What is the best way to train dancers?

In 2011 the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science (IADMS) published an article titled “Dance Fitness”. The whole thing is worth the 10 minute read and can be found here: http://www.iadms.org/page/303. The article leads with the following paragraph:

“The formal dance class has long been considered the cornerstone of training, providing all the technical, physical and aesthetic requirements of dance. In recent years a considerable amount of research has been carried out regarding the health of dancers. Findings from this research indicate that many dancers are not as fit and healthy as they could be. It has also been found that there is a discrepancy in the physical intensity level between training, rehearsal, and performance. This means that training methods, which are generally based on tradition, are not sufficient to help prepare dancers for the higher, more physically demanding aspects of performance. In light of these studies, and with increased understanding of the artistic and athletic needs of dancers in different genres, it is no longer acceptable to train dancers without preparing them physiologically for the demands of current choreographic work.”

The rest of the article list areas of physical fitness critical to dancers—aerobic fitness, anaerobic fitness, muscle endurance, strength, power, flexibility, neuromuscular coordination, body composition, and rest—as well as suggestions for improvement. However, the article falls short in stating which area is important above the others and even less so in providing an actionable training program. This post aims to address those two failings.

First, it is necessary to define each of the areas of physical fitness mentioned in terms of its function within dance. Aerobic fitness refers to the metabolic ability to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP). This chemical process is explained in detail elsewhere (search Krebs Cycle and Electron Transport), but the short of it is that fatty acids and oxygen are used to replace the ATP stored within muscles that have been exhausted or create ATP directly for muscle contraction during elevated physical activity that last longer than a few minutes. For physical activity that is less than a few minutes’ duration, the body primarily uses anaerobic metabolism to produce ATP. Literally meaning “without oxygen”, the anaerobic process breaks down glucose (sugar) into pyruvate which can then be turned into ATP, again either to replace the ATP stored in the muscle or be used for contraction. Dance lives primarily in the anaerobic regime, where bouts of intense physical activity rarely last more than 3-5 minutes.

Muscular endurance is the ability to produce many consecutive contractions and, though related, should not be confused with cardiovascular endurance which is the ability to sustain an elevated heart rate. Another way to think of muscular endurance is a tolerance of the pain, discomfort, or “burning” sensation manifested in dance through repetitive movements or held gestures/posture. Muscular endurance then is dependent on the body’s ability to quickly produce the ATP needed for contraction via aerobic/anaerobic metabolism.

Strength is the muscle’s ability to produce force against an external resistance and is proportional to the size of the muscle and the contractile efficiency of its fibers. Thus, dancers with bigger and more efficient muscles are stronger. Strength may be measured and/or displayed in the absolute by moving an object (prop or other dancer), or relatively through the dancer moving their own body. Absolute strength can only increase by increasing the size or efficiency of a muscle, while relative strength increases with absolute strength or by decreasing body weight.

Power is the ability to display strength quickly or the speed with which a muscle completes its contraction. Power increases with the muscle’s absolute strength or by contracting faster. Typical displays of power in dance include jumps/leaps, trick steps, and lifts/throws.

Flexibility is a description of the range of motion of a joint or series of joints, which are comprised of muscles, bones, and various types of connective tissue. A joint’s range of motion is affected by a myriad of factors not limited to genetics, nutrition, pain tolerance, age, and even the weather. Hypermobility or extreme range of motion is sought after in some dance genres such as ballet, but not all.

Neuromuscular coordination is a catch-all term for a variety of abilities that requires training and practice to master, such as balance and motor technique. Dance requires significant neuromuscular coordination, especially as the movement becomes more complex and aesthetic ideals more stringent.

Body composition is most commonly thought of in terms of body fat percentage or Body Mass Index (BMI); literally, some percentage of the body is made of fat molecules and the rest of it is something else. BMI is primarily dependent on nutrition, but physical activity, genetics, age, and hormones all play a role, as well. While high or low extremes in this percentage can be problematic, low BMI is typical for aesthetic rather than functional purposes.

Rest is a period of inactivity, both during physical activities and in between them, and is critical to the process of recovery and adaptation to the stress of said activity. In addition to rest, recovery also requires adequate nutrition and sleep. Dancers are notorious for not resting, not eating, and not sleeping enough.

Which of these areas of fitness is important above the others? It is no secret that Dance Strength and Conditioning asserts that strength is the most important characteristic of human movement. Moreover, dance can be defined as the aestheticized display of strength. This is because all physical activity is in some form the interaction of the human body with its external environment. These interactions always use the musculoskeletal system to produce a force against something else (i.e. the ground, another person, gravity) via muscular contraction. The production of force via muscular contraction is the physiological definitions of strength.

However, establishing strength as the most important area of fitness can be arrived at even more objectively. Examine the areas mentioned previously and their relationship to muscular contraction and/or strength. Aerobic/anaerobic fitness exist for muscular contraction, not the other way around. Muscular endurance is dependent on aerobic/anaerobic fitness, which are dependent on strength. Power is strength displayed quickly. Flexibility requires that the structure of a joint be able to move through the entire range of motion which is caused by muscular contraction or some other external force (using your hand to lift your leg). Neuromuscular coordination fine tunes muscular contraction to meet specific movement objectives. Body composition is directly affected by the frequency, volume, and intensity of muscular contractions. And finally, rest is a part of the process of recovering from stresses that require muscular contraction. Thus, by strength gives reason for each of the other areas to exist or makes them possible.

Again, strength is the most important characteristic of human movement, even for and especially in dance. Accepting this fact then begs the question, what is the best way for a dancer to train for strength? Here is what the IADMS article has to say for strength training:

“The role of strength training in dance has frequently been misunderstood. There are still concerns in the dance world that increased muscle strength will negatively affect
flexibility and aesthetic appearance. However, research has demonstrated that supplemental strength training can lead to better dancing and reduced occurrences of dance injuries, without interfering with key artistic and aesthetic requirements.

“For an optimal strength training program, it has been suggested that exercises be specific to the desired outcome. Strength training can involve very heavy weights/resistance with minimal repetitions for a relatively short amount of time, or exercises can involve light weights/resistance with many repetitions for a prolonged time. Each program targets a specific goal. A combination of high intensities (70–100% of maximum) and low volumes of work, two to three times a week, aims to increase muscle strength. A full recovery period (5–6 minutes) is essential between sets in this instance. Dancers wanting to increase muscle endurance are prescribed a combination of moderate intensities (60–70% maximum) and high volumes of work, three to four times a week. The rest periods are then shorter (2–4 minutes) so that the next set of exercises begins before full recovery.”

The above is a starting point, but leaves immensely important questions unanswered. What should the desired outcome be? How much weight is very heavy or light? What exercises should be done? What’s the correct technique for these exercises? Who determines these exercises and the correct technique? When should a dancer increase muscle strength versus endurance? When is a dancer strong enough? How many months or years does a dancer need to strength training? What should a dancer do when they can’t dance, perform, or train because of injury, illness, vacation, or other circumstances?