We’re in the middle of dance competition season, but let’s face it, comps are practically year-round these days. One of my passions is ensuring dancers are adequately physically conditioned to meet the demands being placed on their growing bodies. There is much we need to do to support our dancers, as the majority of them are under 18 and do not yet have the knowledge or experience to manage this themselves. In fact, many adult dancers and regular adult humans (who are mere mortals unlike our dancers!) do not have the knowledge, experience or know-how in this regard. As parents or teachers, there are some things you need to make sure you are doing to keep children safe, healthy and enjoying their dance.
It still amazes me how teacher training varies with regard to strength and conditioning. A worrying trend is the explosion of ‘acro’, when there is no particular qualification required for dance teachers in Australia. We need to look to gymnastics for the gold standard here. A very young gymnast from the very beginning of their journey, is taught how to position their body, roll their body in various ways, and most importantly, how to land. They are taught both explicitly and through fun games and activities, that their body is made up of segments that need to work together in proper alignment in order to produce movements properly, spectacularly and safely. They learn to absorb impact using all of the joints in the body, including through their ankles and feet. What I do love about dance, is how well-progressed the syllabi is with regard to the variety of genres (ballet, tap, modern, etc), so I’d love to see an acro syllabus come in to match that.
For those that are into Calisthenics (a uniquely Australian sport), a strength and conditioning component of the Level 1 Coaches’ course was introduced over 10 years ago now, providing basic awareness and exercises that coaches should be doing in every lesson to promote strength and help to prevent injury. However, this can often get forgotten when the focus is on choreographing, teaching and preparing for competition. It’s critical to dancer success and longevity that it isn’t forgotten. I also believe there is a piece of the puzzle missing at the beginner ‘Tinies’ level in basic gymnastic skills like various ways of rolling, strengthening the ankles for turnout development, and building upper body strength – this has just given me a major nostalgia pang, remembering all of the games I used to play with my Tinies! I digress.
As a parent, always make sure the teacher or coach is qualified and check in that a warm up is being provided.
Warm up & cool down
The Warm Up of any dance, gymnastics or calisthenics class is vital and this is where you can incorporate the basic strength movements that reinforce alignment and muscle engagement – leading up to and during the competition season – this is a realistic and effective way of maintaining strength and mobility.
At the very least, this should consist of:
- Gross motor, whole body movements that get the heart rate up and blood flowing (jogging on the spot, grape vines, knee lifts, etc)
- Dynamic, but controlled movements that focus on mobility, such as lunging and reaching, circular movements and squats incorporating arm movements, performed smoothly and with control. These can often mimic parts of the routine to increase relevance.
- Stretches focused on each major body part involved in the dance class, such as shoulders, hips, front and back of leg, ankle, foot, wrists, torso, upper back and lower back. (Note that the deliberate use of ‘layman’s terms’ rather than anatomical names makes it easier for parents and teachers to identify which body parts need to be stretched) With the plethora of online videos provided by reputable organisations such as the Australian Ballet, Sydney Dance Company, etc, it’s very easy to find, create and continually update the class warm up).
- The performance of key movements prior to executing it in a routine. Practising key movements prior to starting the rehearsal section of the class, when the pressure and distraction of music, other dancers’ movements and nerves is not yet present. This primes the body to be ready to incorporate it into the performance.
What we often see in a dance class that is prioritising competition preparation, is one of the above elements – mere stretching. This is ineffective as the muscles are not adequately flushed with blood flow, stretching does not adequately engage the neuromuscular system (brain and body connection achieved through whole-body, coordinated movement) and in fact may switch off proprioceptors through prolonged static stretching – a recipe for injury!
How long should a warm up take?
With effective time management, a warm up can be completed in 15 minutes:
- Two minutes of gross-motor movement to increase the heart rate
- Two to five minutes of dynamic movements that are strength focused and become increasingly dance-specific
- Five to seven minutes of stretching for specific movements such as splits and bridges/walkovers
- Two to three minutes to individually practise specific movements.
Remember that in competition pre-season, more time should be spent on physical conditioning. Fifteen minutes during the season is the minimal amount of time you would want to spend on warming up.
Once again, as a parent, if you are not confident an adequate warm up is taking place, ask questions.
Most dancers have a growing body and not adept or interested in ensuring they get adequate nutrition from the five food groups! Adequate protein and complex carbohydrates (bread, pasta) as well as plenty of fruit and vegetables, is vital for energy production, muscle re-building and the immune system. Hydration is also part of nutrition. The best advice I ever received was ‘two clear wees a day’! (Clear meaning ever so slightly yellow). This means that no matter how much training has been done (none on a rest day vs a day of competitions), the dancer can adjust their water intake based on what their urine output looks like. Go on, tell your child this and all you will ever have to ask is, ‘how many clear wees have there been today?’
It’s normal for children to be active every day, so periods of complete rest are not necessarily required. However, playful rest is good for physical and mental health. If dancers are sore, they can roll around on a foam roller, go to the playground for active recovery, and consume plenty of protein, carbohydrates and water.
Training intensity should be increased incrementally rather than suddenly, to avoid injury. This means that if your dancer is used to 1-3 classes and suddenly doubles this in frequency or duration, they are more likely to get injured as their body hasn’t had the time to adjust gradually. Season planning is key when it comes to a successful dance season – work backwards from your ‘end game’ competition, and plan increases in intensity, duration and frequency of classes gradually, and also tapering off toward the main competition. For more information, Google ‘periodisation of training’. It’s a jungle out there!
Respect the dancer
Gone are the days where the dance teacher has the power and what they say ‘goes’. Increasingly, children are (rightfully) taught that they are in charge of their own bodies. In the past where we might’ve been scared to tell our teacher we were hurt or scared or sore, it is now expected that children have the right to say ‘no, I’m not ready for that’. This can only be a good thing, in fact an integral part of developing ‘dancer literacy‘ – it’s our job as teachers to transfer knowledge, skills and awareness to the dancer that they can take forward to their next level, teacher or class. A good teacher doesn’t hold onto all their pearls of wisdom like some kind of intellectual property.
On the flip side, dancers do need to be pushed the right way, at the right moments, to achieve their potential. It is a delicate tango of teacher and dancer to determine if, when, and how a dancer should be ‘pushed’. Personally, I get to know my dancers and build relationships early, to determine their goals (even if they don’t understand entirely, useful information can be gleaned) and get to know their temperament and motivations. I also involve parents in conversations about their child – open communication all the way. Often these are seemingly hidden events, held in moments of conversation or teaching, but only when it is the teacher’s philosophy that these things matter.
Manage growth spurts
We can usually tell when our children are experiencing rapid growth. More sleeping, more eating, and often, aches and pains. When we grow, it’s our bones that grow first. The muscles, tendons and ligaments often take awhile to catch up, meaning they are tighter and less flexible for a period after a growth spurt. Therefore, it’s normal to lose some flexibility from time to time. It can be offset by regular stretching (10 minutes a day) but the best approach is a strategic one – a planned dance season that starts with building base dance fitness, then becomes more specific and caring as competition approaches. ‘Caring’ means always warming up properly, having adequate rest, recovery and nutrition, and being mindful and tuned into any soreness and stiffness. Teaching your young dancer to listen to their body, and advocate for its needs, is vital.
Whether you are reading as a parent or teacher (or both), I hope this overview has been useful. I am always happy to offer more specific and tailored advice for your dance or calisthenics situation!