The topic for today is dance fitness, whatever that is…

“Although a topic of continual debate, more recent research has since indicated that a fitter dancer is a better dancer”

 

Maybe Zumba is fun-times, but I doubt that the dancing and “toning” (yes, Zumba claims to tone muscles…) involved in one of said classes are sufficient conditioning for the level of fitness a dancer requires.

What is a “fit” dancer? Aren’t all dancers “fit”? I mean, we move our arms and legs and jump around a lot, so that makes us pretty fit, right?

Though we are artists, dancers require athleticism and extreme technical proficiency. So why should we even question whether a dancer is “fit” or not? The sad fact is that many dancers are relatively unfit when compared to the extreme demands imposed upon their bodies.

“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)

I repeat, in case any of you didn’t catch that last sentence: Professional dancers often demonstrate fitness values similar to those obtained from healthy sedentary individuals of comparable age”.

Damn.

Kind of mind boggling, when you think about it. Dancers can pull off seemingly unnatural feats of strength, flexibility and endurance, and yet they can be considered to have poor fitness levels? Geeeez…

On top of, or perhaps contributing to, this sorry state of fitness, is the prevalence of other fitness-dampening habits, common  among dancers, such as smoking, disordered eating, insufficient rest, inadequate sleep, and not warming up properly. This leads to a whole slew of negative connotations: An extremely high injury rate being one of them. In fact, according to Wyon, “The result is an injury rate that is not replicated in the most strenuous of full contact sports.”

Combine crap fitness with constant fatigue and overwork, repetitive movements, new or difficult choreography, and a demanding rehearsal schedule… It’s no wonder dancers have difficulty retaining their fitness- They’re constantly recovering from injuries.

Before I get too ahead of myself, what does “fitness” actually mean?

Let’s start by defining fitness. According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fitness has been defined as…

1. The state or condition of being fit; suitability or appropriateness. 2. Good health or physical condition, especially as the result of exercise and proper nutrition.

Let’s treat the dancer as  a “regular” athlete, who undeniably requires optimal functionality in EVERY aspect listed below, as stated by the International Association of Dance Medical Science (IADMS):

  • Aerobic fitness – associated with moderate, longer-term levels of activity.
  • Anaerobic fitness – associated with high intensity, maximal, short bursts of activity.
  • Muscle endurance – the ability of a muscle to produce continuous movement.
  • Strength – the ability of a muscle to produce a maximal force on one occasion.
  • Power – the explosive (speed-related) aspect of strength.
  • Flexibilitythe range of motion at a joint in association with the pliability of a muscle.
  • Neuromuscular coordination – associated with balance, agility, coordination and skill.
  • Body composition – the make-up of body weight by percentage of muscle and fat
  • Rest – a period of no activity, to allow for recovery and regeneration.

Makes sense that a dancer needs these things, right?

A big one is rest, which is often not thought of as a component of fitness. Unfortunately without sufficient rest, the body will not able to adapt positively to the physiological stresses placed upon it, leading to chronic injury.

How often do you push through periods of high intensity rehearsals and classes, for up to 5 or more hours a day, for weeks at a time, without ever considering if you’re resting enough?

Have you ever had a dance related knee, ankle, or low back injury?

Do you give yourself permission to rest if you are injured? Or do you push through it, with questionably high doses of tylenol.

If you answered “yes” to all 3 of the above, then something needs to change.

“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)

Think of the last modern dance performance you went to see (if you’re into that). Likely, you were blown away by the sheer physicality and strength of the dancers. Doest this kind of strength come from simply attending technique classes 3 or 4 times per week? You most certainly cannot.

Technique and teaching styles are undergoing metamorphosis, and modern choreography is pushing the dancer into new realms of physical articulation and stamina. It is now an expectation, or at least a recommendation, in the professional arena that dancers be fit enough to cope with the increased physiological demands.” (Rafferty, 2010)

I recall fondly what one of my ballet instructors at Ryerson said, time and time again: “This is the 21st century; dance like 21st century dancers!” What is a 21st century dancer? Strong, powerful, quick, agile, flexible… So why are so many dancers afraid of picking up a weight in fear it will destroy their flexibility, their “dancer look”, and somehow work against them in a variety of ways?

“The role of strength training in dance has frequently been misunderstood. There are still concerns in the dance world that increased muscle strength will negatively affect flexibility and aesthetic appearance. However, research has demonstrated that supplemental strength training can lead to better dancing and reduced occurrences of dance injuries, without interfering with key artistic and aesthetic requirements”. (Irvine, Redding & Rafferty, 2011)

Through my own experience with strength training, the above rings true, 100%. When I finally saw the light, I couldn’t believe how long I had been living in darkness. In every other sport, it is common sense that simply training more won’t cut it: The athlete needs to be conditioned in specific ways that will assist his performance. Why would the same not be true with dance?

Stimulating the growth of a bit of extra muscle on a dancer will not impact his/her performance.  Strength training doesn’t mean body-building.

Imagine the peace of mind that comes with not having to control every movement, to not have to work so hard to stay on balance, to have your alignment become automatic. When you don’t have to think so much about what your alignment’s like, and trying to control every movement, you can focus more on the artistry, and really start to grow as true dancer, rather than just go through the movements of dancing.

To ignore the physiological needs in the training of today’s dancers is to deny development of the art form. (Rafferty, 2010)

Research suggests that first improving your functionality as a “real” person, and later incorporating dance specific training, is the best option, as most modern dancers are plagued with a slew of muscular imbalances from the stresses of 21st century living- sleeping in awkward positions, carrying ridiculously large over-the-shoulder bags (men too, now), wearing high heels (yes, men too…), sitting in cars and at the computer for hours with poor posture, the list goes on, and on. Any of these postural dysfunctions you have in what I call “real life”, you WILL carry into your dance classes, to no positive return.

With my dancers at DTP, this is exactly the approach I take: get them moving exceptionally as real people first, and the improvements in dance technique will come shortly after.

In fact, because of a dancer’s superior neuromuscular connection and proprioceptive skills (or “body awareness”, in layman’s terms), they are the perfect candidates to perform strength training! They already have an excellent ability to recruit a large quantity of muscle fibers at once, which allows them to build strength fast. This perhaps explains why dancers, who are supposedly “unfit”, can perform difficult technical feats: Their minds are disciplined enough, that if their muscles physically aren’t strong enough, they can simply recruit more muscles fibres to get the job done. Obviously this isn’t optimal, and heightens the risk of injury, which is why training dancers for muscular strength, endurance and power helps them so much.

The mind is, when you consider the former, the dancer’s most important “muscle”. However, when you think of how the dancer’s psychological health is portrayed in the media, you get the impression they’re all insane or neurotic. Psychological health is just as important as physical fitness, and the two have shown to be intimately linked. Studies have shown that when aiming to improve a dancer’s fitness, it helps to employ motivational strategies, like goal setting, monitoring their mood, and perceived confidence level.

There is simply not time in a conventional technique class to address the emotional component of a dancer’s fitness. The lack of individual attention, and focus primarily on problems, rather than goals and solutions, often leaves them with feelings of low self-esteem and self-worth, low motivation to work their hardest in class, and directly affects their physical performance over time, leading to, once again, injury! Can you blame us for being neurotic?

When in performance mode, dancers, unlike most athletes, don’t get the luxury of taking “rest days”, which the former have scheduled into their training programs.  A lack of periodization in dance training is what can perhaps be attributed to the astronomically high rate of dance injuries compared to other elite level athletes. Periodization has the main objective of helping the athlete to reach a high level of performance and “athletic shape” at a given time, and so their training programs are organized in a sequential, progressively challenging manner, allowing them to “peak” just prior to competition or performance, involving a tapering process, just a few days to a week prior to competition day. It is therefore important to provide suggestions for ideal dance preparation using principles of periodization based on current evidence and clinical experience.

A number of studies have found that athletes who trained using periodized models attained levels of performance superior to those who did not.” (Wyon, 2010)

Not only did they perform better, but they had less instance of injury, as their schedule was balanced, increasing in intensity progressively, prevented them from over-training and allowing them to reach their highest level of performance when they needed it most.

So if elite level athletes can benefit from periodized training, and we’ve already established that dancers are athletes who perform at a very high level technically, despite poor levels of fitness, then why is dance training not typically organized in this fashion? Wyon suggests the periodization needs to be integrated into dance training, both at the professional and vocational level:

The advantages that periodization has brought to sports can be easily transferred to dance, with potentially the same benefits to the dancer as a person and to the performance itself.” (Wyon, 2010)

As this article is getting fairly lengthy, I will try to wrap this up by re-ask the initial question: Is the fitter dancer also the better dancer?  Not only is research limited in this realm, but dance is such a subjective art form, that there is no quantifiable way of determining what “better” means. Better doesn’t always mean, more turns, or higher jumps, as there is a certain “je ne sais quoi”, that a dancer can have that just can’t described with numbers.

Think of it this way: A dancer who is able to jump higher, balance longer, and create illusions such as floating does have the advantage of a greater range of tools with which to produce the desired movement quality and choreographic designs. Can a painter do his best work with a broken hand? Doubtful (though who knows what’s good and what’s not in terms of “modern” art). And so can a dancer fail to do her best artistic work with a body functioning at merely sub-par levels.

Dance is a marriage of physicality and artistry, to ignore one or the other is a crime to the art form. An efficient and able body supports greater freedom for artistic expression.

“…Fitness training can support the goals of the dance artist, including movement efficiency, injury prevention, performance excellence, and longevity in the field.” (Irvine, Redding & Rafferty, 2011)

You don’t need to retire at 30!  If you already have, well, there’s not much I can do for you at this point except point out the various things you could have done differently, and strongly recommend that in your next life,  you include some dance specific functional cross-training.

 

References:

Irvine, S., Redding, E., & Rafferty, S. (2011). Dance fitness. In International Association for Dance Medicine and Science

Rafferty, S. (2010). Considerations for Integrating Fitness Into Dance Training. Journal of Dance Medicine and Science

Wyon, M. (2010). Preparing to perform periodization and dance. Journal of Dance Medicine and Science