Supplementary training for young dancers

Edel Quin has over a decade of experience as a dance teacher, lecturer, researcher and dance scientist, specialising in the application of dance science theory and research to the teaching and practice of dance, across styles, ages and settings. She is currently Programme Leader for both the BSc (hons) and MSci Dance Science at University of Chichester, and co-authored  ‘Safe Dance Practice: An Applied Dance Science Perspective.’

Why supplement dance training?

Supplemental training is often overlooked in dance. We tend to think that dancing will give our body all the physical training it needs. But this is not the case. From studies across different dance styles with professional dancers as well as dancers-in-training, it is evident that dancing alone can not provide all the physical training that a dancer needs to reach their peak performance potential. Specific to young dancers (aged 10-18), a three-year study on 795 contemporary, ballet, urban, and South Asian dancers in England, reported that dancers who spent more time in supplementary training were fitter than those who only engaged in dancing. In addition, research has demonstrated that a 6-week supplemental training programme produced significant improvements in selected areas of fitness in both student and professional contemporary dancers, and those fitness improvements were associated with an increase in aesthetic performance (Angioi, et al. 2010). Similar findings have been reported with classical ballet dancers (Twitchett, et al. 2011).

Injury risk has also been associated with fitness levels in dancers, where a low level of aerobic fitness in ballet dancers was significantly associated with many of the injuries sustained by the dancers during the 15-week period of research (Twitchett, et al. 2010). In contemporary dancers, a reduced level of muscular power in the legs (i.e. ability to produce a high jump) was associated with increased severity of injuries in female contemporary dancers (Angioi, et al. 2009).

It is clear, therefore, that if we deliver our dance class with an emphasis on technical, artistic and expressive skills only that we may be limiting the full potential of our dancers, and possibly contributing to injury risks. Sonia Rafferty, a dance teacher, choreographer and researcher, writes, “To ignore the physiological needs in the training of today’s dancers is to deny development of the art form. It is the responsibility of dance teachers and educators to continually develop their knowledge and understanding of the physiological demands of dance and of the options for either integrating physical fitness training into the technique class itself or providing it through supplementation.” (Rafferty, 2010, p48).

So, thank you ODUK for producing this special bulletin on such an important topic…but what exactly is supplementary training?

What is supplementary training?

Supplementary training is a broad term that encompasses a range of fitness and conditioning needs. The word ‘supplementary’ infers additional training in order to enhance the existing training. As Claire Calvert, dancer with The Royal Ballet says “Doing squats doesn’t help me do 32 fouettes because I still have to practice the steps. But with that new base of strength and confidence, I feel more present in the performance, which means I can focus better on the story or the character.” (The Red Bulletin, 2019). It is therefore not a substitute to dance class, but a very important addition.

There are seven main interrelated fitness and conditioning needs for the dancer, which include:

  • Aerobic fitness – associated with moderate intensity, longer-duration activity.
  • Anaerobic fitness – associated with high intensity, maximal, short bursts of activity.
  • Muscular Strength – the ability of a muscle to produce a maximal force on one occasion.
  • Muscular Power – the explosive (speed-related) aspect of strength (e.g. jump or leg swing).
  • Muscular endurance – the ability of a muscle to produce continuous strength (e.g. hold a plank position or develope) or repetitive power actions (e.g. repeated jumps or leg kicks).
  • Flexibility – the range of motion available at a joint, including the ‘stretchiness’ of the muscle(s) around that joint.
  • Neuromuscular coordination – required for all of the above, but also associated with balance, agility, coordination and skill. (see Irvine, Redding & Rafferty, 2011).

It will not be possible to address every component listed above in one dance class, but being aware of these different elements means that you can plan your sessions to build-in alternative components of supplementary training at different times across the year.

How to fit in supplementary training along with everything else that you are expected to achieve in your dance class?

Firstly, be focused. Choose one of the elements above and identify one or two exercises that target that component, and are related to the needs of your dance style and your dance group. Create two to four versions of the identified exercise, so that you have a series of progressions for the dancers to attempt; starting with the easier version and working towards the harder version. Remember, each dancer will start and finish at a different level, depending on their existing capabilities. You could use a scale of perceived exertion, which means the dancer rates how hard they feel an exercise is for them on a scale from one (meaning little to no exertion at all) through to ten (meaning maximum exertion). For instance, if the dancer feels they are working at a six or seven the first time you try an exercise, as you repeat the same exercise across a series of weeks it should become easier, as it becomes easier the same exercise should then be rated lower on the scale, maybe a four or five. Once your dancer is reporting a lower rating then you can introduce the next version of the exercise, increasing the challenge and therefore increasing the exertion rating again, until the dancer adapts to this new challenge and the rating will begin to reduce.

In order to raise the score on the exertion scale and to see improvements across time, you will need to increase the frequency (how often), intensity (how hard), and/or duration (how long) of the exercise. It is not recommended to increase both the duration and the intensity in a single session. It is also important to remember to have fun! If your dancers don’t enjoy the exercises or value the challenge of trying them out, then they are less likely to commit.

Included below are two tables which gives an overview of how you might target aerobic and anaerobic fitness components.

Guidance for strength and power-based exercises provided by Andrea Kozai (2012), include:

  • If the dancer has difficulty with slower movements, they may lack strength. If they need work on moving more quickly, they should train for power.
  • Strength-building exercises can be included by pairing dancers up and asking them to provide manual resistance for each other.
  • Plyometric-type (jump training) exercises can be incorporated into class by asking dancers to complete several functional jumps in sequence, focusing on explosiveness instead of technique. NOTE: Beware using these techniques with dancers of little training, however. Explosive movements must be integrated gradually to allow the muscles to adapt to the high forces they produce.

Further guidance for integrating supplemental training comes from the UK’s Centre for Advanced Training research project (Redding, Nordin-Bates, Walker, 2011, p43), with specific consideration for the adolescent dancer who will be experiencing their adolescent growth spurt – a significant stage in their biological and physical development. The guidance suggests:

  • Avoid heavy resistance training with young dancers. Their own body weight can be enough to develop and maintain muscular strength and power.
  • Expect less aerobic improvement and strength gain from pre-pubertal than post-pubertal dancers. Once the rapid growth phase has reached its peak (approx. age 13 or 14 for girls and aged 15 or 16 for boys) these areas of fitness will improve again.
  • Adapt the training load to account for age as well as male/female differences, with consideration of the different ages that males and females experience the growth spurt.

In summary…

Whether you choose to suspend your regular dance class every now and again to focus on one area of supplemental training, or whether you choose to incrementally integrate one exercise of one component of fitness at a time into your regular dance class, the message is clear – DO IT! There is a wealth of guidance out there (see the reading and resource list below) which can help you and inspire you. And remember, it is vital to address each dancer’s individual needs. For example, a hypermobile dancer will need to focus on strength, stability and proprioception. A ‘tight’ dancer will need to work on relaxed flexibility (when fully warm of course!). It is also important to take account of different development growth stages, such as the adolescent growth spurt, and consider adapting your sessions accordingly.

Where to learn more?

Chapter 4: Training Principles and Supplementary Fitness. In Quin E, Rafferty S & Tomlinson C. (2015) Safe Dance Practice. An Applied Dance Science Perspective. Champaign, Ill, USA: Human Kinetics.

Kozai, A. (2012). Supplementary Muscular Fitness Training for Dancers. The IADMS Bulletin for Teachers. 4(1). Available at: https://cdn.ymaws.com/www.iadms.org/resource/resmgr/Public/Bull_4-1_pp15-17_Kozai.pdf

The IADMS Bulletin for Dancers and Teachers. (2014) 5(1). Special edition on supplementary training, available at: https://cdn.ymaws.com/www.iadms.org/resource/resmgr/Public/IADMS_Bulletin_DT_5-1.pdf

Rafferty, S. (2010). Considerations for Integrating Fitness into Dance Training. Journal Of Dance Medicine And Science, (2), 45.

If you want to enhance your understanding of the dancing body and mind, University of Chichester offer a four day CPD Safe Dance Practice Course, running from 22 – 25th July 2019. Find out more here.

References:

Angioi M, Metsios G, Twitchett EA, Koutedakis Y, Wyon M. Effects of supplemental training on fitness and aesthetic competence parameters in contemporary dance: a randomised controlled trial. Med Probl Perform Art. 2012 Mar;27(1):3-8.

Brown AC, Wells TJ, Schade ML, Smith DL, Fehling PC. Effects of plyometric training versus traditional weight training on strength, power, and aesthetic jumping ability in female collegiate dancers. J Dance Med Sci. 2007;11(2):38-44.

High performance Art. How sport science revolutionised ballet. The Red Bulletin, UK, May 2019. Page 42-55. Available at: https://issuu.com/redbulletin.com/docs/0519_uk_lowres

Manuela Angioi, MSc, Giorgos S. Metsios, PhD, Yiannis Koutedakis, PhD, Emily Twitchett, BSc(Hons), Matthew Wyon, PhD Physical Fitness and Severity of Injuries in Contemporary Dance. Medical Problems of Performing Artists. 2009. Mar;26(1):26-9.

Redding E, Nordin-Bates S, Walker I. (2011) Passion, Pathways and Potential in Dance: An Interdisciplinary, Longitudinal Study into Dance Talent Development. Trinity Laban Research Report. Available here: https://www.trinitylaban.ac.uk/dance-science-research/talent-development-the-cat-project

Twitchett EA, Angioi M, Koutedakis Y, Wyon M. Do increases in selected fitness parameters affect the aesthetic aspects of classical ballet performance? Med Probl Perform Art. 2011 Mar;26(1):35-8.

Twitchett E, Brodrick A, Nevill Am, Koutedakis Y, Angioi M & Wyon M. Does Physical Fitness Affect Injury Occurrence and Time Loss Due to Injury in Elite Vocational Ballet Students? Journal of Dance Medicine & Science, Volume 14, Number 1, March 2010, pp. 26-31(6)