to a place of focus and intentional living.
DC: That's an important point you're touching upon, because I think that many people - when they start doing something like meditation - have this notion that they, like you've said, have to "achieve it" or achieve something anyway.
HC: A special state of mind or something...
DC: Yes, as if there's an end point... or if there's a peak that one reaches...
HC: Yeah, and then you're there...
DC: But it's not like that, is it? It's a process, right?
HC: Yeah... it's life.
DC: So that helps you out through your day-to-day, does that help you professionally as well?
HC: Of course, of course, I mean meditating has taught me how to focus for long periods of time without breaks if I need to. If I'm working on something, I can find myself concentrating for extended periods of time, you know, it's just disciplining the mind.
DC: Do you use visualization?
HC: I visualize constantly as a dance-maker. I really use that tool to see the performance happen without it being on stage. You know I don't have access to a theater everyday so I have to imagine what it's going to look like. That side of my brain has really developed since I've started choreographing.
DC: So would you recommend that to everybody across every walk of life?
HC: Oh, of course. I mean, even when I was just dancing, I used visualization to train myself. I've read studies that talk about the ability to train yourself by using visualization. I don't have concrete statistics but... it has worked for me as a dancer. To see it first, to imagine it... to see and feel it... to imagine what it feels like to move in a certain way, and then to be able to execute that movement... visualization has been huge for me.
DC: So how about sleep? How much do you get? How important is the idea of sleep to what you do and to your physical body?
HC: Sleep is very important, obviously. My body type, I think, tends to need less sleep. I really need only about six hours a night. Sometimes I get that. Sometimes I don't. Sometimes I get maybe four or five. But I know a lot happens for me during sleep... I dream a lot... I think my subconscious processes a lot of information and when I sleep well I feel great so...
DC: Does a lack of sleep affect your work?
HC: If I'm not sleeping well, I tend to be a little more irritable, a little less focused; my mind feels a little bit sluggish.
DC: You're fortunate not to have had any injuries during those times too.
HC: LOL... good training...
DC: So, what advice would you give up-and-coming dancers with regard to keeping up their health? And is this something you address with your students and your company?
HC: Well, what I'd recommend is a lot of what we've already said in terms of making sure that their eating well, that their sleeping well, that their warming up before they stretch... um, getting massages and having good technique and training so that they are not injuring their bodies when they're dancing and performing. Keeping the stress levels down with any kind of yoga or meditative practices is really huge too. And, uh... taking breaks, you know, it's great to push, but it's also important to know your limits and to know when to take breaks.
DC: Do you mean like vacations or what?
HC: Even within a weekly cycle, to know that, "I've worked hard, I've reached my goals for the week and now my body needs a break."
DC: How do you take breaks?
HC: For me, taking a break is going to a movie or reading something that I want to read.
AZ: Or not moving for a day.
HC: Yeah... or not dancing for a day.
DC: Awesome. That's very important.
HC: You know, with my students... like I said, I teach at UCLA and LMU... it's not my responsibility so much to address nutritional issues, but I always find out if there are any injuries in the class, and I talk to people about how to modify the movements so that they're not making the injuries worse. Or if people have questions, I'm always available to guide them with whatever information I have.
DC: And you've sent many to my office for chiropractic... very smart, man. O.k., last question... where can we see you perform in the near future? What are your current projects? What's the next stage in the career of Hassan Christopher?
HC: Well we've got a stage performance at the El Portal Theater on May 28th. It's a part of the Dance Moving Forward Festival. We're going to premier the beginnings of a new piece. We're also developing new projects to do over the summer and over the next six months. We've just applied for a few big grants and we're waiting to see if we get a few of those.
DC: Awesome, looking forward to it. Thanks a million. You rock.
HC: Thank you.
I really enjoy doing interviews because I like to see how different people tend to their health and their well-being. Health, like dance, is an expression of life - and like all things in life, there are different ways in which we may approach it. Fundamental principles are essential though, and movement, proper diet, hydration, and chiropractic care are all necessary for maintaining a healthy body and a healthy state of mind.
Mr. Christopher has got it right, and it shows in his art form and indeed in his entire being. Whether a dancer, dance enthusiast, or someone who just likes going to the gym, his advice on stretching, nutrition and meditation is definitely something we can all follow with resounding results. By doing the right things, we can achieve in our lives the excellence that Mr. Christopher has enjoyed in his own. I promise that if you do as he does, you'll keep dancing gracefully throughout your entire lifetime.
If you'd like to reach Hassan Christopher for dance instruction, you can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
-June 4, 2005
Dr. Nick Campos, D.C.
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