Cross-Training For Dancers

Cross TrainingDancers cannot just be fit to dance. Dance fitness in itself is not as wholesome as if the body undertook a wide range of physical activities to maintain fitness as a whole, whilst complementing that obtained through dance.

Many dancers are fans of swimming, as it maintains stamina and works the muscles of the entire body in a low-impact way, as much as Pilates helps to keep the core strong with little to no impact. If you are not currently working in dance and auditioning widely, it is important to keep your body in peak physical condition so it is constantly ready to be used to the best of its ability. Auditioning in peak condition shows directors strength and provides the confidence to attack any movement. It is difficult to anticipate how vigorous auditions will be, so being as fit as possible prepares you for anything.

In this instance, cross-training is of ultimate use. Integrating cardio training into your workout schedule boosts energy and complements the requirements of dance with its short bursts of activity. Additional training, through extended cardio sessions for example, then improves endurance for full-out dance combinations or longer variations. The body will also be able to recover quicker afterwards, providing more peace of mind during intense auditions. 30 minutes of cardio a few times a week is usually what is recommended, however interval training is even more beneficial than steady paces, as high intensive intervals closely mimic the varied aerobic demands of dance classes and auditions.

Working with your body in different ways can help to identify weak and imbalanced areas, and means your body is ready for anything, not just the dance technique you have trained in your whole life. A variety of exercise techniques will improve overall strength, especially to keep the body active and attentive to changes, adapting quickly. However, do be wary of letting your cross-training become overly time-consuming or draining on your number one priority of dance, instead of complementing what is already taking place. Avoid overtraining and take one day off per week for rejuvenation.

First Mistakes Not To Make

Dance StudioYou have successfully auditioned and booked your first professional dancing job! Whilst this is hugely exciting and a great achievement, don’t make first-time mistakes that could reflect negatively on you as a professional dancer… Some mistakes are common, some you only learn once you have been there and have done that.

Before you start the job, receive your contract or agreement terms in writing from your employer. In your eagerness and excitement this may not be the first thing you think of, but having this in a hard format protects both you and your employer. Whether you are a freelancer or a full-time company dancer, read through your contract thoroughly.

Of course you will want to bound into the studio on your first day of rehearsals, but be wary of being over eager. In your aim to please everyone don’t let yourself be taken advantage of – taking on too much could be detrimental to your dancing. Don’t nab the first spot at the barre or place in the room you set your sights on either. Existing dancers in the company or on the job may have already claimed these – dancers are very territorial! – and you don’t want to start with rubbing another dancer up the wrong way.

Anticipate everything you will need when you start your new job, especially food and drink to fuel you through the long, intense days. When you are rehearsing there is often no telling how long the day will go on for so stock your dance bag with plenty of high-energy, nutritious snacks. Make sure you have spare everything, and also be prepared for injuries – they can affect anyone and everyone.

And remember… muscles don’t like having to go from cold to dancing full out, even when you are excited about starting!

Foot Care For Dancers

Foot Care For DancersDancing barefoot for modern or contemporary dance doesn’t come without its pitfalls – ballet dancers certainly suffer but that’s not to say contemporary dancers don’t too! Many dancers opt for socks, or their costume may demand them to be worn, however to fully feel the floor beneath you – and to move in response to that – requires barefoot dance. Despite this, dancers may still encounter problems along the way.

Hard skin on the soles of your feet is a good thing to help you turn and slide, although it takes a long time to build up. As a dancer your feet may not look as attractive as possible in summer sandals, however you can use a foot file or pumice stone to pare the hard skin down. If calluses develop some dancers may soak their feet in Epsom salt, or use vaseline overnight to keep the skin from cracking. This can also be done if your feet are prone to splitting. Splitting the skin in and around the toes is difficult to bandage and splits can reopen, deepen or become infected. Here, prevention is the best cure by keeping your feet moisturised, but clean and dry.

Contemporary dancers may also suffer from floor burns – although they are common they still need a little attention in order to prevent them worsening. You can relieve a painful floor burn by running cold water over the wound, but don’t use ice or lotions. Overall, ensure your feet receive the relevant care they need by spending time with your feet on a daily basis and be alert for potential problems. You can really spoil your feet by soaking them in a foot bath — especially if your feet are tired or sore — and by applying moisture treatments to ensure they are receiving the best possible care for dance.

Related: Our range of foot thongs and dance socks.

The Professional Dancer

Professional DancerDo you want to take your dancing to a professional level? As glamorous as it may seem, the life of a performer is a lot of hard work, pain and strict dedication to the goal. If you still wish to pursue a career in dance you must strive for it completely, as it requires a lot of passion and hard graft.

It is important to keep your feet on the ground, metaphorically speaking, and think realistically about your career. If you are the strongest dancer locally this will not make you the strongest amongst others in an audition. Open auditions are perhaps a dancer’s worst nightmare for being noticed, and a closed audition means agents put forward their very best dancers for that job – you may be one of many very similar dancers.

It is important to play up to your strengths and use them to your advantage in any dance environment, be it a class, audition or workshop. It is also important to continue learning and conquering your weaknesses in order to develop as a dancer. It’s easy to get complacent when you are responsible for keeping yourself in shape for auditioning, so keep challenging yourself and trying new things. Despite this, there will be auditions and jobs that you simply won’t get or be out forward for based on non-personal reasons, such as looks, so you must develop a tough skin.

Have a “plan B” too: make sure you have a substantial education behind you in case you must stop dancing for any reason. It is also important to have a clear idea of how you can work when you are in between dance jobs, so develop your skills, and build up professional experience. Don’t forget you also need persistence and a positive attitude: don’t take life too seriously and remember to enjoy the hard work involved in reaching your dream.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Looking After Your Dance Shoes

Dance ShoesEven if dancers aren’t pointe novices, often there are still things to learn about caring for dance shoes, pointe shoes in particular. If you are new to pointe work for the new year, start as you mean to go on and ensure your shoes are cared for in the best possible way.

When you buy new dance shoes it is very tempting to put them away in the small plastic bag they were purchased in, to eke out the time that they are still ‘new’. This, however, means the shoes cannot dry out sufficiently after use and may begin to prematurely decompose. Plus, you may come to put them on for your next class and they may still be damp and clammy, which means your feet aren’t receiving the best treatment either. Keep your shoes cool and dry, after having aired them after use.

As one of dancers’ main essentials, dance shoes require proper care to provide maximum support and protection for your feet, as well as meaning you can perform to the best of your ability. Make sure you are wearing your shoes correctly too: pointe shoes should be worn with tights and possibly toe pads, rather than socks, and socks should be worn with tap and jazz shoes to help prevent the growth of bacteria. Be careful too when you’re putting on your shoes, as for more delicate shoes in particular, their life span is affected by how you put them on and take them off. Don’t dance in broken shoes, as this can have serious consequences in the form of injuries.

If you need to clean your shoes, make sure you do so depending on the shoe that needs the care. Canvas shoes can be washed in the washing machine, but not tumble dried as they may shrink. A shoe brush on suede-bottom shoes will keep them clean and help maintain their texture, but don’t wear your dance shoes outside. Not only will they get dirty, but it can damage the soles too.

New To Pointe

Bloch Axis Pointe ShoesDance students new to pointe are always excited to get going, inspired by what they have seen through their dance training so far. Watching older students or favourite ballerinas dancing en pointe is often an enamouring experience, and now it is the turn of the younger students to get their first pair of pointe shoes.

Dancers who are not training at vocational dance schools usually are allowed to begin pointe in their early teens, due to the development of their bones and ultimately, their classical technique. Other factors which must also be considered are the regularity of attendance to ballet classes and a teacher’s approval, and it is paramount that each dancer is professionally fitted for pointe shoes.

Often being en pointe doesn’t feel as dainty as young dancers may have thought. Stepping onto pointe for the first time is uncomfortable, but is not a reason to be discouraged. Even minor discomfort is normal as dancers get used to the sensation of pointe, and they get stronger by practising their technique and not rushing the process. Extreme pain is a good indicator that a shoe has not been properly recommended or fitted for the student’s individual needs, and if manually breaking in the shoes has not happened.

To make the time en pointe more comfortable (and more enjoyable!) there are a few things that dancers can do. Strong abdominals are vital for pointe work, as it is a strong core that will help dancers lift their weight out of their shoes. Also important is correct body placement and flexibility in the ankle and foot, which must be built up before and during pointe training. This is primarily done through learning to roll up onto pointe and down through the shoes.

Ultimately, dancers must take good care of their feet, as well as their shoes by airing them between lessons to prevent fungus and bacteria growth. Don’t give up, and approach a teacher or studio director if something feels wrong.

Returning To Dance From A Break

Returning To Dance?Can you imagine a life in which you did not dance? This might be incomprehensible to some dancers, but for many, a break from the passion is exactly what they need.

Stopping dancing for any period of time could be due to a number of reasons, the most common being injury. Another common reason is the fact there are simply not enough jobs to go around all the dancers, or that moment may have come where you realise the dancing life isn’t for you, and you’d like to pursue a different career altogether.

You may not miss dance at all but if you do, it is possible to return to the profession and live as you did before. It may begin by taking on a little bit of freelance teaching or even returning to dance by chance. If you are planning a return to dance, the most important thing is to take it slowly: gradually increase your flexibility, strength and fitness to achieve the level you were at previously.

Your body never forgets due to the muscle memories created through dance: if you’ve stayed active during the break you may not find the return too strenuous, but it is important to listen to you body and take it slowly. If you haven’t been particularly active, start with simple activities like brisk walking, swimming or gentle yoga classes to improve core strength, flexibility and overall conditioning. Pay attention to any pains before they get out of hand and make sure you warm up and cool down correctly.

If your goal is to work as a dancer again, start making contact with as many people as you can in the industry. Go to classes, performances and workshops, join professional networks on Facebook and, once you’re feeling fit, ask to take class at your favourite companies.

Knee Nemesis

Knee Skeleton DiagramDo your knees hurt when you land from a jump, go downstairs, do grands pliés, or sit with them bent for long periods of time? “Jumper’s knee” could be the problem, a strain of the patellar tendon that runs from the lower kneecap to the upper shin. It is common in male ballet dancers and basketball players, who also jump a lot.

Other problems with the patella include pain from subluxation, where it goes out and back in, and dislocation where it goes all the way out and stays out. These conditions are common in adolescent females with hypermobility, especially in ballet dancers who turn out from the knee rather than the hip.

The juvenile version of the Jumper’s Knee, occurs at the other end of the patellar tendon, where it attaches to the growth plate, which is called Osgood-Schlatter’s Disease. It is a condition often seen in young (mostly male) athletes where they strain the attachment of the patellar tendon at its insertion to the growth plate on the upper tibia. It forms a swollen, tender lump below the knee and is related to running and jumping. It tends to come and go but disappears when growth is over.

In Jumper’s Knee, the pain usually comes from a specific point in the attachment of the tendon to the tip of the patella and not from the knee joint itself. Most of the time it is a chronic, ongoing condition that slowly gets worse with time. The diagnosis can be confirmed by injecting local anesthetic into the sore spot: if it relieves the pain, then the diagnosis is confirmed. It occurs from tightness of the quadriceps mechanism and weakness when the muscle lengthens as you plié. The condition is usually due to one part of the tendon that has pulled loose from the patella and has failed to heal, and must be treated.

Love Your Leg Alignment

Leg AlignmentThe key principles of alignment will help to prevent dancers from getting injured; during ballet classes you may hear, “knees over toes”, “turn out from the hip” and “don’t curl your toes up” but the principles are the same for any dance discipline. Keeping your legs strong and aligned properly means you are using them correctly and have less chance of injury.

When correcting alignment, begin with the hips. All rotation must come from the hip joints, not the knees, ankles or feet. The pelvis must be neutral, which is the safest position to work from. If the hip bones are forward, they are in an anterior tilt with an arched lower back; if they are titled backward the hips are in a posterior tilt, and tucked under. The knees should match the direction of the toes, which can be checked during pliés – the knees should track over the toes and the feet should not be rolling in.

It is important to keep the feet strong – imagine the foot is nailed to the floor, through the heel and each side of the ball of the foot. This reduces risk of injury and prevents the feet from rolling, which is especially important en pointe. The toes should be straight and lengthened on the floor which encourages articulation and secure, correct pointe work. When the dancer moves to demi pointe, ensure the work is not sickled by continuing to lift the arches. The weight should be centered over the first two toes to help strengthen the muscles on the outside of the ankle, and guard against ankle sprain.

Once the legs and feet are aligned correctly, it is important to keep your weight over your toes, and not to swing back into the heels. Don’t lift the heels, but ensure your weight is in the balls of your feet ready to move.

Being Mindful Of Health

HealthIn maintaining your health as a dancer it is important to consider all of the aspects of health which are equally as important as each other. For example nutrition through food and drink is used for the body’s every function, from muscle contraction to nerve impulses, with many nutrients taking on more than one job in the body. For instance, calcium is well known for being a hugely important part of bone health but is also critical for creating an electric impulse that travels down a nerve, and for allowing a muscle to relax after contracting.

Make sure the body is not overworked by doing too much too soon, and make physical changes gradually. Research has found that dancers tend to get injured when they have a dramatic change in their workload, either a rapid increase in the amount of dancing or a quick transition to a new style of dance for which the body is unprepared. Introduce your body to the change by taking time to increase the volume and/or intensity of physical load. This could mean gradually increasing the number of classes or styles you take or it could be increasing the number of repetitions of class combinations.

Cross-training also aids the body, simply because dance is so physical and dancers need to behave more like athletes when it comes to conditioning. A great way to make sure you are maximising physical potential, and reducing opportunity for injury, is by exercising in ways that are unlike exercise through dancing. This can improve cardiovascular endurance, muscular endurance and muscular strength. The same muscles are used over and over through technique classes or specific repertoire, and there is little chance to improve the strength and endurance of the muscles that are not critical for current work.

Make sure you rest too! Rest is the time the body takes to heal and improve function. If you are feeling exhausted, decrease the amount of dancing or replace it with low-impact activity like Pilates or floor-based barre. Rest is necessary to prevent fatigue, which is a major factor for injuries and one of the most preventable. Rest is also important for your immune system so help your body boost immune functions by getting enough sleep.

Image courtesy of Adria Richards.