Do Dancers Need Upper Body Strength?

Ok. First watch this:

Count the number of times you think the dancers (of the Australian Dance Theatre)  needed to use their arms or upper bodies in some way, whether for a lift, for support, or to catch a landing on the floor. Ok got a number?

I counted 31 times. But I was also counting moments when a lot of scapular stability was required, because  I think this classifies as upper body strength too. 31 feats requiring arm strength in 2 minutes…. Now tell me, do you think it’s important for dancers to have upper body strength? Do you??? Tell me!

PS- When you have time, check out more of ADT’s choreography by Gary Stewart. He’s notorious for getting his dancers to do some pretty ridiculous stuff. One of my favorites, for sure.

I was working with one of my winter program dancers (we’ll call her Svetlana) a few days ago, and we had an interesting conversation after having her perform a set of push-ups. Conversation went something like this:

SVETLANA: OMG push-ups are so hard!

ME: I know, right*! They freakin’ suck! But you have to do them.


ME: So Svettie, do you think it’s important for dancers to be able to do push-ups?

SVETLANA: Umm YES! Totally.

ME: Why?

SVETLANA: Just…. Because…. ??

ME: Good answer! *high five*

* For the record, I make it a point to try never to say “I know, right?”.  And “bro”.

Sometimes, you don’t really need a more profound reason than “because”. Especially if you’re right.  And yes. I. Hate. Push-ups. So. Much. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I don’t enjoy my face coming right at the floor, and gravity really sucks.

But anyway, is upper body strength (not JUST push-ups) important for dancers to have? The short answer: Yes. Yes, it is. Do dancers of different styles need varying degrees of arm strength? For sure.

In ballet for example, the women don’t do a whole lot of lifting, nor do they put their hands down on the floor very often. On purpose that is… Sometimes penches go horribly wrong

 HOWEVER, these days ballet companies, such as the National Ballet here in Toronto, often commission independent contemporary choreographers to create pieces that aren’t necessarily “balletic”. The classically trained dancers are expected to be able to pull off some technically challenging feats that they might not be physically prepared for, no matter how perfectly they can perform Swan Lake.

Speaking of Svetlana…

It’s also very rare to make a killing in the industry with only one dance style under your belt. Mind you, “making a killing” is a subjective figure in the dance biz. Sure you’ll always be better at one style than others, and that’s fine. But if, for example, you are a ballerina with the American Dance Theatre, it definitely pays to  have the crazy strength to perform Gary Stewart’s choreography, should he ever happen to stop by to choreograph something. He’ll probably ask you to throw your body at the floor. And then get up, and do it again. And then stand on your head. Seriously. Gary loves the headstands.

In my opinion, (and in the opinion of my good friend “science”) there are a few major reasons why it pays to have strong arms, and a solid upper back as a dancer, regardless of your style:

1. For  lifting. For men, this is pretty obvious, but for women this is becoming more and more important.

2. For performing challenging choreographic feats. If you have ever had to hold yourself in a plank, do an arm balance, propel yourself with your arms, or do anything that required an ounce of arm strength, then you nomesayin’. (There are a couple f-bombs in the video clip, so if you’re sensitive mind your ears, if you know what I am saying).

3. Scapular stability and proper shoulder mechanics. Dancers are prone to shoulder issues due to the fact that a) we have our arms above our heads all day, which causes a lot of tension in pec minor, and makes us prone to thoracic outlet syndrome, winging scapulae, and a myriad of other unpleasant shoulder issues.  b) we’re just like regular people who slouch and sit at the computer too much and have bad posture sometimes too. And you can never have enough scapular stability.

4. Dancing is easier when you have a strong upper back. Lines look better. Holding the arms in the proper position is way easier. Your arms don’t get as tired as quickly. You can feel what it’s like to dance with you back rather than just with your arms. It’s just plain great.

5. Injury prevention. Things like rotator cuff strains, thoracic outlet syndrom, shoulder impingement, bursitis, and other common upper body ailments are, for the most part, totally preventable, if you have adequate strength and stability. Want to lift someone above your head without busting up your infraspinatus? Go do some rows (an over-simplification… But still).

Will your arms get big and manly if you try to make your upper body stronger? No. Not unless you try really, really hard. I promise.

To check out how to incorporate upper-body strengthening exercises into your life (and into your dance training) check out my free program, Dance Stronger. It is still in it’s beta phase, but won’t be free for long, so get in on it while you still can!

Anyway, that’s all for today. I only got 2 hours of sleep last night (ahhrhghghghh) and I am le tired. I’m coming off of a month-long melatonin binge. It was the best month of sleep I’ve ever had in my life, but now my body can’t get my REMs on without that sweet, sweet melatonin. Until it learns to produce it’s own again. Which I’m hoping will happen any day now… Damn hormones.

And on that note, I’m off to catch the bus to London to visit my familly for the holidays. Christmas Eve Smӧrgasbord, and multiple sugar comas on Xcessmas day await.