Dancers seeking to perform at the highest level of their art cannot afford to neglect strength and conditioning during their off-season breaks. Physical therapists and athletic trainers will recommend that dancers “cross train” during this time period, but without specific guidance from a strength and conditioning professional, dancers risk working either too hard or not hard enough. Both outcomes risk injury, and for dancers wishing to perform at an elite level, both outcomes represent missed opportunities for adding tools to their artistic toolbox.
The first mindset shift that needs to take place in the dance world is away from the idea that there is “cross training.” Athletes mostly talk about “training,” which is preparation for their chosen sport. Everything a dancer does in the gym needs to have a singular purpose: performing at the highest level possible, which gives choreographers as big of a canvas as possible on which to create. The dancer who can jump higher, maintain stability through a larger range of motion, and maintain explosiveness through Nutcracker season and beyond is the dancer whom choreographers will want to work with. “Cross training,” then isn’t enough. Dancers need to TRAIN.
Early in the off-season, emphasis should be placed on recovery, but this doesn’t mean lack of movement. What it means first is realignment, such that dancers’ bodies are able to move with good mechanics. We know that dancers have preferred legs from which to take off, for example, which will build an asymmetry in strength, mobility, and stability over the course of a season. Early in the off-season, then, a strength and conditioning coach might work to ensure that this asymmetry closes so the dancer can avoid becoming so asymmetrical that they set themselves up for injury. The aim here isn’t to erase the asymmetry—think of how asymmetrical a baseball pitcher’s scapulae positioning might be after a long season—but to at least give the dancer a fighting chance at good biomechanics during their time off. The notion that all asymmetries are bad is a misunderstanding of what it takes to perform at the highest levels of sport and movement. Every elite athlete will have asymmetries. The key is to know when to exploit them, when to mitigate them, and when to manage them.
As the off-season progresses and dancers have worked on breathing, mobility, and stability, their training intensity will increase. Weights will get heavier—no, this won’t make the women “bulky,”—and explosive movements will intensify alongside higher intensity conditioning work. Strength and conditioning coaches will carefully note the number of “foot contacts” dancers complete in their plyometric training as a means for monitoring the proper progressive overload for jumping. Mike Boyle has recommended around 100 foot contacts per week for athletes, which is a good benchmark for dancers. Again, if the dancer doesn’t jump enough in the off-season then her body won’t be prepared for the rigors of class, rehearsal, and performance. But if she jumps too often and with the wrong amount of intensity, she’ll enter the season in a fatigued state and be at heightened risk for injury.
As the season approaches, the general strength, explosiveness, and conditioning work gives way to more specific dance applications. The early off-season foundation serves as a launching point for dance performance: the stronger, better conditioned dancer is in an advantageous position to dive into advanced choreography and the most sophisticated technique. 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.
Given the relative lack of support for the arts in the United States, dancers are under pressure to make money in the off-season through teaching or side gigs. Part of their consideration ought to be finding work in an area where a dedicated strength and conditioning professional can help them train with rigor, evidence-based best practices, and attention to detail.