Hey guys! Before we get into the meaty meat of this post I have an announcement: The Dance Training Project has moved! I now have my own private space within a wellness center in the beautiful St. Lawrence Market area of downtown Toronto.
This move was spurred when an opportunity to take over a new space came up, and then became necessary when my former gym closed unexpectedly. But as the saying goes, doors close and windows open, and all things being flux, one has no choice but to go with the flow.
I have only this photo to show you so far, and it is of poor quality.
Humble beginnings of the new home of the DTP 🙂
But as you can see, there is lots of room for all sorts of activities. Rolling around on the floor. Deadlifting. I’m freakin’ stoked.
While it may not be the fanciest, I am happy with my new lifting dungeon. No longer do I share space with the roidy meatheads of my former facility. Although I will miss the fabulous
Not only am I excited to have this new location, but it is on the same block as the Thai massage center I also practice at, so my life has been made infinitely easier.
Anyway, enough about me. Let’s move on to the topic of today: Dance therapy.
Movement- It’s good for the body, it’s good for the brain. And dance, being a multisensory physical activity, is often referred to as one of the best activities to keep the brain sharp as we age.
Too, dance can be therapeutic for those with autism and other mental afflictions like chronic depression, anxiety and as we will hear more about today, bipolar disorder.
Meet Sam Kutner.
Sam feels strongly that rather than prescribe sedatives and anti-depressants, dance can be used to help treat mental illness .
I can attest that dance, indeed acted as a form of therapy when I first started. It was my escape from real life. It is unfortunate that dance eventually became the cause of some mental health issues, but before all the hard times dance took me to my happy place.
When Sam reached out with her story of institutionalization with severe bipolar and how dance became her ticket out, I knew I should share her experience. I’m sure many of you can relate, or know someone who can relate.
This will also be of interest to anyone who digs the exciting field of dance therapy. Before prescribing drugs that can turn people into zombies, what if doctors prescribed dance?
I’ll let Sam take it from here.
Dancing on Planet Trillaphon: Living a Creative Life with Bipolar Disorder
At fifteen I was ripped from my world of honors classes and competitive dancing and ushered into a mental hospital, where I stayed for roughly a month.
I could tell you how traumatic the experience of being in the “quiet room” on an involuntary psychiatric hold was for me.
I could tell you how I slept through the first week because the staff felt I needed to be sedated after knocking down three orderlies in a panic the night I was admitted.
I could also tell you how many times I tried and failed to convince the head psychiatrist that I was “ok” to go home.
But my intention is not to write about these things that people with mental illness have to suffer through, rather, what actually pulled me out from it and gave me a reason to keep going.
The staff at the instution, after realizing that a 108 pound dancer was not really a threat to them or the other patients, eventually let me join in group therapy . That is when things started to change.
Our entire group was made up entirely of teenagers who marched awkwardly into the rec room. Some were addicted to drugs and dealing with the psychosis it caused. Some, like me were “blessed” genetically with mental illness. Others had more abusive situations that brought them there and made my issues feel very small in comparison.
No one else was paying attention to the boom box in the corner, but I rushed to turn it on.
A million times in my living room at home I would to turn on music and just dance. Despite the change of setting, dancing there, with my awkward group of institutionalized teenagers, wasn’t much different.
It’s not like I had much to lose, or needed to worry about how I would be perceived. That ship had already sailed. The worst thing I could do, I reasoned, was confirm that I belonged there.
The other patients must have seen how much I was enjoying myself dancing, so I let them know I wanted them to join in too.
Despite everything we were suffering through we all danced like it was the most natural thing to do. The human body was built for movement. In that way, it was the most natural thing we could do inside the rec room of a psychiatric hospital.
I danced until I couldn’t dance anymore and sat down next to a nurse. She had been watching the entire show. She looked into my eyes, a thing most of the staff tended to avoid, and she said, “No matter what happens, never stop dancing.”
She knew before I did that dance would be my way out.
Dance has always been my therapy, a way to ride the waves of mania and depression. It has helped me see that no matter how strongly the depression comes, it will eventually pass.
Dance helped me return to health and fitness after the medications I was prescribed caused my weight to shoot up to 180 pounds.
When two more hospitalizations threatened to derail all of the progress I made, when I lost jobs, when I felt like I could never succeed in school again, I used dance to refocus and alleviate the stigma I felt hiding my illness from others.
I became a well-recognized member in my local dance communities. I even got a review published in a national belly dance magazine.
I became friends with fellow dancers who also struggled with mental illness. I finally started opening up about my illness with a few understanding dancers.
As I revise this, preparing to share it with the internet, my boyfriend is cautioning me against it. He knows the shame others can make people like me feel, but in a way he is contributing to it. Publishing anything opens you up to scrutiny. I get that.
But that being said, I would rather be scrutinized for my own beliefs than subject to the ill-informed opinions of others.
I wish I could present a success story the way that they do in weight loss commercials. I cannot. What I can say is that every day you can cultivate a series of small wins for yourself, depending on the tools you have and the willingness to seek help.
I just received my Associates Degree of Arts and plan to continue on to my Bachelors in Psychology. When I am not dancing, I am writing. It is something I plan to expand into a blog for fellow artists and individuals struggling with mental illness. My ultimate goal is to earn my Masters in Dance Therapy and allow others to find help the way I did. I hope that anyone reading this can find their passion in life, in writing, in sports, in any discipline that gives them focus and calm.
There are two final things I would like you to know if you struggle with bipolar disorder. You are part of a select group of gifted individuals who, despite their suffering, have made positive, lasting contributions to the world through arts, sciences and literature. Most importantly, you are not alone.
Samantha Kutner received her Associate Degree of Arts from The College of Southern Nevada.
She is a freelance writer and dancer who has lived with bipolar disorder since a diagnosis in 2005. She hopes to become a positive voice in the fight against the stigma of mental illness.
I have a moderately German background. Hence my intense last name, Volkmar. I say “moderately German” because whenever I ask about my heritage I get vague answers like, “Well, your grandmother was a German Mennonite who lived in Russia (or vice versa?) and was also probably of Belgian ancestry, and your other grandmother was Swedish, but your Grandfather was born in Canada……..”, and so now I just say I’m Canadian. Very, very, Canadian.
The German in me likes efficiency. My definition of efficiency borders on synonymous to sheer laziness- Doing as little as absolutely necessary to get the best possible result.
I think when it comes to breathing, efficiency means breathing as much as you possibly can. Oxygen is the ultimate performance enhancing, mood enhancing drug. Take in as much as you can, baby. It’s legal! And free (for now…).
Deep, mindful breathing is scientifically proven (yay science!) to have so many health benefits and practical uses. If keeping your body alive isn’t a good enough incentive for you, here’s some more reasons to breathe better:
- Dampens the body’s production of stress hormones (2)
- Improved posture (the diaphragm is an important postural stabilizer, but more on that later) (1)
- Eases various musculoskeletal aches and pains (more on that later, too) (3)
- You get stronger (through activation of the deep trunk muscles, and use of the Valsalva maneuvre- which dancers don’t really need to do that often).
- Individuals who suffer from asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and heart issues can see benefits from breathing exercises (2)
- Changes in gene expression (through the alteration of the body’s stress response) (2)
Is it any wonder that according to traditional yogic philosophy, proper breathing (pranayama) is one of the 5 important points (along with proper exercise, diet, relaxation and positive thinking).
Dance and yoga seem like similar activities, but they are really the polar opposite. Especially as it relates to breathing. Chief reason being that while yoga is alllll about breathing, dancers don’t breathe at all, and aren’t really taught how.
I remember being in The Nutcracker back in the day, and performing The Waltz of the Flowers. It was a long piece with multiple exits and entrances, and each time I would exit the stage I’d have to gasp for breath and cough up a lung because I had essentially performed high intensity exercise for 2+ minutes straight without breathing.
As a quick side note, I think it’s worth noting that high level dance perfomance is NOT aerobic activity. Telling a dancer to jog or bike at a steady state is not sufficient cross-training to prepare them for the rigours of a performance. Go read this, by Joel Minden (dancer, CSCS, Ph. D). He says smart things.
But anyway, the reasons dancers don’t breathe efficiently are numerous:
- High anxiety levels (being a dancer is stressful, and performing is acutely so)
- Being told to “hold in your stomach!“, and “shoulders back!“, “kind of makes breathing… challenging.
- The high technical complexity of the art makes it easy to forget to breathe
- Not being taught/lack of awareness. And no, “remember to breathe!” is not a sufficient cue for a teacher to give.
- Tight accessory muscles, like the abdominals, chest, and neck restricting the diaphragm from doing it’s work (what’s a diaphragm?)
- High stability demand (aka being on one leg and spinning) compromises diaphragmatic breathing (more on that in a bit).
In dance you actually need to breathe a lot. It affects every aspect of your performance. In most cases you need to be in an extended position through your trunk, while bracing (or hollowing or whatever you wanna call it) the abdominals. Think arabesque. And then you need to breathe. And remember the choreography. And not fall on your face. And not look weird, awkward or scared. What’s a diaphragm??
There’s your diaphragm!
Enter, breathing and bracing. A concept that very few dancers (and people in general) understand. I myself haven’t mastered it (yet), but I theorize that learning this technique could improve nearly every element of your dance technique from balance, weight transfers, jumps, leaps, and just looking more aesthetically pleasing in general.
What is breathing and bracing? In a nut-shell, using your diaphragm and abdominals independently. Holding the core strong while still taking deep, diaphragmatic breaths.
As I alluded to, your diaphragm isn’t just for breathing– it plays huge role in postural stability. If you’re not using your diaphragm properly, you’re missing out on a whole world of fun stability challenges and choreographic possibilites! (and it makes sense that dancers who have good balance look more calm- Remember the anti-anxiety benefit associated with breathing?)
Dr. Jeff Cubos (who knows more about this whole “breathing and bracing” thing than I do) says:
It has been shown that in the presence of increased stability demand, the diaphragm contracts concentrically while specific abdominal musculature contract eccentrically during inhalation. During expiration, the roles of these muscles are reversed…As a result, faulty breathing patterns and inefficient core stability may lead to clinical conditions such as low back and pelvic dysfunction”. (3)
Sound familiar? Diaphragm doesn’t work properly, so the diaphragm’s buddies (ze spinal stabilizers) start working harder- the ilioposas, QL, spine erectors, and abdominals. So you get things like hip and low back dysfunction, and you get winded after petit allegro because you can’t get enough oxygen.
Maximal postural and respiratory efficiency is achieved (efficiency = minimal accessory muscle activity, or E = MA squared). (3)
Good ol’ efficiency. That’s a way better definition than mine.
THIS HERE is an excellent article by the Postural Restoration Institute, if you want to learn more about breathing and how, when dysfunctional and non-diaphragmatic, it can literally affect e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g. that becomes the bane of your dancer existence. Like,
- increases use of accessory muscles of inspiration
- poor neuromuscular control of core muscles
- increased lumbar lordosis
- low back pain
- increased lumbar-pelvic instability
- thoracic outlet syndrome
- MORE (seriously, read the article)
And this here is an exercise from Dr. Cubos that I am currently trying to master. It’s way harder than it looks, but I’ll be breathing like a champ in no time flat.
You’re basically trying not to asphyxiate yourself- Makes the learning curve pretty quick I’d say.
Alright, that’s all I have to say about that for now. More about breathing another time. For now, just try to be aware of it (and whether or not you actually breathe while you dance).
Today I am pleased to share with you a guest post by a fellow dancer, pilates and yoga instructor, performer, and self proclaimed SI joint whisperer, Bizz Varty. When she contacted me to write something for the blog I was thrilled, and I had no idea how much shit was going on down in my SI joint until she pointed out to me how common it is for that pesky guy down there to be jammed and angry.
Without further adieu, here’s part one of Bizz’s epic tale of the mysterious little bugger that is the sacro-iliac.
The SI Joint Whisperer Tells All (and encourages you to loosen the f#$% up!)
By Bizz Varty
The sacro-iliac is quite possibly the most mysterious and misunderstood joint among dancers. As a dancer and a yoga teacher, when I hang around with my dancer friends, I spend a lot of time releasing stuck, jammed and pinched sacrums (they call me the SI joint whisperer). As delightfully satisfying as a recently-released SI joint can feel, (note from Monika- BEST. FEELING. EVER.) I have realized that constantly putting it back where it came from is like using a cup to catch water from a leaking bucket just so you can pour it back into the bucket – that is, rather inefficient. This realization plus my own lengthy history of pain in the posterior hip and spine have led me on a search for long-term solutions in the form of alignment, conditioning and neuromuscular re-patterning.
An injury back in high school began my long journey to understanding my SI joint. I was dancing every night as well as playing soccer, and woke one morning with a pain in my back/hip, a pain that eventually moved into my knee.
For weeks I felt I’d ‘lost my bounce’, because jumping sent a ricochet of pain all the way from my toes to my neck along my right side. Being young and stubborn, I did not seek medical attention or even apply an ice pack. Instead, I just tried to dance it off. Though the intense pain eventually went away, my right hip and knee were never the same. Fifth position and attitude derriere caused pinches and twinges in my back and I constantly had an incredibly tight IT band.
But I continued to dance anyway (See Monika’s article “The Problem with Dancers Today” for more on this).
For three years I was held hostage by the twinges, aches and pains that seemed to move around to a different part my body every week. Then, in my second year at York, a ballet teacher suggested that maybe one of my legs was longer than the other. Intrigued, I went to a physiotherapist who said that they were, in fact, the same length, but my SI joint was stuck on the right side.
That first SI adjustment changed my life – for a few weeks anyway. Not knowing that this was something I would eventually become very passionate (ok, maybe a little obsessed) about, my early efforts to maintain this new and wonderful SI joint balance were half-assed at best. Going to physio each week became more like going for an SI release every week. That is, until my PT got fed up and showed me how to release it myself. Then, she began teaching me how to activate my deep core muscles, which blew my stubborn dancer’s mind.
In the 6 or 7 years since, the amount of attention I’ve paid to the problem has varied in relation to the wide assortment of injuries and misalignments I encountered. I would try to dance (or swim, do yoga or even walk) with my SIJ locked. Then, I would have to spend several days dealing with the after-effects only to have it happen again the very next week.
I learned the hard way that the best offense is a good defence, and began addressing my SIJ with daily re-patterning work about a year ago.The improvement has been magical.
Certain activities (especially if done when tired or distracted) will still throw my SIJ off, but now that I know the symptoms (non-specific pain in my knee and IT band) and the solutions (I live for pelvic smile and seated fourth release!) I no longer suffer daily from the repercussions of poor patterning.
My method may not be the simplest, but I find it very effective, as do many of my students. Stabilizing your SIJ, especially if you are a dancer who expects your body to maintain a large range of motion, should be a daily practice. Tight muscles will pull the SI out of alignment, and the body’s compensatory efforts will keep it stuck there.
If you have SI joint issues, chances are good that they are supported by years of well-intentioned but inefficient movement patterns. (Note from Monika- I agree… the road to dance injury is paved with the best of intentions).
I don’t say that to discourage you, I say it to help you understand that you can’t half-ass this if you want it to work. Trust me on this one, I’ve lived through the drama and made it to the other side. A happy SI joint will improve your movement in a million little ways that you can’t even imagine until you’ve experienced it. It takes some time and effort to find what works for you, and to figure out how your body tells you that it needs attention, but it is SO worth it!
Anatomy: What is the SI joint and how does it work?
The Sacro-Iliac joint is in fact two joints – one on each side of your sacrum where it meets the back of your pelvis – specifically, the inner edges of the ilium. You can find these spots by looking for the dimples at the back of your pelvis (just above the crease between your cheeks). The bump you will feel near each dimple is your PSIS or Posterior Superior Iliac Spine – anatomy-speak for “the bony bump at top of the back of your Ilium.” The SIJs are weight bearing joints that provide shock absorption for your spine and distribute the weight of your upper body onto your pelvis and into your legs and feet.
There is some misinformation out there that states that the SI joints do not move, but in a healthy body this isn’t true. To be fair, the SIJs are not designed for a large range of motion as they are stabilized by many deep ligaments. Especially in the type of loose-jointed (which is to say, long-ligamented) bodies that dancers tend to have the bones do move in relation to one another, and when they do they cause widespread (though usually subtle) shifts in overall alignment. Rather than a ball and socket joint like the hip and shoulder, or a hinge joint like the elbow and knee, the SIJ is a gliding joint, more like those found in the spine, where two relatively flat articular surfaces slide against one another. (You can find out lots more nerdy pelvic anatomy stuff on Wikipedia if you’re interested!).
So, if your loose ligaments aren’t holding the SI joints stable, what is? That would be your deep core muscles, namely the transverse abdominus, multifidus, piriformis and ilio-psoas. But there are a number (some say as many as 35) of other muscles that have a connection with the SIJs including the gluteus maximus and minimus, erector spinae, latissimus dorsi, quadratus lumborum (QL), hamstrings, quadriceps and tensor fascia latae as well as the IT band. You would think with so many supporters the SIJs would be good and stable, however all of these muscles also have other jobs to do when the body is in motion, and when those other jobs take priority over SIJ stability, it can throw all kinds of things out of whack.
Side note: SI joint dysfunction is sometimes called “piriformis symdrome” because the piriformis in one of the primary culprits for malfunction, especially in dancers who overwork their turnout. While piriformis syndrome may well be caused or aggravated by SIJ dysfunction, it is a distinct problem that affects only a small portion of the general population. In less than 20% of bodies, the sciatic nerve runs through the middle of the piriformis muscles (instead of underneath it) and when the piriformis is overly tense it pinches the nerve, causing a radiating pain down the back of the leg. The only way to determine if you fall into that 20% is by cutting your butt open to take a look so you may never know for sure, but if you have a shooting nerve pain that starts in your buttocks, you can bet that your sciatic nerve is being irritated by your piriformis.
Symptoms – What do unstable SIJs feel like?
SI joint instability is a bit of a misnomer. What I see in many dancers are SI joints that have become locked into place by tight, weak muscles. In an effort to protect what is an especially loose joint in dancers, the body tenses up resulting in a joint that is in fact too stiff for its own good.
As I said before, the SI joints should move, not a lot, but just enough to transfer information from the pelvis and legs to the spine and back again. When this doesn’t happen, because the joint has locked into place in the interest of self-preservation, pain can sometimes be felt at the back of the hip near the dimples. But the body is crafty, and in a dancer’s loose body, the spine, pelvis and hips can shift subtly to work around the blockage. In cases like this, pain might not be felt at the SI joint at all. Rather, the over-stability there will cause instability in other locations – typically in the front of the hip, the low back and the knee, but sometimes all the way down to the toes and up into the neck. (For me, I don’t feel anything in my SIJ until after I notice a pain in my knee).
Usually the piriformis, and often the QL and glutes will be very tense, (Note from Monika- Yep. So. Tense.) and could even be in spasm. To make it more complex, a problem with the right SI joint could very well cause pain in the left side of the body, as the brain will just reassign whichever nearby muscle is strongest to cover for the weak ones that are busy tensing up to create more “stability” – essentially, to use the technical term, an “anatomical cluster-f#$%.”
Try this at home: If you suspect your SI joint is locked, you can get a friend to try and help you determine on which side. Standing tall with the feet parallel, have your friend stand behind you and place their hands on the SI joints, just above the dimples. Raise one knee to hip height slowly, then lower. Repeat on the other side. If your friend feels the SI joint lift upwards when you raise your knee (instead of staying still or moving down slightly) the SI joint may be locked on that side.
Causes – What makes dancers so vulnerable to SIJ cluster-f#$%s?
Most people are stronger in the outer hip and weaker in the inner thighs as a result of sitting for long hours and standing with poor posture. Dancers tend to be looser-jointed than the average population, as the dance world has a way of discouraging those less flexible folks. Add to that the dancer’s affinity for overusing the outer rotators to create more turnout as well as a penchant for general over-exertion and you’ve got a recipe for SI disaster. The SI joint was simply not designed with turnout in mind, as most mammals move most efficiently in the saggital plane. But that’s not to say that dancers and their SI joints can’t be friends. In fact, you too could very well become BFFs with your SI if you regularly practice the exercises which will be outlined in part 2.
(Note from Monika- I will post part 2 tomorrow, which is full of fun stuff to show your SIJ some love)
Check out the free 30 Day Core Challenge. It’s a great way to get back in touch with the fundamentals of “core” (do you know what they are?), which, as you now know, is an important component in SIJ happiness. All you need to do is make time every day for a few minutes of practice for 30 days. Simple 🙂
Here’s a little about Bizz:
Bizz (Elizabeth) Varty has a passion for dance, music and mind-body fitness. While completing her Honours BFA in Dance at York University she discovered her love for dance science and kinesiology. She also studied Arts Management at Humber College and is certified as both a pilates and yoga teacher.
Bizz has studied dance for more than 20 years. She has choreographed and performed across the province including her 2009 work, the Janis Joplin-inspired piece Honey, I Know How You Feel for the BAZAAR dance festival at Toronto’s Opera House. Along with Beth Lifeso, she is co-director of Cocktail Dress Productions, who have performed at Massey Hall and The Rivoli in Toronto.
Her interest in fitness began at a young age and she has been practicing Yoga and Pilates for 15 years. Her teaching style combines the precision and efficiency of pilates and the philosophy and flow of yoga with the creative expression of her dance background. Bizz’s attention to anatomical detail and her fun, engaging instruction have earned the respect of students of all ages and backgrounds. For more info and free videos, visit www.basicfitness.wordpress.com.
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”.
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.
- Flexibility – the 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.
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