|Resource Paper: Dance Fitness|
The formal dance class has long been considered the cornerstone of training, providing all the technical, physical and aesthetic requirements of dance. In recent years a considerable amount of research has been carried out regarding the health of dancers. Findings from this research indicate that many dancers are not as fit and healthy as they could be. It has also been found that there is a discrepancy in the physical intensity level between training, rehearsal, and performance. This means that training methods, which are generally based on tradition, are not sufficient to help prepare dancers for the higher, more physically demanding aspects of performance. In light of these studies, and with increased understanding of the artistic and athletic needs of dancers in different genres, it is no longer acceptable to train dancers without preparing them physiologically for the demands of current choreographic work.1-5
What is Fitness, and Why is it Beneficial?
For dancers, the whole body (physical and psychological) is their instrument, their means of artistic expression. Dance calls upon all aspects of fitness. Good fitness is key to reducing the risk of injury, enhancing performance, and ensuring longer dancing careers. A healthy dancer is one who is in a state of being ‘well’ in both body and mind. A physically fit dancer is one who has the ability to meet the demands of a specific physical task at an optimal level. The goal of improving dancers’ fitness is to minimize the difference between the dancer’s individual maximal abilities and their performance requirements, so that they can become the best dancer possible.5,6
What Types of Fitness Are Most Important for a Dancer and Why?
While research indicates that some dance styles require certain elements of fitness more explicitly than others, in a well-rounded dance training program, it is necessary to consider all the components of fitness.
While any change in traditional dance training regimens must be approached cautiously to ensure that enhanced artistry and expression remain the primary goals, it may be suggested that unless dancers are physiologically honed to the same extent as they are artistically, their physical conditioning may potentially be the limiting factor in their development. Ignoring the physiological training of today’s dancers could eventually hamper the development of the art form. It is the continual responsibility of dance teachers and educators to develop their knowledge and understanding of the physiological demands of dance, and be aware of the options for either integrating physical fitness training into the technique class itself or providing it through supplementation.7,8
In a recent study, full time contemporary dance students completed a year of weekly dance fitness classes alongside their regular technique training. Students perceived positive physiological adaptations such as reductions in fatigue, improvement in general energy levels and an improved capacity in their dance classes to sustain technique and jumping ability. The importance of warm up and cool down was also commonly cited and the recognition of the relationship between fitness and injury prevention was highlighted.9
More than twenty years ago it was stated that the best dancers have an integrated combination of two talents: knowledge of what is to be expressed and the physical and mental tools to accomplish that expression. A dancer who is able to jump higher, balance longer and create illusions such as floating may not necessarily be a better dancer, but she does have the advantage of a greater range of tools with which to produce the desired images of dance choreography. Although a topic of continual debate, more recent research has since indicated that a fitter dancer is a better dancer.10,11
Which Activities Improve Various Types of Fitness?
Although there are variations among teachers, a primary intention of the technique class is dance skill acquisition. Developing high levels of technical skill and movement economy requires a different focus from developing the aerobic capacity of the dancer. However, technique classes can be modified to involve some degree of aerobic work, using simple repetitive movements. Simple movement repetition helps to stress the aerobic energy system rather than stress skill acquisition. Warm up could be conducted in a continuous manner at a higher intensity than normal, and center or traveling sequences could be longer, with less rest time, allowing an aerobic foundation to develop. Familiar movement combinations might be performed over consecutive classes, purely for the benefit of continuous repetition rather than artistic effect.6,12,19,20,21
For an optimal strength training program, it has been suggested that exercises be specific to the desired outcome. Strength training can involve very heavy weights/resistance with minimal repetitions for a relatively short amount of time, or exercises can involve light weights/resistance with many repetitions for a prolonged time. Each program targets a specific goal. A combination of high intensities (70 – 100% of maximum) and low volumes of work, two to three times a week, aims to increase muscle strength. A full recovery period (5 – 6 minutes) is essential between sets in this instance. Dancers wanting to increase muscle endurance are prescribed a combination of moderate intensities (60 – 70% maximum) and high volumes of work, three to four times a week. The rest periods are then shorter (2 – 4 minutes) so that the next set of exercises begins before full recovery.22,25,26
There are many different types of stretching including static (holding), dynamic (moving through the stretch), and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF; a method utilizing alternate contraction and relaxation). It is important to be aware of the advantages and disadvantages of each. For example, ballistic (bouncing) stretches are not considered useful and can lead to muscle soreness and injury. Contrary to the practice of many dancers, stretching to full range should be carried out when the body is warm, preferably after class.28,29,31,32
General Training Principles
The following variables of exercise training also need to be understood in constructing balanced training plans. Depending on the dancer’s training/performance goal, it is often necessary to progress to a higher level of difficulty by increasing the intensity, volume and/or frequency of training over time. Otherwise, the body simply adapts to the training and fitness levels plateau. Also fundamental to training is the concept of overload, which means that the body must be challenged above a certain threshold to provide sufficient stimulus for improvement to occur. Normally encountered stress will maintain but not increase the level of conditioning. For example, if the demands of a dance class are too similar from day to day there will be insufficient overload for desired improvement to take place. Sport literature describes another principle called specificity, and recommends that to develop motor abilities, training exercises should use similar technical patterns and kinematic structure to the particular activity for which it is preparing the athlete/dancer.5,6,22,36,37
Summary of Fitness Training Methods
The primary aim for a supplementary dance fitness class is for the structure and content of the class to be responsive to curriculum needs. Intensity and duration of exercises need to be considered. It is also recommended that recovery techniques become a part of the overall training program, alternating between work and rest. The dancers’ heart rates and/or perceptions of how hard they feel they are working (rate of perceived exertion) can be monitored regularly to ensure that the intensity level is appropriate to elicit a training response.38 Functional fitness training should precede more dance-based movement that increasingly replicates vocabulary from technique classes. For example, plyometric training can be introduced, initially using basic parallel foot positions, and later modified to include turned out positions, which more closely mimic the type of jumps seen in dance. Upper body strength exercises can gradually progress to incorporate partner lifting of varying speeds and complexities. During the final phase, a mixture of all fitness parameters can be structured into a circuit-type class, reflecting the variety of activity and speed of succession that would be encountered in a dance class or performance.21
How Can Fitness Be Measured?
The applicability of laboratory tests and training regimes from sport to dance is questionable and it is becoming increasingly necessary to gather relevant data and qualitative observations (physiological and psychological) in order to develop specific methods of promoting and assessing dance fitness.14,18
Heart rate measures are key to assessing aerobic capacity. The fitter a dancer is, the slower the heart needs to beat to pump an adequate volume of blood to the rest of the moving body. The gold standard laboratory test to measure aerobic capacity is the maximal oxygen uptake test (VO2max), which involves running, swimming, or cycling, while the highest level of oxygen that can be sustained in the body is measured. A more dance specific aerobic fitness test (DAFT) has been developed in recent years, which is a submaximal multistage test that correlates to particular levels of dance fitness capabilities. Rather than running on a treadmill, the dancer’s heart rate is measured while they perform simple choreographed movements that gradually increase in intensity.2,6
Measuring anaerobic fitness can prove challenging because the anaerobic energy systems are utilized for such a short period of time (e.g., the first 30 – 60 seconds of maximal intensity exercise). Laboratory tests include the Wingate Anaerobic bike Test (WAnT), which measures lower limb power, while pedaling on a stationary bike as hard as one can for 30 seconds, against a resistance that is proportional to one’s own body weight. A test that is more specific to dance is the vertical jump height test, which assesses how high the dancer can jump and therefore evaluates explosive muscular power in the lower extremity. More recently, a high intensity dance specific fitness test has been validated, that provides a means of assessing and monitoring dancers’ capacity to dance at near maximal intensities. This test allows dancers to be appraised within an environment to which they are accustomed (the studio), using a mode of exercise that is relevant (dance), and is of adequate intensity to be representative of performance.6,39,40
Various isokinetic machines (computerized equipment with speed and resistance capabilities) and dynamometers (e.g., handgrip, back, leg) can measure specific muscular strength and endurance. Flexibility and joint mobility can be assessed using flexometers and goniometers, which measure joint angles in the body.39
Body composition can be measured in a variety of ways. Skinfold measurements assess subcutaneous fat at particular areas of the body whereas bioelectrical impedance measures total body water by way of an electrical current that flows through the body, where lean muscle tissue conducts better than fat. While both assessments result in a percentage of adipose tissue (fat tissue) present in the body, bioelectrical impedance is less accurate.34
Are There Any Important Considerations Teachers Need to Make?
While technique classes focus on neuromuscular coordination, the length of a traditional class may not be adequate to meet all of the dancer’s conditioning needs. The amount of space available, the numbers of students, and the time required for teaching and correcting also have an impact on work rate. Therefore, in order to achieve efficient and optimal development of dance skills, conditioning work over and above daily technique class has been recommended.6,12,19,20
Researchers state that regardless of performance level, talent, form of dance, gender, or age, all dancers have to use some or all of the elements of fitness during their daily practice. It is important to remember that particular groupings of dancers may have varying abilities and physical knowledge, so care must be taken to construct safe and appropriate regimens. For example, adolescent dancers can experience a rapid decrease in proprioception (internal body awareness), coordination, and strength due to the growth spurt. For vocational dance students, who have slightly different training goals than professionals, fatigue can contribute to injury occurrence, so the emphasis of fitness training should be on aerobic conditioning. However, sessions should also include rest, muscular strength, endurance, and power work.1,6,8,21
Assessing, observing and researching the specific characteristics of dance assist dancers and their teachers to improve training techniques, to employ effective injury-prevention strategies and to determine better standards of health and physical conditioning. As we understand and develop more appropriate dance training methodologies, dancers can reap the benefits of enhanced performance, reduced injury and ultimately longevity in their careers.
Written by Sarah Irvine, MSc, Emma Redding, PhD and Sonia Rafferty, MSc under the auspices of the Education and Media Committees of IADMS.
This paper may be reproduced in its entirety for educational purposes, provided acknowledgement is given to the "International Association for Dance Medicine & Science."
Copyright © 2011 International Association for Dance Medicine & Science (IADMS), IADMS and Sarah Irvine, MSc, Emma Redding, PhD and Sonia Rafferty, MSc