Most dancers know that cross training can help their performing—even if they don’t do it. What they don’t realize is that their style of dance and amount of rehearsal/performance hours in a given week determines how much and what type of cross training they need.
Eight Broadway shows a week plus rehearsals for a modern dance company demand a body in top form. Rosie Lani Fiedelman juggles her role as an ensemble dancer for In the Heights with dancing for Jennifer Muller/The Works. It often can be a physical challenge. “After the Heights’ first act everyone comes offstage completely drenched,” she says. “We run all over doing salsa and hip hop—in heels!” For Fiedelman, maintaining performance-level stamina means extra effort outside of the studio.
A Broadway dancer whose performances already are aerobic may only need a gym workout twice a week, while a freelance modern dancer with a less rigorous schedule may need four or five workouts a week to maintain strength and stamina. Here are several types of training that can amplify your dancing.
Cardio, Cardio: The Skinny on Aerobic Workouts
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater physical therapist Shaw Bronner recommends cardio training to keep dancers from getting dangerously tired during performance or rehearsal. “When your body feels fatigue, so does your mind, which is when you can make careless mistakes that cause injuries,” she says. While many physical therapists discourage running because of heavy joint pounding, Bronner encourages dancers to run if they enjoy it, but on a treadmill that absorbs more shock than concrete.
Since an old knee injury keeps Fiedelman from running, she switched to an elliptical trainer, stair climber, or swimming. All three are low-impact, full-body workouts. “The Heights’ choreography has tight, small movements,” explains Fiedelman, “so swimming is great for me because it requires long, lengthening ones.” Bronner has Ailey dancers use stationary bikes for at least 30 minutes on low resistance with higher RPMs to bump up the heart rate without bulking up leg muscle. Ballet dancers should take note and try to stick to low-resistance biking or swimming to maintain a lean aesthetic.
Get to the Core: Muscle Strength
A stronger core equals a stronger dancer. You need to integrate abdominal work into your daily routine to stabilize your body and prevent lower back injury. Fiedelman does her own core series before and during (and sometimes after) rehearsals and shows. She combines classic crunches with variations to increase difficulty. For the upper body, Bronner suggests lifting light weights or doing Thera-Band resistance exercises. Strong latissimus dorsi (large muscles of the mid to lower back) enforce shoulder blade stabilization, making partnering safer for both men and women.
Inside Out: Mind-Body Work
While most dancers are diligent about gym workouts, many neglect the mind-body connection, a key tool for injury prevention. Fiedelman practices bikram yoga one to three times a week. She says it makes her “more conscious of my breath while dancing” and develops “a strong all-around body awareness.” The focus needed to hold postures develops internal strength and willpower, which she calls on to get through the end-of-week performances.
Internal, meditative work benefits all dancers, but is particularly helpful for dancers with heavily aerobic choreography like In the Heights or Movin’ Out. Rather than draining energy through forced treadmill workouts, try sprinkling in some yoga practice.
The Warning Label
Dancers need to be aware that their workouts can have side effects. The repetitive motion of swimming, running, and cycling will tighten leg and arm muscles. Stretching and cooling down afterwards can prevent tight hip flexors and hamstrings, a dancer’s enemy. Bronner encourages stretching the rectus femoris (one of the four quadriceps, the only one that originates from the pelvis, not the femur) after workouts by going into a deep lunge, bending the back knee, and gently pulling the foot towards the glutes.
Yoga done incorrectly can overstretch muscles, which is counterproductive for hypermobile dancers. Be sure not to force any poses or go beyond a safe stretch. And keep in mind that your body needs rest to repair itself, so taking one day off a week from any exercise is not lazy—your body is preparing for next week’s workload.
Jen Thompson is a dancer with Jennifer Muller/The Works.