by Jan Dunn, MS
Last month we talked about what ”conditioning” means for a dancer, and why working on this important aspect of your dance life outside of class is so important. This month and next, I’ll give you some specific information on what forms of conditioning you might consider incorporating — if you aren’t already doing so!
Let’s start today with Pilates, something with which many dancers are already familiar.
Pilates has been in the dance world a long time, so most dancers have at least heard of it, even if they’ve not had personal experience. It is of course now very much part of today’s fitness world (and rehab) as well, but that’s only happened in the last 20 years.
Joe Pilates was German-born, always interested in the body / exercise / helping people, and began developing his system during WWI, while living in Britain. He began working with injured soldiers, initially with floor exercises (“mat work”), and later using the springs on the beds as resistance (which evolved into the Reformer).
Joe immigrated to the USA in the 1920’s, settled in NYC, and with his wife Clara, set up a gym to begin teaching his developing work. During the 1930’s, his gym and the fledgling New York City Ballet were located in the same building, and dancers from the company began working with him. Joe himself was never a dancer, but that’s how the work came to be integrated into the dance community. Many dancers in the NYC area worked with Joe over the years, as they could see how much it benefited and helped their bodies and dance life.
Pilates exercise (originally called “Contrology”) remained primarily in the NYC area for many years, until several of Joe’s dancer students who had trained with him moved to other parts of the country, and began teaching on their own. This first generation of teachers, now called “The Elders”, include people like Ron Fletcher, who recently passed away at the age of 90, and studied in NYC with Martha Graham. He moved to CA, opening a studio in Beverly Hills which catered to movie stars, and helped to popularize and spread Pilates on the West Coast.
There was also Eve Gentry, who studied and danced in NYC for many years, and was in Hanya Holm’s company. She settled in Sante Fe, NM, in the 1960’s, and began teaching both Pilates and dance. Over the years she produced many teachers of the next generation, who, like Fletcher’s students, helped the spread of Pilates all across the country.
There were other dancers among that first generation who became teachers, and slowly Pilates became known in other parts of the country. Today, almost 100 years since Joe first started developing his system during WWI, the work is taught and used world-wide, not only in dance, but in medicine / sports / fitness / geriatrics, etc.
Pilates work focuses on “core strength” (also called “core control”). This involves using the deep internal muscles of the abdomen, back, and pelvic floor, enabling them to become strong and work as they were designed to do – to stabilize the torso / reduce pressure on the back (vertebrae and disks) / and to allow movement that is free and efficient. (This is what teachers means when they say to you “Find your center”!)
There are six essential concepts that are an important part of Pilates work:
-Centering: bringing your attention to the body’s “powerhouse” –the area between the ribs and the pubic bone –i.e, the “core”, or “center” in dance terms.
-Control: All exercises are done with complete control and attention to all parts of the body, not just the main part that is doing the work (also just like in dance!).
-Precision: In every movement, alignment and good body use are emphasized, through the entire body (does this sound familiar?!).
-Breath: Coordinating the breath with the movement.
-Flow: Every movement is done is a flowing manner, with grace / fluidity, and ease (again, sounding familiar?!).
-Concentration: Bringing your full attention to the movement, so that you get the maximum benefit from it.
You can probably see why Pilates appeals to so many dancers – it uses the same principles we apply daily in class and rehearsal. Dancers also love it because it produces long, lean muscles – not bulked-up ones, which other conditioning forms often may give you.
Pilates uses both mat (floor) work and equipment work:
The mat work involves just you and gravity – using your body’s own weight for resistance against gravity. It’s also sometimes done at more advanced levels using toys or props, such as a foam roller, discs, etc.
As I mentioned above, Joe developed the main piece of Pilates equipment, the Reformer, from the hospital beds he worked with –and it still looks much like a bed! In addition to the reformer, there is:
-The Cadillac, in current terms often called the Trapeze Table
-The Ladder Barrel, and Step Barrel
A word of caution on starting Pilates:
If you have any kind of injury / problem area with your body, and especially with back issues, it’s always best to NOT start with mat, but with equipment. The equipment can be configured to give you assistance, as well as resistance, and with an injury or back issue, this is often what you first need. If you are in that situation, always be sure that your instructor knows you have a problem area, and that they are trained to work in rehab. Some Pilates instructors have primarily training which is aimed more for fitness clients, not those with significant body issues.
Speaking of instructors: Always feel comfortable asking someone’s background / certification, etc. Look for a trainer who is / has been a dancer, as he or she will be able to give you more dance-oriented movement in Pilates than someone who does not have background.
If you’re interested in becoming an instructor…….
Many dancers become Pilates instructors, and those of us who chose to do so usually make excellent instructors. This is because we are / have been movers ourselves, and if we are also dance teachers, we have developed “the eye”, and can clearly see good alignment in the body. Our dance / teaching background means we already have experience in helping people learn movement in their bodies.
There are many training programs for becoming a Pilates instructor, and if you’re interested in doing that someday, it’s always good to do your research / compare programs, etc. The Pilates Method Alliance is a world-wide organization which offers suggestions / guidance on this, so check out their website.
Next— on to Gyrotonics ! 🙂
BIO: Editor Jan Dunnis a dance medicine specialist currently based on the island of Kauai, Hawaii, where she is affiliated with Pilates Kauai. She is also a Pilates rehabilitation specialist and Franklin Educator.
Originally a dancer / choreographer, she became university dance faculty, most recently as Adjunct Faculty, University of Colorado Dept. of Theatre and Dance. Her 28 year background in dance medicine includes 23 years with the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science (IADMS) – as Board member / President / Executive Director – founding Denver Dance Medicine Associates, and establishing two university Dance Wellness Programs.
Jan served as organizer and Co-Chair, International Dance Medicine Conference, Taiwan 2004, and was founding chair of the National Dance Association’s (USA) Committee on Dance Science and Medicine, 1989-1993. 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, and presented at many national and international conferences.