Cardio Considerations in Dance Class and Performance

Cardiovascular capacity varies based on a dancers level of experience, style, gender, technical capability and status within a dance company. Research demonstrates a difference between the level of fitness expressed in rehearsals compared to that experienced during a show or competition. 

This article will cover the following topics:

  1. Dance as a physical exercise
  2. Dancers aerobic capacity
  3. Cardiorespiratory demands of dance classes and performances
  4. Supplementary fitness training for dancers
  5. Fitness testing and assessment for dancers

1

Dance style and technique has evolved over the past millennia, with changes in partner interaction, the use of the floor, apparatus’, footwear, and choreography style. This presents a unique challenge within the dance community, creating a stress that requires dancers to not only be highly technically developed, but also well-conditioned. Conditioning comprises the domains of strength, flexibility, cardiovascular capacity and balance/coordination. Programs aimed at addressing these systems will help reduce injury occurrence as well as performance quality. 

Weakness of the quadriceps appears to increase the risk of lower extremity injuries and exercise-induced fatigue seems to impair lower limb alignment with jumps and floor work. Activity modifications that are made due to injury often cause a decline in poor body composition. This cardiovascular and muscular atrophy can be attenuated with a prescribed aerobic and strength training program.

Dance is a highly physical and technical skill that requires short bursts of energy expenditure followed by lower intensity adagio-type movements. This alters the dominant energy system input throughout the course of a show, increasing the rate of perceived exertion (you feel like you’re working very hard). The type of dance, level of expertise and dance choreography all play a role in how fit the dancer is. Dance fitness requires mastery of several domains. Muscle power reserve, for the execution of high leaps and floor work; muscular endurance, to perform multiple movements in a short sequence; and cardiorespiratory endurance, to allow the heart to provide adequate oxygen to working muscles. A proper warm up provides an optimal aerobic pathway for oxygen saturation in muscle tissue, possibly delaying onset of muscle fatigue. 

2

Dance types and gender influence aerobic capacity, or the ability of the body to utilize oxygen to fuel muscles when exercising. Modern dancers seem to have higher aerobic capacity compared to ballet dancers. Male dancers tend to have higher aerobic capacity compared to female dancers. Within ballet, corp dancers often perform continuous, low to moderate intensity choreography whereas soloist tend to perform intermittent, high intensity movements. The difference in duration and intensity will determine which is the predominant energy system. Upon measurement, it was apparent that corp dancers had greater peak oxygen consumption compared to soloists, and soloist had greater jump height compared to corp dancers. Researchers demonstrated that anaerobic threshold was highly correlated to technical ability. Anaerobic threshold is the point at which lactate cannot be cleared from the muscle and contributes to exercise-induced fatigue. This muscle fatigue affects a dancers performance. A work to rest ratio of 1:3 is recommended to allow recovery of the energy systems. For example, if you performed center-floor jump sequences for 30 seconds, a rest period of 1 minute and 30 seconds should follow. Proper nutrition allows storage of muscle glycogen to buffer onset of fatigue and susceptibility to injury. 

3

It is well reported in the literature that energy demands in dance classes are less than those experienced during a performance. This seems to be the case for modern, jazz, highland and folk dance. Additional research demonstrates that classes themselves may not provide a strong enough stress to improve cardiovascular fitness. This is true for advanced students and professional athletes. The warm up and center-floor work often remain in the aerobic energy system despite performing high intensity activity. This may be due to the longer rest periods in between learning new sections of a show. 

Rehearsals, after the creation and learning process, often place a higher cardiovascular demand on the dancer. This adaptations to this demand, however, may be too late in order to prepare the dancer for a specific performance. In addition, the total amount of time spent in this higher intensity zone is often limited. In professional ballet dancers, this was about 10% of total time in rehearsals. 

4

Dancers, therefore, should train to optimize the contributions of the proper energy systems to improve their performance. This includes engaging in an exercise program that complements a dancers style, experience level and type of dance. Dance class and rehearsals often emphasizes technique and skill acquisition as opposed to strength and cardiovascular adaptations. Complementary fitness training should identify the strengths and weaknesses of the individual performer and develop a program that considers dance type, style and choreography of the show being rehearsed. Variables such as intensity, volume and frequency should be managed to avoid overtraining. Additional considerations should include total accumulation of classes, rehearsals and alternative body therapies. Researchers suggest that fitness training should not interfere with dancers’ technical work, thus, periodization strategies should be implemented. 

One frequently visited concern for performers is a loss of an aesthetically pleasing body due to muscle hypertrophy, loss of joint flexibility and overall fatigue when rehearsing. There have been a number of studies that show this is not true. A study of 12 weeks of aerobic and strength training exercise improved dancers aerobic capacity, muscle strength and flexibility in addition to positive changes in dancers body composition. Another study demonstrated that one hour of circuit training and vibratory training twice a week improved muscle power, aerobic capacity and dance aesthetics more efficiently than adding one additional hour of extra dance class per day. Other programs that varied intensity and work to rest ratios in training a ballet performance improved fitness levels. High intensity interval training (HIIT) appears to be the proper mode of exercise for improving dancers aerobic power. Intermittent exercise bouts with a work to rest ratio of 1:1, exercise time 3-6 minutes, 90-95% of VO2 max, RPE 16-17 and active recovery at low aerobic intensity is the recommended approach. For dancers that have limited time to add supplementary training, it is suggested that one five minute session performed three days per week of HIIT 3×20 program can induce changes in the cardiovascular system. For example, three sets of 20 seconds of high intensity activity followed by a 2 minute active recovery at low intensity. The active recovery process maintains blood flow to the muscles and assists in removing metabolites from lactic-acidosis pathways. The authors of this study suggest moving through a Grand adage for dancers with high technical ability. 

5

Several dance-specific tests exist to assess cardiovascular fitness. However, there is no standardized method for the different styles of dance. A standardized approach will match test-specific movements to style-specific techniques (i.e. there should be a standardized test for tap, which will be different than the standardized test for jazz, etc…). 

Conclusion: Dance is a mixture of aerobic and anaerobic metabolic exercise. This mixture varies between styles of dance, age, gender, level of experience. There are also differences between energy expenditure in class, rehearsals or performance. Cross training with high intensity interval training may help develop a dancers aerobic capacity and muscular strength and will not interfere with the aesthetics of the human body.  Fitness testing can measure aerobic and muscular strength which will help plan efficient exercise programs to supplement technical training. Strength training will help reduce the risk of injuries and enhance dance performance. 

About Me

My name is Dr. Cory Abbate, I am a physical therapist in Miami, FL currently helping performers from all over the world while they rehearse at Royal Caribbean Studios in North Miami. These talented athletes are chosen from a select few performers that audition in England, Canada, Australia, Italy, Romania and the United States.

Dancers from all different backgrounds, professional handstanders, aerialist and acrobats as well as vocalists and contortionists come to Miami to learn the shows they perform on the cruise ships. If they are injured I facilitate their successful return to dance to continue on with their contracts and professional careers. 

I wrote these blogs to help you, the performer, develop and evolve your technique so you can show the world your talent.