The more I’ve gotten to know the dance world, the more I see parallels between the pressure on aspiring professionals and up-and-coming baseball players. Both dance and baseball require joint actions that are essentially “abnormal” (dancers at the hips, and baseball players at the shoulders); at the highest levels, both require a mix of rehabilitative work and performance-enhancing strength work; and both groups of parents succumb to pressure that serves dance schools or summer baseball showcases but not necessarily the athletes themselves.
But think about a dancer’s schedule. Class. Rehearsal. Learning new choreography. Often a side hustle. Time in the physical therapy room. Dancers are often busy from very early in the morning to late into the evening. This means that you can’t afford to waste time with a random group exercise routine that has little to do with your specific needs.
Sahrmann goes on to write that she “has found that impaired control of the scapula by the serratus anterior muscle is common.” My young dancer client for right now is asymptomatic, but my job as a strength and conditioning coach is to make sure she learns how to use her serratus anterior so that we can avoid any problems before they start. Otherwise, she’ll be the dancer who complains of shoulder issues, or worse, hurts herself lifting a heavy bag above her head when she’s traveling to perform or audition.
One of the more interesting things about the ballet world in particular is how many of the misunderstandings around strength training are linked to gender-specific tropes around women. In short, the fitness industry lied to women for decades about what strength training does to a woman’s body, what set and rep ranges women should use, and what “toning” means.
Male ballet dancers aren’t much different than other athletes who must lift heavy things above their heads. They need to be strong enough to do what they do and well-coached enough to do what they do safely. Strength training offers an invaluable tool for achieving both goals simultaneously.
Too many dancers skip the general strength and conditioning phase and jump right into the dance specific work, which is in part why studies on dancers tend to show that they lack both the strength and the conditioning their activity actually demands. This is the precise recipe for injury: asking the body to do something for which we haven’t prepared it.
Our understanding of this dynamic in the sports world is nearly intuitive. If our best players are able to stay on the field longer and miss fewer games because of injury, our team has a better chance of winning. The dance world is no different, except for it relies on an approach that cares for injuries once they’ve happened (with physical therapists and athletic trainers) rather than an approach that simultaneously enhances performance and prevents injury.