Dance is by its very definition a physical activity that requires a strong relationship between the mind and body. The amount of conditioning that world class dancers put their bodies through to achieve success in their careers is comparable to that of an Olympian athlete. But it isn’t just the pros who need to stay in shape. Dancers of all disciplines and experience levels benefit from body conditioning, and without it the sort of upkeep and maintenance that comes with that conditioning, the trajectory and longevity of a dance career is certain to be short and painful. In the interest of avoiding injuries and stagnation, and promoting growth and success in your dance career, here are some of the best conditioning exercises for dancers.
Sound Mind, Sound Body
Before you get too far into the physical aspects of dance, it’s important to recognize the value of body mindfulness. We’re not talking about a meditation practice or spiritual path here, rather what we’re referring to is the practice of listening to, and becoming aware of, the various parts and functions of your body. When you are preparing yourself to perform the warm-ups and exercises to help condition yourself, it’s extremely important to pay attention to your body and its needs. Are you feeling a cramp in your thigh that needs some attention? Have you made sure to hydrate yourself properly? Did you eat enough nutritious food earlier to power your session? Are your movements being executed in a way that is healthy to your body and not producing unnecessary stress on your joints and muscles? These are simple examples of body awareness. Learning how to listen and respond to the needs of your body is a vital part of the overall conditioning process. One avenue to expanding your body awareness is engaging in something called neuromuscular training. The easiest way to explain neuromuscular training is that it’s an emphasis on learning about how your nerves and muscles work and communicate, and incorporating that knowledge into your exercises routine to make your overall performance and control better. We’re going to focus on three types of conditioning exercises: Flexibility, strength training, and cardio-vascular health. When learning about these exercises, it’s important to consider what the mechanics of your body are doing and if the motions of the exercise can be improved on. There’s a lot of overlap in these exercises too, for instance burpees, which are great for strength and endurance training, are also an excellent cardio exercise.
Stretch It Out
Good flexibility is a vital part of a dancer’s life. Making sure that you are limber and stretched out in your warm-up is the key to having a successful dance session. There are many excellent stretches out there, here are just a few basic stretch exercises to get you started.
This seated stretch is an excellent warm-up for your inner thighs, groin, and hips. Sitting with your back straight, bring the soles of your feet together in front of you as close to your groin as is comfortable. Gently push down on your knees with your arms and elbows until you feel your muscles open up. Hold the pose for about 30 seconds, release and repeat.
Sit with your legs together, flat on the ground and in front of you, toes pointed upwards. Keeping your legs immoble, slowly stretch your arms and torso forward. When you get as far as you can go, hold the stretch for about 15 seconds then relax. Try it again, and see if you can go any farther in your stretch. Hold for 15 seconds, release, and repeat until you have found your limit.
Standing up, shift your weight to one foot. Bend the other leg backwards and grab your ankle with the hand on the same side of your body. Press your foot against your backside and hold the pose for 10 seconds. Repeat with the other leg, and then do the entire stretch again.
Arms and Shoulders
Sitting with your legs crossed with straight posture, reach your arms behind you and clasp your fingers together with your arms straight. Pushing out your chest, slowly raise your arms towards your shoulders while squeezing your shoulder blades together. When you reach the limit of your motion, hold the pose for 10 seconds and release. Try it again and see if you can go a little higher each time.
Stronger Muscles And More Endurance
Now that you have stretched out and warmed up, it’s time to focus on two important aspects of a dancer’s body: Strength, and cardio-vascular endurance. Dancers come in all shapes and sizes, but one thing that they all have in common is a level of control over their body and its motion that far exceeds that of the average person. To achieve this control, they work hard to not only condition their muscles, but to work on factors like reaction time, high performance ability during long term endurance, and consistent body control reliability. Here are some exercises which are excellent for the kind of strength training and cardio-vascular efficiency needed to perform at a professional level.
This oddly-named exercise seems simple at first, but executing several in a row can be very tiring. However, it’s an excellent endurance stimulator that works out most of the body’s major muscle groups. For that reason it’s a great go-to for anybody looking to increase their performance. Starting in a squatting position, put your hands next to your feet, about shoulder-length apart. Kick your feet back until you are in a push-up position, and then do one push-up. Then kick your feet forward and back to where they just were, and rise from a squatting position into a standing position. Jump once with your arms over your head and collapse back into the squatting position. Repeat like jumping jacks until you are fatigued.
Very few activities are as beneficial to cardio health as jogging. It’s also a great way to build definition and control in your legs and hips. You don’t need to go crazy, either. Try going for a moderately paced jog for about 25-30 minutes, three times a week and you will see an improvement to your overall endurance very quickly.
Squats and Lunges
These exercises are favorites among bodybuilders and athletes, but when practiced with smaller weights, (5 to 15 pound dumbbells are a good start) they can be very useful for dancers too. When practicing a basic squat or lunge, hold an equal amount of weight in each hand at hip-length OR hold one weight with both hands at your chest. Focus on slowly performing the squat or lunge with an emphasis on control. Don’t try to speed through them like burpees or jumping jacks. Longer sets of 15 or more repetitions with lighter weights will help you develop tone and control over your legs, hips, and core.
A good way to develop your muscles without bulking up too much or overdoing it is to try using resistance bands. A resistance band is a length of stretchy material that allows the dancer to use their own weight and inertia in an exercise. They are especially desirable for the kind of low-impact weight training that focuses on muscle development and flexibility. Resistance band exercises can be used to work out the arms, legs, feet, ankles, and core muscles by providing a way for the dancer to pull against their own strength and use their body against itself in a way that is highly complementary to the art of dance.