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?”.

!!!!!!!!!!!!

Unacceptable.

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 ”.

Ahhhghhghhhh.

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.