Cross-Training for the Health and Skills Acquisition of Dancers
Knees and Hips
It is a well-known fact that dancers, particularly ballet dancers, are prone to knee and hip injuries. Knee and hip replacements in mature dancers are far, far too common. Rather than criticize the discipline itself or the way that it is taught, let’s look more thoughtfully at the way dancers were trained 15 years ago as compared to the way that they are now prepared in order to engage in this demanding and athletic art form.
Years ago, dancers trained by…. well… dancing.
They worked on the same barre and floor exercises and the same stretches every day. Every day, they tried to improve and even to exaggerate the desired qualities of turnout, flexibility, and ballon (a French word describing the dancer’s ability to jump into the air and appear to stay there). They pushed for the stability of extreme balances in positions that may have been considered stressful even by the medical professionals of that day and age. The results were beautiful dancing and fragile bodies.
Mixing It Up
Recently, I spoke with Paul and Alyssa Mattson of Venture Physical Therapy in Marietta, Georgia, to ask about the benefits of cross-training for dancers. I know that many athletes cross-train in an effort to heal from injuries, to prevent injuries, to be proactive about their physical health, and to be able to engage in something they love for as long as they can. Here are some questions I asked Paul and Alyssa about cross-training. Their answers can help our young dancers and their parents understand why the teachers at Georgia Dance Conservatory emphasize the conditioning of the whole body.
When we speak of ‘cross-training’ for an athlete, what do we mean? Cross training is any type of exercise that is different from your primary sport.
What are the benefits of cross-training? You are using your muscles in a different way, and sometimes you are using different muscle groups altogether. This helps prevent the over-development of certain sport-specific muscle groups. It may also help to stretch other muscle groups that are getting tight from overuse in your sport.
Do dancers, particularly ballet dancers, derive special benefits from cross-training? Specific strengthening exercises decrease the chance of injuries by providing better shock absorption and increased stability. This also contributes to the beauty of the dancer and to the aesthetics of the art form. The dancer appears more fluid and stable. Swimming is a great cross-training exercise to strengthen all muscle groups. It also provides aerobic benefits while eliminating the pounding you get in dance.
Are there particular sport-specific injuries that dancers should cross-train to prevent? Yes… ankle, hip and knee sprains and strains, tendonitis, and overuse injuries. For male dancers, back injuries and rotator cuff injuries can also be problems and should be addressed proactively.
In your opinion, what are the best cross-training approaches for the dancer? Swimming, Pilates, Theraband exercises, and ball stability exercises are the ones we recommend to improve core strength, overall strength, balance, and flexibility for dancers. Also, for men, in order to prevent back and rotator cuff injuries, bicep curls and overhead dumbbell presses in the neutral position (with palms facing each other) are very helpful. Everyone should avoid push-ups with the elbows away from the body. This can aggravate the rotator cuff.
Strength and Balance
When I review Paul’s and Alyssa’s answers to my questions, I am reminded of Miss Ruth who always said, “Strength is balance, and balance is strength.” For more information about cross-training, healing from injuries, and building a healthy body, you can ask Paul and Alyssa.
Other resources include:
Deborah Vogel of Oberlin College and the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music writes and answers questions about dance technique and injury prevention
See also Eric Franklin’s book Conditioning for Dance
Lane Gormley is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Board Certified Coach at East Paces Counseling in Buckhead and
Ray of Hope Counseling Services in Kennesaw. She has taken class, taught, and participated in the GDC community for many years.