Advice for Dancers

June 20, 2007

Can you tell me how to get the most out of an aerobic workout?  I know it’s important to get my heart rate up, but I’m not sure what that means other than huffing and puffing until I turn beet red. I want better stamina for dancing.

Pittsburg, PA


Cardiovascular exercise is a great way to reduce fatigue. It can also lift your mood and lower emotional stress. To get the most out of your routine, choose something that doesn’t cause pain or create bulky muscles. If you’re already muscular, you may get more benefit from doing non-impact activities like swimming, low-resistance biking, or the elliptical machine. Then get into your aerobic zone by working at a moderate level of intensity (approximately 70% of your maximum heart rate). The best way to tell—apart from the “talk test” (which is, if you can talk during vigorous exercise but you can’t sing, you’re in the zone)—is to focus on your overall feeling of exertion.Then give it a number, from 6 for “no exertion,” to 20 equaling “maximal effort,” based on the Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion Scale. A moderate workout (12–14) is “somewhat hard,” that is, it’s quite an effort, tiring, but you can continue. Multiply this number by 10 and you are working out at approximately 120 to 140 beats per/minute (bpm).


Of course, if you want to be exact, you can find your target heart rate by using the standard formula where you subtract your age from 220 for men or 226 for women and multiply by 70 percent. This means 140 bpm for a 20-year-old male dancer (220-20 = 200 x .70 = 140). A 5-10 minute warm-up and cool down, with 20 minutes of continuous moderate exercise three times a week will provide a healthy aerobic foundation. You can check your pulse rate by pressing three fingers from one hand to the base of the thumb on the other for six seconds, then multiplying by ten.


  I’m starting to worry if I’ll ever become a professional dancer.  All my teachers say I’m very talented. But the more praise I get, the scarier it feels. What if I fail?  Everyone is counting on me to succeed and I can’t take the pressure.

Insecure Dancer
Winston-Salem, NC


  While it seems counterintuitive, one of the worst things a teacher can do is to tell a dancer (or their parents) that he or she is highly talented.  Living with this label takes away your sense of control. What if you make a mistake or have a bad day?  Does this make you less talented? No! However, it is easy to doubt yourself under these circumstances. Focus on what you can control—your effort. Hopefully, your teachers will do the same.  Some of the best work comes from struggling with a problem and learning from your experiences, including failure. You can’t lose by taking this approach. Remember, no one is perfect!


  After reading your article on burnout in the AGMA’s newsletter [reprinted with permission from Dance Magazine], I decided to use my summer break to give my body a rest from performing. I’ve done a mix of Gyrotonics, swimming, and easy dance classes. I feel totally refreshed!  Do you have any suggestions for the performance season?

New York, NY

Congratulations! Few professional dancers appreciate that taking time off can actually help their dancing. As a result, they tend to pack in as much work as possible, scheduling back-to-back performance gigs during lay-offs and rarely taking a day off during the season. This approach flies in the face of research that shows a major increase in injuries due to fatigue and overwork.  By normal (non-dancing) standards, your “easy” summer is fairly comprehensive, including all the major components of physical fitness: strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular conditioning. Yet for a dancer it’s a breeze compared to multiple dance classes every day or the usual rush of a hectic dance season.The next step is to slowly regain your stamina for rehearsals and performances by spending more time dancing, while tapering back on a conditioning program.


Do you know anything about back pain? It runs in my family and I’ve had it on and off for several months. It hurts mainly when I do an arabesque.

Las Vegas, NV


There’s no way to tell the source of your pain until you see an orthopedist.  However, your symptoms sound like you may have a possible stress fracture. The medical term for this is spondylolysis. If this is the case, the best treatment is rest with a back brace to let it heal. Dancers who do not do this can end up with a “non-union,” meaning that it heals with scar tissue rather than bone.  While this doesn’t end a career, your back can go into spasm at any time.  Please see a dance medicine specialist as soon as possible.  It’s important to get a correct diagnosis and treatment plan.