Teaching Dancers to Listen to Their Bodies

"Our bodies communicate to us clearly and specifically, if we are willing to listen to them." - Shakti Gawain

      The most important gift anyone can give dancers is to teach them how to listen to their bodies.  Daily, dancers enter the studio aiming to get their legs a little higher, their feet to arch a little more, their bodies to move a little quicker and their range of motion to increase.  These dancers go home a little sorer and often refer to this soreness as “good pain”.   This “good pain” is not truly pain but more of a dull ache that occurs when we push our muscles a little harder.

            When we exercise, slight tears occur in our muscle tissue.  The body’s automatic response to these tears is to send extra protein and white blood cells to the damaged areas to “clean up the mess” and begin repairing the tissue.  When these extra fluids accumulate in the muscle tissue, they produce a slight swelling which presses on nerve endings and causes soreness.  Soreness is encountered by all athletes, is unavoidable and an expected part of the training process.  The sharp pain (or “bad pain”) produced by an injury is not.

            It is important that dancers be able to recognize the difference between these two sensations and report an injury as soon as it occurs.  Dancers often try to dance through the pain, believe it can be worked out with more dancing or do not acknowledge the pain.  In a study published in 1995, researchers found that professional ballet dancers had a significantly higher pain threshold (point at which it starts to hurt) than their peers.  The dancers also reported the pain becoming intolerable at higher intensity levels than their peers.  These findings indicate that dancers will normally react to pain later and may take longer to report an injury than the average person.  If dancers delay reporting an injury further due to concerns about losing roles or because they refuse to acknowledge the pain, injuries can grow more serious and have the potential to become chronic conditions.

            Pain is the body’s way of alerting us to a problem and needs to be acknowledged.  Injuries that are cared for when they first occur will heal quicker, cause minimal disruption in training and are less likely to affect the dancer at a later time.

            The body’s alarm system is built right in.  We need to make sure that our dancers don’t ignore it because the consequences of that action can affect them the rest of their lives.

Using Periodization Training in the Dance Studio

“It takes an athlete to be a dancer…” – Shanna La Fleur

            Last week’s post explored the reported lack of fitness among dancers and the idea of implementing a periodized training program.  This week’s post will offer a plan for using periodization training and improving dance fitness within the dance studio.  The following model is based upon a 14-week semester that leads into a 2-4 week performance period.

            As the dancers begin the semester, the main goal should be gradual conditioning.  The focus should be on re-establishing alignment, balance and coordination and reinforcing movement patterns, or neural pathways.  It is best to do many short, low-intensity combinations both at the barre and in the center to re-introduce basic movement patterns and gradually ease the body into technique class. During this preparation phase of 4 weeks, time can also be spent incorporating Pilate’s exercises, theraband exercises and/or weights for conditioning and yoga stretches for increasing flexibility and range of motion.  

            Before transitioning into the building/strengthening phase, classes should have a one-week “resting” period.  This week keeps overtraining from occurring and allows for muscle recovery and a mental break.  Weeks of “rest” do not require that all technique classes be cancelled and the dancers remain idle.  These weeks can be used as opportunities to replace one or two technique classes (while other classes continue normally) with lectures on injury prevention/care, nutrition, or anatomy; muscular balance evaluations; video viewing of dance companies; choreography classes or classes that provide the dancers with historical information about their art form.

            The next phase should last about 5 weeks and focus on dance specific skills and strength building.  As the class transitions into this building and strengthening phase, Pilates, theraband and yoga exercises can continue but should become more dance specific.  In the preparation phase, therabands could be used for general strengthening exercises, but during this phase, therabands might be used in tendu or temps lie exercises.  As this phase progresses, class should consist of fewer combinations that grow longer and increase in intensity.  Positions can be held longer, adagio combinations can be slower and the class should grow more demanding.  Barre combinations can be completed on both sides before stopping, and center combinations can be added onto each week and developed into much longer combinations that emphasize stamina and endurance.  The class should consist of mostly dancing, with few if any breaks for comments and corrections.  At the end of this phase, dancers should display increased endurance, and their bodies should be performing at peak levels.

            A second week of “rest” should follow the building phase before the dancers transition into the performance phase.

            The performance phase can also be called the maintenance phase because its goal is to keep the dancers performing at peak levels without overtaxing their bodies.  The combinations should still be intense and demanding, but the number and length of combinations can decrease.

            Before a performance, dancers should taper just as athletes would do before a competition.  This taper, which should begin 3-6 days before a performance, allows the body to replenish its energy stores, go through a period of cellular and neural recovery and actually increase the strength and power that can be produced at a performance.  The taper should include 30 minute warm-up classes followed by rehearsals of small parts of performance pieces that may need extra attention.  These small portions should be rehearsed intensely to keep fitness levels at their peak.

            This training model allows for improving dancer fitness, increasing body performance and developing well-rounded dancers who have a better understanding of both their art form and how their bodies work.

Periodization Training in Dance?

“Dancers are the athletes of God.” – Albert Einstein

            Studies done on dancers have found that their overall fitness levels are equal to those of their sedentary peers.  Since dance classes are filled with short intervals of movement followed by rest periods, they do little to train dancers aerobically.  Heart rate and oxygen levels required during rehearsals and performances are higher than the levels ever achieved in dance classes.  These findings indicate that the current levels of training do not adequately prepare dancers for the levels of fitness expected during a performance.

            A study published in the January 2010, issue of The Journal of Dance Medicine and Science found that low levels of aerobic fitness were associated with higher numbers of injuries, and 85% of the professional ballet dancers that were studied were injured during a 12-month period.

            All of these findings indicate that dancers can benefit from a periodized training approach to dance.

            Periodization is a program design that has been used in sports and strength training since it was introduced in the 1960’s by Russian physiologist, Leo Matveyev.  The goals of periodized training are to improve overall fitness; to gradually prepare the body; to strengthen the body and maintain muscular strength, flexibility and skill levels throughout the competitive season; and to avoid overtraining syndrome.  Overtraining is when an excessive amount of training and/or frequent training sessions result in fatigue.  The fatigue leads to overtraining syndrome, which is a decline in performance due to overwork.  After overtraining occurs and performance levels decrease, it is harder for the body to return to the previous peak level of fitness.

            Periodization divides the year or semester into three different phases, or mesocycles, that consist of the preparation phase, the building and strengthening phase and the performance phase.

         The preparation phase comes at the beginning of the semester when the dancers are returning from a vacation and need to gradually ease their bodies back into class.  Exercises during this period should be of a low intensity.  During the building phase, dancers should work on increasing strength, developing skills and increasing intensity.  At the end of this phase, the dancers should be at their peak strength and power levels.  The goal of the performance phase is to maintain these peak levels of strength and power without overtaxing the muscles.

            It is also important to work in breaks between each phase to allow the body to rest.  These rest periods allow for cellular and neural recovery and a mental break from activity.  The rest periods are imperative to avoid overtraining.

            Next week’s post will explore how to put these phases to practical use in the dance studio and how to improve dancer fitness.

Correction: Insult or Compliment?

“If you do not hear the advice,  corrections and words of your guide, it makes no difference how great the teacher.  You will never dance.”  - Author Unknown

        Dance is a bit of an enigma:  it is taught in a class setting and, yet, it is an individual sport.  Each person learns differently and every movement needs to be adapted to accommodate each individual body.
            Dancers learn the combinations, run through them in their heads and execute them as a class.  The teacher will quite often give group corrections, but because of the individuality of dance, it is also necessary to give individual corrections.  Today’s dance students often express feelings of defeat and discouragement when a teacher corrects them, yet they should be feeling quite the opposite way.
        Dance students need to realize that it is a very high compliment to be corrected.  A correction means that a teacher has noticed you, has seen potential in you and is willing to take the time to help you improve your dancing.
            Often students are asked to demonstrate a combination, and the teacher will make corrections as classmates look on.  The dance teacher has no other way to concretely describe the correct way to execute an exercise than to use a student as a visual aid.  Corrections in dance class are necessary and are never meant to humiliate students or injure self-esteem.  No teacher who loves his or her work and students would have that as a goal.
            A correction should instead make the student proud that he or she has attracted the teacher’s attention and is worthy of the time it takes to give a correction.  Those who are asked to demonstrate should be excited.  Not only have they been chosen to assist the teacher in conveying the correction, they have also been given the opportunity to try the correction while having the teacher’s full attention.
            Corrections should be taken to heart, they should be cherished as bits of wisdom that can improve technique, and they should always be received with a gracious smile and a sincere “Thank you.”