Health & Fitness

January 21, 2007

Classic Pilates: Down to the Mat



Dancers tend to be flexible, often to their detriment: looseness can make movement harder to control. Weight training tends to focus on one muscle group, and cardio workouts build stamina, not core strength. But Pilates can strengthen your whole body, starting with your core.


“Many dancers know where to find their center, but they don’t have the actual strength there,” says Ellie Herman, a New York Pilates instructor, and author of Pilates for Dummies (Running Press, 2002). “Pilates is about building lower abdominal strength. It gives you more control, and once you have that stability, you’re less likely to injure yourself.”


Although we might think of Pilates as requiring equipment and a studio, classic Pilates can be done at home on a mat. Dancers can take their exercises on the road or do them before class or after rehearsal. Here is some classic mat work that targets your core.


The single leg kick:
This helps control the muscles around your hip joints, building your stability for centerwork like battements and arabesques. Lie down on your stomach. Engage your abdomoninals while pressing your hip bones into the floor. Stretch your arms above your head and exhale. Then pull your forearms toward your waist and come up into a high cobra position with your rib cage clearing the floor. Exhale again and point your toes to the wall behind you and raise your feet one inch off the floor. Then bend one knee so the foot rises up and goes back towards your buttocks. Then point it behind you to straighten the knee and lower the foot to the floor. Repeat the same movement with your other leg. Do five more sets of both legs, then sit up, legs pulled up in front of you, knees bent, hands on your knees, and curve over, letting your forehead rest on your hands. Round your back over your legs and breathe into the lower back four times.


The Swan Dive:
This helps give you a strong, continuous arabesque line through your lower back. Lie down again on your stomach, exhale, and again pull the forearms into a high cobra position. Exhale and lift your feet off the floor a little. Then hold your back in an arch and quickly reach your hands out in front of you, so that you rock forward on your abdomen toward your chest. Hold your back and hips firm and allow the legs to rise as your chest dips towards the floor. Then quickly bring your hands back to the floor, tucked under your shoulders, making you rock back toward your feet. Perform this sequence five more times. Then end by straightening your back and floating your hands and feet down onto the floor. Again, sit up with your hips to your heels in a rounded position and breathe deeply four times.


The 100s:
This signature Pilates toning exercise forces dancers to focus on their abdominal muscles and their breathing. Lie on your back, bend your knees and place the soles of your feet on the floor. Lengthen your neck as you press your chin down towards your chest and your solar plexus and hips into the mat. Exhale, bend your legs raising your thighs above your abdomen, with your upper arms off the mat—elbows bent, not locked, palms facing up to the ceiling. Exhale again and straighten your knees while lowering your feet about 20 degrees toward the floor. Now breathe in for five quick counts as your arms move up and down several inches, and then exhale in five quick puffs, while continuing to move your arms up and down. Repeat this nine more times, or 100 counts altogether.


You should perform these exericses at least three times a week for the best results. You will see improvements in your posture and strength, making you stand taller and project a more expansive image in class and onstage. “Doing Pilates can give a dancer stamina and longevity,” says Pilates guru Kathy Grant, who teaches at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. “Mastering these movements will give dancers the strength to do whatever the choreography asks them.”


Suzanne Martin has a doctorate in physical therapy and is gold-certified by the Pilates Method Alliance. She has her own private practice in Alameda.