How effective is Pilates as an additional training program for dancers?
Author: Christine S. Bergeron on behalf of the IADMS Dance Educators’ Committee
As an active Pilates and dance instructor for over 18 years, I can see the connection and similarity between dance technique and Pilates. Some of the similarities include the focus on body alignment, core engagement, pelvic placement, full body engagement, concentration, and precision. It seems, as a community, we have accepted Pilates as a leading supplemental training method among dancers. It has been accepted and implemented into many university dance programs across the world. Yet questions arise such as, “is the research there to support this whole-hearted acceptance of Pilates as supplementary training for dance?“ and “why have we been so willing to embrace Pilates as a training method for dancers?” Historically, when Pilates came to the U.S. in 1926, his first Pilates studio was in the same building the New York City Ballet so dancers had immediate access to his method. Dancers such as George Balanchine, Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn, Martha Graham, and Hanya Holm all worked with Pilates. Beyond the historical connection, dancers flock to his method because they relate to so many of its principles and they feel a sense of familiarity. However people have asked me, “Are the similarities between Pilates and dance good for dancers?” I have also been asked, “Should dancers cross train in a training method that has similar principles?” “Should dancers continue to do the same movement patterns they always do or would it be more beneficial to make the body experience something different altogether?” I have my opinions on this question and would love to have a friendly conversation or debate with some of you. However, before we can address these questions, we must first ask, “do we have evidence to suggest that Pilates is indeed beneficial for dancers?”
Although the research is limited and unclear, I have seen changes in a dancer’s body following Pilates training. Some of the improvements I have witnessed have been an increase in muscular strength and range of motion, corrected misalignments, better pelvic placement, clarity in movement patterns and improved spinal extension. When working with dancers, my approach varies depending on several factors including but not limited to technique level, injury status, and overall fitness level. Although the exercises may be similar, the focus of the exercises change. I place people on different pieces of equipment based on the dancer’s need and limitations. Do they need more or less assistance in the springs to help them execute the exercise? Are we working more quadriceps or hamstrings when doing leg exercises? These answers, and others, guide me to make selections for each client.
As with most training methods, Pilates has evolved since its inception in the 1920’s, and it continues to evolve as we learn more about the body. Today there are three forms: Classical, Modern and Clinical Pilates. Classical Pilates remains close to Joseph Pilates’ original exercises while Modern Pilates embraces current ideas on movement principles, modifying the original exercises and utilizing new pieces of equipment. Clinical Pilates is influenced by physical therapy and biomechanics to create new exercises and modifications focused on injury rehabilitation. The approaches and thought processes for these forms is different. Are all three forms beneficial for dancers? Is one better than another?
Looking at the Research
If you look at the research that has been done on Pilates and dancers, it is not only limited but the findings are inconsistent. In a recent literature review of Pilates and dancers done in 2017, out of the nine peer-reviewed research studies published, Pilates showed improvements in muscular strength and flexibility but appeared to be ineffective in increasing vertical jump height and balance (Bergeron, Greenwood, Smith and Wyon, 2017). However, due to the limited published studies, it is difficult to say one way or another if Pilates is effective or ineffective in regards to balance, muscular strength and endurance, pelvic stability, jump height, etc.
When looking at the research, there were several limitations with the scientific methods of the studies. All had a small number of participants (groups ranged from 10-29 participants), none of the studies were longitudinal in design, and in most of the studies, it was unclear as to what Pilates exercises were performed during many of the training programs. With regard to the testing methods, many were not made for dancers and could be seen as “too easy for the dancer.” For example, one study measuring balance only looked at a static balance task rather than a moving, changing, dynamic balance task that would be more challenging for the dancer (Amorium, Sousa, Machado and Santos, 2011). A more challenging balance task would have perhaps been more representative of dance training. Another study (McLain, Carter and Abel, 1997) used a Pilates reformer to see if improvement could be seen in supine jump. How does this measurement translate to a vertical jump done standing? Perhaps looking at how it would have helped in vertical jumps in ballet such as a sauté in first or fifth would have been more beneficial to dance performance. Furthermore, the studies lacked comparisons of Pilates to other supplemental training methods such as cross fit, running, or interval training. Based on the limited research, all we may be able to speculate is that Pilates improves muscular strength, posture, alignment and flexibility and that it is better than doing no other supplemental training at all. If we don’t compare Pilates to other forms of training how do we know that Pilates should be the preferred training method among dancers?
Some questions for more discussion
One of the first questions instructors need to ask as they integrate Pilates as a cross training method for dancers is “what is the purpose?” Is the dancer working on regaining strength and/or range of motion while returning from an injury; is the goal to re-teach a movement pattern; or is Pilates being used to gain overall fitness? My approach in developing a plan for a dancer depends on the answer to these questions. A Pilates instructor should learn who their client is, what their limitations and strengths are, the style of dancer they favor, and most importantly what their individual goals are. Once their goals are established then one can better serve the dancer and create an individual, continually changing and evolving plan.
As we continue to explore ways to determine the effectiveness of Pilates for dancers, let us ask these questions:
1. Is Pilates effective for all aspects of dance: strength, flexibility, coordination, balance, etc.?
2. If it is found that Pilates is only effective in certain aspects, do we look for a training method that supports all aspects of dance or do we think focusing on one or two aspects has its value?
3. How does each piece of Pilates equipment (mat, reformer, Cadillac/trapeze table (see photo I), chair, corealign [see photo II] and other small props) compare to each other? Are they all beneficial?
4. Is one form of Pilates (Classical, Modern, Clinical) better than another?
5. Is Pilates an effective method for recovery from injury for dancers? 6. How does Pilates compare to other forms of cross training?
I know this post raises more questions than answers, but in the end, we don’t have the answers. We need more published research. From my conversations with other Pilates instructors, I know there is more research going on around the world than is reflected in peer-reviewed articles. I urge those of you doing the research for Pilates and dancers to get your findings published. For those of you teaching Pilates and working with dancers, team up and do some studies. As a Pilates instructor who works with dancers, I have faith that the research will support the effectiveness of Pilates on dancers. However if the research doesn’t support this, what will our next step be? Will we continue to embrace it or will we turn to another training method that is proven to improve a dancer’s training and performance?
For further information check out these resources:
Amorim, T., Sousa, F., Machado, L., & Santos, J. (2011). Effects of Pilates Training on Muscular Strength and Balance in Ballet Dancers. Portuguese Journal of Sport Sciences. 11(2), 147-150.
Bergeron, C., Greenwood, M., Smith, T., & Wyon, M. (2017) Pilates and Dancers: A Systematic Review. National Dance Society Journal. 2(1)
Latey, P. (2001). The Pilates Method: History and Philosophy. J Bodywork Movement Ther., 5(4), 275-82.
McLain, S., Carter, C., & Abel, J. (1997). The effect of a conditioning and alignment program on the measurement of supine jump height and pelvic alignment when using the Current Concepts Reformer. Journal of Dance Medicine & Science, 1(4), 149-54.
Owsley, A. (2005). An introduction to clinical Pilates. Athletic Therapy Today, 10(4), 19.
Parikh, C. & Arora, M. (2016). Role of Pilates in rehabilitation: a literature review. International Journal of Therapies and Rehabilitation Research, 5(4), 77-83.
Christine Bergeron has served as the Director of Dance Programs and Initiatives at Texas A & M University since 2008. She received a B.A. in Dance Education from the University of Akron and an M.F.A. in Choreography and Performance from Florida State University. Currently she is seeking her PhD in Dance Science from the University of Wolverhampton. Chris is certified in Pilates Mat through the advanced level and is an Associate Instructor for the Pilates Equipment work from the Physical Mind Institute and Balanced Body. She is a co-opted member of the IADMS Dance Educators’ Committee.