In high school, I remember running into a good friend (who was not a dancer) on my way into a cardio class at the gym.
"Why do you need to workout?" she asked. "Don't you already dance a jazillion hours a day?"
Exchanging stories with professional and pre-professional dancers, I discovered that questions like these from non-dancing "normies" are pretty common. Why would we want to drag our already worn-out bodies to extra fitnesses classes or workouts? Don't we burn enough calories in ballet class? Athletes typically understand that, for dancers, it's not (or shouldn't be) about exercising more--it's about exercising differently.
Cross-training with moderate weight lifting and classes like Pilates and Yoga complement dancer's training by strengthening muscles that don't get enough attention in daily dance classes. And since most ballet, jazz and modern classes are anaerobic--requiring bursts of high-intensity movement followed by rest periods--cardiovascular exercises are necessary to build the endurance we need to perform full-length shows and long variations.
Throughout most of high school, I was a cross-training nut. I ran on the elliptical for at least an hour daily, swam, and took Pilates classes several times a week in addition to my dance classes, rehearsals and performances. Unfortunately, I didn't do it with a healthy attitude--I was more focused on burning extra calories and keeping my weight down than protecting those muscles, ligaments and joints. Instead of improving my endurance levels, I exhausted my body so much that I could barely get through a petite allegro combination. By the time I got to New York City I was so burnt out on the whole body-image obsession that I let my non-dancing exercise routine fall completely by the wayside, almost in protest. I also noticed that a lot of dancers I met "cross-trained" for similar reasons that I did: to look skinnier, to "get ripped", to get an edge on the competition.
On the other end of the spectrum are those who ignore body conditioning for a different kind of over-training. I see this trend among ballet dancers especially. Ballerinas tend to be single-minded by nature and are taught that the more classes they take, the better they will be. This is true to some extent. The only way to get better at ballet is by--surprise!-- taking ballet.
But there's a limit.
By working the same muscles over and over again with no variation, you set yourself up for fatigue, injury and burnout. Everyone's body responds differently to various training methods, but find a balance between the extremes of over training, over exercising, and never exercising was one of the best things I ever did for my body and my dancing.
As a younger dancer, I saw my ballet technique improve when I added modern, jazz and occasional tap classes to my regimen, in addition to Pilates. My dancing became less tense, my extensions improved, and my balance became rock-solid. (Okay, "rock-solid" is an exaggeration, but it definitely improved!) Teachers noticed more height in my jumps and better phrasing in my petite allegro (thank you, tap). In the past year or so, I've found that regular cross-training yields similar improvements for my dancing overall, not to mention my mood. Rather than the obsessive exercising of my teen years, I now workout to improve my overall sense of wellness and to keep my body working while giving it a little break from the never ending series of battements and jetés still in my future. Plus the endorphins are awesome.
I'm incredibly interested in dancer fitness at the moment and I want to know:
How do you cross-train? Have you noticed a difference in your dancing?