When I was learning to dance I couldn't wait to start pointe work - just like every other girl learning ballet. At my school we were allowed to go on pointe once we got into a certain class (I can't remember which one now, however most of us were between 11-13 years old). It was a rite of passage to start pointe, to get the beautiful, horribly painful shoes and begin weeks of tedious barre work that seemed to go on forever and somewhat killed the romantic notion I had of dancing on my tiptoes. It's such a big step for girls doing ballet that the last thing they're ever going to consider is whether their body is ready for it.
Ah nostalgia, my first ever pair of Swanildas
A colleague of mine did her MSc thesis looking at what criteria dance schools used to assess a girl's readiness to begin pointe work. The results were pretty depressing. Nearly every school used age (usually 12) as the determining factor. Some, like mine, used level. Which worked out about the same as age. Almost none even considered strength or physiology.
Okay it's a long one, but it's important so bare with me - strength training is probably one of the most important aspects of preventing dance injury. Dance injuries have two main causes - some are due to flawed technique, some are due to a lack of strength, and some are due to flaws in technique that stem from a lack of strength.
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 am sad to hear that Justin Howse, co-founder of the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science, founder of the Remedial Dance Clinic in London, Orthopaedic Surgeon and consultant to numerous British dance companies and sporting institutions including the Royal Academy of Dance and English National Ballet, has passed away at the age of 83.
Mr Howse played a pivotal role in the development of performing arts medicine; his research brought recognition to the need for a medical understanding of issues facing dancers and his work has greatly improved health, injury prevention and rehabilitation of performing arts professionals around the world.
In 2010 Justin was awarded the IADMS Lifetime Service Award. Both the dance world and the medical profession have lost a true pioneer; he will be sorely missed.
The role of the dance teacher is a lot more than just teaching young children to point their toes or producing a performance a couple of times a year. Unfortunately there's plenty of teachers out there that see their job as little more than this. I'll save this for another day - but do your research and be selective about who you are willing to take on as a teacher, there are too many people in the profession that are still not adequately qualified. Anyway, I digress...
The dance teacher of children and young people has the task of not only teaching syllabus, honing technique and sharing the basics of a complicated and varied art form; they also have a responsibility for the physical development of the students under their instruction. This goes for any genre of dance, from ballet and contemporary to hip-hop and bhangra. In fact it goes further than that, it goes to any professional working with young people in any physical discipline - from dance to martial arts to athletics. The student is essentially at your mercy.
The end of a year always seems to result in a great deal of reflection on the past 12 months, of what should have happened, of what could have and resolutions of what's going to change in the next 12 months. For a lot (most) people, this tends to be fruitless introspection that leads to a couple of weeks of good intentions and no real changes. Let's consider a way to actually make use of it this year.
It's okay to take your foot off the gas and relax a little over Christmas. If you're performing over the festive season you're still going to be active, if you're not performing you can allow yourself a break. Drop in classes tend to tail off for a couple of weeks so use it as time to go to the gym, exercise outside or do something different. Your body will thank you for the change of pace.
With this period being one of the busiest for most performers, it's important that if you get a chance to relax and see your family and friends that you make the most of it. Don't overdo the work, let yourself unwind for a day or two, don't worry too much about the amount of food or alcohol consumed - the damage of a day is negligible and the damage of a few days will be cancelled out in no time. When you've been going flat out since September there's always a risk of running yourself down or burning out. There's no harm in taking some time out and enjoying yourself and you'll be in a better state to continue with the rest of the season.
If you are performing over the festive period still take time to enjoy your day off. If you're on tour, make a point of having a day that breaks the grind on Christmas, even if you can't make it back home. It's important both mentally and physically to feel you're not being worn down; even just for a day, a change of pace will make the rest of the run easier.
This year's Prix de Lausanne candidates have been announced. I'm genuinely excited to see the new rising talents perform in January. Every year there's a wealth of amazing international young dancers coming through the ranks and it's wonderful to see the best of them competing at the Prix.
Since I've discussed flexibility and turnout, it's probably worth talking about stretching in a little more detail. We all stretch regularly, whether it's making a concerted effort in class, or for 60 seconds between barre and centre work, it punctuates our days at regular intervals.
How much you get from stretching and how safely you are doing it will vary greatly depending on the type of stretching you do:
Perfect turnout. Very few people have it, very few people's hips are built to turn out to 180 degrees. This frequently leads to over-compensating through pronated feet and twisted knees which in turn places strain on the ligaments of the knee, and increases likelihood of ankle, knee and hip injury occurring.
Your turnout is largely determined, like your flexibility, by how your skeleton is built. In spite of this however there is still plenty of supplemental training that can improve what you're working with. Improving core strength, pelvic alignment, posture and balance can make a considerable difference to what you can achieve, as will strengthening your deep lateral rotator muscles (which are located deep underneath your glutes), the Sartorius and the adductors, all of which are responsible for turnout. More than improving your turnout, developing these will further improve your technique and general alignment.
It's the time of year when everyone gets sick, pretty much without exception. As I type this laryngitis currently has me sounding like a chipmunk with a 20 a day habit. It's also one of the busiest times of year for performers; Christmas shows and New Year Galas mean you're going to have to get off your ass and into the theatre whether you feel like up to it or not.
When performed right, a well executed développé looks damn impressive. Unfortunately for most people it's a struggle to get them as high as you want and make it look easy, and it's frustrating when you have the range of motion, just not the strength to achieve it. I worked with a dancer whose passive range of motion was incredible at 176 degrees, but unsupported her leg was barely above 90. We worked on a simple set of strengthening exercises and her active range of motion was notably improving within weeks.
One of the problems when dancers try to build strength to improve développés is they target the wrong muscles. For developpe a la seconde, you need to work on hip flexion, external rotation and abduction. Leg strength alone isn't going to get your leg up there. You need to strengthen the hip flexors and train your body to hold your turnout throughout the extension (if you want specifics, you're working on the iliopsoas, rectus femoris and Sartorius). In extension a la seconde your muscle is in an extreme range of contraction, and so produces less force than at less extreme ranges, the only way to counter this is strength training!
I don't like skinny ballet dancers. I said it and I'll say it again. I don't like watching skeletons dance around the stage looking like they're going to collapse the minute they get into the wings. Thin is one thing, slim is another, some people are just naturally petite. Fine - if it's natural.
I would always rather watch an athlete hurl themselves across the stage with complete control over what their body is doing than a cadavernous shadow that looks like one more grande jetémay break them. Dance is a tough career path, why compromise the one tool you have? I'm glad the status quo of the emaciated ballerina has started to crumble in recent years, it can only be a good thing for the art form as a whole to promote well trained athletes at the forefront of modern ballet.
So vitamin D is pretty much my favourite thing in the world to talk about right now. Seriously. Without going into a full thesis on the reasons you need it (and probably a lot more of it than you're getting) if you work inside, train inside, rehearse inside or live anywhere above 40 degrees north of the equator (that's most of Europe and about half of the USA) you're likely to have insufficient levels of it. A huge number of people, even those living in countries with long hours of sunlight have been shown to have insufficient, if not deficient levels. You're more likely to be at risk if you have a low calorie intake and low levels of body fat, so it won't come as a surprise that 70% of dancers tested have been shown to have below acceptable levels.
I'll be honest, a proper concerted effort to stretch tends to be saved for classes where I'm made to, and moments in front of the TV when I feel guilty for being lazy. Normally after being in the gym, at training sessions, or going for a run, the last thing I want to do is spend 15 minutes stretching off - if it's not been a straight dance session I'm not the best at making myself commit to it. Hitting the showers always seems so much more appealing. Today, seized by a moment of out of character good sense, I came in from a run and actually made a concerted effort to stretch and have made a subsequent decision to push myself back into good habits.
(Note: a couple of plies and shouldering your leg in front of the mirror does not constitute stretching properly).
Atalanta will be launched fully in early 2013 - providing fitness training for dancers; dance science consultancy for dance companies, colleges and schools, biomechanics screening for dancers and athletes and outreach work with local dance schools. Alongside the dance science services, the Atalanta website will be launched in the new year.
In the meantime this blog will be a place for dance related fitness advice, updates on the latest dance science research, news on events and therapies relevant to dancers, and my general musings on anything related to training and performance.