Conditioning With Imagery: A Chat With Donna Krasnow

Conditioning With Imagery: A Chat With Donna Krasnow

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 EducationJournal 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.

Sound familiar?

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:

  1. Be vigilant about warm-up and conditioning.
  2. Work only with people who honour the body.
  3. Never put aesthetics and fashion above health.

Amazing.

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.

Oh, and like me on facebook .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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