Fitness training for dancers

Dance is an art form that at it’s highest level, demands extraordinary levels of both athleticism and technical skill. For the amateur dancer, the condition of the body is central to the level of performance it is capable of achieving. At all levels, from the first-time dancer to the seasoned professional, the individual’s physical fitness plays a key role in their ability to perform.

Dance training has a tendency to follow a pretty strict pattern; there’s technique, repertoire, rehearsal. Perhaps there’s a conditioning class thrown in once a week in the form of Pilates or Gyrotechnics, but for the most part it’s dance, dance and more dance. In learning any art-form practice and repetition are key, however dance-only training puts dancers at a disadvantage over those who branch out into supplemental training.

Recent studies have shown professional dancers to have similar levels of physical fitness to those of sedentary individuals. Dance training does not sufficiently stress the body’s physiological systems to promote adaptation, meaning that although you may feel you’ve worked hard during classes, the physical stresses aren’t enough to trigger significant changes in your body.

The body has evolved to react to stresses that make it feel it’s survival is threatened, so that if faced with them again it’s better prepared to cope with them. It takes a significant amount of physical stress to make your body change.

Due to the intermittent nature of dance classes and focus on technical improvement, the body is not pushed hard enough to substantively improve physical fitness. In performance however, the dancer is expected to go from the stop-start nature of rehearsal, to suddenly having to push the body full out for up to 2 hours without a break. This often leads to injury, physical exhaustion and decreased performance. If the body is better prepared through supplemental training, changes in physical demands are substantially reduced, lessening the likelihood of the dancer suffering any of the associated ill effects.

As dance training does not adequately push the body to make significant positive physical adaptations, performance capacity is also limited by dance-only training. If the dancer wants to achieve higher elevation, improved extension, better balance or greater control, then they need to look outside the structure of the traditional dance class to work on these goals. Enter supplemental training. Supplemental training involves exactly what the name suggests – you are supplementing your dance training with non-dance activity to fill the gaps and complement the work you are already doing.

Supplemental training can take many forms – aerobic training, resistance training, plyometric training, flexibility training. The type of training undertaken at any given point will depend on the individual’s strengths and weaknesses as well as the physical requirements of both the genre of dance and specific pieces of choreography.

Initially with supplemental training, most dancers are going to want to work on their aerobic fitness and strength levels.  Choose an activity that pushes you and stick to it, at least 3 times a week for 12 weeks. An improved level of aerobic fitness will allow the dancer to last through classes and rehearsals with less fatigue, and will improve their ability to cope with the demands of performance.  It’s an absolute fundamental of all-round physical fitness, and one which is too rarely addressed in dance training. Any cardiovascular activity can be employed to improve it, and can be as simple and inexpensive as taking up running.

Strength training is crucial in avoiding injury and improving all-round performance. Increased muscle strength helps to stabilise the joints, making them less likely to be injured. Want developpes above your head? You can have all the flexibility in the world, but if you don’t have the strength to pull your leg up and hold it in place, your flexibility is wasted. Strength training is crucial for improving and maintaining body composition; pound for pound muscle takes up less space than fat, and is metabolic tissue meaning it burns calories just by being there. Dancers often site concerns that weight-training is going to make them bulky or inflexible, remember that developing large amounts of muscle mass is hard – really hard. Body builders put huge amounts of work into their programmes and diets to achieve their physiques -you aren’t going to look like that by accident, so don’t worry. You will however notice significant improvements in your performance and your ability to cope with class and rehearsal. And lifting weights turns out to be surprisingly fun. Honestly.

Flexibility and strength should be trained simultaneously, as they actually complement one another. Although you can’t change the structure of your joints, muscle flexibility can be improved and maintained by appropriate stretching programmes. Strength training gives the body better control over flexibility, lessening the chances of injury occurring and increasing active flexibility levels.

Don’t be afraid to lift weights, and lift heavy. Join a gym, go outside and run, find a way to push your body outside of the dance studio and it will make a huge difference to your performance.

Written by Clare Stephen from Atalanta Dance Fitness

For more information about what Rebecca can offer dance companies and individuals please contact her.

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