Since its inception in 1990, Dianne Rosso’s Dance for the Athlete program at Glen Burnie High School in Maryland has grown to 300 students a year, with waiting lists for the five classes each semester. “Every single sport the school offers has been
represented,” says Rosso, who teaches students a mix of genres ranging from contemporary modern to Latin. “It’s the most popular course at our school. Our shows pull in more people than the homecoming football game . . . everyone loves to see the athletes involved
in dance.”

So why are athletes embracing dance? Many believe that dance fundamentals can enhance athletic performance by increasing agility,
precision, flexibility and timing. Although this concept isn’t exactly new (Roni Mahler was hired in 1984 to teach a 12-week series of ballet classes to the Cleveland Browns NFL team), pop-culture trailblazers like Grease’s Danny Zuko and High School Musical’s Troy Bolton have inspired a new
generation of athletes, proving it can be cool to explore their artistic sides. Add to that the recent victories of football legend Emmitt Smith, speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno and Olympic figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi on “Dancing with the Stars,” and it’s no wonder that greater numbers of athletes are beginning to hit the dance floor.

Athletes can also benefit from dance’s rehabilitative and injury-preventive qualities. According to Shaw Bronner, who has treated athletes and
is a physical therapist for The Ailey School and Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, taking dance classes can actually accelerate an injured athlete’s recovery. “[They] often want to get back to the field prematurely, and dance allows them to work on certain skills that augment what they’re doing in traditional rehab,” she says.

By targeting jocks, your studio can diversify its customer base and attract an entirely new audience. Read on to find out how to make it a win-win
situation for everyone.

Do your homework.

To develop or incorporate dance classes for athletes, it’s important to become familiar with the ins and outs of various sports. “People in the sport aren’t going to appreciate a dance teacher coming in and not focusing on what they’re doing on the field,” says Grace Maxwell, owner of Athletic Grace Dance Studio in El Segundo, California. “When marketing yourself to athletes, make sure you understand the physicality of each sport and know why it’s important for them to dance—from reducing injuries to building endurance.”

Rosso agrees that sports knowledge is a must: When preparing her Dance for the Athlete curriculum, she observed soccer, football and basketball practices. “I took notes on the drills and footwork each coach used, then went back to the studio and incorporated them into
the music.”

Relating to a sport also makes class instruction easier. Maxwell recalls one student who was able to nail a
troublesome swing dance turn after she likened the wrist rotation to a
martial arts movement, and basketball players who mastered the grapevine in hip-hop class when she compared it to one of their drills. “When I describe movement in a way that reflects their sport, it clicks much better with them,” she says.

Make class athlete-friendly.

By making appropriate attire choices, a studio owner greatly increases his or her odds of endearing athletes to dance. Just ask Julian Littleford, a former principal dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company who now spends his days training athletes at his Del Mar, CA–based Pilates studio, JL Body Conditioning Inc. “Many athletes are nervous about going to class and would never dream of wearing tights and ballet shoes,” he says. “They’re going to feel more comfortable if both they and the instructor are in sweatpants and socks.”

The right music can also go a long way toward making athletes feel comfortable in class. Maxwell and Rosso recommend forgoing the classics for upbeat jazz or contemporary tunes, even when teaching ballet. “High school–aged students are not going to be as enthusiastic about dancing to classical music or learning strict ballet techniques,” Rosso cautions. “You’ll get more out of the students by using non-traditional ways to incorporate pliés and relevés, as well as putting those movements to music they can relate to.”

Maxwell agrees: “Shows like ‘DWTS’ are incredibly popular because they don’t use classical waltz music. I use tango or even cha-cha tunes in
ballet class—it just keeps students
more engaged.”

Tailor the techniques.

Along with learning about specific sports and incorporating elements of them in class, it’s also crucial to understand how certain dance techniques can play into athletic performance. Stretching should be an integral part of any athlete-oriented dance class, as it’s often lacking in sports training. Try implementing some of the following ideas as well:

  • Rosso: “Although you might not get as technical as you would with advanced ballerinas, you can certainly do pas de bourrées, chassés, tendus, dégagés—[what] you’d teach beginners—without getting so much into terminology . . . it’s about the right approach.”
  • Maxwell: “In my Ballet for Skaters class, I incorporate ballet principles from a skating perspective. When we do ballet barre, we work in parallel position as well as turnout. When we get to center, we’ll change into dance sneakers and work on multi-rotational jumps.”
  • Littleford: “Forward and back port de bras will help with trunk movement and hamstrings. Any rond de jambe series, along with the grand battement series, will help with hip mobility. Tendus are very good as well because they sensitize the feet. As far as stretching, all abductor and hamstring stretches are major for any athlete.”

Although the jury is divided on whether to offer athlete-specific dance classes or integrate athletes into existing classes, all agree that dancers themselves are equally as athletic as those coming off the field or court. “I truly believe that dancers and athletes are one and the same,” says Littleford. “Dancers have to make pretty pictures, whereas athletes are judged in a split moment on whether they caught the ball, but it’s all the same movements. Many athletes say after taking dance class that it was the hardest thing they’ve ever done, and the results are quite astounding.” DT

Jen Jones is a freelance writer and certified BalleCore instructor in Los Angeles. Her website is www.creative-groove.com.

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