Sometimes you're thrown a big opportunity mid-season—but aren't always given all the rehearsal you need to fully prep for it. At Houston Ballet, for instance, there are often 12 casts of Sugar Plum, according to ballet master Amy Fote. That means some dancers might only get one full run before performing the role.
But not all of the preparation happens in the studio. For aerobically demanding choreography, dancers need to put in their own overtime to build the necessary stamina. Red flags for Fote are when footwork loses its precision and line, and movement looks less efficient and more labored—these are not necessarily signs of technical deficiencies, but often point to the need to increase cardiovascular fitness. "You have to do your homework and cross-train," she says.
Why Performance Prep Takes More Than Rehearsal
We are all accustomed to the start-and-stop nature of taking dance class and learning choreography. It allows us to observe and process, pick apart details and refine our technique. But that format doesn't fully prepare us for performance—particularly when it comes to highly aerobic works that challenge your stamina, or what some dancers like to call "puffy" pieces.
According to exercise physiologists Elizabeth Hewett and Donna Oliver, who have years of experience working with The Australian Ballet School, short bursts of physical activity, like 30-second class combinations, primarily use the anaerobic metabolic system, while continuous dancing of longer than a minute, like in performance, uses the aerobic system. Yet we often only get to those all-out runs, requiring such energy reserves, when the curtain is about to rise.
Having an audience also seems to increase the intensity of effort during a performance. "A study showed that the accumulation of lactic acid in performance is three times that of class," says Lauren McIntyre, a certified athletic trainer and clinical specialist at Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at NYU Langone Orthopedic Hospital. "A performance is just so much more demanding."
No one wants to see a winded dancer or floppy feet onstage, but building cardio fitness is about more than aesthetics. McIntyre notes that fatigue is a little known, and often unacknowledged, cause of injury.
Schedule Your Cross-Training Strategically
To prep your body, look at your calendar and make note of when and what you are performing. From there, you can work backward to plan a strength and cardiovascular routine specific to those roles and repertoire. McIntyre recommends asking yourself: What is my end goal? What does my season look like? Where is my recovery and rest? Where can I decrease dance to increase cross-training in order to not burn out?
Since fitness of any type takes several weeks to develop, Hewett and Oliver advise dancers to do rep-specific cross-training at least six to eight weeks prior to your run-throughs. Ideally that would start during a layoff (once you've taken one to two weeks to rest from your season).
According to McIntyre, during this downtime, you could begin with three to five workouts per week, depending on your fitness level, and then try to maintain one to two per week once the season begins. "You can skip it once you're doing full run-throughs," she says, "but the idea is to get in the habit." If you are already in the middle of heavy rehearsals when you need to start cross-training, consult an athletic trainer to develop a modified program that's appropriate to your schedule.
Alternate the Intensity
If you are new to cardio training, McIntyre suggests aiming for 20 minutes of sustained effort. As Hewett and Oliver explain, low-intensity, continuous aerobic exercise improves the endurance in your muscles as well as the cardiovascular system of your heart and lungs.
Once you've built a base level of stamina at this lower intensity, begin to replace one of these weekly sessions with high-intensity interval training. In HIIT workouts, short bursts of high-energy anaerobic intervals are followed by lower-intensity recovery intervals and repeated several times. You can alternate between sprinting and walking, or cycling at different speeds.
According to Hewett and Oliver, HIIT workouts are the most efficient way to improve aerobic fitness. But you only need them once or twice a week in combo with steady cardio, and health and injuries need to be factored in to the design of the program. "You don't have to be killing yourself," says McIntyre.
Fote has seen the positive benefits of this kind of training at Houston Ballet. Every Friday the athletic trainers lead the dancers in 10 exercises for 20 minutes, where they push for 40 seconds on and take 20 seconds off. "You can tailor the exercises for your goal to help you feel prepared for a role without overtraining it in the studio," says Fote. "For instance, working on jumps in more neutral positions can help train for the Bluebird variation from The Sleeping Beauty."
Try These At-Home Workouts
You can prepare your body for the stage without access to fancy gym equipment. Hewett and Oliver suggest:
- Walking or running up and down stairs.
- Skipping rope or mimicking petit allégro with small jumps for 30 to 60 seconds, as long as you are on a safe floor.
- From a standing position, quickly lie on the floor and then stand up again—there are many versions of these "get up" exercises. Repeat for 30 to 60 seconds.
- Do short sprints for 30 to 60 seconds, with 30 seconds of rest in between.
- Put some music on and have your own dance party. Make it energetic enough that it raises your heart rate and leaves you puffing.
Turn Class Into Cardio Training
If long rehearsal days don't allow for extra cross-training, there are things you can do in class itself to boost stamina. According to Hewett and Oliver, aerobic metabolism is in play once you exceed a minute of continuous movement. With that in mind, warm-ups and combinations in dance classes could be repeated to create more opportunities to dance without stopping.
If you can get your heart rate up with a higher-intensity warm-up, then it is easier to sustain throughout class, adds McIntyre. Other (largely untested) ideas include shortening the rest time between combinations and switching up the order of class so that jumps—the most aerobic of dance moves—enter in sooner.
As much as you might want to "perfect" a piece, excessive repetition can lead to overtraining and overuse injuries. "Perfectionism is where we get ourselves into a lot of trouble, running a piece too many times," says McIntyre. "A marathoner doesn't run the full 26 miles, and they are still prepared. So we need to ask ourselves 'How can we be creative?' " If marathon runners generally cut off their training at 20 or 22 miles and allow for their cross-training and the adrenaline of the race to carry them the last few miles, perhaps dancers can follow a similar strategy.
"You can see overtraining syndrome when a dancer is running a variation constantly, becoming exhausted," says Fote. "But trust that if you have been cast, then the artistic staff thinks you can do this and are ready."
How you approach the role can also help you plan for the demands on your cardio fitness. Fote encourages dancers to visualize their repertoire and decide where they are going to breathe. "You can't be 100 percent at every moment," she says. "If you hit everything too hard, it lacks texture. Every step needs attention but not necessarily the same energy. Learning this is part of the artistry."