I’m not here to hate on dance conditioning classes. Much.
In fact I’m not totally qualified to hate on dance conditioning classes because I don’t have very much first hand experience participating in them. Because sadly many dance studios I went to didn’t have that option.
Even Ryerson didn’t have one, though I know many university dance programs do.
Indeed many a dance studio, and many a dance program offer a conditioning class of some sort. This is a good thing.
What I find concerning is that most dance conditioning classes are about as safe and effective as Gumby’s attempt to max out on the bench.
Don’t get me wrong, I am stoked that so many dance schools recognize the need for supplementary conditioning. I’m happy we all agree that the physical stimulus in a typical dance class isn’t enough to elicit improvements in fitness and strength beyond a certain point. I am sad, however, to observe how these classes can often exacerbate some of the issues dancers are already dealing with, rather than make them stronger and less prone to said issues.
Like, your spine hates you from back-bends and then your conditioning class makes you do planks. But they look like this:
And you hold THAT for 3 minutes. And then your back hurts more. But it can’t be because of the planks because those are good for you. Your teacher compliments your sweet pants, but shouldn’t she (or he) be correcting your position?
How dance conditioning classes drop the ball
Inappropriate exercise selection.
Inappropriate timing in the schedule.
Too much volume/intensity.
Under-qualified, inexperienced teachers.
No emphasis on educating dancers on how exercises should feel, or that pain isn’t good.
Let me illustrate with a few examples from the real world (although here’s one from this fake internet world, too. This website hurts my soul little).
The inappropriately designed conditioning class by an under-qualified instructor.
I recently met with a client to speak about a project she was working on for her thesis project, and we got on the topic of a very prestigious summer training program that she had participated in last year.
This program happened to include a conditioning class (yay) but according to her- and I consider her to be educated on what is and is NOT an acceptable form of dance cross-training- they did tons of variation of crunches, and exercises that made her hip flexors strain (boo). It got so bad that she decided to express this to the instructor, who responded by saying, “then what should we do instead?”.
First, someone who has been hired to instruct dancers on how to get stronger, presumably with the goal of dancing better, should understand that crunches are not the best choice of exercise for dancers.
And second, if a dancer tells you she is feeling something wrong during an exercise and asks for an alternative, you should be able to give her one. Because you have 5 up your sleeve for this very reason.
To me, this screams unprofessional and under-qualified, and considering the injury rate in dancers is about 80% (but lets be honest, more like 100%), dance schools should do their research before hiring a teacher who is more “boot-camp” than dance cross-training. Someone who will build them up, not break them down.
This class was also poorly scheduled, sandwiched between morning classes and afternoon rehearsals.
When is the best time? I’m not totally sure. I’d like to ask Matthew Wyon that question.
The dance school that offers Zumba as their fitness class.
Ok so I do recognize that for people who don’t do much of anything, much less dance, Zumba can be an intense workout that is probably a totally acceptable thing for them to be doing.
My issue is when dance studios decide to forgo offering a legit conditioning class for dancers because they already have Zumba as an option. They’ve confused “dance fitness” with “fitness for dancers”. It’s not the same thing.
I wouldn’t be caught dead teaching a Zumba class to dancers. No offense, Zumba. I know you’ve changed people’s lives and that’s cool. I just wouldn’t do you. We can still be friends, though.
Many times that I’ve reached out to dance schools in Toronto to talk about the need for dance conditioning classes I’ve been disregarded because they already have their own version of dance fitness, which often is some kind of boot-camp, aerobics, Prancersise-type program that makes me want to cry a little.
And Zumba isn’t dance training either. Want to learn some sweet moves you can use in the real world (whatever that is)? Take an actual dance class. Or do this.
The conditioning class that does the right exercises the wrong way
I had the pleasure of training a lovely young lady who’s dance studio had a conditioning class. They did exercises that I consider good, like push-ups. However, when she told me one day that she did 100 push-ups in said class I was suspicious. In sessions with me, she has difficulty doing a controlled negative.
“Are you sure you were doing push-ups?” I asked. “Well, not like the way we do in our sessions. We have to do he them to the beat of the music ”.
Understandably, when forced to go to the beat of the music her form gets a bit sloppy.
I know you like being on the beat (I do, too) but that does not mean you should have to do push-ups to the beat of a song that is way too fast. Especially if you can’t do one proper push-up. This is another another case where the instructor should know better, allow them to do push-ups at their own pace, and provide appropriate regressions when necessary. Which in the beginning is almost always.
Teaching a group of dancers how to move well, get strong, and get them excited about injury prevention isn’t easy. Often you’ll be met with a group of egos with a no pain no gain mindset. It’s much easier to pander to their wants than to educate them.
They may ask for a stretch class. Teach them neutral spine and how to breathe instead. Make them earn the right to stretch.
I think what’s lacking from many conditioning classes is a measurable goal. How else can you tell your students are making progress? Unless the goal is to move around a bunch, sweat, and feel the burn.
The actual goals of a dance conditioning class
Educate dancers on proper movement quality and it’s importance.
Get the dancers stronger to improve their work and recovery capacity.
Help the dancers build body awareness.
Balance patterns of overuse to prevent injuries.
Serve as a mock “screen” to get a sense of whether a dancer is over-trained, injured, or recovering poorly.
Now I’m not saying that I am the most brilliant instructor ever when it comes to dance conditioning and strength training. I’m just saying that I have certain teaching standards, systems and philosophies that I feel actually make for effective strength development and reduce the risk of injury rather than increase it.
Some strategies to ensure your dance conditioning classes don’t suck
Music is for improving energy, not a beat to work out to. Not every dancer can do exercises at the same tempo. It is cruel and inappropriate to assume all dancers can do push-ups to the beat of Latch. Featuring Sam Smith. Possibly the best song ever.
Be constantly assessing the dancers. Treat every exercise as an assessment. Watch for signs of poor recovery. Ask if they find an exercise painful, where they feel it, how challenging it feels. Don’t just stand there and count the reps out.
Do an appropriate warm up. This should include some work on breathing, core activation, and mobility work/dynamic stretching if needed.
Provide a few alternatives (progressions, regressions, lateralizations) for each exercise. No two dancers are the same and they should not be treated as such.
Include these 3 components: Corrective exercise for movement quality, strength development, and metabolic work. Your ratio of exercises from each category may vary depending on the class. Some classes seem to miss the first 2 and do only the metabolic conditioning (circuits, inervals, etc).
Explain why you’re getting them to do the selected exercises and how it will help their dancing. Dancers are much more likely to want to do exercises if they see how it will translate to their performance or help them overcome and prevent injuries. “This will help your turns”, is a better motivator than “feel the burn”.
Spend minimal time stretching. I don’t want to go into this rant right now, but stretching is not the most effective use of time if you only have one hour per week to help your dancers. Dancers need help controlling the flexibility they already have, not getting more bendy and unstable.
Don’t kill the dancers with high volume and intensity. Especially if it’s the end of the day, or the middle of the day. Or the start of their day… Just help them work at an intensity that is reasonable but still challenging.
I struggled for a while teaching classes not knowing how to structure them properly, how to ensure dancers were performing exercises appropriately, and get them in the right mindset. Maybe you don’t agree with everything I’m saying, and if you don’t, I really hope you have a better way, and that you’ll tell me about it so I can do better, too.
I’ll leave you with these final points. Remember:
Zumba is not conditioning for dancers.
Exercises shouldn’t absolutely be done to the beat of the music.
And please don’t treat your dancers like they’re in a boot-camp. They deserve better. They deserve to be built up, not shattered.
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:
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 ;).
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: www.danceproject.ca/summer-program. 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.
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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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?).
“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).”
“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…
I’m going to rant just a little bit about something that frustrates me. Namely, dance fitness is not the same as “fitness for dancers”.
And it seems like a lot of people just don’t seem to get the F**cking diff.
The photo was taken in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where I was recently studying Thai massage. Gotta love Asia.
I feel that I have permission to rant because I have much more to contribute that I do to complain about. The rule: Ranting is not warranted unless you have something actionable and useful to follow up with.
Do dancers need to be more “fit”?
I’m kind of tired of answering this question, so I’ll let Sonia Rafferty do it:
“Studies have shown that performing dance in itself elicits only limited stimuli for positive fitness adaptations; professional dancers often demonstrate fitness values similar to those obtained from healthy sedentary individuals of comparable age.” (Rafferty, 2010)
“While technique classes focus on neuro-muscular coordination, the length of a traditional class may not be adequate to meet all of the dancer’s conditioning needs. The amount of space available, the numbers of students, and the time required for teaching and correcting also have an impact on work rate… Therefore, conditioning work over and above daily technique class has been recommended.“ (Rafferty, 2010)
What she said.
Unfortunately, some (the majority of, I’d say) dancers just don’t seem to get it because the message doesn’t reach them. As such, dancers end up wasting their time on well-intentioned exercises routines that aren’t serving them, just plain dancing too much and not resting, or, as will be the topic today, using dance-fitness as a means of cross-training.
“Dance for fitness” vs. “dancers getting more fit”
Dance fitness, as defined by Monika-pedia, is an exercise form for the general public who want to “get fit” by “working the same muscles dancers use” while completely separating the art from dancing, reducing it to a means to a vain end. Many people find the idea of using dance-like movements to get fit appealing because they can pretend they aren’t actually exercising while they get sweaty and burn calories, and might even be convinced that they are learning how to dance.
(Monika-pedia does not care about your feelings and is a rather sarcastic source).
The truth is, if you are serious about actually improving your fitness and movement mechanics to excel at dance, “dance fitness” is the last thing you should be doing.
I’m talking about the likes of Zumba, Barre Fitness, and Jazzercise, which are great for people who, if they weren’t at the class, would be sitting on the couch eating Tim Tams.
That said, if you find something that gets you moving, you get desirous results from it, and you love it, then who am I to tell you to do otherwise?
But keep your goals in mind, and make sure your actions are congruent with them.
If you are a dancer and you are spending your precious, limited time participating in dance fitness classes, thinking you’re cross-training, you’re failing at your goal and wasting your time.
If you are a classically trained ballet dancer, and you take barre fitness to work-out… Please tell me you can see what isn’t working about that sentence.
And then there are people who use dance fitness to get a “dancer’s body”. In barre fitness classes, and the Ballet Beautiful program, for example, you don’t learn how to do ballet technique, but you replicate moves that make it look like you’re doing something ballet-like, stripping it of the artistry that actually makes ballet beautiful, hoping it will help you to develop “long lean muscles” that ballet dancers have.
To make a muscle longer requires that the bone also becomes longer, stretching won’t accomplish this.
You’ll have to get Gattaca on your femur if you want longer thigh muscles.
And to make a muscle “leaner” requires wasting of the tissues through disuse and caloric deficit, something a particular style of exercise can’t do, no matter what the claim may be.
To make a muscle “bulky”, aka increase in size, requires intentionally training with high repetitions, high volume, and moderate intensity (like a body-builder would choose), while eating heaps of protein and carbohydrates to create a caloric surplus (more in than out). In dance the stimulus to the muscles is not at all sufficient to create extreme hypertrophy (aka “bulk”), but it is enough to create hypertonicity. If ballet does make ballet dancers bulky, then we would probably see more bulky ballerinas.
Whether a dancer develops larger muscles is influenced strongly by genetics, and other forms of training they have done prior to, or in conjunction with their dancing. Misinforming dancers these truths often does more harm than good and can lead to feelings of shame about their bodies, which, along with other negative emotional experiences, research is correlating with injury risk and inability to cope with injury.
And if you think that having muscle or lifting weights will make you less flexible, just fast forward to 3:30 and check out my friend Renaldo being a badass:
But wait! How can he do the splits with all that bulk? His muscles must be long and lean enough… Actually, Renaldo’s a tall dude, so his muscles ARE pretty long. And he doesn’t have much body fat, does he, so he IS lean. Do you nomesayin’?
What’s the point, Monika?
As a dancer, and if you are serious about becoming the best dancer you can be, you should be informed and choose critically the methods you are using to cross-train. The hours you have available to participate in something other than dancing are limited, use them intelligently. Chances are if you’re using a barre class to keep “in shape”, that hour and a half could be better used recovering with a nap. I’m 100% serious about that.
What should you do to cross train? I can’t tell you exactly what, nor do I want to. Every dancer is a human with unique needs. Get assessed. Identify your individual limiting factors and address them. Too, every dance style has different physical requirements that should be considered and trained outside regular class time.
Please don’t misconstrue fitness for dancers as dance fitness, as the two are completely different.
When is it ok to do dance fitness classes? If you meet the following criteria, it’s probably reasonable to participate in a dance fitness class:
You are you a regular person who doesn’t dance seriously or as a career choice
You just want to move around a bit and work up a sweat
You think the idea of dance is nice, definitely more appealing that jogging
Don’t have any goals in particular, or they are vague, like, you just want to get “in shape” and “tone up”
You don’t care much about getting stronger, developing muscle, being athletic, or dead-lifting mad weight
You aren’t worried about improving your efficiency and quality of movement, because ain’t nobody got time for that, you just want to sweat and feel the burn.
Be my guest and Zumba yourself silly.
As for the rest of you…
Well, I can’t tell you what to do. But I can steer you in the direction of a resource that I created (shameless plug warning). I’ll leave you with my recommendation to check out Dance Stronger, a multi-media resource (ebook + online program) I created with the goal of sharing a philosophy and method for using supplementary training to support your dancing.
For now, it is still available by donation, making it a bargain compared to that over-priced barre class.
One of the most important things you can do to better yourself is to talk to a lot of people that are way smarter than you. Be the stupidest one in the room every once in a while (but not all the time…).
That’s exactly what I set out to do when I contacted Donna Krasnow. We sat down in her hotel room discussed things to do with training dancers. It was great.
Donna Krasnow is a former professional dancer, full professor at
York University’s Dance Department, choreographer, and creator of C-I Training
(Conditioning With Imagery for Dancers). She is the co-author of the new book Conditioning with Imagery for Dancers, with professional dancer Jordana Deveau. Visit her website here for more info.
Krasnow specializes in dance science research, concentrating on injury prevention, conditioning for dancers, and motor learning and motor control. Her most recent research focus has been the adolescent dancer, psychological issues surrounding injury and dance training, and motor control in elite dancers. She received her M.S. degree in Dance Science in 1994 from the University of Oregon and is a Level I Certified GYROTONIC® Trainer . Her articles have been published in Medical Problems of Performing Artists; Journal of Dance Medicine & Science; Impulse: the International Journal of Dance Science, Medicine, and Education; Journal of Dance Education; Bulletin of Osaka University of Health and Sport Sciences; Medecine des Arts; and Dance Research Journal.
If you haven’t gathered, Donna is way smarter than me, and chances are way smarter than the majority of you reading this too.
She was in Toronto this week teaching the Conditioning With Imagery teacher training course. This course teaches other dance science enthusiasts and teachers her training method, which she has used to help countless dancers improve their technique and understanding of the moving body, as well as to prevent unnecessary injuries. Though I only had an hour to speak with her, it was enlightening, to say the least.
Here now is a summary of our chat:
What caused her to first become interested in the physiology and science of dancing?
Donna told me that her reason was actually kind of selfish- She, like many dancers, was tired of getting injured! She has a list of injuries that could go on and on, but her back was a big issue for her in the past.
This led her to start reading and learning about new methods of training the body to make it more resilient. She studied in yoga, pilates, floor-barre classes, Qi Gong and somatic practices, among other things, and eventually began to put it all together which created the foundations of what is now her Conditioning with Imagery philosophy.
So what is “Conditioning with Imagery”?
Donna explained that conditioning with imagery is a blending of science with somatics. It borrows from the best of several techniques.
She retold to me the story of being in Philadelphia for a convention and having the opportunity to experience presentations of many different training methods, one of which was by Sally Fitt (author of Dance Kinesiology) and was all about the science side of training, and another was an Alexander technique presentation, which is all about using imagery to reprogram the body.
This got her to thinking, why must the two- science and imagery- be separate? Hence the creation of conditioning with imagery
For those of you who don’t care much for the science side of dance, the rest of this article may not be for you, so skim at your leisure, as I press forward into more specific aspects of training dancers.
I asked Donna what she thought of training hip drive and posterior chain power. Did she think it was useful, as it often is for other athletes? Olympic style lifting or plyometric training in particular.
“Yes. If the dancer has a need for it.”
She explained to me that many dancers are naturally good jumpers and it would not be a productive use of their time to work on something they are already good at. Hip drive power does help with vertical jump height, which is of importance to dancers, but if they don’t need much extra help in that regard, it is not necessary.
She states that the training must be specific to dancing. For this very reason, she is not in favour of ballet dancers doing much plyometric training. Her experience is that it will not transfer over to a dance setting as one would like it to, for the feet are in a parallel position which is not very helpful for dancers who work in turn-out.
I asked about doing plyometric work in a turned out position, and we both agreed that it would probably not be safe for the knees.
Olympic lifting could however be quite beneficial for dancers needing help with their jumps.
There is still much research to do in this area. Perhaps I’ll do some more reading of my own and see what I can find. Stay tuned for that.
Can you guess what Donna thinks about dancers developing upper body strength?
She’s all for it! Donna points out that dancers often need arm strength for lifts and to fall safely to the floor, among other choreographic elements.
However, she explained how the traditional methods of upper body training are not appropriate for dancers. That is to say, the traditional method is aimed towards male trainees who want to build muscle (hypertrophy) without any kind of functional end-goal.
Dancers do not need to hypertrophy their upper body muscles, but rather need endurance and strength. She pointed out the common misconception that women dancers shy from strength training in the fear of becoming bulky, but this is only because they look at male bodybuilders who follow a set and rep scheme with the aim of getting bigger muscles.
Donna suggests that for dancers it is optimal to use a rep range geared toward muscle endurance (12-15 reps), with a lower weight, and to do 2 sets.
The arms need strength, endurance and control. To avoid upper body training is a common mistake.
Other imbalances that are prominent in dancers, and which Donna stresses should be addressed include:
The spine and core
Lateral quads dominant over medial quads
Excessive foot pronation
Weak adductors and gluteus medius
I then selfishly asked:
What is your favourite core strengthening/motor control exercise?
Her reply: “I don’t have a single favourite!” (rats…)
She explained that she is in her third day of teaching the CI Training course (and intensive course which runs for 6 days), and she’s aleady gone through about 7 core exercises. She states there has to be versatility, because that is the nature of dance. You must have a range of movements.
Not only that, but “core training” has to be always happening. Even if it is not a “core” exercise, the core must be cued to work. A good core exercise is one that transfers over to the dance setting.
So what about Crunches? Crunches are fine if done correctly, but by themselves are not sufficient for dancers’ needs. They need a variety of exercises that deal with core support, trunk stabilization, and balance control. Perhaps not the most efficient use of your time.
We got to talking more about core conditioning, and Stuart McGill’s name came up (to whom she refers fondly as Stu. They’ve met, and I’m a little jealous). McGill is a big name in the athletic performance training, and lower back pain prevention and rehabilitation game.
I have dabbled in implementing his method of “abdominal bracing” to prevent lower back injuries while training training my own dancers.
I asked her what she thought of the idea of abdominal bracing, and if it was effective for dancers.
In her mind, bracing the abdominals is actually counterproductive for dancers early in their training, and they should rather be instructed to lengthen. This simple use of imagining the spine elongating, and the narrowing of the waist, she states, has been much more effective in her experience.
She explains that you must look at the function of the spine for the dance population: The spine does a lot of moving through all planes, and this motion often needs to be fluid. It makes sense that bracing the abdominals without understanding how to control it segmentally would hinder a dancer’s ability to control his/her body effectively.
Donna talked about how many of the athletes McGill is training do not require the fluidity of the spine that dancers do, and so for a shot-putter, for example, bracing the spine would be highly effective.
There is a place for bracing the abdominals in dance training, however it should be learned after the dancer first understands how to control the spine’s individual segments. She refers to the work of Australian, Paul Hodges, which focuses on deep segmental stability and “hollowing” of the abdominals, rather than bracing them.
Her method is to start by training the deep muscles that control and stabilize the spine as it curves and arches, and then do more McGill type things, like planks and birddogs.
Thanks for that tip, Donna!
At the gym I work at, they have one of those full body vibration plates that supposedly give faster results by exercising on a vibrating surface. I asked Donna if she knew anything of the science behind these contraptions.
To which she replied: “I have no comment until I see the research.”
Donna is the kind of person who needs to see concrete evidence before she jumps on a bandwagon. This is a good quality to have in order to avoid a lot of the bull-shit that marketed to us these days. Remember when we thought this was a good idea?
I mentioned to Donna that I had read the abstract of a study which used the vibration plate in a training protocol for dancers and found that they were able to increase their ankle stability to a higher degree than a group of dancers who did conventional exercises, not vibrating. She replied to this that she could see how it may have some benefits in terms of proprioceptive issues, as the vibrations create a more unstable surface.
Here’s another study that found dancers could improve their vertical jump height by using the vibrating plate in their training…
Perhaps I will read more on this topic, seeing as I have access to one of these (expensive) machines. Are they worth it? Who knows. I’m still sceptical, and my opinion is that this machine was created by people who are lazy and don’t like hard work. But who knows!
Like Donna said, “I don’t know until I see the research”.
I asked Donna if she could describe a particular “a-ha!” moment on her journey to understanding movement.
She exhaled deeply and replied that there were too many to even mention. One in particular that she shared with me was the realization of the “neuromuscular”, and just how important motor control was.
It is not simply enough to strengthen the weak muscle, or stretch the tight ones. That’s only part of the picture. Donna expressed that it is equally important to make changes to habitual movement patterns. Retrain the way you move in everyday life, as well as in a dance setting.
As she put it, in class, you work hard to do good for your body for 3 hours a day. But if for the rest of the day you’re slumped over, in awkward positions, walking strangely and adopting a generally poor posture, you’re not helping yourself, and you’re undoing any of the positive work you did in class.
In recent months, I’ve discovered how much the mind needs to make changes as well as the body. Many dancers are in a less than optimal emotional and psychological state which does not allow them to perform physically at their highest potential. I asked Donna what role she thought psychology and emotional health played in dance training, and if she felt it deserved more attention.
She agreed, but said that the emotional health of a dancer must be approached indirectly. It’s in how you relate to your dancers or clients that will affect them psychologically.
Donna expressed how she felt that many dance teachers do a bad job of this. The learning environment is created through the language used by the teacher, and often this language is one that is critical, and negative. For example, she told me story of how a young girl she was coaching had quite a pronounced pelvic tilt that caused her stomach to protrude slightly. What did her previous teachers tell her? Push your stomach in! Push your bum in!
According to Donna, the language you use should not ask the dancer to hide any part of them. Don’t ask the dancer to hold in their stomach, this is counterproductive not only physically, but it will foster a negative emotional environment. Instead, she suggested the image of lengthening the body.
She also explained that many dancers have “issues of beauty”. What this means is that they are so stuck to notions that for a position, such as a perfectly turned out 5th, to be beautiful, they need to crank their bodies in unnatural ways, and this is more important than being safe and protecting their bodies. This notion needs to be retaught. As I mentioned earlier in this post, you mustn’t be stuck to the idea that you need 180 degree turnout, most of us can never obtain this safely and it’s just not worth it.
Donna stated that many postural dysfunctions are in fact rooted in emotional trauma, and that she found many were able to change emotionally by changing the way their bodies move. This rang 100% true to me. If you want to test this theory, try walking around all week with absolutely perfect posture. Really focus on it. I challenge you to tell me you don’t feel like a whole new person by the end of the week.
Donna also stressed the importance of the spiritual aspect of dance. Many of us have lost this. Dance began as a spiritual practice, and it should always have that same importance. Again, we have issues with beauty. Actually expressing the spirit through dance will always be more moving that a perfectly executed triple pirouette.
What Donna felt was most lacking in dancers, and what could be considered their biggest issue, is that they lack education on the things that really matter. They have tons of skill acquisition, but very little knowledge. I asked her to share what she felt were the 3 best pieces of advice she could give dancers wishing for longevity in their careers, and here they are, just for you:
Be vigilant about warm-up and conditioning.
Work only with people who honour the body.
Never put aesthetics and fashion above health.
This post is once again becoming lengthy, and so I want to wind things down by sharing with you what Donna said to be the most rewarding part of her career so far (and she’s done a lot, from choreography, to performance, to teaching, to conditioning, to research, creating her own training method, writing a book, and more…)
For her, it was not the material accomplishments that were most rewarding, but the giving and the receiving, in both directions, that has taken place throughout her career. The science aspect of things combined with the beauty of performing and choreographing was what she felt was the most fulfilling.
I will close with what I think is a recurring theme of this blog, and which Donna stresses as extremely important: The art of dance is just as important as the science.
If you want to learn more about Donna, her teacher training course, or read her book, head to her website for more information.
I want to thank Donna graciously for taking time out of her busy schedule to speak with me. It was fantastic.
I urge you all strongly now to check out Julien Smith’s blog . Take cold showers daily, talk to strangers, do things that scare the crap out of you, and hang out with people that are way smarter than you.