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Cross-training for Dancers: Part 2

Cross-training for Dancers: Part 2

This is a three part series on Cross-training for the Dancer, see here for Part 1.

Maintaining a high level of physical capability is imperative for professional and pre-professional dancers in ensuring the continuation of their dance training and career, however the notion of cross-training (ie. performing physical activities not directly related to dance in order to supplement training gained from classes and rehearsals) is still a widely debated undertaking for the conscientious dancer. The issue is that current dance training standards alone are not always sufficient to provide dancers with the physical stamina and endurance they need to perform at their best, which is why it's important that dancers feel confident and informed enough to include some supplemental exercises into their weekly routine.

Image: Sydney Dance Company dancers performing

Image: Sydney Dance Company dancers performing

The primary concern, as discussed earlier, is that dancers often don't receive much training for cardiovascular fitness (sustained endurance). The fact is that ballet and most forms of dance fall predominately under the umbrella of anaerobic activity. The energy bursts and frequent brief intervals that dance usually composes of demand spurts of power and strength from the muscles, but relatively little endurance. Intense activity that lasts from around 30 seconds to 2 minutes relies on the body to utilise phosphagen - a more immediate energy supply than oxygen – and the anaerobic glycolysis/lactic acid system to fuel the body. However the opposite type of workout, aerobic exercise is still essential for the dancer as it's responsible for improving flexibility, muscular strength, blood circulation, respiration and cardio-vascular fitness. In an article published in Sports Med, the results of a study found that “It [had] been reported that the relatively small aerobic fitness increments measured in professional dancers are not related to their class work, but to the duration and frequency of their performances.” 

The result of increased levels of physical exertion for performances, coupled with the relatively minor changes to training methods (incredibly little has changed in terms of class length, exercises, barre work, centre work or allegro since the first professional ballet company, The Paris Opera Ballet, began in the 17th century) is that dancers are lacking in aerobic activity, which is not a deficit that can be compensated for with increased anaerobic workouts. The notion of ‘fitness’ should be a holistic one, only a training program that incorporates elements of both aerobic and anaerobic workouts will successfully prepare the body for developing and maintaining optimal endurance, stamina, strength and power. This is where lower-risk exercises like swimming laps, running, circuit training or gym classes such as zumba and power yoga could help to fill the gaps in your training.

Muscle imbalances and the 'bulking' fear.

Unfortunately dance (and ballet in particular), has come to characterise the development and definition of some muscle groups over others as a sign of aesthetic idealism, students are often inadvertently lead to believe that there are certain muscles that are ‘right’ to have, whilst others should be streamlined if not imperceptible, which plays a large role in deterring dancers from other forms of exercise. Skylar Brandt, a soloist with the American Ballet Theatre describes her own experience; -  "I do feel that there can be a fear of bulking up or getting injured while cross-training. That is why it is ideal to have someone assisting you when you start another type of training" says Brandt, who's learned that tailoring additional training to her individual requirements as a dancer is what works best, "[G]oing to a physical therapist or an ex-dancer that specialises in an activity such as Pilates is really great. I work with my PT at ABT and with a retired Mark Morris dancer to compile a workout that best suits my body and my aesthetic. Having supervision is a sure way to prevent injury as well." 

Skylar Brandt, soloist with the American Ballet. Image:  Dylan Coulter

Skylar Brandt, soloist with the American Ballet. Image:  Dylan Coulter

To properly combat injury dancers need to be aware of the fact that muscles don't function as individual mechanisms, instead they form a framework of connected and interdependent groups that cooperatively stabilise the body. Each movement is in fact the result of an action controlled by groups of muscles that function in a dyad - composed of one ‘active’ muscle, and one ‘relaxed’ muscle - that perform their roles respectively to allow the desired movement to occur. This means that balanced muscle development is crucial for dancers, as imbalance or neglect in the exertion of one half of a muscle pair is what will likely lead to injury. The view that muscles not directly activated during a typical dance class are 'unnecessary' or detrimental to develop needs to be addressed so that dancers are at reduced risk of harm, fatigue or having a shorter performance-lifespan.  A muscle that remains too relaxed (sometimes termed ‘abnormal inhibition’) is a condition that causes the opposite muscle in the set to become too tight as a result. This in turn adversely affects the surrounding joints these muscles control, other muscles, the attached tendons, ligaments and bones as well as often affecting the entire posture of the associated body area (e.g. head, chest or pelvis).

 An example of one such imbalance that may occur in relation to dance is in the hip joint. Physiotherapist Annie Strauch of Performance Medicine explains; The movements devant and a la seconde both have a bias to using the hip flexors ("front pocket" muscles) whereas derriere has a bias to using the gluteals ("back pocket" muscles).  These two groups work together alongside the deep hip rotators and muscles of the leg (quadriceps and hamstrings) in an agonist-antagonist relationship to create each movement.  This agonist-antagonist relationship helps balance the forces going through the hip joint, which is crucial when the hip is put under great force, such as during grand allegro exercises. So how do you know if you're suffering from a muscle imbalance? "Have you ever had clicking in your hips? This is an example [of] where there may be muscle imbalance at the hip joint." says Strauch "Typically in this scenario, the hip flexor muscles are being recruited more readily than the gluteal and hip rotator muscles and these may become relatively weaker. This means that there is a natural forward pull on the hip joint and the joint no longer maintains efficient joint movement. This may or may not be painful depending on how significant the imbalance is. Cross-training is a great way to substitute for the muscles that are lacking training in class because of a repertoire bias. In this case, doing isolated gluteal and deep hip rotator strengthening exercises will substitute what they are missing in class and help to restore a balance in the hip joint movement."

Tight calves are a common issue that impacts dancers

Tight calves are a common issue that impacts dancers

Strauch also highlights another common issue and related misconception dancers have: tight calf muscles. "This is usually related to strenuous training en pointe, as this is a calf-dominant activity." Strauch points out that contrary to popular opinion, tight calf muscles after pointe work isn't always an indication that your hard work is making stronger legs; "This brings up an interesting myth that overworking or over-strengthening muscles will shorten them and therefore make them feel tight. Which may not be the case. In many scenarios, when a muscle feels tight after it has been used a lot, it is a sign that the muscle has not coped with the load you’ve asked it to endure. That is, the muscle is not strong enough to effectively deal with the task at hand. In many dancers, the calf muscle is often not strong enough to cope with high levels of en pointe work, unless it has been specifically trained for that task. It is important that the dancer realises that in these situations, what they are doing in class is simply not enough for that specific muscle.

The solution? Annie uses the exercise recommended by The Australian Ballet's Physiotherapist, Sue Mayes: Calf rises in parellel. "This is the anatomical position of the muscle and will ensure maximum force production when strengthening the muscle. [It's] a fantastic way to strengthen your calves. Rises will improve the ability of the calf to cope with the load, and therefore no longer feel as tight after pointe work." The dancer should be able to perform approximately 25 single leg calf rises in parallel to ensure adequate strength to endure strenuous en pointe work (Sue Mayes, Physiotherapist, The Australian Ballet Company). 

 

Dancers as Runners.

A Swedish study has found something that may be surprising to many; the legs of dancers and runners have the same amount of "slow-twitch" (stamina enhancing) muscle fibres, suggesting that running places a similar strain (endurance rather than power - which is generated from fast twitch fibres) on the muscles to dance training, and is in fact arguably gentler than ballet (the force of landing from a grand allegro exercise is equal to around 12 times your body weight, whereas when running, it’s seven to eight times). Slow twitch muscles unlike their ‘fast’ counterpart are also much less likely to increase in size when trained, which counteracts the notion that running equates to bulking up. Joffrey Ballet’s Fabrice Calmels started running in preparation for playing the role of Othello and now runs four miles every day. Calmels says “It was a gruelling part because the character Othello stays on stage the whole time. I was extremely tired all the time. I was cramping. I knew my cardio was down, and needed work.” But after the season was over, Calmels had seen too many advantages to quit; the difference I can feel in my body is literally how much longer I can last compared to when I’m not running. Running helps my legs take the beating from ballet much more easily. The recovery process is that much easier, too.”

San Francisco Ballet’s Principal dancer Frances Chung also uses running as well as laps in the pool to boost her cardio, and kickboarding to strengthen specific muscles. Chung says “If I feel like I’ve been lagging in rehearsal, I’ll push and do more sprinting.” 

Celine Gittens, images courtesy of Celine

Celine Gittens, images courtesy of Celine

Another running enthusiast is dancer Celine Gittens,  A Principal  with the Birmingham Royal Ballet. Gittens uses regular cross-training to enhance her dancing. “I am always interested in different workout methods alongside ballet class to increase stamina, muscle tone, strength and core stability". The principal dancer incorporated jogging approximately three times a week into her pre-professional training years – “The access I had to a running track was ideal and this helped regularly build my resistance and stamina. This stamina was transferred to my training for the Royal Academy of Dance exams and local and international competitions, which was my focus at that time. Upon joining the Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB) I was casted to perform solo variations and I was more than prepared to execute the average endurance for a classical ballet variation.”

Physiotherapist Annie Strauch agrees that if done properly, running isn't harmful for dancers and can be "an opportunity for a dancer’s body to experience joint positions not typically used in classical dance (e.g parallel)". The benefits of which help to ensure good balance in the joints of the leg.  However things to be aware of when running would be the classical dancer’s propensity to turn out in the legs and feet. It's crucial that you do make sure to develop correct running technique in order to avoid injury, just as with dance. As foreign as it might feel, try and enjoy the chance to work in a completely parallel position, and focus on keeping the back straight and not too arched. You do put the joints under extra strain when going for a run, so be conscious that this can be improved by choosing an ideal running surface. Grass is the terrain with the lowest impact on your joints, whilst also making your muscles work hard. The next best choice is dirt/earth and then a treadmill track or sand, but try and avoid concrete whenever possible (ten times as hard as asphalt makes it especially taxing on the joints). Dancers taking up running should also be sure they're using appropriate footwear with supportive cushioning.

A final word to the wise; steer clear of stretching right before your run — you don’t need to increase your range of motion for a morning jog and stretching can actually temporarily decrease muscle strength. Weakened muscles are more likely to lead to bad technique and ‘jarring’ joints by not engaging the muscles properly, so save your stretching for later, focusing on the calf muscles, quads and hips for maximum benefits. 

For the final instalment in this cross-training series (available next week) we will conclude by offering the best techniques and tips for dancers to safely incorporate cross-training  exercises into their routine. Stay tuned.

Article by Elly Ford

Thanks to the experts and dancers featured in this article: 
Dance Physiotherapist Annie Strauch from Performance Medicine, 
Birmingham Royal Ballet Principal Dancer Celine Gittens, 
American Ballet Theatre Soloist Skylar Brandt,
San Francisco Ballet Principal Dancer Frances Chung (Flaherty)
Joffrey Ballet Dancer Fabrice Calmels

 

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