Between Preparedness and Expectations
The almost constant push and pull of regulating stress versus maintaining fitness levels is the most difficult job a strength coach to dancers can have. Adding to the complexity is the variety of roles that dancers might have during a given season, which is somewhat unlike team sport athletes who aren’t as likely to switch from an interior offensive lineman to, say, and outside skill position. Dancers might find themselves in the position of a challenging solo for one choreographer, only to “recede” into the background for another performance or choreographer. These different stage experiences will require different levels of cardiovascular fitness.
Our approach is to try to prepare every dancer we see as if they are principals or soloists, which means an emphasis on interval training that tracks with the demands of high intensity performances. A dancer who is not a principal or soloist but is prepared for the rigors of solo or principal work increases their chances of them getting chosen to perform more explosive choreography.
But once the season begins and the time and energy demands on all of the dancers skyrocket, the strength coach must balance stress with fitness. We spend a lot of time gauging how individual dancers feel day-to-day, opting to skip the finisher high intensity interval training if we agree that energy is too low after a long day of rehearsal and class. However, if we’ve done the right amount of off-season conditioning, then all of the dancers in our care will head into the rigors of performance season ready to tackle whatever an artistic director might demand.
One approach team strength coaches take from which we’ll borrow once performances start is to ramp up conditioning work again about halfway through the season. This is right about the time when the cumulative demands on dancers can start to take a toll and conditioning can begin to wane. What we’re trying to constantly do is maintain a gap between the preparedness of the dancer and the demands on the dancer. If we were to prepare dancers simply to make it through class, then when it came time to perform they would be more likely to suffer an injury. But if we can challenge their conditioning such that the choreography feels physically “easy” in comparison, then we’ve done our job—but only if we haven’t put too much stress on the performer.
I find it relatively easier to write longer term strength plans for dancers than it is to draw out cardiovascular fitness plans. Guest choreographers, for example, can bring surprising demands. We know we need to make dancers strong, but the extent to which any given dancer needs to be able to dance hard for a given amount of time will vary from piece-to-piece. So we try to make sure everyone has reserves, then once the season starts we ask a lot of questions and engage in as much art as science. This type of approach requires a good, trusting relationship between dancer and coach, and even though it’s harder than choosing a cookie-cutter program off-the-shelf I think the individualization ultimately yields better results and more durable bodies.
Setting up your intervals
If you’re a dancer reading this, you likely are gearing up for performance season, so I wouldn’t advocate you doing this amount of work right now. But here’s a seasonal approach at looking at interval training.
The priority here is rest and recovery, but don’t stop moving intentionally. In those first few weeks after the performance season, think about taking walks outside with the intention of exercising. (In other words, a meandering walk with your new puppy doesn’t cut it.) If you’re dealing with a hip issue, then consider a machine-based cardio workout that doesn’t irritate the joint. This is the time for your longer, slower cardio. Maybe twenty to thirty minutes at a good pace. The point here isn’t so much “getting in shape,” but recovery. Movement aids that process.
We like HIIT-style bikes at our studio because it is the easiest way to get people’s heart rates going quickly. We’ll start dancers off with as few as three :10/:20 intervals, with 10 seconds of work and 20 seconds of rest. As the off-season progresses, we’ll work up to 10 :10/:20 intervals on that bike.
Classes and rehearsals are back in session, and the demands on a dancer’s body have begun to skyrocket. This is a bit of a “play it by ear” phase. I’ll ask dancers a lot of questions during the session to gauge their fatigue level. Some days of class, for example, are really taxing. So as long as the dancer and I feel that they have the motor to do what they need to do, we will begin dialing back interval work at this point. Strength work continues—and keep in mind that the strength work itself will give some measure of cardiovascular fitness, particularly with supersets and dense sessions.
We’ll slowly find ways to build in some high intensity intervals, but with less volume than we might have achieved during the peak of the off-season. One good working example might be two to five sets of :10/:20 intervals.
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.