Even the best sense of rhythm, the most careful technical training, and the most astute dance intuition aren't enough to make a dancer truly excel; you also need focused strength, balance, and flexibility to execute the movements with power and grace. Conditioning for Dance improves your technique and performance in all dance forms by strengthening the body's core (abdominal and back muscles) while developing coordination, balance, and alignment and optimizing flexibility. The result is more lift without tension, deeper plies, higher jumps with less effort, tighter turns, and improved extension and turnout.
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As a dancer, you spend hours every day rehearsing, performing and taking classes. You have the famous "dancer's body," and you are in great physical shape, perfectly conditioned for your demanding profession. But don't be too sure, dancers are often not always as "fit" as they presume, and conditioning is an essential aspect of a dancer's training.
Dance is a comprehensive full-body activity where dancers perform jumps, leaps, turns and movements that require the highest level of athleticism, balance and body control.
What is Conditioning
Conditioning is defined as a state of being physically fit so your body can safely perform the physical demands with least risk and possibility of injury.
For dancers, body conditioning is all about working to tone and sculpt their muscles apart from, and over and above the dance movements. With a combination of stretches like pilates and yoga, muscle toning or building exercises like weight training or gym, as well as workouts abdominal(core) strength, glutes, and hamstrings.
Body conditioning aims to improve technique and overall presence while performance and it's so essential that many dancers end up working on it even after they have stopped dancing.
Principles of Conditioning
There are five basic principles of conditioning:
- Adaptation: Also known as accommodation, in simple terms it means challenging the body’s capacities to increase them. Dancers do this in class or rehearsals when they push themselves beyond their comfort zones.
- Specificity: Once the dancers throw themselves a challenge in the form of accommodation or adaptation, they need to train specifically for the same. For example, doing releves can improve leg strength, but it will not have any positive effect on your arms!
- Progressive overload: As the body is challenged, its capacities increase. Progressive overload is how one needs to condition the body. Little changes are done every day result in improving and building up capabilities regularly. So today you begin with three sets of barre workouts and gradually move on to 8 sets.
- Reversibility: When dancers stop working, they "de-condition." Muscles work on " use it or lose it" principle. De-conditioning happens rapidly, and most dancers face it when they are returning after a break due to illness or injury. The longer they are away from the dance, the slower it is to get back to pre-break levels. A well-conditioned body tends to "bounce back" faster than non-conditioned one.
- Compensation: Another aspect of conditioning is how our body adjusts to bad, seemingly impossible demands we place on it. Sometimes dancers want to push their limits without assessing if they are ready for it. The other times, they may have to work beyond their current abilities simply.
Elements of Conditioning
There are various aspects of conditioning that dancers need to understand and are equally important for a well-trained body
Strength: Medically- strength means the ability to overcome external resistance by using muscles. The ability to lift an object (It could be a body, body part, or prop) as high, reptitively and at a speed desired. The three pillars of strength are muscular strength, muscular endurance, and power. Know more about strength training.
Alignment: Good alignment means your ability to align the skeleton for maximum movement efficiency. Movement efficiency helps segregate the muscles needed for a particular task. This reduced stress in joints and muscles, and paves the way for a beautiful and precise movement.Read more here.
Neuromuscular Coordination: Neuromuscular coordination is the ability of our Central Nervous System (CNS) execute a set of complex movements of dance and choreography.
Flexibility: Flexibility refers to the ability to move your body to maximum range. Every joint has a unique "end range" that is a limit it can move structurally. For example, the shoulders can be used to move arms behind the back, some people can do it comfortably, and some struggle. Being flexible essentially means being able to push through a range of movement without restriction. Read on as we share how you can improve your flexibility here.
Cardio-vascular endurance: Also known as aerobic endurance, heart, and lungs can fuel muscular activity over an extended period.
- Relaxation and resting: Resting is an essential aspect of overall fitness and conditioning. Dance education should also focus on relaxing and resting. Mind and body training techniques are primarily helpful for dancers.
Importance of Conditioning for Dancers
From the fingertips to toes, every body part of a dancer is involved in dance. Every muscle is causing a movement, whether it is relaxing to allow a move or straining to stabilize a joint.
Dancers have to be strong, physically fit and be able to sail through the rigors of dance performance.
A conditioning regime allows dancers to strengthen their bodies and compliment their dance training to prevent injuries.
Body conditioning is hugely vital for rehearsals and off-stage preparation. With a healthy body, practicing as well as performing the choreography becomes easier. Most dancers, however, take conditioning exercise as a way to define their muscles or focus on " problem area" but conditioning helps keep the body healthy, strong and ready for the action.
Conditioning Techniques for Dancers
Body conditioning class for a dancer is a class to learn the kinds of exercises they can do to stretch further and strengthen their entire body. It also highlights the area they need to focus on. Eventually, conditioning class helps a dancer to learn how to develop turnout, improve their footwork articulation and the other regions important to the dance.
Often, students develop their own “routine of conditioning exercises” they can work on at home or before a dance routine.
Although most dancers, as well as dance parents or non dancers tend to associate dance with movement of lower body parts- limbs, thighs, legs , hips, knees, ankles and feet, because apparently that's where most of the hard work takes place as dancers move around working against forces that can significantly exceed body weight. But by default, dancers are using upper body too, in arm and head movements, alignment of neck and back, and therefore dancers need to be smart enough to work on overall body conditioning.
Remember, form and lifting mechanics are just as important as strength building.
Conditioning typically includes
- Cardiovascular exercises
- Flexibility training
- Strength exercises
- Core/abdominal work
- Arm/back/leg work
- Psychosomatic exercises like Pilates and Yoga.
The most important thing for a dancer to develop a good form with a neutral spine and lean to dissociate(for example bring the arm up towards the head without raising the ribs or shoulder).
Having a customized program that includes a dynamic warm-up, strength exercises, cross training, yoga, and pilates dramatically affect a dancer's performance. Most importantly, it sets them up for a healthy lifestyle for life.
Apart from hitting the gym, working on cardiovascular endurance, a few great additions for working on conditioning while dancers work on their technique are resistance bands, ballet straps, turnout boards, loop bands, foot stretchers, etc.
Dancers can avoid injury by having sufficient strength and flexibility. Correct mechanics are essential to save from harm while doing upper body-work. Conditioning is all about learning how the body acts and reacts to energy and force.
Adolescent dancers are especially at risk as they do not necessarily focus on conditioning. They often lack core strength required to maintain proper alignment. Paradoxically, the age is also the time when young dancers go through significant physical changes. During growth spurts, muscles and bones don't grow at the same rate, and it may lead to joint instability, functional strength loss and decreased proprioceptive awareness (knowledge of limb placement)- thereby exposing young dancers are at high risk for back injuries.
Conditioning is the best way to manage the physical and psychological demands of your chosen dance form, and enrich your performance abilities. By unleashing your hidden strength, you can unleash your full physical and artistic potential.