The well-rounded dancer can benefit from a variety of training tools. Pilates, resistance training, the ancient practice of yoga, along with thoroughly modern forms of exercise such as Gyrotonic and Floor-Barre can improve overall strength and stamina, help overcome specific weaknesses, and generally complement a dancer’s regime.
Excerpted from The Ballet Companion by Eliza Gaynor Minden, Simon and Schuster, 2005.
Copyright © 2005, 2012. Eliza Gaynor Minden. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
Teasers, mermaids, elephants, boomerangs—these intriguingly named exercises are from the Pilates Method. Its recent surge in popularity makes Pilates look like just another fitness fad; in fact, it has been around for more than eighty years. Martha Graham and George Balanchine were among the first in the dance world to recognize Pilates (pronounced puh-lah-tes), as being especially beneficial for dancers.
Joseph Pilates, a German-born health and fitness innovator, turned his knowledge of yoga, boxing, martial arts, and gymnastics, along with his experience rehabilitating patients in World War I hospital wards, into a unique system of exercises meant to increase a person’s core strength and overall flexibility. The precise, deliberate movements of Pilates, its prescribed breathing, and its emphasis on alignment increase strength and flexibility without creating bulky muscles. They build a dancer’s “powerhouse”—her abdomen and lower back—creating a super-strong core that supports all other movement. For example, a long-legged dancer, or a teenager who just had a growth spurt, may have trouble holding her lower back still during grand battement front. By targeting those abdominal and back muscles, Pilates can develop the strength and control needed to perform the ballet exercise correctly.
Although Pilates excels as a torso toner, its exercises require contributions from various muscle groups, so comprehensive, all-over strength and agility are the result. Pilates works deep, finding those hard-to-target muscles so essential to ballet technique.
Pilates discovers and corrects imbalances and misalignments that can hinder a dancer’s progress. Many dancers have one leg that is longer than the other, and/or one side that is stronger than the other. Pilates exercises are designed to ensure that both sides work equally; they won’t let the strong side compensate for the weaker one.
Your first few Pilates lessons will be one on one with your instructor, who will help you establish your alignment, your breathing, your gaze, and especially your “powerhouse.” You will do only a few of each exercise, but that’s plenty because you will do each one perfectly, and there is much to think about and remember. As you become more advanced you work out in groups, and eventually on your own. You will also learn new exercises over time, as well as more challenging variations on original exercises.
Some exercises, called mat work, are done on a simple padded mat on the floor. Certain Pilates studios offer mat work–only classes, which prepare you to practice on your own after you’ve mastered the exercises. Other exercises are done on special pieces of equipment that Joseph Pilates himself designed, including the Guillontine, the Chair, the Barrel, the Cadillac and the Reformer, the latter a bedlike contraption with footstraps and handles, which slides against the resistance of adjustable springs.
Not all studios have every piece of equipment; smaller studios often have only one or two and combine their use with instruction in mat work. That is one of the elegant (and convenient) things about the Pilates system: using the machines is great, if it’s possible, but with the right concentration and control you can draw on the five hundred or so refined mat exercises that make up the Pilates Method to accomplish the same ends as the machine work. This makes Pilates utterly portable: you can do it anytime, anywhere.
The word yoga means “union,” as in a union of body and mind. For devotees, this ancient Indian practice is meant to be a lifelong discipline, training body and mind toward this union. For the dancer, the special benefits of yoga are the development of focus, mindfulness regarding breathing, easing tense muscles, and increased flexibility. Yoga is also a renowned stress buster and can be a soothing balance to a dancer’s often intense training regimen.
Yoga asanas, or poses, are performed slowly, with particular concentration on fluid movement and purposeful breathing. The asanas can be performed individually or in flowing sequences, and for every stretch or movement there is an opposing effort. So a stretch to the left is followed by a stretch to the right; a forward bend is followed by a backward bend; a contraction is followed by an expansion.
Most yoga practices include basic breathing techniques, or pranas, such as the Cleansing Breath, the Breath of Fire, or the Victorious Breath. A prana is sometimes practiced alone, almost as an exercise in itself, often in a kneeling or cross-legged, seated position. You also engage in prana during yoga postures. Breathing is at the heart of yoga; it has the effect of bringing heat to the parts of your body that are being engaged, making possible a deeper stretch. When you consider that the average person uses only one-tenth of his lung capacity, you understand why yogic breathing, which fully utilizes the lungs, can energize the body and focus the mind.
Unlike poses in ballet, which strive to create beauty for an appreciative beholder, yoga asanas are performed not for their outward appearance but for their internal, therapeutic benefits. You start by learning an assortment of basic asanas, such as the Downward Dog, the Triangle, the Cobra. There are standing poses, balancing poses, seated poses, twisting poses, backward-bending poses, forward-bending poses, inverted (upside-down) poses, and restorative poses, each with its own benefits. Eventually you are led through more challenging variations and particular sequences of poses such as Sun Salutations or Moon Salutations. You build on a mastery of basic asanas to explore and expand your own breath control, strength, and flexibility.
Yoga has become popular just about everywhere, and there are a variety of styles from which to choose. Some include chanting and meditation. Some are more athletic, springing from posture to posture; others are slower. Some use props such as pillows, blocks, or straps. Some repeat movements over and over, others hold postures for as long as possible. Some always perform the same sequence of exercises in every class so you know exactly what to expect. Some offer a different class every time, to focus on different areas. Bikram, or “hot yoga,” is for those who like to sweat; its sequence of twenty-six poses is performed in a particular order in a room heated to 100ºF or higher. Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Iyengar, and Hatha yoga are all well-established styles; there is also a multitude of hybrids. It comes down to finding the yoga studio and instructor that suit you. B. K. S. Iyengar, or Guruji, as his followers know him, once said, “There is no distinction between one yoga and another. Yoga, like God, is one. But people call him by different names.”
Although many instructors wear white (and one of mine wears a turban), you may wear whatever allows you to move comfortably and freely. It’s not jazz class; modesty is expected. A T-shirt and loose cotton drawstring pants are preferable to highly elasticized tights and leotards that can bind your skin. You can bring your own mat, though most studios provide mats, blankets, and other props as necessary. Like mat-oriented Pilates, yoga can easily be practiced at home once you’ve mastered the basics. All you need is time, space, and quiet.
Both yoga and ballet class progress though a series of exercises led by an instructor, and both include a physical display of respect for the teacher like a bow or curtsy. But that is where the similarities end. Ballet students may be surprised to find that there is no mirror to encourage or rebuke you; there is an explicitly stated philosophy of noncompetition, either with your classmates or with yourself. Sometimes your ballet training will help yoga asanas come easily; sometimes you’ll be surprised at the flexibility you lack. It can feel strange to work turned-in or parallel. Balancing is a completely different story; instead of looking inward to adjust your alignment and muscle engagement, you direct your focus out of your body and just allow the balance to happen without your controlling it. You will even learn to balance upside down. Just be sure that when you are ready to try headstands and handstands, your instructor is right there to guide and spot you. And when you master the headstand, be wise: resist the temptation to show it off at a party.
Resistance training isn’t just for bodybuilders; it’s for anyone who wants to improve strength and stamina. It doesn’t necessarily mean hoisting heavy barbells overhead or coming to terms with intimidating gym equipment. It’s any kind of focused resistance training—that is, any exercise that involves resisting a force. The force can come from dumbbells or other freeweights, as in classical weight lifting, or from machines, resistance bands, or even from the weight of your own body, as with push-ups, sit-ups, or leg lifts.
The goal of resistance training for a dancer isn’t to “bulk up” with overdeveloped muscles; in fact, women can’t do so to the same degree that men can: you need a whole lot of testosterone to become Mr. Universe. The purpose is to enhance your strength the better to perform leaps, beats, sustained poses, and, if you’re a male dancer, lifts. Strong muscles also help dancers avoid injury. Developing a strong, limber back now, for instance, may be the single best way to prevent back injury later on. Fortifying your bones with weight-bearing exercise builds and maintains bone mass; it’s a safe, nonpharmaceutical way to prevent osteoporosis, the loss of bone density that makes fractures more likely.
To establish a strength-training program, it is best to work with a professional personal trainer, preferably one who is familiar with ballet’s particular requirements. A trainer will assess your strength level in all areas of the body (arms, shoulders, chest, abdominals, back, and legs) and prescribe a comprehensive series of exercises. He will determine how many repetitions of each exercise you should do, as well as how much and what kind of weight you should use. He may also spot you, or assist in the preparation for or performance of certain exercises. As your strength and ability increase he will modify your routine accordingly.
The American College of Sports Medicine and the National Strength and Conditioning Association agree that resistance training is safe for young athletes, with a few important guidelines. First, you should be mature enough to take instruction and to perform the exercises correctly. Heavy, maximum, or power lifting is never to be undertaken, because it can put too much strain on young muscles and growing bones. In general, a young person’s regime should emphasize correct technique and smooth movements. There should be more repetitions with lighter weights rather than fewer reps against heavy resistance. And supervision by a trainer or a coach helps ensure a safe, effective workout.
Once you have adopted a resistance-training program it’s easy to keep up wherever there’s a gym or even at home, if you have a little bit of room. Resistabands, for example, are the perfect portable weight-training tool. These long, wide rubber bands come in different tensions, and some resistaband exercises simulate the effort of traditional weight-training. Other exercises can develop dancer-specific strengths that traditional forms of strength training cannot.
As with every step you take as a dancer, perform resistance-training exercises purposefully and correctly; form is everything to the safety and effectiveness of any strength-training program. A standard training schedule is thirty to sixty minutes, three days a week. You can work on different areas of the body on different days—for example, arms, shoulders, chest, and back on one day, abs and legs on the next. Or you can do a full-body workout each time you exercise, as long as you take a day off between sessions so your muscles can recover.
The Floor-Barre® Technique is all about alignment. Developed in the 1960s by Zena Rommett, a former dancer, this innovative method is based on the belief that dancers can achieve correct alignment and refine their movements if removed from the pull of gravity. In other words, you’re not on your feet doing pliés and tendus; you’re lying on the floor, carefully working through basic positions and movements. These floor exercises help dancers improve their technique; increase strength, extension, and turnout; and lengthen their bodies.
Rommett believes that on the floor a dancer’s body can relearn correct alignment, which can dramatically improve the foundation on which to develop and improve technique. Floor-Barre classes are tough; they require control, focus, and careful attention to detail. But many dancers, athletes, and nonathletes take up Floor-Barre for the rewards: a strong center, lean muscles, and a refined mastery of the details of technique, all of which can improve performance and help to prevent injury.
Where to take an authentic Floor-Barre class? You can find out if there’s a certified instructor near you and also order Floor-Barre videos by contacting the Zena Rommett Dance Foundation through the Floor-Barre Web site (see Resources).
Like the Pilates system, Gyrotonic® has its own superspecialized equipment to stretch and tone your body. There’s no mat work in Gyrotonic; it’s just you, an instructor, and a rather odd-looking machine.
Most people feel longer, lighter and looser after a Gyrontonic workout. It’s great for freeing up hip, shoulder, and neck joints. Your head, for example, may turn more easily after Gyrotonic work, improving your spotting and therefore your pirouettes.
In the 1980s, Juliu Horvath, a principal dancer with the renowned Romanian State Opera, developed the Gyrotonic Expansion System (GXS) in New York City after injuring himself dancing. His first concept was Gyrokinesis, which was a series of side-bending and circular movements done while sitting on a low stool. Each exercise flowed into the next and was accompanied by yogalike rhythmic breathing. The principles of Gyrokinesis, along with a lot of workshop tinkering and trial and error, developed into the Gyrotonic equipment that defines the method used by many dancers today. “Gyrotonic” comes from the Greek, meaning “a circling (gyro) stretch (tonic).” And that’s what this method is all about.
The emphasis of Gyrotonic is on flexibility and range of motion. An instructor carefully leads you through a variety of deep stretching and toning exercises, each movement with a countermovement for a balanced stretch and tone. The exercises consist of circular and spiraling movements done on a machine with weighted pulleys that create a controlled and variable resistance. One exercise resembles stirring an enormous caldron from a seated position, with the whole upper body in motion. The main machine is the Combination Pulley Tower Unit, and there are a few specialized side machines as well.
Seek out an instructor who has been properly trained through official Gyrotonic certification courses and, ideally, who has a dance background as well.
Of all possible cross-training activities, swimming may be the best whole-body workout. It builds stamina without strain. A basic mixed-stroke workout strengthens both the large- and small-muscle groups of your legs, buttocks, abdominals, and upper body, especially the shoulders. Swimming is a great supplemental activity for a dancer because it engages the muscles without impact or stress, providing a break from the high-impact rigors of dance. That’s why swimming is so often the preferred therapy after injury or surgery.
Like yoga, swimming requires that you pay careful attention to your breathing, a discipline of great value to the dancer when endurance is required. Best of all, swimming can be done wherever you are, that is, wherever you can find a pool. Once you have command of the basic strokes, no classes, teachers, trainers, or equipment are necessary—just you and the water.
You can swim for endurance (distance) or for strength (short bursts of concentrated effort)—or a combination of the two. Different swimming styles work different muscle groups; for instance, freestyle strengthens the back, while the backstroke works the hamstrings. The butterfly and breaststroke are powerful upper-body strengtheners. Create a workout that includes a variety of strokes for all-over conditioning.
The goal is to swim with a constant effort, keeping your arms and legs moving at all times. Be mindful of your technique and your breathing for an efficient, effective workout. Most important, though, is to enjoy the sensation of weightlessness and the soothing, meditative benefit of swimming. As any successful dancer will tell you, a calm, focused mind is as important as a strong, finely tuned body.