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By Nancy Wozny
Kristina Hanna bolts through choreographer Larry Keigwin’s buzzy new dance, Caffeinated, with ease. She thinks she knows why: Her weekly 12-mile runs through New York’s Central Park are a good prep for getting through Keigwin’s kinetic work. “I love running because I get to propel myself through space,” says Hanna. “You don’t get that on a treadmill.”
Whether it’s for conditioning, weight loss, or staying in shape while injured, many dancers use aerobics as a cross-training tool. But should they, or are they adding unneeded stress on joints and muscles, leading to deeper fatigue? Most research indicates that a combination of strength and aerobic training delivers the best cardiovascular health, and that strength training actually contributes more than all that pavement pounding. Does that mean you should cut back on the cardio and focus on weights? Not necessarily, say experts who work with dancers. Instead, many now recommend tailoring your aerobic workout to reflect your dance repertory.
Houston exercise physiologist James Harren makes sure his dancer clients receive conditioning geared to the demands of what they perform. “You get what you train for,” says Harren, who works with Houston Ballet. “I want to make whatever cardiovascular training we do be as similar to dance as possible. Often, we work on the core board so I can add balance training in the mix.”
Many dancers gear their workouts to what they dance without ever seeing an exercise physiologist. Dominic Walsh Dance Theater dancer Felicia McBride swims three mornings a week and hops on the elliptical a few days a week after rehearsal. “Swimming relaxes my mind,” says McBride, who recently danced the role of Juliet in Walsh’s own version of the classic tale. “I feel clearer, fresher, focused, and ready for the day. I also get out of the water ache-free.” McBride says swimming has made a difference in her dancing. “Juliet was a big role for me, and I needed physical and emotional stamina for it. I’m more aware of my breathing and I love the definition I get in my arms and back from swimming.”
Shaw Bronner, a New York physical therapist who works with dancers, isn’t surprised by McBride’s experience. The well-being gained from a new form of exercise, combined with the endorphin release, can be a boon to any dancer. Bronner helps dancers from Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. She finds their aerobic needs vary, and it’s best to pay attention to each individual experience. “We have bikes on either side of the stage at Cedar Lake and they get used a lot, but I don’t push any one kind of exercise,” says Bronner. “Some of the dancers came from track and field and they simply love to run. Also, since most dance happens in the vertical plane, running may make more sense than biking. But if you are tired of being on your feet, swimming and biking are better choices.” Bronner finds that aerobic training cuts down on her clients’ performance fatigue, a leading cause of injury. She points out that aerobic conditioning has been included in the Dance/USA task force health screen, now used by 30 companies.
Aerobic training is not for everyone or every season. Harren cautions against too much extra conditioning during peak rehearsal and performance times. “I don’t recommend anything extra during Nutcracker,” says Harren. “When you add more pounding you are upping the risk of an injury.” Any injury that prevents weight bearing or requires dancers to wear a boot, and back or neck injuries, can be aggravated by additional exercise. “Although if they can tolerate the bike, it can be good for a dancer’s head and help ease the depression that often comes with an injury,” he says.
An athlete all her life, Hanna finds that running adds balance to her schedule. It also works well with Keigwin’s hard-hitting style and its running, jumping, and quick lifts. “Dance is so focused. I want a time to be physical and not be analyzing everything,” she says. “Running helps me experience my body in a different way and all I need is a pair of shoes. I get such a sense of liberation from it and I know I use that onstage.”
Nancy Wozny writes about health and the arts from Houston.