Present Tense Fitness

Dance and Sports Performance

Strength training and conditioning approaches for dancers

Dancer Muscle and Job Security

I began my training career in New York City, which is an experience I’ve been calling upon a lot lately as we focus our practice on the dance community.

My very first client asked to speak with me before one of our sessions, so I arrived early for our already early 5:30 AM training. She had a deeply troubled look on her face. She had spent the weekend in the Hamptons, and a person had complimented her on her arms, saying something along the lines of “you must work out!”

I didn’t yet understand what was going on. So I said something along the lines of “that’s great!”

“No,” she said, “you don’t understand. I don’t want to look like I work out.”

That’s how I began my personal training career. I didn’t know enough at the time to serve her well or even have the right kind of coaching moment with her. Later that same year I would train high fashion models who would tell me “if you put any visible muscle on me, I will get fired.” The number of female clients I trained in New York who had this very specific concern was my introduction to personal training. To say these were formative experiences would be a drastic understatement. These experiences shaped who I am and they immediately forced me to learn more about women, body image, and patriarchy. (As an educated human, I should have read and thought about these things anyway, but I’m thankful that my work has pushed me to be a better man.)

Now that I’ve transitioned into more of a sports performance and strength coach mindset, it can be easier for me to tell athletes what I need them to do in order to help them perform at a very high level. Athletes in most team sports, for example, aren’t as concerned about putting on visible muscle. The volleyball player just needs to be able to jump high, land with stability, and exert power through her shoulders on a serve.

But what about the dancer? In 2019 we still have artistic directors telling dancers to avoid “getting bulky,” which is another way of saying “if you put on visible muscle, you will be fired.”

Dancers are told they need to be skinny. They’re told they need to cross train. They’re told they need to do Pilates. They’re told they need to be in good condition. They’re told they need to be strong. But they’re not told how to do so many of these things in a healthy way. When we first started down this road of helping dancers, we were told that dancers “already had the help they needed.” But we knew this to be a lie—because we had taken the time to do the research and to talk to dancers.

Dancers are on their own. It’s infuriating to see the impossible standards to which especially female dancers have to live up while not having the commensurate support to help them get there.

Well-rounded strength training for ballet dancers in particular is a delicate balancing act. When a female dancer tells me she will be fired if we make her too muscular, it’s not my job to change dance culture on her behalf. It’s my job to help the woman in front of me live up to these impossible standards while keeping her as safe as possible, both in the near term while her career is still active and for decades after, when she might be a mother or a grandmother or an active octogenarian. My job as her coach is to see the entire person in front of me while helping her navigate those body image and aesthetic waters safely.

We spend so much time thinking about all of this. And we don’t claim to have it all figured out. I’m sure in five years we will look back and say “we shouldn’t have included that in our programming.” But this specific balance of developing strength without hypertrophy, stability without compromising mobility, better all around athleticism without sacrificing aesthetics is our job.

We need more strength coaches thinking specifically about dancers, but those who are interested must understand the skepticism with which they will be met. When they promise to make dancers stronger, they will have to understand that dancers have legitimate job security fears around aesthetics and that so much of their job will be around constantly monitoring and adapting programming to find the sweet spot between explosive athletic performance and maintaining the (at times, problematic) aesthetic required of the chosen art form.

Like what you’re reading? Be the first to find out about our Dancer’s Guide to Strength & Conditioning, coming this Fall 2019. Go here for more information.