Should Dancers Cross-Train?
Dance demands both athleticism and artistry. Although dance is not considered a sport in that there is no scoreboard, dancers are athletes. Athletes often train both in their “main event” and outside of practice or class to maximize their performance. That’s where cross training comes in. For dancers, cross training involves supplemental conditioning outside of technique class. There are two main goals of cross training which are to enhance performance and potentially decrease risk to injury.
When we talk about injuries, it’s always important to check out what the research says in the area of interest. In dance medicine research, these are some risk factors that have been noted as having a potential contribution to elevating a dancer’s injury risk: decreased aerobic capacity (cardio fitness), decreased strength, poor alignment, decreased motor control (how your body initiates and modifies purposeful movement), stress, menstrual irregularities, and hypermobility. This is not an all-inclusive list and research is always ongoing to try to continue to understand injuries so, long term, there can be more recommendations on how to best prevent injuries for dancers. Some of these risk factors listed above can be influenced by cross training.
It is frequently pointed out in research how ballet class traditionally does not tax the cardiovascular system enough to enhance a dancer’s aerobic capacity. This is of significance because sometimes choreography is very demanding for the cardiovascular system and when a dancer fatigues, their risk to injury becomes elevated as their quality of movement can start to break down making them more vulnerable to injury. Cardio fitness can help build stamina so you can make it through the demanding choreography without fatigue.
So what should you include in your cross training as a dancer? Well, just like many things...it depends! Each dancer is an individual with different imbalances, areas of weakness, movement compensations, goals, fitness level, and prior injuries. Here are some things worth considering when determining what type of cross training would be best for you:
What type of dance performance are you preparing for? For instance, are you a professional ballet dancer in a company who will be performing Serenade, a studio dancer prepping for competition, or a university dancer prepping for your upcoming dance concert of high intensity modern rep. All different scenarios and demands.
Prior injuries--Have you had areas of prior injuries or complaints of discomfort/pain? This may suggest possible imbalances or areas of vulnerability that may warrant further investigation.
Baseline testing: have you had a professional examine your individual fitness and movement? Working with someone can help determine what your starting point is, set achievable goals, and prioritize your individual needs based on baseline testing to examine movement quality, cardio, mobility, strength, and motor control.
What are your goals for dance? Where are some of your struggles?
Hours and types of dance: what is your current dance schedule? On the one side, you want to be sure you are choosing modes of exercise that will create positive change and improvements, but on the other side you don’t want to run the risk of over-training. Getting adequate nutrition to fuel your body for both dance and cross training is an important piece.
There are quite a bit of choices when it comes to cross training. Here are some different types of conditioning that exist:
Cardiovascular fitness training
Muscle Strength and Endurance training
Motor Control training
Skill Based Conditioning:
So how can these types of non-dance training help me as a dancer?...
Well, we know that when it comes to dance injury, dancers most commonly sustain overuse injuries given the repetitive nature of dance training. Part of why you are so good at your skills for dance is because you consistently practice executing the movement and timing and sequencing of your muscles firing. Dancers also most commonly sustain repetitive strain injuries in the lower extremities. Practicing functional non-dance movements and letting your muscles fire and work in ways OTHER than dance specific movements can help your muscles recover, create a reserve, and build resilience. When it comes to enhancing performance, maybe your upper body strengthening can help improve your partnering work, or perhaps your lower body strengthening will help with your jumps because you are able to generate more power. Dance class, appropriately so, is largely focused on skill development and technique which does not tax your body in a way enough to improve these other components of fitness because your body has adapted to them. Dancers are already exquisitely smart movers and cross training can help continue to create a well-rounded mover.
So let’s get going right what are we waiting for?!...
PAUSE!...Safety is ALWAYS number one. Whenever adding something new to your regimen or if cross-training is new to you, it’s always recommended to consult with a health care provider first. Getting guidance from a Physical Therapist, Physician, Coach, or Trainer could help ensure you are doing the best things based on your individual needs and you are safe while doing it. You don’t want to get hurt while cross-training! As a dancer, your body is unique and your cross training plan may not be exactly the same as your friends’ and that’s a-okay.
Curious about what movement vulnerabilities you may have? Not sure where to start? Dancer Health & Movement Screens are a great way to help you sort through.
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Twitchett, E. et al. Physiological fitness and professional classical ballet performance: a brief review. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2009. 23(9):2732-2740.
Rodrigues-Krause, J. et al. Cardiorespiratory considerations in dance: from classes to performances. JDMS. 2015;19(3):91-102.
Bronner, S. et al. Differences in professional and pre-season aerobic fitness screening in professional and pre-professional modern dancers. JDMS. 2016;20(1):11-22.