For full versatility as a dancer, a strong upper body is key. When a teacher or choreographer throws you a high-impact lift, sustained handstand,
or swooping inversion, you need to be prepared with enough power and stability to get through it. While hitting the weight machines at the gym is one way to get stronger, improper training can cause muscle tears and that dreaded “bulking up,” which decreases mobility and disrupts your long line. Rocky Bornstein, a physical therapist at Westside Dance Physical Therapy in NYC, says there are plenty of ways to build the strength you need without bulk. Here are some tips for working toward a stronger upper body and effectively using what you already have.
- Do include push-ups in your regular warm-up. If the traditional kind is tough at first, start by doing just a few with your weight on bent knees, then add more each day. Fabio Tavares, who performs with the highly athletic STREB, takes a more advanced approach, keeping the legs extended, upper arms parallel to the spine, and elbows just below his torso throughout. On the way up, he says, “It helps to think about pushing down into my hands instead of pushing up into nowhere.” Whatever style you choose, remember to maintain a long, straight back, keeping your head in line with the spine to avoid straining the neck.
- Do build strength and length at the same time. Long muscles tend to be stronger, less bulky, and less easily strained. For long, strong triceps, try this exercise: Holding a 3–10-lb. weight in your right hand, raise your right arm behind your neck with your elbow sharply bent, as if to scratch the back of the left shoulder. Keeping your upper arm in place, straighten the elbow (being sure not to lock it), then lower slowly and evenly down. Do 10–20 reps on each side. If that feels like a cinch, do more reps with the same amount of weight, which increases tone without increasing bulk.
- Do spend some time at the pool this summer. Former ABT dancer Charles Maple, who directs the Maple Conservatory of Dance in Irvine, CA, and works closely with assistant director Chris Martin on conditioning, suggests swimming as one of the safest and most effective ways to both strengthen and lengthen the upper body. It’s also a great way to stay in shape over summer vacation. During the winter months, find an indoor pool in your neighborhood or at school, and add a few laps to your weekly cross-training routine.
- Do think about how, not just how much. Even if your muscles aren’t hard as steel, you can still use the strength you have to your best advantage. For instance, when lifting another dancer, remember that every lift has two parts, the up and the down. For each, keep your partner’s weight close to your center, absorbing the lift with your entire body.
- Don’t mistake overusing your upper body for making it stronger. Excess tension only makes things harder. Tavares says that for especially challenging moments onstage (or high above it), he asks himself, “Can I breathe here? Is there anything I could relax at this moment that would make my life a little easier?”
- Don’t play the superhero! If you’re one of only a few guys in a partnering class with 20 girls, make sure you’re not being overworked, and talk with your teacher if you feel you are.
- Don’t force your shoulders down when working at the barre. Many dancers, says Bornstein, do this to achieve more height or a longer neck. But it puts undue strain on the pectorals and lats—the broad, winglike muscles running from the spine to underneath the armpits—causing fatigue and tightness in the upper body. (If you actually want to get “taller,” imagine broadening the space between the shoulder blades. Or, as Maple tells his dancers, think of reaching your arms down and then out before raising them into second position or overhead.)
- Don’t assume you’re weak just because you can’t do a lift or tricky step right away. Young dancers must realize the power of coordination, says Tavares, integrating all parts of the body for maximum strength. “If you learn how to use your arms and legs together, you’ll get much stronger. You won’t need to work so hard.”
French Clements is a writer and ballet teacher based in Cambridge, MA.
Photo: Erin Baiano. Model: Jacqueline Green of the Ailey/Fordham BFA program