by Jan Dunn, MS
You’re a dancer. You spend hours every day taking class / rehearsing / performing – so you must be in great physical shape, perfectly conditioned to withstand the demands of your chosen profession – right ??? Don’t be too sure – that may not be the case! Dancers are not always as “fit” as they think they are, in regard to this important aspect of their training.
“Conditioning” means to be physically fit, in certain defined ways (read on!), so that your body can safely perform the physical demands you ask of it, with the least risk of possible injury. Dance is one of the most physically demanding activities a person can do. A famous study at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York (1975) compared all forms of sports, including dance, in terms of the athletes’ physical fitness capacities. Ballet, boxing, and hockey were ranked at the top, in terms of requiring high levels of strength, endurance, flexibility, cardiovascular fitness, and other measures of fitness. Understanding what this means for you personally is crucial to your well being and LONGEVITY as a dancer !
There have been a number of books written especially for dancers (listed at the end of the article) specifically about fitness for dance, so clearly there is a lot of researched information out there. Today we’ll just touch on the basics, and if you’re interested, I encourage you to find out more on your own.
What ARE the aspects of conditioning that we need to understand? The list below tells us, and it’s important to know that ALL are equally important for a well-trained body (these are not listed in any order of importance):
1. Strength: This is defined as the ability to lift an object (body, body part, or prop) as high, as many times, and as fast as necessary. An official scientific definition is “the ability to overcome external resistance (gravity or another outside force) by using muscles”. It’s actually three related capacities – muscular strength, muscular endurance, and power.
2. Alignment: Sometimes called “placement” in dance, good alignment means the ability to align the skeleton for maximum movement efficiency (“movement efficiency” is when we are using only the muscles needed for the particular task). It reduces the stress in our joints and muscles, and makes for beautiful, clear movement, and a long lifetime of healthy dancing. We’ve talked about alignment before in this column, as being critical in helping to lower the risk of dance injuries.
3. Neuromuscular Coordination: This is the ability of our Central Nervous System (CNS) to successfully execute the complex movements we need to be able to do in our dance life.
4. Flexibility: We all know what this is!! In scientific terms, being flexible means the ability to move through a Range of Movement (ROM) without restriction. Each joint has an “end range” – i.e, as far as it will go structurally.
5. Cardio-respiratory Endurance: Also called aerobic endurance, this is the ability of our heart / lungs to fuel muscular activity over time, delivering large amounts of oxygen to our muscles. It’s important to realize that most dance is NOT aerobic, because it is usually stop-and-start. An activity must last continually at least 20 minutes, done at least 3x a week, to be defined as aerobic.
6. Relax: Your first thought here is most likely “what does THAT have to do with being physically fit?” But it is just crucial as the others mentioned above. The ability to release unnecessary muscular tension is critical for beautiful efficient movement. Like the other aspects of conditioning in this list, it can be learned and incorporated into dance education. Somatic (mind / body) training techniques can be especially helpful for dancers, in learning how to create efficient movement without unnecessary tension. These include Franklin Method, Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais Method, among others.
Ok, so now we understand what “conditioning” actually means, and what the different aspects of it are that we need to pay attention to. There are five basic principles of conditioning, and these are:
1. Accommodation: Also called “adaptation”, this simply means challenging the body’s capacities to increase them. We do this in class / rehearsal all the time, pushing ourselves to go beyond what is comfortable.
2. Specificity: This is pretty obvious for dancers, and other athletes as well. You have to make the challenge (the adaptation, in #1 above) match what you want to increase / improve. In other words, you have to train very specifically for what you want. So doing releves over and over will improve your leg strength, but will not affect your arms!
3. Progressive Overload: We’ve already said that challenging your body increases it’s capacities. But HOW you challenge it is important, and that’s where progressive overload comes in. This means that what you want to improve will happen fastest when you increase the challenge little by little, or progressively. In other words, if you want to increase the ability to jump higher (muscular strength) and longer (muscular endurance), you don’t do 10 jumps the first day and 30 the next…..you build up gradually, for the fastest improvement and least amount of risk.
4. Reversibility: This is the “use it or lose it” principle. When we stop working, we quickly lose our conditioning aspects, i.e, we “de-condition”. You have to keep using the physical capacities you want to keep. De-conditioning happens quickly, and returning gradually to dance after a break with illness / vacation is crucial. In general, however long you are away from dance, it will take you that long to build back up to your previous levels. So if you’re off completely for a week (no dance at all) don’t jump back into 5 hours of dance the first day back!
5. Compensation: This is when our body compensates with bad habits / movements, often because we haven’t followed the progressive overload principle —i.e, we’ve done too much too soon, and we’re working beyond our current abilities. Making sure you keep efficient alignment and correct execution of your dance movement is key to avoiding compensation.
Now we know the various scientific aspects and principles of conditioning. In finishing up this discussion, I’m going to mention one last very important point:
-Dance class alone does not provide complete physical conditioning, as defined above. There is a good deal of research on this. Dancers who have the lowest injury rates know that OUTSIDE conditioning —i.e, outside of dance class – is crucial to helping them keep dancing safely. There are SO many things a dancer can do in this category— Pilates, Gyrotonics, Franklin, swimming (for aerobic), etc. In next month’s article, we’ll look at some of them in more detail.
So now you know how important conditioning is, especially outside of dance class. If you want to learn more, the books below are some of the ones written specifically for dancers on this topic. I hope that by the time I “see” you again next month, you will have taken up some form of conditioning in your dance life (if you aren’t already doing it!!)
-Conditioning for Dancers: Training for peak performance in all dance forms. Eric Franklin (Human Kinetics – 2004)
–Conditioning with Imagery for Dancers. Donna Krasnow and Jordana Deveau (Thompson Educational Publishing – 2011)
–Conditioning for Dancers. Tom Welsh (University Press of Florida – 2009)
–The Fit and Healthy Dancer. Yiannis Koutedakis and N.C. Craig Sharp
(Wiley-Blackwell – 1999)
BIO: Contributor Jan Dunn is a dance medicine specialist currently based in Denver / Boulder, CO, and Los Angeles, CA. She is Co-Director of Denver Dance Medicine Associates, a Pilates rehabilitation specialist, Franklin Method Educator II, and Adjunct Professor, University of Colorado – Boulder, Dept. of Theatre and Dance. She has been active in Dance Medicine since 1984. She was previously Coordinator of The Dance Wellness Lab, Dept. of Theater & Dance, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, CA (2005 –2008).
Her BS / MS degrees are in Dance Science from The University of West Florida, and she was a doctoral candidate in Movement Science / Dance, Florida State University. She was on the original Board of Directors of IADMS (International Asso. for Dance Medicine and Science) 1991-1993, served as President 1993-1997, as Executive Director 1997-2001, and again on the BOD 2003-2009, as well as on the Education Committee. She served as organizer and Co-Chair, International Dance Medicine Conference, Taiwan 2004, sponsored by Polestar Pilates Education, and was founding chair of the National Dance Association’s (USA) Committee on Dance Science and Medicine, 1989-1993.
She has held dance faculty positions at Colorado College, Connecticut College, Academy of Colorado Ballet, School of the Hartford Ballet, Florida State University, Washington University (St. Louis), and Pensacola Junior College (Director, Dance Degree Program). Jan was Associate Dean / Workshop Coordinator at the American Dance Festival (Durham, NC) 1983 – 1991.
Her Pilates training includes: Pilates rehabilitation certification from St. Francis Memorial Hospital (San Francisco) 1992; Polestar Pilates Rehabilitation Courses 1996-1999; and courses with Pilates master trainers. She has established and directed Pilates rehabilitation programs for physical therapy clinics (4) in Connecticut and Colorado (1992-2004), and was co-owner of 30th Street Pilates in Boulder, CO (2002-2005). Jan is certified in the Franklin Method, Levels I-II (2004-2007), and is currently conducting research in the Franklin Method at Loyola Marymount University (Los Angeles).
She originated The Dance Medicine/Science Resource Guide; and was co-founder of the Journal of Dance Medicine & Science. She has taught dance medicine, Pilates, and Franklin workshops for medical / dance and academic institutions in the USA / Europe / Middle East / and Asia, authored numerous articles in the field, served as editor for Dance Science issues of various journals, and presented at many national and international conferences.