What Kind of Dancer are You? Are You Dancing, or Surviving Dance?

As promised, in continuation from yesterday’s blog post (which you should read first if you haven’t already. Just sayin’…), I want to share the 3 most common “types” of dancers I tend to work with.

Please bear in mind that I work primarily with studio, competitive, collegiate level, and emerging professional dancers, though I also see some professional dancers and adult beginners. A nice variety, but collegiate contemporary being the group I work with, and draw correlations from the most often.

There are definitely more than 3 types of dancers. You might be type 2.5, or type 3X. And I am eager to hear what your experiences are, too.

Reaaadyyyy?

Type 1:  Surviving dancers

These guys aren’t dancing, they’re surviving dance. This is an analogy I most recently saw used by Gray Cook in his book Movement, in which he asks us to question whether we are moving, or are we simply surviving movement. Breath holding is just one of many means of survival we dancers can relate to…

Surviving dancers and are probably in an over-trained state, or will be soon. Whether this is beacuse of mental, emotional or physical stress and/or acute trauma, will be highly individual, but all will contribute to varying degrees. The thing about these guys is that when placed in a generic conditioning routine, progress is often unpredicatble, non-linear or non-existent, because these dancers don’t feel safe.  They don’t trust you and they don’t trust themselves. It’s hard to change the way you move if you’re in constant fight or flight mode. Getting out of survival mode is a huge win.

Common characteristics:

  • Sympathetic nervous system dominant (I would check HRV for these guys but don’t have anything to track that yet)
  • Painful movement that often seems random because the it may not even be dysfunctional-looking
  • Always sore and low energy (probably over-trained)
  • Have current injuries, or nagging chronic ones that haven’t been completely rehabbed.
  • Uncontrolled hypermobility.
  • Poor breathing and core stabilization patterns  (getting this is the KEY to levelling up from survivor status)
  • Slow progress in non-individualized training situations

Suggestions for training focus:

  • Stress management/meditation in some form as they might have issues with sympathetic and parasympathetic balance that need to be overcome before anything else can change.
  •  Correct breathing patterns with neutral everything that hates being neutral (neck, ribcage, spine, pelvis, shoulders, etc)
  • Careful progression through fundamental movement patterns while avoiding painful movement
  •  Talk about the implications of working through pain 
  • Use corrective exercise to restore fundamental movement, breathing and developing basic levels of body awareness.
  • REST, RECOVERY and REHABILITATION

 

Type 2: Ready to MOVE

These dancers actually feel safe in their bodies. YAY. They can more easily be taught how to move efficiently and  develop strength to support that smooth movement. This is because they actually feel safe enough to get vulnerable in a session with you and embrace the new way of moving you are trying to present them.

They may appear physically weak and shaky and maybe a little shy, but these guys will blow you away with how quickly they’ll progress if you give them the right exercises and concepts to focus on.

Common characteristics:

  • Free of insidious pain (may be injured, but pain is clearly defined and not random).
  • Movement screen is free of pain, but with probable asymmetries and poor stability in most movements
  • Good understanding of breath and stabilization in neutral alignment after one or two exposures to it (mastering this is the key to levelling up!)
  • Quiet, shy,but  eager to work hard and good at following instruction.
  • Show progression in movement competency and strength in a predictable, linear way.

Suggestions for training focus:

  • Breathing must be constantly reinforced. Add full breath cycles to each exercise.
  • Work on constantly improving movement pattern quality and symmetry when needed.
  •  Strengthen fundamental movement patterns like squatting, lunging, single leg balance,  upper body pushing and pulling and core stability with regressions and progressions as needed.
  •  Improve ability to use full functional ranges of motion coordinated with breath (some sensible stability based yoga is good for this)
  •  Explore strategies to boost confidence, mental clarity, sense of purpose and self-esteem (strength development helps so much with this, as does simple conversation and goal setting- help them to understand whether they have healthy social and family relationships that are supporting their goals ).

Type 3:  Athletic dancers

These dancers are the ones that probably didn’t specialize in ballet at 3 years old, but were exposed to a lot of other opportunities to move and do athletic things before the rhythm and expression of dance called to the artist within them. They will generally have a good base of strength, and be self-sufficient with exercises/breathing technique. You can ask them to do some training on their own and feel confident they won’t screw anything up ;).

Common characteristics:

  • No present injuries or painful movements.
  • High energy, abundant positive energy, enthusiasm for life.
  • Probable asymmetries in movement screening, but are competent movers and quick learners with few red flags.
  • Typically higher muscle tone but possibly less mobility (not always…)
  • Decent base of strength (can probably even do a push-up upon screening)
  • Progress can be seen from the start to end of a session as gains in strength and motor control are quick (likely because they aren’t over-trained)
  • May have more dance-technique specific goals to work on than basic movement, strength and mobilty goals.

Suggestions for training focus:

  • ALL THE SAME THINGS AS TYPE 2 DANCERS
  • Get deeper into the mind-body experience, using the breath to guide the dancer into the limits of their functional range of motion (which they will using in dance classes). Having a regular yoga practice with emphasis on long duration holds and meditation is one good way I have found so far.
  • Develop dance-technique-specific strength and improve functional ranges of motion (for turn out, leg height, spine extension, etc)
  • Counselling on life-direction (where do you want dance to take you?)

 

Like I mentioned above, I’m sure this is an incomplete list, and I’m sure there are things that you might disagree on (and that I’ll disagree with myself on tomorrow…). This is not based on any research I’ve done, but on my own experience, so it is by no means to be taken too much to heart.

Understanding these types has helped me recently to choose the structure of our sessions and to not stress out and get frustrated when the plan for that session goes off course. My hopes is that it will help you out a bit too. Would love to hear what you think.

P.S. The Dance Stronger program works best if you’re not a survivor ;).

What Kind of Dancer Are You? How Recognizing Your Mental and Physical State Will Help You Get the Most Out of Your Cross-Training

For the past few years I consider myself fortunate to have worked almost exclusively with dancers as training clients. As an example, throughout this summer I’ve worked with 13 dancers and only 5 non-dancers. That ratio changes a bit during the fall when dancers are in-season and don’t need to cross-train as much, but I generally don’t ever see my ratio of dancer clientele drop below the 50% mark.

So yeah, you could say I see a lot of dancers in a day compared to the average person.

Not only that, but I get to see how good these dancers are at not-dancing. Out of their element. Just being humans. This last point is my mission: Get dancers to feel like well-functioning, strong human-beings outside the dance class.

You’d think that from working so frequently with this unique population I’d be able to slap together a dance-specific training program and have a breeze with it, making progress in an awesome linear way. In reality, this is far from the case.

I have tried my best to make such a program (for dancers who want to develop full-body strength to support their dance practice) in hopes that there are people out there who will actually get something out of it. Dance Stronger is a 4 week program that you can sign up for HERE for free. Look, it actually helped this person:

Hi Monika,

I came across your web site and blog in November, after a disappointing performance in which my legs felt shaky. I hit the gym, inspired by your site and the results have been awesome. I feel strong, powerful, and alive, and even after taking a month-long break from dance training and only going to the gym, returned to the studio with a strength and vigor I hadn’t known in recent history.
I love your straight-forward, courageous, no-nonsense assault on the damaging myths of the dance world. And the particular exercises you write about work, and are efficient—I love the psoas activating stuff, and the work on the glutes.

Rock on! I can at least feel semi-justified (and relieved) that some people have the ability to take a non-individualized program and get some initial benefits from it.

But that’s not enough for me. My German heritage demands utmost efficiency.

I used to try to logically create a program template for my new dance clients to follow, knowing that I would probably need to adjust the exercises- progressions and regressions- here and there. I still kind of do that.

What was so frustrating for me, though, was that despite knowing of the common patterns of muscle imbalances, injuries, training needs, etc, every single one of my dance clients are SO different. My “logical starting template” never worked. Sure I would get to the planned exercises eventually, but in a roundabout way that I could never predict. I didn’t like that.

It got to the point where I felt like I had no idea what I was doing- I would have this sensible-looking program in front of me to take the client through, but I would look at the dancer, and look back to the program, then back to the dancer, sigh and put the program down and do something completely different.

If my program said that in this session we were going to work on a plank variation, and my client can’t even focus enough to lie on her back and show me good breathing technique, we’re sure as hell not following the plan that day.

And maybe on another such occasion my handy plan states it’s time to work on lunges, but this dancer is so stiff through the hips that the lunge start position wasn’t possible, you bet we spent that day trying to get her range of motion back instead of lunging.

And this was happening every day despite my best efforts to plan. I felt that I was missing something huge.

I realize now that it wasn’t that I had made a “bad” program, but that the dancer wasn’t at a stage where they were ready for it, and I had failed to notice because I hadn’t properly screened for it. I feel that many dance-specific training methods have this same issue and are unaware that this is why so many dancers fail to make progress with their methods.

Have you ever, for example,  signed up for a pilates class, attended religiously, and still not made progress? Not noticed a difference in strength, control or an improvement in your dancing?  Strong chance it’s because you aren’t ready for that type of training yet. There’s something even more fundamental  and preparatory you are missing.

I can see now why I felt like I was floundering with some of my dancers, and was because I wasn’t taking into consideration that, for example, while one dancer might look like they’re doing a plank properly, they aren’t making progress anywhere else because something even more fundamental needed addressing first.

What’s more fundamental than a plank? Breathing…

I had skipped too many steps. I had assumed that all dancers have body awareness. That all dancers can learn movement quickly. And that all dancers will understand the importance of not cheating their way through an exercise and ignoring pain during movement. These things will elusively hold back their progress unless you screen for it.

I see now that there are a few types of dancer, each with varying degrees of readiness for exercise. Some are ready for hard work, some can’t even focus for 5 seconds on what I’m asking them to do.

It wasn’t that I was giving them a “bad” exercise plan, it just wasn’t the right type of plan. I hadn’t made  sure they were actually ready for it. Maybe there was something even more fundamental that needed addressing, like a lack of mobility at a particular joint, a lack of awareness of a particular element, or a even a change necessary in their state of mind.

I have identified (I think…) 3 types of dancer, and while I’m sure there are more than just 3  understanding what type you are, or you are trying to train in whatever method you work with (pilates, yoga, rehab, weight training, etc.), will help you to better determine what type of exercise or technique any individual dancer might need to progress most efficiently.

But this post is long enough for now so stay tuned for all that stuff tomorrow  ;).