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Optimising Performance

by Matthew Wyon

Planning and preparation – the art of periodisation

What is the goal, raison d’etre of a dance company? Hopefully you will agree that it is performance. The concept of periodisation aims to help optimise dancers’ preparation for performance. It involves breaking down the days, weeks and months before performances into periods of time where different priorities are given to different types of physical and mental training depending on the total length of time available, the type of preparation needed and the proximity of the performance. The result of well planned periodisation is that dancers should reach opening night mentally, physically and technically ready to perform.

Needs analysis and planning is the key to good periodisation and co-operation between the different parties involved is vital. Needs analysis refers to the examination of the possible demands that the performance is going to place on the dancer. How the piece is developed will determine the amount of prior knowledge available to the planner. Hopefully the choreographer will have a broad concept of the piece and this will form the basis of initial plans, but the planner will need to be flexible. Other questions that need to be answered are the extent of lifting, jumping, and partner work within the piece; the length of time that the choreographer has to produce the work; the present physical, mental and technical condition of the dancers; the group dynamic of the company; the length of the performance period and the amount of travel involved.

The planner needs to decide on the importance of the different components that make up the performance preparation and then decide how to organise and prioritise them; within this need to be included rest and travel days. The main thing to remember is to work backwards from the start of the performance period, and this is where some controversies begin. Just prior to the start of performance a ‘tapering period’ needs to be incorporated into the schedule. This is a period of three to four days when there is a reduction in workload that allows a change in emphasis from preparation to performance to occur. This is vital to allow the dancers to change their focus mentally from a ‘learning/perfecting’ mind-set to a performing one, and to allow their bodies to repair and replenish. It requires the choreographic process to be finished four days prior to the start of the performance and only minimal dance time, single run-throughs to occur in the subsequent days. Whether a choreographer can be persuaded to do this is another matter entirely! It must be remembered that fatigue, whether it be mental or physical, has one of the greatest negative effects on performance, and the more technical the piece, the bigger the effect. The implementation of tapering is common practice within port but its benefits have also been seen within dance (Wyon et al. 2000). All the dancers in the study reported that they felt rested and wanted to perform which they stated was unusual.

Physiological performance preparation takes longer than the usual rehearsal period and either needs to be an integral part of a company’s schedule or a part of the independent dancer’s daily training. Simply put, the majority of dance classes do not physically prepare the dancer for the demands of performance (Wyon et al. In Press). The dance class does not challenge the aerobic system and really only stimulates on of the two anaerobic systems (PCr) that generates energy for short high intensity bursts of power (10-12 seconds). Observation of dance performance on the other hand suggests that there is a greater reliance on the glycolysis systems, both aerobic and anaerobic. Either a number of classes a week can be adapted to provide a training stimulus or supplemental training is needed (Wyon et al. 2003).

Research has shown the aerobic system needs to be developed initially to allow the optimal development of the anaerobic glycolytic system (Wathen and Roll 1994).

There has also been a long debate of the optimal method of developing the aerobic system: continuous or intermittent exercise. I suggest the latter, as it resembles dance more closely and also has been shown to develop aerobic power faster than the continuous method (Viru 1994). The work-to-rest ratio for aerobic training is 1:1, with the exercise periods being a minimum of two minutes in length (e.g. 10 sets of two minutes intensive exercise with intervening low intensity recovery periods). The anaerobic training is similar, though the work-to-rest ratio is different with longer rest periods and the work periods are at a higher intensity. As the work intensity is higher the work period is shorter: 30-40 seconds.

Apart from cardio-respiratory development, other areas of physical conditioning also need work. Strength and power are vital aspects of dance  and are not stimulated to the same extent in the dance class environment as seen within dance performance. The rehearsal period is also too late to develop these underlying components. The aim of periodisation is to develop these components prior to the start of rehearsals and then allow the piece-specific adaptions to take place during the rehearsal period. The demands that today’s choreographers are asking of their dancers requires the development of these components beyond the norm and reliance on the usual body-conditioning regimes, such as Pilates, will not place enough stress through the system to meet the required demands. The use of other training modes such as eight training should not be shunned due to the myth that they develop bulky, inflexible muscles – they do not (Koutedakis et al. 1996). It is how the muscles are training or the stimulus that they are put under that determines how they adapt.

Just as the anaerobic system is based on aerobic foundations, power is formed on strength. Strength development requires heavy weight, few reps and lots of rest. Interestingly, bulk development is very similar to muscle toning in that moderate weight is used with 10-12 reps; the difference between the two modes is that the former has little rest between the sets and more sets than the latter.

Where does dancing fit into all of this? Dance is the primary focus of the dancer’s training schedule and any supplemental training needs to fit within the prescribed dance schedule. On this front, the supplementary sessions should be planned fro 20-30 minute slots and the dancer can decide on how many sessions they can fit into their schedule. The total work done by the dancer also needs to be considered and as the rehearsal schedule intensifies, the supplemental training decreases before a total tapering is instigated prior to the performance period. For instance, if first night was on a Saturday then Monday and Tuesday would be normal rehearsal days. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday would be reduced workload days with a class and one run-through schedule for each day. If travel to the venue is required, this needs to take place on one of these days and not involved rehearsal of any kind. The focus of these run-throughs needs to be on performing, with feedback and comments at the end- the use of video is very useful for this. Optimal nutrition and plenty of rest should also be planned into these days – obviously good nutrition should be an everyday occurrence but on these days the focus is on making sure that the muscles’ and body’s glycogen stores are full, which means it is even more important to ensure a good intake of carbohydrate (see Dance UK’s Nutrition for Dancers Information Sheet). One the day of the performance minimal dancing should be programmed. Parts of the piece can be used for warm-up but it is easy to succumb to worries and want to fit in rehearsals on this day, but physiologically and psychologically, this can be detrimental to the performance. Time can be set aside for mental rehearsal of the piece, both individually and as a company.

On the rehearsal theme, it might be a good idea to think about programming them in the morning rather than the afternoon – dancers will have more energy and also be more mentally focused then than later on during the day. A shorter warm-up class is needed; the usual one and a half hours is more tradition orientated than based on physiological, mental or motor control evidence; in fact the body and mind can be prepared in less than half an hour. Another area of thought needs to be who is required for each rehearsal and the length of each rehearsal. Often specific rehearsals are scheduled for two to three hours, which is too long for anybody to concentrate fully, and not everybody is used all the time; even being in a rehearsal and not actually dancing is tiring. Rehearsals of 30-40 minutes with 10-minute breaks in between, would optimise learning and allow more specific selection of the dancers that are actually required. Obviously this is a theoretical ideal and in reality it might not work, but the aim is to think about how you approach rehearsals – what is tradition and what might be most advantageous for the dancers.

The implementation of periodisation has occurred within a number of dance companies and the dancers have reported feeling the benefits (Wyon et al. 2000) – whether the performance was improved, obviously, is hard to tell. The evidence from the world of sport is overwhelming with all sport at the top levels implementing periodisation and tapering into their schedules, (Bompa 1994) not only to directly improve performance, but to also reduce the chances of overtraining from occurring (Koutedakis et al. 1999).

Originally published in Dance UK  magazine, Issue 52 – Spring 2004