Dance Cross-Training Myths De-Bunked- Part 2

Welcome back for round 2.

Yesterday, I talked about a number of dance training myths that I think it’s time we put to rest. If you haven’t read PART 1 <— Click there.

Contrary to popular belief, strength-training is actually GOOD. You won’t grow big unsightly(??) muscles all of a sudden. You’ll retain your flexibility, and your technique is bound to actually improve, not deteriorate.

But before I continue with the myth de-bunkery, what does cross-training even mean?

The Merriam Webster dictionary states that to cross-train is “to engage in various sports or exercises especially for well-rounded health and muscular development”.

Or, as our good friend Wikipedia defines an athlete cross-training:

…An athlete training in sports other than the one that athlete competes in with a goal of improving overall performance. It takes advantage of the particular effectiveness of each training method, while at the same time attempting to negate the shortcomings of that method by combining it with other methods that address its weaknesses.”

Dancing does a poor job of building a well-balanced body. In fact it does just the opposite, propagating some pretty extreme muscle imbalances. The nature of dance requires us to maintain much of this asymmetry (turnout, for example), but causes us to become over-trained and injured far too often.

Another manner in which the “dance system” fails us, is when dance teachers use what are comparable to scare tactics on their students in the summer. During the summer, or any“off season” when regular classes stop running, dancers are encouraged to keep dancing as much as possible for fear that we might get “out of shape”.  As it turns out (get it? turnout? Ha Ha…), getting a little out of dancer shape isn’t a bad idea.

It could be that the instructors do genuinely believe that dancing constantly, without ever taking a break, is the best way to train. Perhaps… But I think dancers and their parents should also be aware that dance schools don’t make as much money in the summer, and as such, they need market with a sense of urgency to attract students to their school . By claiming that, “If you don’t dance in the summer you will lose all your technique and get out of shape!”, dancers often feel obligated to dance in the summer.

When summer rolled around, I always stressed about finding a good summer program, and felt guilty if I didn’t do “enough” dancing.

In reality, the best thing you can do during the summer is to participate in fewer dance classes, and cross-train with other complimentary activities instead. Activities that don’t train your body the same way dance does.

I remember the summer that I didn’t take one single dance class. Instead I did yoga classes twice per week, and trained for a triathlon. While this is far from what I’d call “ideal” cross-training for a dancer, this regime did give my dancer muscles a nice break, and I actually came back to dance classes with noticeably improved technique.

Funny how that works, eh?

Let’s now take a closer look at these dance-training myths, and hang them out to dry:

1)      Strength training (lifting weights), will make your dance technique worse.

WRONG.

Strength training (properly…) will help to improve muscle imbalances, which will prevent  injuries and actually help to improve your technique! Using the same muscles OVER AND OVER causes some muscles to shorten, and others to become weak. Your body gets really “smart” by compensating, and creates shifty movement patterns to work around the tight and weak muscles.

For example, a few posts ago, I talked about how when I was young I walked with my right foot pointing 45 degrees to the side to alleviate the intense pain I felt in my hip. Things like this lead to the alarmingly high rate of dance injuries.

By addressing your muscles imbalances, your body will move more efficiently, and with less pain. By being injured less you’ll get to spend more time actually dancing and excelling at your art form, and less time recovering from injuries.

As Matthew Wyon puts it, “The goal of supplemental training is for the dancer to have a greater physical and mental “reserve” than the dance performance requires, thereby allowing the dancer’s “energies” to be directed toward the aesthetic components of performance and not just the fundamentals of the movement.” (2010)

2)      Strength training will reduce flexibility, and create big unsightly muscles.

FALSE.

Though I realize this is an n=1 example, I weight train 3-4 times per week, and can still do the splits. Granted, since I stopped dancing and stretching regularly, my flexibility has decreased, but in no way do I feel that training with weights caused me lose any flexibility.

Dancers have a huge imbalance between strength and flexibility. Most of us are hypermobile, which can be pretty dangerous. It may sound counter intuitive, but strength training intelligently will help improve both the mobility and stability around joints, which can help you lift your leg higher without actually increasing the flexibility of the muscle itself.

Will your muscles become big and unsightly if trained? Not unless you’re training like a body-builder and taking steroids. Seriously. The fact is, it takes a lot of work to get “big and bulky” muscles, especially for a woman. And the type of training required to get that “look” probably won’t help your dancing in any way.

3)      Doing anything BUT dancing will cause your dance technique to become worse.

FALSE.

I think I’ve already tackled this one, but I’ll say it again- Giving your dancer muscles a break will allow your body to perform better when you return back to dance mode. If you leave a light bulb on for too long, what happens? It burns out. Your body works the same way.

By only dancing, all the time, and never trying to address the toll it takes,  massive muscle imbalances can form.  Attempting to repair your body by strength training is especially helpful to if you have reached a technical plateau, or if you suffer from the same injury over and over (which for me, and for many dancers, was my lower back).

4)      During the summer, dancers should try to dance as much as possible to retain technique.

WRONG. AGAIN…

If you want to come back fresher than ever to dance classes, cross-train during the summer months to avoid burnout and over-training. This is a good time to focus on other activities you enjoy, not only to rest your body, but your mind too.

So what do I recommend for cross-training purposes? If you can afford it, work with a trainer who knows the dancer’s body, and who can properly assess your strengths, weaknesses and imbalances, and put together a program specifically for you and your needs. Lift some freakin’ weights. Squat, lunge, deadlift, push-up, and row.

To get a better idea of what I mean by strength training, check out my free 4 week program. Go ahead, >> CLICK ME<< . Just enter your email address, and a robot monkey will send you the secret password to access the program instantly.You will see video examples of the kinds of exercises I have my dancers do.

There’s a long way to go before the role of strength training becomes clear in the dance world. When it does, I believe we will see a reduction in the amount of injuries, and an increase in new, innovative, and strength based choreography. I can’t wait! Let’s start dancing stronger

 

 

References:

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

 

Dance Fitness: No, I’m Not Talking About “Zumba”

Dance Fitness: No, I’m Not Talking About “Zumba”

 

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