Strength and Conditioning; Returning to Dance After a Break - Part 1
Author: Andrew Schaeffer CSCS on behalf of the IADMS Dance Educators Committee
What does it take to get back to dancing after a break? In this three-part series, Andrew Schaeffer CSCS takes us through the training programme of a retired dancer in preparation for her return to dance with Mark Morris Dance Company.
In late 2021, Elisa Clark was cast to perform in Mark Morris’ L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. At that time, it had been nearly five years since her retirement as a full time company member with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. It had also been close to two years since she had been in regular, intensive training for dance.
“After leaving Ailey I shifted my focus to teaching and my role as a dance educator. I was still performing here and there, but it was obviously much less than when I was in a full time company. When the shutdown happened, rather than be frustrated trying to dance at home in my kitchen, I stopped taking dance classes altogether and opted for more stationary practices like yoga and pilates. None of us knew the shutdown would be eighteen months and then some.”
Thus, at the age of forty-three and coming off such a long hiatus, Elisa realized that preparing for this Mark Morris job wasn’t going to be like it had been in the past. She was going to need to take it up a notch to get where she wanted to be. As it happened, she had heard through her physical therapist that Antoine and I were doing workshops with professional dancers, teaching them the basics of strength and conditioning. We, for our part, had been considering doing a case study with a dancer because there were several topics we wanted to take a closer look at. First, we wanted to train a dancer with the same principles that other professional athletes use and show that it can and should be a part of a dancer’s career. Second, we wanted to hear directly from a dancer on what their subjective experience of said program was. Third, we were interested in exploring the relationship between strength and conditioning and dancer wellness, including mental health. Finally, as coaches, we wanted to hone our ability to communicate and connect with dancers.
Between Elisa’s needs and our interests, it was an opportune match, so we arranged to train her three times a week for roughly twelve weeks. In this three part series, we’re going to share what we did, what we learned, and what we think it all means for dance.
Antoine, Elisa, and Andrew after her performance with Mark Morris at BAM
When it comes to designing strength and conditioning programs for dancers, the research we have tells us a few key things. Most importantly, strength training improves athletic performance and reduces the risk of injury, so true strength training should be on the menu (Shaw, et al. 2016; Suchomel, et al. 2016). The most common injuries for dancers occur in the ankle, knees, and low back, so there should be an emphasis on strengthening the legs (Russel, 2013; Shah et al, 2012). Moreover, dancers often have trouble with ankle dorsiflexion (bending the foot up towards the shin) and they usually have a lack of posterior chain strength (hamstrings, glutes, etc.) When we considered exactly how it is that dancers need their bodies to perform, we decided that we would also need unilateral and trunk stability exercises. This would be necessary both to optimize force transfer through the lumbopelvic complex and to help improve any existing deficits in neuromuscular control of the trunk. As noted by Zazulak et al. in 2007, deficits in neuromuscular control of the trunk can be a predictor of knee injury.
1. Squats and Single Legged Variations
Back squats are an excellent movement for overall strength because they can be loaded heavily. They are also good at activating the entire leg musculature, from front to back (Korak, et al., 2018). More than that though, they require good ankle dorsiflexion to execute properly (Kasuyama, Sakamoto, & Nakazawa, 2009). As mentioned, this can be a struggle for dancers. Elisa, specifically, had an ankle injury and subsequent surgery that had left her with particularly restricted dorsiflexion on her left side. You might be thinking that if Elisa has limited ankle dorsiflexion and squats require it, then she shouldn’t be doing that movement. It has been our experience that in fact, the opposite can be true. With proper coaching you can use an exercise to encourage the body to relearn lost patterns, you just have to work toward it in a way that does not risk exacerbating the problem. Below, in the video on the left, you can see that in the beginning she struggled to get her hips below the knees and with keeping the bar from drifting forward, both consequences of limited dorsiflexion. In the video on the right you can see that with careful work she was able to reclaim that movement, regaining ankle mobility while building strength.
Pistol squats were used as a single legged variation.
2. Deadlift and Single Legged Variations
Deadlifts are often an easier lift to perform than squatting, particularly for dancers because of the aforementioned ankle issue. As such, we included deadlifts from the beginning of the program in order to focus on getting Elisa lifting more weight quickly. Single leg deadlifts were included for unilateral work.
3. Overhead press
The overhead press is a good overall strength building exercise. It trains both upper body strength as well as shoulder, trunk, and core stability. It can also be particularly valuable for dancers as it requires a good understanding of how to stack the spine while also maintaining a neutral pelvis.
4. Quadruped variations
Quadrupeds were used as a unilateral core training exercise. Quadruped t-spine rotations were used as a mobilizing warm up.
5. The Perceived Wellness Inventory
The last piece that we added in was a wellness survey. We know that interest in mental health has really picked up in the dance world, especially after the covid-19 pandemic. We wanted to begin to explore how we might work collaboratively on mental health and so our first step was to do a simple survey, merely to observe any change in perceived wellness as we went through this program.
In part two, we’ll explore what happened after twelve weeks of this program and Elisa’s thoughts on her experience.
Andrew Schaeffer, CSCS - Andrew has been a personal trainer and strength and conditioning coach in New York City for over ten years. He has worked with professional athletes, the general population, and is currently focused on professional performers including dancers. He is also earning his Master’s in Mental Health Counseling at Antioch University.
Antoine Simmons, CSCS, MA - Antoine has been a fitness professional for twelve years. He has worked with professional athletes, Navy SEALS, television personalities, and is currently focused on professional dancers. He holds a Master’s degree in Motor Learning and Control from Columbia University.
Kasuyama, T., Sakamoto, M., & Nakazawa, R. (2009). Ankle Joint Dorsiflexion Measurement Using the Deep Squatting Posture. Journal of Physical Therapy Science, 21(2), 195–199.
Korak, J. A., Paquette, M. R., Fuller, D. K., Caputo, J. L., & Coons, J. M. (2018). Muscle Activation Patterns of Lower-Body Musculature Among 3 Traditional Lower-Body Exercises in Trained Women. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 32(10), 2770–2775.
Russell, J. A. (2013). Preventing dance injuries: Current perspectives. Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine, 4, 199–210.
Shah, S., Weiss, D. S., & Burchette, R. J. (2012). Injuries in Professional Modern Dancers: Incidence, Risk Factors, and Management. Journal of Dance Medicine & Science, 16(1), 17–25.
Shaw, I., Shaw, B., Brown, G., & Shariat, A. (2016). Review of the Role of Resistance Training and Musculoskeletal Injury Prevention and Rehabilitation. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Medicine, 1, 1–5.
Suchomel, T. J., Nimphius, S., & Stone, M. H. (2016). The Importance of Muscular Strength in Athletic Performance. Sports Medicine, 46(10), 1419–1449.
Zazulak, B. T., Hewett, T. E., Reeves, N. P., Goldberg, B., & Cholewicki, J. (2007). Deficits in Neuromuscular Control of the Trunk Predict Knee Injury Risk: Prospective Biomechanical-Epidemiologic Study. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 35(7), 1123–1130.