Dance Fitness

Background

While helping professional dancers recover from injury I have heard and seen quite a lot of things. I know from experience that dancers are passionate about their career and sacrifice many hours rehearsing and watching video of their performance. 

Very few of those athletes spend additional time supplementing their performance in dance with improving their performance with strength and conditioning.  I get it- besides those arduous hours in the studios, there is a taboo culture in the dance world that exercising will result in big bulky muscles. And thats not aesthetically pleasing. 

At least thats one thing they told Misty Copeland- check out her commercial with Under Armour “I Will What I Want”. She received a letter denying her acceptance, stating “you could be a professional dancer in Vegas”. While there is absolutely NOTHING wrong with being a dancer in Vegas, I am only using this as a reference to demonstrate that the perception of dance culture regarding specific body types is not always “right”. Misty was accepted on June 30, 2015 as ABT principal dancer and was named “100 Most Influential People in the World” by Time magazine. Again, I’m not saying Misty’s exercise routine catapulted her to stardom, but this only serves its purpose that a belief in a certain body type is either on its way out, or not accurately represented in the dance community.

Moving on. 

I have seen plenty of talented and passionate dancers who were exceptionally weak when they progressed to the performance-specific strength training phase of rehabilitation. One dancer in particular could perform the hip adductor machine with 120# for about 8-10 reps with proper form. But could not perform even 60# hip abductor for 3 repetitions! Those are seriously imbalanced & weak muscles! Not only did this hip weakness most likely result in her dance injuries of the hips and knees, but she was missing out on being a better performer. 

Muscles produce movement. The stronger the muscles, the bigger the movement. However, muscles do not have to be BIG in order to leap high or pop off the floor quickly. They just need to move very efficiently. I think it is crazy that dancers go through their career without a solid strength training program to prevent injuries and improve their performance. 

So let’s talk about it.

What is fitness? 

The dancers’ body is their instrument. It is a means of artistic expression. Like a musician cleaning and tuning their violin or drum, so too, must the dancer take time to attend to the “tuning” of their body. Everything vibrates- electrical signals from your brain send signals to muscles and tell them to fire off. Keep that system vibrating at a frequency that resonates with the music. 

Keep your instrument tuned!

The more fit you are the less likely you are to suffer from injury, the better you will perform and you will enjoy a long and successful career. 

Attending to your body can be classified as follows:

  1. Poor: dance only, no attendance to psychological or physical needs outside of rehearsal
  2. Fair: may take care of some issues as they arise
  3. Good: “well” both psychologically & physically
  4. Excellent: proactive steps to take care of self; exercises to strengthen the body, practices meditation or mindfulness to strengthen the mind
  5. Elite: seeks out professional help in all aspects of dance life. Dance is life.

What is important is not so much where you feel you line up now on this scale, but where you see yourself in the future. Maybe not even as a dancer, just as a human. Technology allows us to get in touch with those who can help us get to the next level in a near instant. Are you an Australian who found an awesome trainer in Miami? Sign up for their online class or maybe see if you can schedule a FaceTime or Skype session. Get in touch, pick their brains.

So what types of exercise should dancers engage in? First, let’s talk about what type of exercises are out there and the benefits & tradeoffs of each. 

Aerobic/Cardio

Aerobic work is defined as any activity lasting more than a few minutes without  time to rest. The heart rate is elevated to pump blood to muscles and lungs & your breathing rate increases. 

Mode of exercise: running, elliptical, bike riding, swimming

Benefits: improved endurance of muscles, heart & lungs

Tradeoff: does not address muscle power, or ability to generate force in a short period of time (like leaping, jumping from a kneeling position)

Muscle Endurance

Muscle endurance can be defined as the ability of a muscle or groups of muscles to produce constant tension over a prolonged period of time. It does not necessarily have a cardio component. For example, performing squats or lunges for 1-2 minutes and then resting in between sets. Your heart rate might not be significantly elevated at the end of the set, although that would be a good bench mark for how fit you are. The goal here would be to bring that muscle to fatigue or failure at the end of the set. 

Mode of training: dumbbells, machines, body weight

Benefits: can track progress with reps, sets & weight lifted; dynamic range

Tradeoff: access to equipment; proper form & quality program; does not address muscle power

Muscle Strength

I’ll try not to get too technical here. Strength can be defined as the ability of the muscle to perform repeated contractions without fatigue against a given resistance. That sounds kind of mouthy. But think of it as the body overcoming a good deal of weight, but is not dependent on how quickly you can move that weight. A good rule of thumb for strength training is high volume (lots of reps, lots of weight).

Mode of training: dumbbells, machines, body weight

Benefits: can track progress with reps, sets & weight lifted; variability in types of workout can be specific to your type of dance

Tradeoff: access to equipment; proper form & quality program; does not address muscle power

Muscle Power 

Easiest way to think of power is: how much weight can you move in the shortest amount of time? Whether this is your body weight (like jumping) or an external weight (or person, like partner work), how fast your muscles contract and how much force they develop in the shortest amount of time. 

Mode of training: dumbbells, machines, body weight

Benefits: can track progress with reps, sets & weight lifted; dynamic range

Tradeoffs: require a great deal of muscle strength, balance & coordination; proper programming can place you head and shoulders above the competition 

Flexibility 

The flexibility of your body is dependent on ligaments and muscles. Using the full range of motion available can help performance by appearing fluid & long. There  are a handful of ways to stretch, but some things should be avoided. If you experience “pinching” type pain in the front of the hip or shoulder when stretching, you should stop. Yes, stretching needs to be uncomfortable if you plan on improving the length of ligaments and muscles, but there are some types of pain that are unnecessary and harmful. 

Mode of training: your body, sometimes a partner or use of elastic bands

Benefits: maintain a supple body

Tradeoffs: too much stretching can cause instability in the joint if proper strength training is a part of the program. This can cause significant injuries that limit performance.

Balance/Coordination 

How well can you coordinate movement? When transitioning from the floor to standing or performing a sequence of dance moves, how “fluid” do you appear? See my article on proprioception & eyes closed balance training for a more detailed explanation.

Mode of training: bodyweight, small dumbbells, balance/foam pad, mirror

Benefits: improve coordination of the body to improve aesthetic component of dance

Tradeoffs: might initially require a professional “eye” to ensure proper body alignment before progressing to more demanding exercises

Rest

The human body needs rest, both physical and psychological. Stress is a good thing, especially if approached the right way. However, similarl amounts of stress for one person can “make” them but “break” another. It is important to be in tune with your body and identify how well you’re responding to any given type of exercise or rehearsal process. Check out my article on “Overtraining” to fill in the gaps.

Mode: a bed in a quiet, dark space

Benefits: consolidate memory, allow muscles and brain to recover

Tradeoffs: … I really can’t think of any!

Why do dancers need to exercise outside of rehearsals? 

In my experience with elite dancers from all over the world, I have yet to meet a performer who did not benefit from an individualized program I designed. They return to dance stronger, more flexible, have more energy throughout the day and almost always report feeling “as if they can dance forever”. 

Who doesn’t want to dance longer, jump higher or look leaner when performing? 

Here are a few ways to test yourself:

Cardio: heart rate response to exercise

Assessment: walk or jog on the treadmill at a specific incline and pace (example: 3.0% incline, 4.0 mph) for a specific time (5 minutes). Record your heart rate after the 5 minutes.

Reassessment: repeat the sequence above. 

Lower heart rate? Excellent. 

Higher heart rate? Things to consider: time of day; last meal consumed; stress level; most recent day of exercise ; poor program design

Power: jump height or jump distance

Assessment: find a wall or clear floor; jump as high as you can and touch the wall with a sticker, mark off distance jumped on the floor

Reassessment: repeat the sequence above

Higher/longer distance? Excellent.

Not so much better? Things to consider: time of day; last meal consumed; stress level; most recent day of exercise; poor program design

Flexibility: sit and reach test

Assessment: sit with legs straight in front of you, bend forward to touch toes

Make sure you are not flexing or “hinging” from one spot on your body, allow an equal contribution of lower back & hips to produce the length

Reassessment: repeat above sequence

Improved flexibility? Excellent. 

Not much better? Poor program design; possible injury

Balance/coordination: step down test

Assessment: with a mirror in front of you, step down from the bottom step on the stairs. Do you see the knee that remains on the step “cave in” or “collapse”? 

Yes? You need to work on that

No? Good coordination of hip muscles

I hope you enjoyed reading this article. As a physical therapist in Miami helping dancers recover from all types of injuries I am passionate about providing the best & most relevant information. 

Dance injuries do not need to be career ending. Strength training to prevent dance injury can place you head and shoulders above the competition, improve your performance & reduce your risk of injury. If you need help designing a program, feel free to reach out. I’m here to help.