Traditionally dancers, especially females, and especially in ballet, wouldn't consider strength training as a part of their essential dance training or education. Whether that's due to the believe that dance is an art, and therefore not requiring the same physical preparation of other athletic pursuits, or the fear of deviating from the perceived sylph-like ideal, any dancer not participating in some form of strength training is not only going to limit their body's physical capabilities, but more importantly expose themselves to higher risk of injury. Research has proven numerous times that dancers who supplement their dance training with strength training suffer less injuries.
Before we go any further, first let's address the most common fear raised by women (whether dancers or not) who avoid strength training:
I promise you, you are not going to turn butch because you lift. You can't. Your body lacks testosterone to build bulk muscle. It's hard enough for men to bulk up, far less women. If you want to pump your body full of hormone replacements and steroids, follow a horrifically unhealthy diet and literally never leave the gym, you might have a chance (and would probably still struggle), but otherwise stop worrying. It's physically impossible, your body is not built to do it. Initial gains in strength following strength training are a result of improved neuromuscular control. Your body learns to activate more of the muscle fibres that you already have, simply meaning strength training makes your body use what it has more efficiently. You aren't going to wake up with guns to rival Arnie's.
|This is not going to happen to you unless you start to seriously mess with your endocrine system. Stop panicking.|
Dancers are no different from any other athletes. The muscles, bones, connective tissues are all the same, all work the same, and all need to be developed the same. Strength training will not decrease your artistic ability, nor will it limit your movement patterns.
- Decreased likelihood of injury
- Improved balance between antagonistic muscles
- Improved active flexibility
- Greater muscular power (meaning higher jetes)
- Improved physical readiness for dance students beginning pointe work
Exclusive dance training does not provide enough of a stimulus for your body to make positive developments. What do I mean by that? Dance training itself, in terms of daily class, is not physically demanding enough to elicit significant change in the body. Yes, if someone does not do any physical exercise then taking up dance class will improve their overall fitness and strength levels. But for the full-time dancer or dance student, the stop-start nature of the class is not enough to produce significant gains to withstand the demands of performance.
Performance is not the same as rehearsal or class. The body must go full pelt for up to 3 hours, with minimal rest. Performance can be exhausting, and going from dance class where there is a short respite between each 3 minute exercise, to a full out performance schedule is equivalent to training for a marathon by running for no more than 2 miles at a time without a break.
To allow the body to make these gains in strength, supplemental strength training is essential. Many of the larger dance companies are now taking the lead and installing strength and conditioning gyms for dancers, or at least including strength training as a mandatory part of the dancers' training programme. Unfortunately for smaller companies, independent companies and for dancers working freelance on short term contracts, budgets aren't going to stretch to this. Cuts to Arts funding means it's difficult for dancers to get access to any of these perceived extras through their employers, even when employers recognise the importance of supplementary training.
Free weights make more sense for dancers (in fact for most people) than fixed weights as your motion is not limited by a machine, and you have to adjust and centre the weight yourself, activating more muscle fibres than you would using a machine. Weight machines can be great if you're injured or have limited mobility, however if you're going to start strength training you may as well do it right. Training with free weights mimics the demands of dance (and natural human movement) more closely as you have to control your own centre of balance while loading the weight. So don't run straight to a leg press machine, grab dumbbells, kettlebells and barbells and do some serious work!
Strength training should not be an option - it should be mandatory. You need to take responsibility for your own body, your performance and your health. If your company cannot provide you with strength training you need to make it a priority for yourself. See it as an insurance policy. Joining a gym is the easiest way for a freelancer to access strength training equipment, however if you can't afford monthly membership costs or you're away touring, there are still plenty of options for strength training that do not require equipment, and can be done using your own body weight in your own space.
A good initial online source of information is here. Don't be put off by the name, it's a useful resource for anyone new to strength training. You need to train your body to perform, if you're serious about your performance you should get fit in order to dance, not dance in order to get fit.