A dancer’s intense training often results in overuse of muscles, wreaking havoc on her body. And because most dancers’ workout regimens tend to concentrate on core conditioning and increasing flexibility, they overlook the need for strength and cardiovascular training—exercises essential to preventing injury. Noticing this in their own dancing and teaching practices, movement and fitness specialists Meredith Koloski and Jennifer Walker were prompted to develop a well-rounded conditioning program for dancers.
The two met at Arizona State University while MFA candidates. They combined their expertise in dance, dance kinesiology, Pilates and sports medicine and in 2008, launched Optimal Fitness, a three-part program that tests body balance and builds a
system of strength training, core conditioning, flexibility and cardiovascular exercise tailored to individual needs.
“The exercises and assessments in this program were created from personal experiences of learning how to activate and strengthen different muscles to balance out my dance technique,” says Koloski, who has since settled in Philadelphia, where she choreographs, teaches and works as a personal trainer. “I realized that most dancers don’t know how to activate their muscles, like the glutes or hamstrings. The program helped me heal from chronic dance-related injury and to balance out my body better, which strengthened my dancing.”
Koloski and Walker implemented Optimal Fitness into the Junior Repertory Company at Dancers’ Workshop in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where Walker is the school director and Koloski was serving as a one-year guest artist. To conduct part one, the two teachers assessed each dancer’s muscular imbalances, overuse injuries and training needs, while observing the dancers in various positions. They followed a comprehensive packet of diagrams, questionnaires and fill-in charts to answer such questions as: “Does the pelvis tend to tilt forward or backward?” “Do their arches fall in or out?” “Do the knees fall in or out?” and “Do the shoulders roll forward or backward?” If a dancer squats or does a pelvic lift with her knee falling in, for example, it means her inner thigh is weak. They then assessed core strength, balance, agility and flexibility in a similar method.
Cardiovascular fitness was tested last. This is the biggest problem area for dancers, says Koloski, since technique class is greatly anaerobic. “Some dancers give out within three minutes of cardio activity, especially ballet students,” she says. To perform the test, dancers did jumping jacks to a steady beat for three minutes. Each dancer’s pulse was then taken for one minute. The lower the heart rate, the fitter the dancer.
Once the assessments were complete, Koloski and Walker helped their dancers set personal goals and design individualized training programs to accomplish outside of class. “This could be a series of exercises to do at home, in a small group or private class in Pilates, functional training or cardio-focused sessions,” says Walker. She encouraged students to go swimming, take group classes like Zumba or kickboxing or even try hiking for extra cardio.
The third and final portion of Optimal Fitness involves bringing injury-prevention training into the studio, so dancers become familiar with what muscles to activate. “It only requires 7 to 10 minutes during warm-up or technique class, once dancers have learned the proper method for the exercises,” says Koloski. “Before ballet, I start with floor work,” says Walker, who is also the rehearsal director, choreographer and performer with Contemporary Dance Wyoming. “I implement Pilates into floor barre. Standing, we work on pelvic alignment. If time is an issue, doing interval training of jumping jacks, mountain climbers or step-ups with strength training in between will allow dancers to get great cardio.” Their strength-training drills include: squats, lunges, scapula stretching and ab work.
Although the program has yet to grow beyond the creators and their direct students, Koloski and Walker have experienced successful results. “One student sprained her ankle last year and tore some ligaments. She has had a hard time coming back,” says Walker. “We realized she was not activating her core when jumping, and she had some unevenness in her landing. Now I can see the difference in her movements.” DT
Brianne Carlon has a BS in journalism from Kent State University and danced professionally for the Cleveland Cavalier Girls.
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Walker