Present Tense Fitness

Dance and Sports Performance

Strength training and conditioning approaches for dancers

Big Words for Younger Dancers

A row that uses primarily biceps.

A hinge that uses quads and/or lumbar muscles.

A hip thrust that primarily uses hamstrings.

A dead bug that feels “easy.”

These are all examples of exercises that can completely miss the mark for a young dancer if the coach isn’t dialed into both good cueing and good explanation for why we’re doing what we’re doing. Sure, all of these things can come down to coaching the movements well, but if you think about a semi-private group setting in which a dancer’s lifting form might be off by just a little, it helps if the coach has explained in some degree of detail what anatomy is being targeted and why.

If we simply show a young dancer how to do a row without telling them why, then we’re at great risk for the bicep-dominant row. The dancer needs to understand concepts like scapular protraction and retraction, perhaps even with a graphic depiction from a web-based anatomy program or app to drive the idea home. I’ve seen some coaches talk about how we shouldn’t use scientific or specific anatomical vocabulary with athletes and clients, but I think this is a missed opportunity with younger dancers in particular to begin thinking about long-term athletic development. Part of that process should be developing self-efficacy, which means learning about things, what they do, and what they’re called. Sometimes scientific language is needlessly pedantic. Sometimes it’s merely the most precise way of talking about something, and that can’t be a bad thing.

Learning about one’s body is not completely dissimilar from learning a foreign language. The terminology is the vocabulary, but the movement is the context. Exposing young dancers to the vocabulary early on and repeating it through different contexts will allow them over time to internalize the vocabulary and apply it to different contexts. This is important for long-term development because not every teacher they meet, not every choreographer they work with, and not every artistic director they work for will have or use the right vocabulary to tell the dancer what they want.

So it will be up to the dancer to have a large enough anatomical vocabulary and contextual reservoir to be able to translate unclear direction. “Scapular upward rotation” might seem like fancy talk to a 13-year-old, but if you expose her to that terminology repeatedly she’ll be the dancer when she’s 18 who can better explain to an athletic trainer what she’s feeling, and thus be a better partner in her own health. Presuming she’s already developed the artistic “feel” for her body, she’ll be able to pair that subjective understanding with an objective, scientific analytical lens.

I follow a number of strength coaches on social media, and there’s a lot of talk among them about how we’re supposed to be developing “people.” But in the strength coach world, a lot of this language is dressed up with adornments like grit, and determination, and work ethic. I don’t see a lot about developing vocabulary, anatomical awareness, or empowerment around injury prevention. But these are the things committed strength coaches can help equip young athletes with over time through repetition, context, and application.

Strategies for Incorporating Scientific Language

If you’re a strength coach working with young dancers, here are some specific suggestions for teaching your students how to better understand their bodies.

  1. Always use the scientific terminology, but pair it with an explanation. “What we’re looking for here is to move your humerus, the big bone in your upper arm, to abduct, or move away from the body.” Point to the humerus as you’re using the word.

  2. Show them the muscle at work using an app or web-based program. “This is what hip flexion looks like,” I’ll say, while showing a dancer an anatomical animation. You can point out the muscles in question, which reinforces both the motion and the terminology.

  3. Simplify, but point out the caveats. Sometimes I’ll compare the knee joint with the shoulder joint to explain the tradeoffs between mobility and stability, but in so doing it can be easy to give the impression that there is no rotational aspect to the knee joint. I’ll give space for that as a quick aside. This seems like a minor point, but part of coaching and teaching young people is seizing every opportunity to develop the person in front of you over time. The point isn’t to teach them everything you know about the knee joint in a quick aside, but to take the opportunity to expose them to a concept that hopefully will be reinforced over time. That’s a piece of long-term athletic development.

Our Approach

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.