When it comes to physicality, dancers are athletes. Watch a New York Knicks game, for example, and you'll see the Knicks City Dancers work just as hard as the basketball players. Their routines are packed with energy and intensity. Plus, they continue performing on the sidelines, with little time to rest.
Dancers need lung power and muscle strength to push through energy-draining solos, tough choreography or four acts of Swan Lake. They also need it to prevent fatigue-related injuries. While you can make additions to your classes and rehearsals to push their stamina, dance alone will not build cardiovascular strength. Students need to supplement with cross-training to be in top physical condition.
In the Studio
There are ways to incorporate stamina-increasing exercises into technique class. "It has to be part of the curriculum that gets built up slowly," says Darla Hoover, associate artistic director of Ballet Academy East. By the time BAE students are 8, they're jumping for 10–15 minutes at the barre. Hoover has them do a series of slow jetés, for example, in which they brush, jump and hold plié. Students then remain in the position while she walks around to adjust their placement. "They have to wait while I'm fixing someone, even if their thighs burn. It's not fun. But those are the moments when they're getting stronger."
Once a week, advanced students at Savage Dance Company in Sykesville, Maryland, take a conditioning class that focuses on core work and upper-body strength, finishing with 20 minutes of an aerobic activity like jogging. "It's like a jazzercise class," says owner Nichole Savage. "The kids aren't worrying about a turn or leg extension, but concentrating on their heart rate and cardiovascular work."
You can also build stamina in rehearsals by running dances twice in a row. "The second time through will look dismal," says Hoover, "but when the students get onstage and do it only once, they'll have all the energy they need." Help them push through that second time by asking them to focus on breathing with the music. Slowing down the breath will oxygenate muscles and refocus energy and attention. Also, identifying less demanding parts of the choreography will help them learn where they can conserve energy. Not every step needs to be performed to 100 percent.
Though in-class exercises will build stamina, dancers need to do aerobic activity outside of the studio to reach greater cardiovascular and muscular endurance. If not, their bodies may learn to adjust to specific routines or class patterns without necessarily improving their overall strength.
"When dancers just take class and run through their routines, they develop stamina specifically for that routine and their bodies get used to it," says Monica Lorenzo, athletic trainer for the Radio City Rockettes and the Knicks City Dancers. "They need other activity to keep their bodies in their most ideal and efficient form."
Lorenzo recommends low-weight, high-rep weight training in combination with cardiovascular activity. "We do 30–60 minutes of cardiovascular training, like running, rowing or swimming; anything other than just dancing," she says. She particularly likes fusion Pilates with cardio blasts, a style that periodically raises the heart rate at intervals throughout the class.
Consistency will help students maintain their bodies throughout slow periods, like summer. Both of Lorenzo's troupes do four to six days of cross-training per week during off-season. Alternating days with strength training and cardiovascular workouts or balancing both activities in one day will help maintain energy and muscle tone. Hoover suggests fast walking; it doesn't require weights and is easy on the joints.
"Company members who get to the top are the ones who keep themselves in shape," says Hoover. "The same thing goes for students. They just can't take that month off in August."