In case you weren’t aware, the dance world is far from perfect.
The injury rate is the higher than many contact sports, nutritional guidance is generally non-existent, dancers are encouraged not to cross-train (God forbid a ballerina should pick up a dumbbell), and to be a dancer is considered one of the most stressful jobs. But that short-list doesn’t touch on the biggest problem: Very little is being done to change anything.
One of the things I often hear dance professionals discussing is that it’s so hard to raise awareness on the importance of strength training (in whatever form you choose) for dancers.
Science(!) has shown that strength training is an excellent means of injury prevention, ensuring career longevity, maintaining good mental and emotional health, and excelling technically. And yet, even with science on our side, yelling as loud as we can, our audience is blind and deaf.
But here’s the other thing- It’s not only a lack of awareness, but a lack of role models to set a good example.
When I was a young dancer, there were no good role models at my studio. The “big girls” at my studio did not practice self-care. Most of the girls I looked up to didn’t do supplemental strengthening exercises, they didn’t eat well, they were stressed and over-trained, and a few of them just weren’t nice people.
Last week I sent out a call to action, and I want to thank those who responded. My mission was to find dancers, dance teachers, studio owners, trainers, and anyone else in the dance world with a passion for strength training, or for teaching dancers the importance of strength development.
Today’s post features these lovely people and the excellent work they are doing, setting an example for the next generation of dancers. What we need to make a change in the industry is to bring together those who are leading by example, because as much as scientific evidence rocks, people are generally more likely to act on something when they see real-life evidence.
We need to hear success stories and have strong, intelligent, and talented role models for new dancers and veteran dancers alike. Hear this: You don’t need to stress about getting injured and having to stop dancing. You don’t need to worry because there is something you can do about it. Learn to get stronger. Learn how to improve your nutrition. And by the powers of your improved physical state, your mind will have more energy to cope with the mental and emotional stress of the competition, expectation, and often rejection that comes with dance.
Yes, dance is a struggle. But you shouldn’t have to suffer. And if you reach out to anyone in the list below, they’ll tell you all about it. This is a diverse list, including teachers, recreational dancers, professional dancers, some dancers I’ve had the pleasure of working with, and some prominent figures in the strength training world who are passionate about improving the way dancers are trained. These folks just might inspire you, if you’re not careful.
Here are your featured dance role models:
Dancers that lift (weights):
1. Maura Garcia
“Lifting weights has transformed my arms. I am stronger and see a difference in tone and consequentially in the definition of the lines they form. However, most importantly, strength training has allowed me to better harness my body’s energy and redirect it powerfully through my arms.”
2. Lavinia Magliocco
“I’m fifty years old, veteran of two bowel excisions and resections for Crohn’s disease, and danced six years at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. I lift weights, practice yoga and resistance training in my Pilates studio 6 days a week. Thanks to all that, in spite of deep incision scars and a few broken metatarsals, I teach and demonstrate (also occasionally on pointe) full out for my dance students at Portland Festival Ballet, as well as continue to dance, do inversions, and tango pain free.”
3. Selina Twum
“Why do I love deadlifting so much? I deadlift because it’s a full body exercise, it educates my spine on what neutral position should feel like, drives me to beat last week’s number of plates and makes me feel pretty bad a**! Through deadlifting I achieve better balance in dance, am empowered to work hard in class knowing what I do in the gym will help me reach my full potential and above all it boosts my confidence in pursuing a career in dance! :D”
4. Kaila June Gidley
“Resistance training has transformed every aspect of my dancing from increasing my balance and stability, to improving my alignment and motor recruitment patterns, and by enhancing my power and performance. Professionally I am a personal trainer and movement educator with a passionate goal for improving dancer health and wellness, and resistance training is one of the best tools in my box!”
5. Tina Clark
“I’m a 51 year old dancer, choreographer and teacher. Every other day of Pilates with intense weights has kept my over body strong, aligned and performance ready. I teach my 3 year olds all the way up to 91 yrs old the importance of their own body type being absolutely perfect with correct alignment and knowledge of how the engage their pelvic floor to gain overall control of all their dancing limbs.”
6. Alana DelZotto
“Lifting weights was a great way to improve my dancing as a whole. It improved my overall strength, stability, and gave me a greater awareness of how to use muscles properly to execute dance movement.”
7. Miguel Aragoncillo
“Dancers develop the most unique neuromuscular compensation strategies for movement. Setting the appropriate foundation through strength training protocols has allowed myself and others I’ve closely worked with to understand the effect of “restoring” movement, which has great influence on muscular endurance, power, and strength during auditions, showcases, and routines.”
Note from Monika: You should take advantage of Miguel’s brain. He is always sharing great content for dancers on his blog, and his domain of expertise is breakdancing (and deadlifting).
8. Laia Imhoff
“As a competitive and professional figure skater, strength training isn’t only a great way to improve muscle tone, but it increases bone density, avoiding injury and providing my body with better flexibility and endurance. An athlete that strength trains has a better understanding of what his or her body needs in order to perform at its best, and is an athlete that will have a longer, more successful career.”
9. Jennifer Bezaire
“Chronic injuries, pain, exhaustion, and threats of surgery are past memories since pilates based resistance training and eccentric loading dramatically improved my dance life! I enjoy solid sleep, have energy and balance for awesome turns, stamina for soaring allegro, strength for partnering, and endurance for beautifully controlled adage with higher extensions too! The key is building strength and efficient muscular coordination while maintaining neutral alignment; it’s all about balance – both on and off stage, inside and outside the studio too!”
10. Sarah Weinrauch
“Riddled with injuries -acute and chronic – I was ready to accept defeat and quit dancing. With one last hope and the rest of my cash, I hired a personal trainer and focused my time on strength training. My injuries have virtually disappeared, I feel way more confident in my execution and control of my body, and best of all… I’m still doing what I love!”
11. Kendall Alway
“I am a former professional dancer who is now a PT specializing in the treatment of dancers. I have recently started giving lectures at the University level to help train the next generation of PT’s in the safe and effective treatment of dancers. I am a member of IADMS and on the DANCE USA task force on dancer’s health. I also run (with Rick Coughlin, MD) the FREE ODC Healthy Dancers’ Clinic. “
12. Sivagami Sreenivasan
“I have 3 torn ligaments (ACL-full snap, PCL and MCL partial tears) on the left knee, worn and torn meniscus on both knees. The sports doctor told me I would have difficulty climbing stairs, running and dancing would be out of the question. Today, with consistent Yoga practice and strength training, I’m able to dance and perform with ease and for hours at end!!”
13. Elisa Klemm
“I have found aerial hoop to be the ultimate combination of strength and grace. Resistance training has made me stronger, more powerful and gives me more endurance to perform beautiful movements in the air. Being strong and having proper body awareness is so important for preventing falls and injuries when I’m on the aerial hoop.”
14. Chris Bland
“I can’t dance, I never could and I’m doubtful for the future. What I love is to lift things off the floor and if I’m feeling cocky put it above my head. While being strong has never made me a better dancer; I have shared my passion with countless dancers who have never looked back.”
Note from Monika: You rock Chris! Thanks for supporting us dancers. And, uh, nice picture 😉
15. Kelly Weckesser Hall
“I didn’t fully realized just how much benefit I was gaining from my strength training until I attended the Pilobolus Summer Intensive. I was able to support other dancers and be fearless in lifts, because I could support my own body weight and be confident in my strength. It was when dancing with other strong confident and beautiful dancers that I was truly able to see just how much I needed to continue training, learning, and sharing my knowledge with others.”
16. Elyse Sparkes
“As a young dancer I was frail, exhausted energetically, and constantly getting injured. I started to include strength training into my routine and not only felt stronger and more balanced physically, but I also became more grounded and stable in my confidence, self-esteem, and sense of self worth. I believe everyone can use the power of strength training to find awareness, compassion, balance, and joy in their bodies and their lives.”
17. Samantha Kutner
“As someone with plenty of flexibility, but not a lot of strength, I struggled a lot to execute pirouettes, leaps and level changes. When I finally started to add strength training in the form of squats and leg raises I saw a different from the first week on. I’m happy I can do those moves full out and don’t have to fake it anymore!”
18. Noel St. Jean
“As I approach my mid-thirties, I rely on strength training to keep my body in peak physical condition for dance. By taking advantage of classes at my local YMCA, I have discovered an inner strength that keeps me energized throughout hours of teaching and rehearsals; I can demonstrate more fully, spot acrobats with more confidence and maintain my stamina throughout performances. I believe that all dancers should cross train in order to keep their bodies strong and balanced, a trait that will keep them healthy in movement for years to come.”
19. Jessica McGrath
“A year ago a dance class would leave me limping in pain on the way home. I was compensating (badly), instead of using muscles I didn’t even know I had. Since I started lifting weights and strengthening the muscles my dancing was neglecting, I dance pain-free and much more responsively.”
20. Marissa Gough
“I had trained in dance for 6 years,truly loving it but never getting the professional quality of movement and unfortunately I was perpetually injured and my body was a huge mess. About 4 years ago I met my trainer and current partner Said Debbach who is a 3rd generation circus performer,he gave me a proper foundation for acro dance,hand balancing ,Adagio and aerial skills. Now 4 years injury free with an intensely strong core,a better physical vocabulary than anyone could ever hope to have, now I can truly fly!”
21. Yvette Thompson
“I’m stronger now at 47 than I ever was at 26. I’ve had 3 kids, teach ballet, tap and musical theater but it wasn’t until I became a group fitness instructor for a group of older ladies about 5 years ago that it all began to fall into place. I study everything I can to make what I do and what I teach the best and healthiest for myself and each of my students from the youngest to the oldest. Thanks, and never stop doing cartwheels!”
22. Robin Horner
“Strength training has made me stronger so I can dance longer. It has given me the ability to perform more tricks in hip hop and acro dance. Most of all, it has given me the strength to leap higher and achieve all of my dance dreams!”
23. Jory Kettles
“I recently returned to the dance world after a 4 year hiatus while pursuing post-secondary education, by earning a spot in my University’s dance company. During the last 3 years I have picked up on strength training, which (to my surprise) lead to more power and more strength when I returned the stage: higher jumps, upper body strength to lift the girls, etc. – not to mention no longer being self-conscious about dancing on stage without a shirt! As an Exercise Science major in University and a personal trainer, I see the value strength training has in performance parameters in dance, and have chosen to investigate it further for my senior research thesis.”
24. Morgan Timberg
“Strength training has not only made me a stronger dancer, but it has also brought me greater self-awareness of my body when moving and dancing. I have gained a lot more self confidence, which I bring to both my dancing and everyday life!”
25. Eva Connelly-Miller
“I feel so much stronger in general, and feel like I’m finally starting to realize what it means to work more efficiently without tensing or gripping in the “wrong” places. I feel that although I still am working on maintaining neutral alignment while dancing I can now find it again far more easily! Another big change is that I now understand how important the lats are in efficient movement. I can visualize the areas we worked on during training engaging during class, rather than just squeezing my shoulder blades together. Overall, I feel more in control of my body.”
26. Marissa Joseph
“I started strength training when I was already a seriously injured dancer. In a year, I worked myself up to consistently lifting 20lbs more than my body weight. It was at that point that I was noticeably at my strongest: my jumps were higher, my stamina greater and my technical control was evident. Most importantly, strength training kept me moving and out of considerable pain!”
Note from Monika: Marissa is like the American version of me. We dream of meeting one day to dance and deadlift together. She writes really excellent stuff on her blog- A really great resource for y’all (see what I did there? The Americanization?).
27. Roxana Marin
“I dance and promote dance, as it is truly my passion (I am a PR practitioner with a full time job when I don’t dance). I complete my dance work-out with weekly yoga classes (for flexibility and mobility), a daily routine of exercise for legs (to get them stronger for ballet) and arms workout with weights (I found out that stronger arms help with lifting while doing pirouettes).”
28. Joel Minden
“I use a multi-joint resistance training program of deadlifts, squats, presses, chin-ups, and rows to build power in my dancing. Strength training has had a huge impact on my ability to initiate power through the standing leg and hip, and to produce power through the upper back and shoulders during rotational figures.”
Note from Monika: Joel has an excellent blog for dancers. Particularly those of the ballroom/dancesport denomination. You really should check it out.
29. Jenny Kirillova
“I am a Latin American Amateur dancer. I have been struggling with my high point spirals for ages. Thanks to dead lifts I have strong legs to spiral on now. Thanks to push-ups I have toned arms and strong back and am not afraid to wear revealing Latin dresses.”
30. Kristen Lewis
“I started weight training in November, inspired by Monika Volkmar’s Dance Training Project blog and website. After 3 months of weight training, I now feel the strongest and healthiest I ever have in the dance studio. I am nearing 35 and looking forward to many more great years of hard-core dance training, strong and injury free thanks in part to my new friend the weight room. (Plus the feeling in my butt of being able to squat way more than I weigh helps me deal with the inevitable failures and setbacks that go along with being a successful and committed performing artist—the weights have helped me push through on an emotional level in a way that feels life-affirming and powerful, never body-denying or self-abusive as certain other training practices can feel). “
31. Katelyn Good
“I have found that gaining strength as a dancer has helped me to find height and speed in my movement as well as more pelvic control and more control in lower and deeper forms of movement. In this way I feel more connected with more pressure into the floor and more grounded. An understanding of my center and core strength has helped me control my movement better, allowing myself to still use my flexibility but with more articulation in my legs and a stronger held posture in my upper body and strength in my back. Most importantly strength has given me all of this and helped me to improve with a better sense of knowing how and where my body should properly be held in order to maintain my healthiest, least injury-prone positioning and alignment, while still being able to work my limbs to their maximum.”
Super huge thanks (and high five) to everyone who supported this project and made it happen. If you want to stay connected with me, and other dancers who are into not being weak, I encourage you to join us on Facebook. I like to think I keep things interesting on the DTP page, but I guess you’ll have to like it and see for yourself…
Keep dancing stronger!