Penny Johnson shares her fitness and well being tips

August 31 2016

29-year-old Carlie Milner plays Penny Johnson in the touring stage production of Dirty Dancing - The Classic Story on Stage. Health and fitness journalist Lucy Fry caught up with her at Fitness First Tottenham Court Road, where she revealed her fitness habits and food secrets.

How did you come to be a dancer, and work on Dirty Dancing?

When I was growing up I did as much dancing as I could and then, aged 16, I had to make a choice between musical theatre school and ballet school. I naturally gravitated towards the latter, where I spent three years. After graduating I did a couple of years’ of ballet contracts before dancing (different styles) on cruise ships and then heading back to London to work on shows and television commercials. In February 2014 I joined the Dirty Dancing family as an ‘on stage swing’ (i.e. I was one of a number of people in each show who can cover all ensemble parts) - one of the hardest roles in theatre because you have to know so many parts! One of those parts was Penny…

What does your schedule look like when you’re on tour?

Busy! I do eight shows a week - sometimes nine if an extra matinee has been added. Contracts for shows like this might be a year to eighteen months, and though they include scheduled holidays it’s normal to work for 8-12 weeks before taking a break.

Tell us about your training regime, both before and during a show?

When I’m preparing for auditions I’ll do plenty of exercise because I want to feel fit and healthy, and look as good as possible. I ran 4-5 times a week before I started rehearsals, but much of my fitness derives from the rehearsal period as it’s 10-6pm every day working on all the routines. I figured out early though that when I’m actually on stage eight times a week, I need to back off other exercise; the show is usually physically intense enough! That said, I’ll sometimes do Yoga or Pilates in between shows; it’s a good mix of strength and flexibility without being too high impact.

How do you cope with such a physically demanding role? What’s your pre-show ritual?

I’ll go through certain movement patterns, which helps me physically and mentally to get pepped up and if I know I’m extra tired I’ll do more work on my core - plenty of abdominal exercises - to ensure it’s primed. It’s a bit like when you see a boxer bouncing around the ring, psyching themselves up. Doing particular lifts with my dance partner beforehand helps too. It’s all a mental discipline - ticking things off the list so you know you can do them tonight regardless of how you feel.

What are your favourite types of exercise?

Apart from dancing? For aerobic fitness, I like swimming and cycling but my favourite is definitely running - no music on, just getting outside into nature and going for it with my miniature schnauser, Howie, by my side. It helps me think things through. I also love hot yoga. I just feel so good afterwards and really enjoy getting so sweaty!

What about food? What do you eat?

When I’m in a show, I eat little and often, though I’ll always have a decent breakfast (e.g. eggs, bread, spinach). Then a couple of hours before a show I have something light just to get me through until the interval - raw veggies and hummus or a salad pot with some kind of grain, or a bit of pasta… In the interval I’ll have a snack- usually something chocolate-based - and I’ll always snack again before going to bed so my muscles can refuel and I’ll sleep well.

What about holidays and rest periods? What’s different about you then?

When I’m performing I wear voluminous wigs and have 4 inch heels, wear dresses and lots of make up! But when I’m not working I love to go to country and walk through the woodland with scruffy hair, no make up, glasses and wellies on!

What three stretches do you prefer?

Three stretchesI always stretch my thighs, as my quadriceps in particular get very tight from holding bent-legged positions during
the show: face away from a wall and place a knee on the ground (with some padding underneath) as
close to the wall as possible and the foot of the same leg against the wall. The other food is on the ground with knee bent. Try and stay upright! 1 minute each side and then switch over.

I also stretch my other hip flexors out. Start in plank position and then place one foot in between you hands and let the back knee drop to the ground and raise your back arm up taking it over to one side, keeping back straight too. You should feel a stretch in that rear leg, around the groin.
A gentle lower back stretch is very important too: lie on the floor and, keeping lower back on the floor, pull your knees in towards chest.

What are your three favourite exercises?

For dancing, core strength comes first and isometric holds (ie. remaining still whilst your muscles work!) are great for building this. Lie on your back with legs outstretched and pointed toes, head and shoulders just off the ground, arms extended and lower back pressed into the floor.

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Hip bridges are a stalwart of mine - they work the glutes and hamstrings: lie on your back with knees bent and feet close enough that you can tickle heels with outstretched arms. Tilt your pelvis back (pushing lower back into ground) and gently peel off your hips and push them up towards the sky/ceiling. Hold for a couple of seconds (take one leg off and extend to make it harder) and return gently to the floor.

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I love yoga! The vinyasa movement is one I do a few times over to warm my whole body up. There are a few stages (see pics).

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1) Start from standing, move down into a high plank position
2) With shoulders pulled back (think: into your back pockets), bend elbows until upper arm is parallel with floor
3) Slide forward onto the front of your feet whilst also pushing chest forward into ‘upward dog’, squeezing your glutes
4) Roll back over your feet, onto your toes, and push through the hands as you send your bottom up towards the sky, making a V shape (downward dog).
5) Jump feet forward into a forward bend, raise arms up to the sky to start again

Do you have any tips for staying injury free?

Whenever you’re learning a new movement or exercise, commit to learning it properly. During rehearsal period, we get taught what muscles we need to be using and what to consider in order to prevent injury to our neck and back. The hardest thing for me is dancing in heels! When I’m doing a backbend (Dirty Dancing is full of
these…) I need to think about my glutes being switched on and stretching my abdominals out. Cooling down is also a really important part of being a performer or athlete. I always stretch those parts I know will hurt the next day and use a foam roller to release my tightest muscles.

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DIRTY DANCING - THE CLASSIC STORY ON STAGE TOURS THE UK FROM 11 AUGUST. TICKETS AVAILABLE FROM www.dirtydancingontour.com