Cross-training for dancers: Part 3
This is the final post of a three-part series that looks at cross-training, and it’s benefits for the Dancer. Click here for Part 1: The need for Endurance, or here for Part 2: Training for comprehensive fitness.
Cross-training provides the opportunity for dancers to balance out the various components of fitness that are not always addressed in dance, and to build the stamina and endurance that is crucial for performance. As long as dancers maintain safe technique and practice moderation then cross-training can be an extremely instrumental tool both to the body and the mind. Here we've listed the most important tips for dancers to maximise the benefits of cross-training and avoid injury.
1. Personalise your training:
Naturally as with any athlete, each dancer’s body will have different requirements. A range of factors can play a role in determining the areas that need work – deficiencies in diet will take a toll on performance: dancers low in calcium will be prone to weakened, brittle bones and an absence of protein makes muscles susceptible to tissue damage and decreasing mass, and taller dancers often strive to defy their mass and be more nimble whilst smaller dancers seek extra elevation in jumps. In order to get the most out of additional training, aim to tailor your supplemental workouts to improving your own individual areas that need targeting and working towards personal goals without overloading the body. For example, a dancer who particularly struggles with control during slow adage exercises may be lacking strength, whereas a dancer who has great difficulty keeping up with fast petit allegro combinations should aim to train for an increase in muscular power. This means that it’s important that you take the time to assess your own current physical condition before launching into a new training program. If possible, it’s always beneficial to speak with your teacher or trainer and seek advice on what areas of your fitness need improvement. You might also consider visiting a physiotherapist, who can help assess what areas need work and how you might go about improving them. Aspects that you find challenging during class may be able to be significantly improved with the gradual introduction of regular supplementary exercise.
Celine Gittens, a dancer with the Birmingham Royal Ballet has been including other forms of exercise into her training since her time as a student: “Throughout my pre-professional ballet training years, I incorporated jogging approximately three times a week into my schedule. The access I had to a running track was ideal and this helped regularly build my resistance and stamina.” – And for Celine (now a Principal with the company) the pay-off was evident - “The stamina and resistance that was developed during my teens later aided me when I debuted my first full length ballet as "Diana" in 'Sylvia' in my third year with the company.” Gittens also credits her training with helping her perform the role of ‘Odette/Odile’ in Swan Lake – notoriously one of the most taxing roles a dancer can perform.
Skylar Brandt, Soloist with the American Ballet Theatre says “Cross-training is an excellent way to practice injury prevention. I have found that in engaging in an activity such as Pilates, I am stabilising the small and hard to reach muscles that I cannot target in dancing ballet. In turn, when I am in a rehearsal or performance, I become a more solid and strong ballerina because I have strengthened and activated parts of my body that will only help me dance better.” Brandt is also a firm believer in staying attentive to your body’s needs, and not over-working the muscles “I think it is vital to listen to your body and make a case by case decision on what is okay and what is too much.”
2. Mix things up:
Your goal during cross-training is different to that during a dance class as when you’re at dance you are training to specialise the body for this activity, whereas cross-training is undertaken with the purpose of improving overall physical fitness, so your approach to cross-training activities should reflect this. There’s no reason why you should limit yourself to repeating a certain activity outside of the studio. Instead try to incorporate some variation into your exercise regime so that you’re ensuring a thoroughly comprehensive workout for your body. Gittens alternates her routine; “During my summer holiday I love to go swimming and hiking. Growing up in the Caribbean and then in Canada formed my love for the outdoors. I find that incorporating a variety of workout methods like swimming and hiking, targets and encourages the use of different muscle groups to give a refreshing mix of movements to the muscles".
TIP: Experiment with different things until you find two or three activities that can meet your specific needs outside of dance whilst also letting you have some fun - once you've found a mix that works, alternate between them as part of your regular schedule. San Francisco Ballet’s Principal dancer Frances Chung is a fan of kickboarding (which is great for targeting the legs and core muscles, you engage the obliques, glutes and hip flexors without building the arms like squatting with weights, and other lower body workouts tend to do), which she alternates with 'aqua jogging’, a high-intensity cardio workout that’s easy on the joints and gives her that anaerobic boost without as many of the risks.
“I don’t believe that just a ballet class is enough to keep strong. Ballet has become more athletic and bodies are more toned, so going to the pilates class or the gym is needed.”
~ Thomas Thorne, dancer with Cape Town City Ballet
3. Relish the freedom:
If you’re feeling pushed to the limit with dance training, incorporating another form of exercise might seem like the last thing you’d like to do - Skylar Brandt confesses that as a student at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at ABT, the compulsory Saturday pilates classes felt like a hassle: “It was hard for me to feel fully committed to this class, as I was usually tired by the end of the week and did not fully appreciate the value of cross-training.” However cross-training isn’t just a physical change of pace, it can also provide a much-needed mental break from dance. Taking thirty minutes for pilates, a jog in the park, or a swim in the ocean can give your brain a refreshing break from all the heavy-lifting going on as you juggle choreography, musicality, co-ordination, vocabulary and dance technique. If you view these out-of-class activities as a breather from dance training, you’ll find that you really come to enjoy and look forward to the chance to work your body differently, it’s all about perspective!
Brandt now takes weekly pilates classes to supplement a five-day schedule at the ABT, "As a professional dancer, I have much more perspective as to how important cross-training is, and now I am excited to supplement my training outside of work."
4. Everything in moderation:
It’s drilled into our very souls as dancers that hard work is the ultimate attribute, and an essential ingredient to success. However there is such a thing as working too hard, and if you push your body beyond it’s limits – either with dance or other forms of activity – the only thing you’ll succeed in is physical fatigue, burnout, or injury. Yes, training makes you stronger, but so does rest. Well-rested bodies are better equipped to handle the stresses of exercise and every-day life, so if you're in this for the long-run remind yourself it's better to have one day off tomorrow than six months off (with injury/exhaustion) a few weeks down the track. And guess what? Physical improvements don’t happen during training, they happen afterwards, when your body has time to recuperate, and build itself back together stronger, so skipping the essential ingredient of rest isn’t a short-cut to improving, it’s more likely to hinder all the great work you’re achieving during your workout.
Tip: Try taking a little time to sit down and plan your schedule out on paper. Visualising your weekly timetable can really help you to evaluate your current workload and pin-point where any shortcomings may be, or if you’re over-doing things. You should aim to have a well-balanced schedule with regular time slots for physical activities outside of your core classes (your daily ballet class etc.) - like designated time to warm-up and cool down, stretching time, weekly opportunities for a walk/hike/swimming session or whichever activity is best suited to you, and the all important rest time. Colour-coding your week into categories the activities fall under (e.g. Yellow for ‘Cardio/Aerobic’ red for ‘Anaerobic’, Purple for ‘Strength training’ blue for ‘Stretching’ and green for ‘Rest’), can be an incredibly helpful way of easily identifying gaps in your training.
5. Above all - safe technique:
Of course along with all the benefits of cross-training, there come a certain amount of extra risks too. And for dancers the consequences of getting injured whilst playing a sport or performing a non-dance activity are significantly more severe than those of a casual exerciser. There's simply too much at stake, and too many hours/years of training behind you to gamble with your safety, so always prioritise safe technique with any activity, just as you would at dance. Skylar Brandt says “I take privates to have an expert set of eyes on me in order to ensure that I am training properly” - if private training sessions are a bit out of your budget, read up on your chosen activities. Planning on running regularly? - go and see a podiatrist, learn about the most common running injuries, invest in good running shoes, never skip your wamp-up/cool down, take extra time to stretch out the hip flexors and calves, always take into consideration existing areas of weakness and take preventative steps to protect your body. Brandt adds: “My only other advice for dancers that want to supplement their training with exercises is to get body work done! I am constantly going to chiropractors, acupuncturists, and massage therapists to release and relax my muscles. Without this balance of strengthening and releasing, a dancer can be more prone to injury. It's always good to be one step ahead of your body!”
Ultimately, smart training comes down to knowing your body and your own needs, strengths and weaknesses. The more self-aware you are, the better equipped you’ll be to make the right decisions for your own success. So listen to your body, try something new and enjoy reaping the rewards!
Thanks to the dancers featured in this article:
Birmingham Royal Ballet Principal Dancer Celine Gittens
and American Ballet Theatre Soloist Skylar Brandt,
as well as Dance Physiotherapist Annie Strauch from Performance Medicine
for her input on this series.
Article by Elly Ford