The Importance of being an Athletic Artist - 2 steps to starting
Dancers are perhaps the best multi-movement athletes on the planet. Not only do they have to move through different levels, planes, axis and dynamics but they also have to artistically perform these movements with elite level aesthetics, often with lights glaring at them and what can frequently be a very judgmental audience.
I personally class dancers as Athletic Artists as there has to be a balance between their athleticism and their artistry, but unfortunately the artist often outweighs the athlete.
This is perhaps one of the reasons why the latest statistics show around 80% of dancers get injured each year, a ridiculously high number – more than contact sports!
There is an area in the dance industry that is hugely lacking – if not missing altogether – which is dancer-specific assistive strength and conditioning. Sure you might do yoga, or pilates, or have a gym membership, or go for a run, or take numerous classes a week, or do a home workout, but are you truly supporting yourself as an athlete and not just a physical artist? In the sports and athletics world each team or individual athlete has a strength and conditioning coach who prepare the athletes to be bullet proof and ready for anything that the technical coach can throw at them. This can be seen at elite level all the way down to amateur level.
In the dance world we have our technique teacher or rehearsal director and that’s it – unless you are in a company with some mega money – and maybe not even then. But unfortunately, more often than not, their expertise does not reach beyond their specific teaching and can possibly be a little lost in tradition – which isn’t a problem for them, but for you, it is.
I am on a personal mission to change that and bring out the athlete in the artist! Strength and conditioning should a prescription for the individual dancer to support, maintain, and develop them to be an incredible, strong, and safe mover.
The introduction of the dancers S+C coach in full/part time/project based companies is unlikely to become a permanent fixture any time soon, as actually paying their dancers a fair wage is paramount at the moment. Until some brave companies step up to support their dancers in this way it is going to be in your own hands!! So time to skill up.
How do you get stronger, faster, and fitter? I mean, I am sure you know, but do you really KNOW?!
Should you lift weights? How much and how often? Should you run? How far? How fast?
Everyone has their own opinion, or has someone else’s opinion, but do you know what is right for you personally and professionally? Enough questions, lets break it down. First of all, join Dance UK as they have a Healthier Dancer Programme (HDP), running some great seminars. They are also your link to the FREE NHS dancers injury clinic set up by the National Institute of Dance Medicine and Science (NIDMS), so if you do get injured they can sort you out properly and get you to a specialist who understands dancers. Membership is about £25 a year. Bargain. I work with the HDP and can honestly say they are some of the nicest people in the dance industry and support you wherever they can! Plus they are currently working on a dancers health care plan so keep an eye out for this. Secondly, start an assistive training programme to develop your fitness AND strength to dramatically reduce your risk of injury and increase your physical potential.
Out of the hundreds of training plans, exercises and advice you could and no doubt will receive from everyone, I am going to recommend 2 steps to focus on that you are probably neglecting or forgetting.
Do some strength training. Get stronger. Not just in your legs or core but everywhere.
Choreographers, company directors, and other dancers like to see a ‘strong dancer’ but the chances are they don’t train their muscular strength.
First let me clarify that when I say strength training I do not mean bodybuilding!! You are not going to get ‘hulk’ from strength training. You might add a little more muscle mass, but since when have functionally defined muscles ever been a bad thing?! Besides to get the level of muscular development that scares you you’re probably looking at about 5-10 years of hard core muscle building training with a very strict nutrition plan (and probable steroid use).
With strength training we are looking to use the muscle that we already have better, by developing the neuromuscular system. We have to train the brain to tell more of the muscle fibers to contract on a given exercise to produce more force. This is simply translated as higher jump with safer landing, more impressive partner work and huge injury reduction benefits.
The simplest way to improve strength is to increase muscular effort – or add weight. If you are a member of a gym this is where you get your moneys worth! Without going into the science of strength training, if you can do more than 5 repetitions of a certain movement there is not enough muscular effort to develop your strength – if you are a gym goer, the weight you are using is too light. If you are not a member of a gym you can develop strength through bodyweight exercises such as 1 leg squats, 1 arm push ups, handstand push up, and pull ups (if you can’t do a full pull up you need to seriously address your upper body strength.)
If you are a gym goer there are 5 actions you should be using. These are a squat, lunge, deadlift, a push movement, and a pull movement. These will hit all major muscle groups.
2. Make your aerobic and anaerobic training dance specific. It is unlikely that a choreographer is going to want you to run for miles on end, be on an cross trainer machine for 45 minutes or always move in one movement plane or level. Change it up. Challenge your movement. Be in the space that you will be working in.
The more specific you can make your training the more beneficial it will be to your movement development. Think of dynamics too not just movements. Don’t always jog. Sprint. Be slow and controlled, and super fast. Go to the right AND to the left. If you address these two focus points other training should start to come more naturally as your ability and curiosity develops. Start simple and start with light weights if you are going to the gym. For good development don’t stay simple and light for too long. Get moving. Find your beast. Last little tip is to make sure you get really good rest and recovery time. Don’t burn out, stay cool :) (This article was written for Spotlight magazine in their healthier dancer dancer month.)