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Cross-training for Dancers: Part 1

Cross-training for Dancers: Part 1

For anyone who's ever seen dancers powering through a gruelling two hour class, there's no doubt that dance is a demanding pursuit that requires a high level of physical fitness. What seems to be less clear though, is whether supplementing your dance training with other forms of exercise can be beneficial or detrimental for dancers in the long-run.

It’s frequently assumed that as the movements and physical requirements of dance are so singularly specific, that incorporating strenuous physical activities other than class into a dancer’s routine could only counteract efforts to specialise the body, and lead to the development of muscles and postural habits counterintuitive to the needs of the dancer. There's also the common fear of gaining an undesirable physique that does not align with the attenuated figure still widely valued in today’s industry. However many myths remain surrounding the actual effects and risks of cross-training both for the student and the professional dancer. In this three part series we'll be delving into the benefits and drawbacks involved in cross-training, talking to professional dancers about their own experiences, and suggesting guidelines and tips to ensure you're able to make well informed training decisions that will suit your body.

1: The need for endurance

Many full-time training facilities instil early on in students the danger of activities such as rollerblading, skiing, cycling, soccer, tennis, basketball and hockey, all for the various risks and strain they expose the dancer to, and some schools go so far as to ban all forms of sport outside dance, even forbidding running on the treadmill as a workout option for fear of building bulk in the quad muscles or adding strain. However studies have confirmed (PubMedSchool of Sport, Performing Arts and Leisure, Wolverhampton University, Department of Sport and Exercise Science, Thessaly University, Trikala, Greece) that the physical intensity of performance is very rarely matched by classwork or rehearsal. While general classwork is very beneficial for developing the technique and neuromuscular coordination, as well as building muscular endurance and the flexibility needed for dance, the other components that make up physical fitness are rarely addressed regularly, or for any length of time that would be conducive with creating improvements.

 Think about what this means for a dancer, perhaps a member of the corps de ballet, who is often expected to be on-stage for the entirety of a two to three hour performance, going from dance to dance with their body straining to execute each step at the apex of their physical energy and precision. All whilst relying on a training regime that consists of class work – where a standard class will typically last 1 – 1.5 hours, half of which is barre-work and the remaining time reserved for centrework; which is further divided into the slower, quite passive adage, the more active but short and fragmentary petit allegro activities, and finally grand allegro. The outcome is that for each class a dancer is getting roughly (at best) forty-five minutes of cardiorespiratory training to prepare them for the physical strain of performing ballets of two or more hours in duration. Rehearsals are a closer trial to the demands of a performance, but often dancers spend a lot of time in rehearsals sitting and waiting for their turn, marking steps, pausing, correcting and repeating, as well as attentively taking correction and advice from choreographers, directors and répétiteurs. This means rehearsals rarely match the physical exertion of a performance. What’s more, class and rehearsal are incapable of producing the combined physiological and psychological intensity of performance, and therefore aren’t able to provide the ‘overload’ (the training principle that states stressing the body beyond the normal limits it is accustomed to is the only way to create adaptive improvements to endurance and strength) to sufficiently prepare the dancer for a performance.

Image: Artists of the Australian Ballet during a studio rehearsal, photographed by Kate Longley

Image: Artists of the Australian Ballet during a studio rehearsal, photographed by Kate Longley

When a dancer is placed under excessive strain that the body isn’t accustomed to this can result in performances where dancers are simply trying to 'make it through' and cope with the demands of the choreography, rather than performing to their full artistic ability. It seems that if we're discouraging dancers from cross-training purely for fear of injury, it’s worth considering whether eighty percent (the injury rate among professional dancers in the UK) is really a successful ratio, and one worth preserving. Injuries shouldn’t have to be an inevitable toll endured by every dancer, and training should ideally be comprehensive enough to properly prepare a dancer's body for the demands of their workload. The dancers’ formula is an extremely unusual practice in contrast to the training of athletes of other disciplines – you don’t see footballers leaving their most challenging and physically demanding workout to the actual game itself.  A football practice consists not only of kicking goals, they do a range of exercises, and a lot of them! Footballers run laps, weight-train, swim, cycle and box on top of intense training sessions that prepare them for all the physical demands that a match might exert. Often players will leave a training session more exhausted than a game. So why is dance so different?

Part of the problem might be the dramatic changes classical ballet has undergone since the 1920‘s. Today’s ballerina doesn’t only perform the grace-imbued roles of Giselle and Sleeping Beauty. The rise of neo-classical and contemporary repertoire in the modern dance industry has broadened the scope of physical movements dancers are expected to familiarise their bodies with and perform on a regular basis. It’s also widely acknowledged that the difficulty of the positions dancers are required to ‘hit’ has continued to increase over the years. Arabesques become more extreme, jetés higher and turnout more pronounced than dancers of the 60’s or earlier ever had to contend with. In an article for Discover Magazine, Elena Daprati from the University of Rome suggested that these changes have been driven by social pressures from audiences. Daprati combed the archives of London’s Royal Opera House to find 156 images comparing stills of dancers in certain poses from 1946 - 2004, and found that with every position the angles of the dancers limbs became more and more extreme.

The changing angles of ballet - Image: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/

The changing angles of ballet - Image: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/

Agrippina Vaganova, ballerina and founder of the Vaganova method pictured in 1910. Note the degree of turnout and the height of the attitude

Agrippina Vaganova, ballerina and founder of the Vaganova method pictured in 1910. Note the degree of turnout and the height of the attitude

 Regardless of the cause, the increasingly heightened standards in the physical and technical sublimity of the modern dancer is impossible to ignore. In the 1980’s the average age of retirement for a professional ballet dancer was 40. Just ten years later that number had plummeted to 29. In one decade dance had gone from being something you chose as a life and career, to a job that demands a 'plan B' for when you're forced to retire from burn-out or injury.

Jetés: Left,  two ballerinas from the Boris Volkoff Ballet, Toronto, 1941. Right, Svetlana Zakharova, the modern ballerina

Jetés: Left,  two ballerinas from the Boris Volkoff Ballet, Toronto, 1941. Right, Svetlana Zakharova, the modern ballerina

Many things in the dance world continue to change for the better; pointe shoes are more comfortable and protective than ever before, the medical expertise and (just as importantly) mindset towards injured dancers improves every year, and we're at an exciting place with the growing diversity of dancers and dance repertoire in the industry continuing to increase.  Yet given these facts, the injury rate of dancers today is unacceptably high, and comprehensive physical fitness still largely lacking. This isn't something that cross-training alone could solve, and certain forms of exercise are likely to have more drawbacks than advantages from a dancer's perspective (we're never going to recommend you take up competitive skiing as a side-hobby!) - but addressing the way dancers are trained and the current physical requirements that modern standards demand of them is the key to ensuring that today's generation of dancers grow up with strong, healthy bodies that resist injury and keep them dancing long after their twenties. 

The most important thing for dancers to remember when debating whether to take that 2km bike ride, or if they should go for a jog, is that how an exercise is executed is often far more important than the exercise itself; the most harmless activity can be dangerous if performed incorrectly,  just as many 'difficult' activities can be safe and incredibly beneficial if executed consciously and with proper technique in mind. Rather than fearing specific forms of exercise, it's pivotal that dancers focus instead on being just as mindful of good technique outside the studio as they are in dance class.

In Part II of this series next week, we will be looking at the areas of fitness that dancers can most benefit from improving and helpful ways to combat deficiencies.

Stay tuned.

Thank you to dance Physiotherapist Annie Strauch from Performance Medicine  for her consultation on this series. 

Read More:

Cross-training Part 2: Comprehensive Fitness

Cross-training Part 2: Comprehensive Fitness

Cross-training Part 3: The Game-plan

Cross-training Part 3: The Game-plan

Article by Elly Ford

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