Four Dancer Concerns, Corresponding Strength and Conditioning Solutions
Aesthetic — Mobility
One of the most important questions strength and conditioning coaches should ask a dancer during the initial meeting is “is there anything specific you’d like to work on based on consistent feedback?” Because so many people in the dance world still think of a strength coach as a meathead who’s going to add slabs of beef to a dancer’s body, it’s important to ask this question during the initial meeting to establish an environment in which the artist knows you’re there to enhance her performance. While there is some uniformity around what all athletes need (power, mobility, conditioning), particularly with dancers there can be wide variance with regard to the aesthetic feedback they get from teachers and choreographers. In my experience a movement-based aesthetic critique usually boils down to a need to improve functional mobility.
A dancer’s mobility needs will be different than a general population client’s or team sports athlete’s mobility needs. With those latter two populations, often the only intervention needed is full range of motion strength work, like a properly executed barbell Romanian deadlift. But dancers need comparatively more functional range of motion, so interventions like those in the Functional Range Conditioning system are a favorite of ours at Present Tense. What’s great about the FRC system is the applicability throughout the body.
Aesthetic — Body Composition
Every time this topic comes up, I feel the need to state for the record: I think classical ballet’s beauty standards are rooted in misogyny and outdated, unrealistic, and potentially dangerous standards of femininity promulgated by men and women who’ve internalized the look based on an inequitable power dynamic.
But my job is to help the person in front of me, and so I have to take it upon myself to support female dancers as they adhere to the standards they must.
Every serious ballet company ought to have a sports or dance-specific dietitian to whom dancers can turn in order to get the support they need. It’s remarkable to me that staff dietitians aren’t more prominent throughout the athletic world, but it’s particularly mind-boggling in the world of dance, where the need for specific guidance around achieving a thin body while going through the rigors of a dance season is acute. Dietitians can offer specific meal plans based on individual dancer needs.
As a strength and conditioning coach, my lane of the road is simply to offer general guidance. I can’t offer meal plans, and I certainly am not trained or qualified to offer advice around things like disordered eating. One of the things I do emphasize for dancers, athletes, and recreational strength trainers who want to develop lean bodies is that they ought to prioritize protein along with a caloric deficit (if trying to lose weight). Here again, a sports dietitian is the best and most qualified person to give specific and targeted guidance around macronutrient intake.
Power and Explosiveness
Dancers want to be able to jump higher and land safely, so we prioritize plyometric training and progressions with everyone we see. This work, in conjunction with exercises that target multiple muscle groups and joint actions simultaneously help us address this specific dancer concern—which is not at all unlike what a basketball player or volleyball player might need for their respective sports. As usual, the complicating factor for dancers is a combination of their schedule (which doesn’t really allow for adequate rest and recovery) and the amount of jumping and landing they’re doing while under pressure to stay thin.
Another aspect of this that doesn’t get talked about as much is teaching how interrelated breathing strategies are with movement. At our studio we incorporate both strength training and yoga with dancers to mutually reinforce how fundamental breath is to controlling our bodies.
Younger dancers in particular often need help learning when to breathe, when to brace, and when to use a martial arts-style exhale to produce maximum power. Counterintuitively, the work our people do on the yoga mat reinforces this connection between breath and power by installing a sense of mindfulness around breath. You can’t use breath effectively if you’re not in touch with it. That’s one of the ways we use yoga to help a dancer perform at her peak.
Strength and Injury Prevention
I think one of the reasons I follow the strength and conditioning of baseball players so closely is the extreme range of motion required of pitchers serves as a good analogical foundation for thinking about dancers. What you notice when you think about some of the similarities between baseball players and dancers is the dual need to build as much strength as possible while avoiding unnecessary loading or stress.
Upper body strength is critical for dancers of every type, and it’s critical for baseball players too. So when we think through the “best” upper body exercises in terms of strength development, the barbell bench press usually comes up fairly early in the conversation.
But does a barbell bench press make sense for a baseball pitcher?
What about a ballet dancer, particularly a male dancer who must perform overhead lifts regularly?
So we can’t define the best strength exercise for the upper body as the one in which we can develop the most absolute strength. We must weigh the risks and rewards equally—which is why we rely heavily on a movement like a landmine press. It allows simultaneously to build pressing strength (deltoids, triceps) and serratus anterior activation (shoulder health).
This same sort of analysis needs to take place for every exercise programmed for a dancer. I think everyone needs to know how to hinge properly, but if I have a young dancer who can’t hinge free from back pain with a load in her hands because of lumbar hyper-mobility, then I need to figure out a pain-free hinge that works specifically for her. (I also need to coach her through how to brace properly).
There are a lot of ways of approaching a complex set of obstacles. I’ve laid out how we go about it. If you’re interested in reading more about our approach, you can be the first to find out about our Dancer’s Guide to Strength & Conditioning, coming this Fall 2019. Go here for more information.