Summer Cross-Training Strategies for Dancers

Summer Cross-Training Strategies for Dancers

I’ll even addend to the official title:

Summer Cross Training Strategies for Dancers (Who Don’t Want to Screw Their Sh!t Up)

I feel passionately that the summer is one of the most important training periods dancers fail to take advantage of. Should you choose to use your summer wisely, you can make incredible improvements in your technique as well as prevent potential overuse injuries when you return to class in the fall.

We all know that dancers have a high injury rate. I love the short film below, directed by Aaron Buckley, that displays the two sides of ballet- The beauty and the pain.

This article is to help you to clarify what your goals should be for your summer training, and how to choose the best strategy to help you come back to dance in the fall with the advantage, not left straggling behind.

Do you even have a summer training goal? 

This is important: Do you really know what the main goals should be for your summer training? It’s all about improving technique, and that vague matter of “staying in shape”, right?

You may have been infused with the fear that the lack of regular dance classes in the summer will cause your dance technique to regress irreparably. The fear of being left behind the other dancers at your level. The last thing you want is to come back to classes in the fall and find that you are lagging behind, right? But are decisions made out of fear ever the most rational decisions? Not generally…

Surprise! your ideal summer strategy might not involve as much dancing as you’ve been led to believe.

It’s called an “off-season” for a reason

As research in the dance sciences excel, we are learning that the “dance only” approach is not optimal for successful, long dance careers. Dancers need to cross-train to prevent injuries and push through training plateaus that technique classes alone can’t do. Sadly, many teachers aren’t aware of this and, though they want what’s best for you, might not know how to advise you. For that reason, it falls on you to inform yourself and make educated choices.

And of course you will find that some dance teachers are less educated than others. Here’s a scary story from a dance client of mine: A former teacher of hers demanded that students show her the receipts from summer dance programs they had attended. If they didn’t attend “enough” summer intensives, they would be placed in the lower level the following year. Sounds like negative punishment and scare tactics to me.

Reminds me of “Dance Moms”. That show makes me die a little inside. Don’t watch it if you’re an optimist like me.

This “dance hard all summer” reasoning is likely based on fear and belief, not fact and science. In reality, too much time spent only on technical training  in the summer might actually be causing the regression that teachers are so afraid of.

Take the most common arguments you’ll hear from those who are pro summer dance intensives:

  • You’ll lose your hard earned dance technique
  • You’ll become “out of shape”
  • You won’t be able to advance to a higher level
  • Other dancers in your class will excel while you are left behind
  • You need more exposure to the world of dance beyond your studio/school, and to experience different teachers and styles
  • You could have an opportunity to be seen by someone important and secure future employment

Of that list of reasons, the only ones that are valid are the last two. Exposure and experience are very important for artistic development, learning about yourself and your interests as an artist, and for meeting others in the industry with whom you might want to work in the future. Learning where your interests lie as a dancer is important, but you don’t need to break your body down all summer to accomplish that.

Understand that summer is a time to rest, recover and rehabilitate, and by choosing not to, you are denying your need (and right) to give your body a break, to rest overused muscles, correct muscle imbalances, and reduce your risk of becoming injured. Injuries, by the way, are a great way to regress technically.

Dr. Blessyl Buan, my co-conspirator for the 2014 DTP summer program, offering her expertise in pilates for dancers- A great cross-training modality


But won’t you get out of shape if you take too much time off from dance in the summer?

That depends on your definition of “out of shape” (which is a vague term for dancers, who are able to mask their low fitness levels with extreme flexibility and amazing cognitive abilities).

I’ll use myself as an example:

The summer that I was 15 I was accepted into the Banff Center for the Arts’ dance training program*, which was a 6 week training program in which we danced all day and rehearsed all evening for 6 days a week. By the end of the program I felt like I was in the best shape of my life, but I couldn’t walk without a limp because of a constant searing pain in my right hip. Yet somehow I felt like I was in the best shape ever because I had worked so hard that I hurt. But if you’re so injured by the end of a program that you can’t even perform a fundamental movement, like walking, pain free,  did you really succeed at getting in “better shape”?

Those who believe that to be a dancer is to be in pain will often associate physical discomfort with success. Their idea of “fitness” is to have a high pain tolerance, and the mental toughness to ignore warning signs of injury. This is not fitness. This is delusion.

My recommended summer training strategy for success:

  • Take the first 2 to 3 weeks of your summer off from organized activity. This should be a time of active recovery mentally and physically.
  • Take at least 8 weeks of the summer to cross-train with some dedication.  Resistance training, yoga, or pilates with a qualified instructor who knows the dancer’s body are great options. Better yet, make a strength training regime part of your life forever to maintain your muscle, joint and soft tissue health.
  • If you want to dance in the summer (which in my opinion should be optional), do it for fun and because you genuinely love it. Participate in drop-in classes, workshops, and programs taught by teachers and schools you truly enjoy in the styles you like best. Choose them for the important reasons I mentioned above: Artistic development, learning about yourself as a dancer, and for future career opportunities, not out of pressure or fear.

Don’t confuse hard work for productive work. Intelligently taking advantage of your summer off-season will make you a better dancer. You should never dance just for the sake of dancing more, or out of fear. If your summer training program burns you out and injures you, you chose wrong.

This is why I take pride in offering a summer training program that accomplishes the specific goals that dancers need to address in their summer “off-season”:

  • Rehabilitate injuries that are nagging from the dance year
  • Perform exercises and activities that oppose the movement patterns of  dance
  • Rest muscles that are frequently overused in dance to allow them to recover
  • Develop full body strength
  • Manage mental and physical burnout
  • Build body awareness

The goal is not to work on more technique, but to build up the body’s capacity to work hard on technique in the fall.

A dancer of mine working on anti-rotation core stability- Important for preventing injuries and improving strength for all aspects of dance

The 2014 DTP summer cross-training program is extra special compared to past summers. This summer, through 8 weeks of customized strength training and pilates,  this program  teaches you how to strengthen your body for dance, and help you come back to dance fresh for the fall, as well as build awareness of how to properly take care of your body to prevent injuries and avoid hitting plateaus. You can read more about it here: I am anticipating excellence.

I hope this has clarified some of the decision making process for you. Please feel free to email me if you have any questions, or want more information on the DTP summer training program.




* The Banff Center’s program, by the way, is excellent, and I am in no way putting it down.  It was just too much for me at the time. I was weak and unhealthy and what I really needed was something restorative, not intense dancing all day everyday. 

Achieving the Splits Safely

Just a quick (I hope) post today. It’s been a while since the last one, and let’s just say that it’s because I’ve been busy. Doing stuff. And I’m still catching up on work, so today is a cop out blog post where I answer a reader question (which I one that many of you might be wondering about anyway).

The question: When does flexibility become “unsafe”? Are we dancers, with our ligament pathologies intricacies, doomed to be sore and in pain for as long as we remain flexible? How do we know when  (or if) we’ve reached the perfect balance of strength and flexibility?

That’s the gist of the email I received from a lovely reader I’ll call FABIO, for the sake of anonymity.

Hi Monika,

Your post Ligament Pathologies in Dancers- Things You Need to Know” was phenomenal. I’m combing through post after post of yours because of your insights. I was recently diagnosed as hypermobile. I’m a former dancer and have done yoga for years. Several of your posts have had me going “Omg! It’s me! That’s exactly what I do and that’s what happens to me!” While I’m currently working with a physical therapist to strengthen my hip flexors, hamstrings and glutes, she’s suggested I avoid all stretching.

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to regain all 3 splits. Is it possible for someone with all these wonderful ligament pathologies to safely do the splits? Do you have any suggestions regarding strengthening versus stretching? I have tried asking the physical therapist but the answer I generally get out of her is, “it’s complicated.” I’d be really curious to hear your thoughts since I can relate to so much of what you’ve posted.

I always try to take the time to respond when I get awesome emails like this, because when I started writing this blog (which started as a personal brain-dump) I wasn’t anticipating that I’d have real live readers one day. So, yeah, I think it’s pretty cool that there are people out there who think I’m smart and want my opinion. It gives me a warm fuzzy (and my name does mean “advisor”, so I should try to live up to it I guess).

Anyway, here’s (the edited to have no typos version of) how I responded:

Fabio, your question is one that I’m still trying to figure out. What is the most optimal ratio of strength to flexibility for dancers to maintain technical virtuosity while preventing injuries and maintaining a long, healthy career? I wish I had a more satisfying answer but quite honestly it’s a question I consider every single day. Everyday I’m working to come a bit closer to some semblance of an understanding.

Your PT is right- It’s complicated, and every BODY is different. In general, stability, neutrality, and alignment are more important for injury prevention and pain management, but dance (and even yoga) has some extreme aesthetic and athletic demands that take you well beyond your own neutral. And trying to dance in perfect neutral all the time is just. Not. Dance.

My suggestion- experiment safely. Build awareness and get to know your limits. That said, if anyone reading this happens to make any progress in figuring this strength vs. flexibility thing out for themselves, please keep me posted. I’d love to hear about your experiences in body-detectivism.

But I’ll give you an anecdotal example: I have a contemporary/ballet, university-level dance client who dances 5-6 days per week. She can do the splits in all 3 directions, and is probably as flexible as her genetics will allow (with some underlying ligament pathologies, to boot). In the 2 years she has been training regularly with me she has maintained her flexibility, improved her technique, and is stronger than the average chick. She can deadlift close to her own bodyweight for 5ish reps, can do full depth push-ups correctly, can squat proficiently, and has an excellent understanding of how her body moves.

In this time she has had only one minor knee injury, which didn’t stop her from dancing, but required one or two physio appointments. When she originally came to me, she had all sorts of complaints about her lower back and hamstrings. I’d say that’s not too shabby.

But again, that’s HER. Not you. Not anyone else.

Another example is bodybuilders, some of whom despite their huuuuge muscles can still do the splits. Do they also need to jump around and do athletic things? Not as much as dancers do… but I’m just saying that it doesn’t have to be either/or when it comes to strength vs. flexibility, and I hate (strong word!) when fear of losing flexibility is the main reason for not developing strength.

Then there are factors like genetics, injury history, foot wear, habits outside the dance class, lifestyle, diet, etc that can contribute to your optimal level of flexibility and strength.

So… Yes. It’s complicated. It depends on a lot of factors. And to keep this post short (and because I have to get back to  doing “real work”) I’ll end it here.

And for those of you who want something more actionable and sciency to read right now, check out Miguel Aragoncillo’s post about developing flexibility for dance  (keeping in mind that Miguel is a hypermobile bastard , and he is pretty dang strong too).