The 3 Things Dancers Should Be Doing During A Break
When the school holidays pop up out of nowhere throughout the year, my inbox always floods with emails from students or parents asking for private lessons during the break. Dancers are terrified that they will lose their entire term’s worth of progress in the 2 week break and they’re desperate to drill as much technical knowledge into their brains and bodies as we can squeeze into a one hour lesson!
Stress less dancers! Of course, if you do absolutely nothing to maintain your fitness and skill level during a break, then you will feel it in your muscles in your first week back at dance. However, pushing your body to extremes while unsupervised and not allowing your muscles and your mind adequate time to rest and recover can be even more detrimental to your training than doing nothing at all.
Dancers are athletes, and all athletes need to be kind to their bodies during time off. This means keeping up a level of fitness that will allow you to pick up where you left off once you return to training, but it also means taking advantage of the time to recuperate. Dancers are also artists, whose minds and emotions are often pushed to extremes. A break is a chance to regain motivation and clear your head of any negativity or self-doubt. These 3 things will assist you in maintaining, or even improving upon all the hard work you’ve put in throughout the term:
It would be worthwhile to book in some private time with a coach who you trust and who knows you well, to work out a conditioning program that would be personalised for your own strengths and weaknesses. However, for myself and for the vast majority of students that I’ve worked with over the years, the most important areas of the body to target during a break would be the feet, calves, glutes and abdominals.
Feet: Theraband, theraband, theraband! Maintaining strength in and around the feet and ankles is vital to protect the metatarsal bones from injury (especially if you’re training en pointe). 15-20 reps of your favourite theraband exercises every day during a break will assist in avoiding injury once returning to dance.
Calves: the majority of classically trained dancers will have been set the task of
demonstrating up to 32 calf rises during their training. If you do this often in your training, you will have noticed that at the beginning of each term, it is almost unbearably fatiguing and sometimes painful to achieve 32, and yet by the end of the term you will have built up enough strength to reach this goal relatively easily. If you keep up your calf rises during the break (even just 16 per leg each day), your progress in building strength in this area will not be lost upon returning to training. Calf strength is essential in achieving elevation and control in allegro and careful articulation in pointe work.
Glutes: that pesky turnout is something that we all lose control of very quickly during a break, particularly younger dances who are still growing. This is because the Quadratus Femoris, which is one of the muscles that controls our rotation, is a small and naturally very weak muscle. Clams are perhaps the most common exercise dancers do to strengthen their Glutes. However, unless done very carefully and thoughtfully, they can target other Glute muscles such as the Gluteus Medius, which is a larger muscle that is very important for stabilising the hip joint, however dancers often overuse it for activating rotation. Instead, try kneeling on all fours next to a table (or something stable) with a theraband tied around one ankle, and one leg of the table. Then carefully pull your lower leg against the resistance of the theraband, and concentrate on engaging the Quadratus Femoris and lower Glueus Maximus. 10 repetitions of this exercise per leg each day may feel very easy, but it will assist in getting your body to understand what activating those smaller muscles feels like. This will benefit you when you return to class and need to control your rotation.
Abdominals: We’ve all heard dance teachers harp on about ‘engaging the core’, and that’s because having a strong centre is vital to achieve virtually any classical ballet step. While a student’s body is growing, muscle strength takes time to catch up to the longer limbs and torso. The abdominal muscles are deep and hard to target, so they often lose strength rapidly during time off. Some full body weight Pilates exercises, such as holding a one minute plank, will help to maintain strength in the core while away from the studio.
2. Light cardio & gentle stretching
Stamina is something that I personally struggle with even at my peak performance level. Many ballet dancers feel the same because what we do is so stop-start. This is why during a break it’s important to maintain or increase your lung capacity. Many forms of cardio however, have high impact on joints such as ankles and knees. Swimming, going for a long walk, or using the cross-trainer are some of the safest ways for dancers to improve their stamina without causing stress to the body. During your time off however, there’s no need to push your body to it’s maximum during a cardio workout. It’s more important to just get the blood flowing and the heart rate up to a comfortable level.
A dynamic stretch before your cardio workout, and a gentle static stretch afterwards, will be beneficial to maintaining your flexibility. A recent trend in dance shows young dancers practising ballistic stretching, which includes extreme over-splitting and ‘whacking’ legs and backs into hyper-extended positions. This is in no way correct for achieving mobility that will be long-lasting, in fact it could cause muscles and joints to become weaker and more prone to injury. For older and more advanced dancers, Isometric stretching is one of the most effective ways of increasing flexibility. Isometric stretching involves the muscles engaging and resisting first, and then holding a static stretch. For younger dancers, a mix of dynamic and static stretching once the body is warm will be most effective for achieving maximum mobility.
For dancers who train five or six days per week, the most important thing you can do for your body and mind during a break, is rest. Generally, the end of each term will build up to a performance, or some form of assessment. This means that mentally, extra stress will have been placed on the dancer in order to remember set choreography, and to perform it to the best of their ability in a ‘one-chance’ type of situation. Physically, the dancer will have been encouraged to push to their maximum to achieve the best possible results in their performance or assessment. Teachers will often even encourage students to push through minor injuries to get through, because their bodies will be able to recover in the break that follows.
Therefore, if you spend your entire break from dance partying and staying out late, or even participating in optional ballet classes every day, you’re not allowing your body the time it needs to recover. Young dancers need to be particularly cautious due to the fact that their bodies are still growing. Their bones are fragile and their muscles are much weaker than older and more advanced dancers.
Right at the beginning of your break, try taking some time to get a massage (or roll out your own muscles with a foam roller or a spiky ball). This way you’re releasing tension that may have built up during the final days of term, and de-stressing your muscles to start the break. Make sure you’re also getting plenty of sleep and taking some ‘you-time’ to do things that are self-indulgent. Looking after your mind is equally as important as looking after your body, so try not to fill your break with things that you see as ‘work’. Focus instead on surrounding yourself with people who bring out the best in you, and partake in activities that will fill you with good energy.
A break from any routine is an opportunity to reflect. For dancers, this could mean reflecting on progress, reflecting on lessons learnt, and reflecting on how much you’ve enjoyed the process of these things. Don’t become too immersed in the ballet world, try to remember that it’s only ballet, and that you come first. Put your physical and mental health above everything else and try to enjoy some time off! Catch up with some friends, sleep in, go to the movies, eat some chocolate. Most importantly, be kind to your mind and body.
July 8th, 2018