Dancers’ leaps, turns, and lifts can seemingly defy laws of physics. In order to jump higher and turn faster, dancers must implement cross-training for strength and endurance. Dancers from around the world have faced new challenges practicing at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, more than ever, it is important for dancers to pursue physical fitness outside of traditional dance class to ultimately improve their technical abilities for when they hit the stage in the future.
1. Dancers Are Athletes
All genres of dance require explosiveness and stamina while maintaining strict aesthetic technique and musical precision. For these reasons, dancers are considered “performing athletes.” However, studies done on professional dancers have shown decreased cardiovascular values compared to many different athletes of the same age, including swimmers, soccer players, and gymnasts.
Although choreography and styles vary constantly within a dance company, dancers need to have physical strength (muscle power and endurance), and cardiorespiratory fitness (aerobic and anaerobic capabilities). Not to mention, decreased levels of physical fitness have been correlated with high levels of injuries. Supplementary strength and cardio exercise could delay onset of fatigue and thus decrease rate of injury with fatigue. If we can prevent injury with improved physical fitness, we can also save dancers’ bodies and companies’ money by reducing the need for medical intervention.
2. Demands of Class and Performance Are Not Equal
Dancers are used to long hours in the studio in class and rehearsals. However, research is proving that dancers are not at the appropriate fitness level by the time they perform. One major issue is that dance classes in the studio do not solely improve strength or cardiovascular fitness. While dance performance can be high-intensity, dance class and rehearsal may not adequately challenge the body’s energy systems to the level of dance performance. For example, one study found that during performances, dancers spent many more minutes at a heart rate above 160 beats-per-minute compared to class.
Studies have consistently shown that dance classes with rest periods do not support the cardiovascular demands to increase a dancer’s fitness. Center floor exercises are more demanding in short spurts, and they are usually followed with long rest periods after each combination. After the choreographer has created the work, rehearsals do begin to push dancers’ cardiorespiratory limits. However, this is usually just before performances and may be too late in the process to change physical adaptations.
While daily technique class does improve movement quality, there are ways to utilize class to improve strength and cardiorespiratory fitness. A few suggestions include a higher intensity warm-up and increasing repetitions and movement combinations with short rest periods.
3. What is Cardiorespiratory Fitness?
Cardiorespiratory fitness is a low to moderately-intense activity over an extended period of time, essentially, anaerobic exercise. Alternately, the body uses the anaerobic system which provides the body with a massive surge of power over a few seconds, or high power maintained for 30-60 seconds. The anaerobic system is being used with one big leap across the stage, or sequence of fast-moving break dancing. Both, aerobic and anaerobic power systems are important for dancers.
Even though dance movement is usually characterized by intermittent, high-intensity (or anaerobic) exercise, it is ideal for dancers to develop cardiorespiratory fitness through aerobic activities. A performer with good cardiorespiratory fitness, especially good aerobic capacity, will recover faster between intervals of exercise. The better the aerobic system is working, the less the anaerobic system has to kick in at high intensities. This means, a dancer can be less fatigued with harder work.
4. The Importance of Strength
Dancers need to constantly improve strength for many reasons. One reason is that innovative choreography is pushing the boundaries on partner lifts, leg extension height, and the use of heavy props. Another key reason is improved strength prevents injury. Studies on ballet dancers found that the lower the dancers’ thigh strength levels, the greater the degree of injury.
Strength also improves dancers’ bone health. One study on intermediate and advanced dancers showed that those that simply maintained their typical dance classes for six weeks did not see a change in strength or power, while those that supplemented with a strength program did test stronger. Thus dancers need to add more supplemental strengthening into their weekly schedule.
5. Begin a Cross-Training Routine at Home
As you can see, it is not a matter of if, but rather how to incorporate fitness into dance practicum. Any person’s fitness program should be planned based on their starting level of activity and ultimate goals. It is important to note that the below training recommendations are geared more towards pre-professional and professional dancers as novice and adolescent students are still more focused on technique than performance. While there is no perfect fitness routine, we can use research and our exercise physiology knowledge to establish some good outlines.
At Athletico, our Performing Arts Physical Therapists can help dancers reach their goals by first assessing the dancer’s strength and endurance levels and treating any acute or chronic injuries. Our specialized Physical Therapists are skilled in developing a strength and conditioning program to get dancers to their full performance capabilities. After all “an efficient and able body supports greater freedom for artistic expression.”