I have, according my dance teachers, the "perfect dancer body." My legs are hyperextended and I have perfect turnout. If I have the "perfect dancer body," then why does my body hurt so much while I dance?
Photo by Jim Lafferty; modeled by Sydney Magruder, courtesy of Broadway Dance Center
"If you don't have strong abdominal muscles, you sag into your lower back, your pelvis usually tips and you're hanging out and slumped into your hip joints," says Deborah Vogel, movement analyst, neuromuscular expert and co-founder of the Center for Dance Medicine in New York City. "It just has this whole chain reaction."
The effects of poor core strength can be dire for dancers: from weak and tight hip flexors, which negatively impact extensions, to lower-back discomfort and misaligned shoulders and necks. "Having well-toned abdominals for your posture is the primary reason why you should do stabilizing exercises," says Vogel. "It will allow you to bring your pelvis into correct alignment and good posture."
I am on summer break right now, and I am worried about losing some of the strength that I gained last year. Do you know of anything I can do during my time off to maintain my leg, back, core and arm strength? Is swimming good for strength training?
ABT Studio Company member Virginia Lensi. Photo by Kyle Froman
What is the key to getting higher extensions to the front and side? I've gotten many suggestions to use my psoas, but during all of the exercises I've done to try to strengthen them, I always end up using my hip flexor. —Hadley
Marika Molnar directs the physical therapy department at New York City Ballet. Here, she works with principal Ana Sophia Scheller. Photo by Rachel Papo
In her work as director of physical therapy for New York City Ballet, Marika Molnar relies on tools like bands, balls and Pilates equipment to rehabilitate and strengthen dancers. She says there's a place for such tools in daily dance classes, as well. Resistance and stability tools can help students develop strength and even break bad habits. "Say someone is compensating because of a weakness or restriction—that's what they're always going to do," she says, even after a teacher corrects them repeatedly. "If you give them something that makes things a little unfamiliar, their brain has to participate more. It becomes not only a physical exercise but a cognitive one." The dancer learns in a new way, and improves.
Molnar has collaborated with Pilates expert Joan Breibart and PTs at Westside Dance Physical Therapy to create a series of tools and exercises with dancers' training and recovery needs in mind. Here, she shares three of her favorites.
Photo by Emily Giacalone; modeled by Caitlin Dutton-Reaver and Jennifer Roit
The pressure for female dancers to be slim and feather-light is often at odds with their need to be strong. This contradiction is especially misleading in partnering. "Sometimes, a woman who has more muscle mass may weigh more but is actually easier to lift because she's stronger," says Matt Kent, associate artistic director of Pilobolus. "You don't want to be a sack of sand. Any male Pilobolus dancer can tell you the difference between lifting with a woman who has that kind of strength and one who doesn't."
Most ballet teachers like to reserve the last part of class for jumping, a time when students happily try to defy gravity and take flight. But some dancers have difficulty getting off the ground. Maybe they don't use their plié or struggle to coordinate their arms and legs to achieve a strong position in the air. “Dancers have to be patient and set themselves up properly," says Philip Neal, artistic director of Next Generation Ballet in Tampa, Florida. “Developing good jumps is a process, not an event." The key parts to that process? All good jumps require good placement, rhythm and practice.
In our June issue’s Health column we share some exercises for your best upper body.
Once students are properly aligned and ready to begin strength training, our experts recommend exercises for stability, then strength. They use small, subtle movements to develop overall stability in the upper body. Note: It is important to do each exercise gently and slowly. If you try to push too hard or fast, you could start engaging the wrong muscle groups.
Try this shoulder press to engage the stabilizing muscles in your shoulders and back.
Sitting on a chair, bed or the floor, place a yoga ball next to you, right beside your body (on a separate chair or on the floor). A 65-centimeter ball should be about the right height.
Extend your arm 90 degrees to the side to rest it on top of the ball, keeping your arm straight.
Gently press down on the ball for a count of four, then release.
It’s important to maintain the proper placement used in the stabilizing exercises during regular upper-body workouts. When flattening the scapulae against your back, be careful not to round the spine. Keep it neutral, and think of wrapping the shoulder blades around the ribs. You want to spread the scapulae away from one another, not flex the thoracic spine.