Smart conditioning can help keep kids injury-free
by Jennifer Kaplan
Do you think your dancers are getting everything they need in their technique classes to prepare their bodies and minds for dance?
Think again, says dance educator and physical therapist Alexis Sams. Through her private practice, ANS Fitness and Physical Therapy, she provides physical therapy, rehab services, and education to dancers in the Phoenix area. Along with her caseload of private clients, Sams teaches conditioning to students and teachers at in-studio workshops.
Competition and pre-professional dancers—and even some recreational dancers—spend many hours in class and rehearsals each week. Sams stresses that teachers should assure that these young dancers are as strong as possible, and that they understand the importance of properly warming up their joints, stretching only in appropriate and safe ways, and using proper cool-down techniques such as rolling out stiff muscles and fascia.
Another Phoenix-area dance educator, Bricks Studio owner Mandy Durante, worries about her students who yearn to replicate the intense tricks and extreme flexibility they see on TV and YouTube. “What’s tricky for studio owners and teachers these days is that kids want to do so much,” Durante says. The bottom line for educators, she says, is making sure that all students are safe and injury-free.
That’s where smart conditioning comes in.
Targeting students’ needs
Sams, who started ballet at age 7 and minored in dance during her undergraduate studies in exercise science at Virginia’s Old Dominion University, has developed several programs that address dance educators’ concerns. One is a customizable conditioning-for-dancers program that studio owners can bring in for a weekend or during a summer intensive. Depending on a studio’s needs, this program can also include instruction for studio owners and teachers on how to prevent dance-related injuries, or what to expect if students must receive rehabilitation.
Sams also helps studio owners and teachers by explaining effective methods for adding conditioning exercises to regular technique classes, or by mapping out a conditioning program that owners can add to a studio’s weekly schedule.
Last year, Durante engaged Sams to teach conditioning classes during the summer intensive at Bricks, a studio of 400 to 500 students. Durante was particularly interested in exercises targeting the core and hamstrings. “That’s where we felt our students were weak,” she says.
To build hip stability and strength in Durante’s 5- and 6-year-old students, Sams advised an exercise she calls a clam shell. Lying on one side, with bent legs stacked one on top of the other, students open and close the top leg. “While it’s a very elementary exercise, it’s initiating hip strengthening and stability that’s appropriate,” Sams says. “Part of my job is finding appropriate exercises for that cognitive level; simple activities that they can follow and that are safe.”
For another beginning level exercise, Sams suggests the classic prone plank position. “I want them to recognize that straight line from their shoulders all the way down to their ankles, without dropping their hips down or looking like the letter V,” she says.
Intermediate-level dancers can work on side planks and fire hydrants (where the student, on hands and knees, mimics the motion of a dog at a fire hydrant by lifting and lowering one bent leg). For experienced dancers, be sure to use exercises that vary in position—standing and floor exercises—and timing. “I’ll add a resistance band or other types of basic tools to increase the difficulty of the exercise,” Sams says.
Understanding pain, building strength
In her student workshops, Sams talks about the difference between discomfort (the result of working your muscles) and pain (which could signal a serious injury). Dancers frequently will just say, “It hurts.” With knowledge of various types of pain—such as burning, sharp, achy, or tingling—dancers can better communicate with their teachers, she says.
In her advice for teachers, Sams discusses the importance of preparing for the high energy of competition season by building cardiovascular exercises into classes and rehearsals. The stop-and-start pacing of lessons in which teachers are focused on teaching choreography or giving corrections often doesn’t provide enough steady movement to increase the dancers’ heart rates and build stamina. Teachers can combat this by finding ways to build conditioning into every lesson, such as increasing the number of repetitions during a petit allegro exercise in a ballet class.
Co-owner/co-artistic director of Xpressions Dance Center in Fishersville, Virginia, Dixie Daniel knows that technique classes alone aren’t enough to combat her students’ overall lack of physical activity. “It’s the epidemic of today, when kids are on their devices 24/7,” Daniel says. “Their necks are down. They have no openness in their shoulders. They have zero flexibility. Their hamstrings are tight.”
Last year, Daniel and fellow co-owners Jessy Martin and Amanda Sullivan invited Sams to run a weekend workshop at Xpressions. While she was there, Sams worked with them to develop a weekly 30-minute conditioning class that focuses on increasing students’ strength and flexibility. “This is still new for us, but I know we’re going to see benefits. I’m already starting to see stronger cores in the kids” after just a few months, Daniel says, adding that all studio teachers have incorporated conditioning elements into their class warm-ups since the training with Sams.
Recognizing the benefits
Daniel advises educators who expect immediate results from conditioning programs to relax. “Studio owners might not notice the effects immediately,” she says, especially if they are judging results by their dancers’ ability to bring home competition gold. Instead, what educators will see is “kids who are so much stronger; they’re going to make it through an entire dance with energy, and then be able to run and change their costumes, get back onstage, and do it again.”
Starting up an in-studio conditioning program means adding yet another requirement to your students’ already full schedules. And securing an expert like Sams to hold a workshop or build a program adds to your expenses, as does hiring a qualified instructor. Is it worth the extra time and expense?
“Definitely,” says Daniel, who is glad to see her students warming up safely before class, rather than sitting in straddles. “They’re working through their feet, warming up their joints by swinging their arms and legs, and moving instead of just sitting on the floor stretching.”
Why conditioning matters
Sams defines “conditioning” as “giving or providing the tools or activities someone needs to do their job well.”
“If your ‘job’ is dance, whether that’s one night a week, or at a professional level,” Sams says, “the only way to be as successful as possible is to make sure you’re incorporating activities that will make your body and mind fully fit to do that activity.”
In Sams’ ideal dance world, every teacher would teach with a “conditioning mentality. It doesn’t mean you have to include conditioning in every class, but understanding its importance and looking for opportunities to incorporate it into your teaching is crucial.”
Ready to add conditioning to your program? Here’s how:
- Assess your students’ weaknesses based on dance goals: for example, are your pre-pointe students lacking the foot strength to advance to pointe?
- Research exercises that address those concerns; good info can be found on Sams’ website (ansfptdance.com/free-stuff/) or on the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science’s website (iadms.org).
- Teach your students to care for their bodies as physical instruments by stressing proper warm-up and stretching techniques.
- Build stamina and cardiovascular endurance through repetition.
- Add conditioning resources to your studio bookshelf, such as Eric Franklin’s Conditioning for Dance (Human Kinetics, 2004) or Tom Welsh’s Conditioning for Dancers (University Press of Florida, 2009).
Jennifer Kaplan has taught and lectured on dance at East Coast colleges and universities. She is working on a book on contemporary issues in choreography.