Connecting Subjective Performance Qualities to Training Principles
Strength coaches working with dancers have two important, but distinct jobs. The first is to ensure that the artist remains injury free during training sessions and develops the physical resilience to make it through a performance season. The second is to enhance performance and aesthetic quality. If we make dancers merely stronger without improving their art, then the work a strength coach has done with the artist should be considered a failure. But how does a strength coach enhance artistry?
It’s definitely not a direct route.
The thing that distinguishes dance from other athletic endeavors is this subjective element. It’s easy to do a study on an American football player’s bench press, 40-yard dash times, and the effectiveness of his strength training program.
Not surprisingly, researchers do try to measure artistic qualities, and in some of the most useful studies there’s an intersection between training techniques and aesthetics. One of my favorite examples is a 2007 study published in the Journal of Dance Medicine & Science that compared plyometric training with strength training regarding the benefits for aesthetic jumping ability. “Aesthetic jumping ability was assessed via an evaluation by dance faculty at Skidmore College on ballon, jump height, ability to point the feet in the air, and overall jumping ability,” according to the study.
What did they find?
[I]t can be concluded that six weeks of either plyometric or traditional weight training is effective in improving strength- and power-related variables in highly trained female collegiate dancers. Furthermore, either program can positively influence technical jumping ability in this population. Finally, six weeks of dance training alone is insufficient to improve strength, anaerobic power, and jumping ability in intermediate and advanced dancers.
Keep in mind this was an either/or study, meaning the plyometric group didn’t strength train and the strength training group didn’t engage in plyometric training. The control group relied solely on dance classes for its jumping and landing technique work.
It’s also important to point out that, while the technical parameters around jumping improved, the subjective aesthetic qualities of the jumping did not. What this tells us is fairly obvious to every strength coach who’s ever worked with athletes: our job is to provide the dancer or athlete with the tools necessary to enhance their skills, not to try to replace the dance teacher, football coach, or basketball coach. Better technical jumps allow the dance teacher a larger canvas on which to work with the dancer to create more artistry, but the higher jumps don’t by themselves improve the subjective aesthetics critical for dance.
In an ideal world, dance teachers, physical therapists, athletic trainers, and strength coaches would be working together with the singular focus around individual dancers. What can she do better? Where does he need to improve? What are the common injuries we’re seeing and how can we address that in an off-season strength and conditioning program? Each member of the dancer’s team mutually reinforces—but cannot and must not replace—the work of the others.
I mentioned above that the study used an either/or approach when it came to plyometric training and strength training. A well-rounded strength and conditioning program would include both. The plyometric training would be reserved for off-season conditioning, with an increasing intensity leading up to the performance schedule. Strength work would be done throughout the off-season as well but would be maintained through the performance schedule to help guard against late-season injury and fatigue.
When dancers build greater reserves of strength, power, aerobic, and anaerobic capacity, they simultaneously build greater potential for artistic expression. That’s what cross training should do, but it can only do that if it isn’t random. The number of off-season plyometric foot contacts. The load, intensity, and volume of in-season training. The frequency of deloads. All of these things are based on the individual needs of the dancer or athlete with ample room for adjusting on the fly based on inevitable unknown variables.