On Training Dancers
(Note from Mark: The below article was written for a website that offers education for trainers. They approached me to talk about training dancers, and I obliged with this here article. Although it’s written for trainers, I think most folks (especially dancers) can learn a thing or two by seeing how we approach dancers. I also apologize, since I had to make it all professional and shit, it’s distinctly lacking in f bombs. I hope you can fucking forgive me.)
Being located in midtown Manhattan, Mark Fisher Fitness is the premier training hub for many of Broadway’s most accomplished dancers. We take a lot of pride in being able to apply the most progressive training protocols to a population that doesn’t generally get a lot of attention in the fitness world. This lack of attention is to probably to be expected. Let’s face it, most trainers are far more interested in MMA than ABT (… google it).
As fitness pros, it’s an honor to work with people who’ve dedicated their lives to reaching personal peaks of artistry through movement. And although dancers display some of the most awe-inspiring athleticism you’ll ever get to see, they do carry special considerations. So if you’re not particularly familiar with the world of jazz hands, this article should give you a handle on how to work with dancers.
Most folks know dancers are flexible. And generally speaking this is true, but you’d be surprised how often dancers are getting their range of motion from less-than-ideal places. Not unlike the general population, dancer ankles and hip flexors are often super tight. And even more so than those chained to a desk all day, they often develop excessive mobility in less than ideal places. For instance, tight hips often lead to too much movement at the lumbar spine so dancers can create more range of motion. Anyone familiar with the Joint By Joint theory or the work of Dr. Stuart McGill knows this is a bad scene.
Pretty sure most folks would rip in two if they tried this.
Be wary of assuming they’ll have good mobility just because they’re dancers. Since the best performers are often the best compensators, many elite dancers are able to create some beautiful aesthetic qualities on a base of a dysfunctional movement foundation. Be sure to look at their mobility with a discerning eye and do some baseline assessments or screening, like the FMS. If necessary hammer soft tissue work, correctives, and mobility exercises.
Most dancers think more movement is inherently better. It’s not uncommon for a dancer to come in and lament their lack of flexibility, then display 135 degrees of hip flexion. And while more mobility CAN be useful for them, if they’re writing checks with their mobility that they’re stability bank can’t cash… they’re going to run into problems. Even if they avoid injury, they won’t be able to fully realize their potential as artists.
This is obviously interrelated to the point about mobility above, but make sure they have ample core and 1 leg stability. Powerlifters know “you can’t shoot a canon out of a canoe,” but dancers don’t always appreciate how much their core stability will limit their ability to be graceful while jumping or maximize their height. Furthermore, it’s difficult to nail multiple turns (or “pirouettes”) if there’s compromised hip stability. It’s also worth noting since turning is a one leg activity, a highly functioning lateral subsystem is going to be key here, so don’t neglect true one leg work. In other words, split squats are useful as a regression or to build the foundation, but be sure to progress to exercises like box step-ups to balance.
3. Landing Mechanics
In the strength and conditioning world at large, there are often passionate debates as to the appropriate amount of jumping for athletes. Excessive plyometrics can represent a skewed risk to benefit ratio for many coaches.
Unfortunately, since most forms of dancing require ample amounts of jumping, dancers don’t have the luxury of limiting their jumping volume. Therefore it’s super important to make sure their landing mechanics are spot on. Much like in a game, dancers can’t afford to think about their technique while performing or auditioning, so it’s important for their training to hammer in good mechanics.
Certainly addressing mobility and stability as described above will go a long way towards cleaning things up. Even so, taking some dedicated time to work out on the fine points of landing mechanics is a great idea. Many elite dancers will be adept at using their foot musculature to decelerate upon impact, but make sure females in particular cultivate the ability to landing with out caving into valgus collapse. As always, progression is key here; if they’re unable to stabilize in a less dynamic environment, regress as appropriate until they’re ready to handle the increased demands of jumping.
Although I won’t go into great detail here as it’s beyond the scope of this article (and potentially beyond the scope of practice and/ or skill set of many trainers), nutrition is sometimes a very important part of the equation. MFF’s specialty is “health and hotness”; we strive to make our clients bulletproof, but we’re often hired so they feel better about spending a lot of their day in leotards or booty shorts or the occasional cat suit.
Just another day at the office for theater dancers
Since it’s difficult to out train the diet, it’s important to educate dancers seeking physique goals that their nutritional intake will be a big part of their success. This is often particularly critical in dancer populations, as they tend to already be very active. Sometimes Executive Joe can come in and see some nice body composition changes just by taking up training, but this isn’t usually gonna be the case with someone who uses their body for a living.
Just like the general population, dancers often mistakenly believe they can just add a bunch of weight training and/ or cardio and make profound changes in their physique.
If necessary, refer out to a qualified nutritionist, but at the least make sure you’re setting the proper expectations out the gate.
This last one is perhaps the trickiest, but also probably the most important. We all know trainers need to be leaders and motivators. All clients are unique, and most humans have some psychological baggage that’s limiting them from reaching their full potential.
Being a dancer is HARD. It’s hard on the body to put in that much physical work day in and day out. It’s hard to make a living in a field that doesn’t tend to pay a lot even in the best of scenarios. And it’s hard emotionally to consistently perform at a high level at auditions and/ or in shows, while perpetually looking for more employment during what is usually a short career.
Although I have the advantage of having a dance background and spending most of my social time with professional dancers, even a trainer without this advantage should appreciate the life of dancer can be a hard one. The very culture of the dance world can at times be psychologically abusive and lend itself to eating disorders, insecurity, and any number of emotional issues. Dancers are often taught that pain is something to be pushed through. It can be a long journey teaching them to delineate between good pain and bad pain, as well as giving them the courage to not push through the latter.
Never forget that having empathy will go a long way towards inspiring dancers to trust you and break out of their comfort zone. They may be comfortable with movement, but they’re usually not comfortable in the gym environment and they often have body issues. Be respectful of the fact that many of the things you may believe about ideal training practices may be challenging to dancers. Take the time to build the rapport and to paraphrase Mike Boyle, never forget they need to know how much you care before they’ll care how much you know.
I am very passionate about taking care of dancers. They create art with their bodies and they make personal and physical sacrifices to add beauty to the world. I’m relentless (read: OBSESSED) in my pursuit of the most effective ways to improve the artistry, quality of life, and longevity of recreational and professional dancers. I understand most trainers aren’t in markets where dancers will make up a large percentage of their clientele. That said, if you do find yourself with a dancer as a client, it’s my hope this article will give you a deeper understanding of their movement needs. I can also promise you this; you will find few clients more satisfying to work with or more enjoyable to train.