Whether you're being lifted in The Nutcracker's grand pas de deux or doing weight-sharing in contemporary choreography, female ballet dancers can't expect their partner to do all the work. "Strength with stability is a hallmark," says Rebecca Kesting, staff physical therapist at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at NYU Langone Health. The other person is usually moving too, she says, so you need to be able to use your upper-body strength to find stability.
Kesting recommends these three exercises, which imitate pressing into a partner. If you're just starting to build upper-body strength, practice them four days a week to develop your shoulder stabilizers and upper-back muscles. Later on, you can scale back to two or three times weekly for maintenance.
- an inflatable ball you can hold in your hand (like a kickball or smaller)
- a foam roller
Side Plank with Port de Bras
Regular and side planks strengthen the shoulder stabilizers, like the serratus anterior, along with the abdominals. Once you've mastered these basic forms, Kesting recommends a side plank with moving port de bras. Play with your own pattern, like first to fifth to second, and then reverse. "You get the stability of pressing away from the ground as you would through a partner," she says. "And you're adding that dance-specific movement."
Duration: "Form first, always," says Kesting. Once you have good alignment and muscular engagement in your core and arms, build up to a 1-minute hold on each side.
One-Armed Wall Plank with Ball
Lean into a wall in a one-armed plank position, with your arm straight and a ball under your palm. "Use a ball that inflates because those have more pushback, as opposed to a tennis ball, which is pretty firm and stiff," says Kesting. The feedback mimics the negotiation of sharing weight. Once you feel stable, press away from the wall with your arm and trace small circles with the ball using the heel of your hand.
Reps: 10 circles clockwise, then reverse. Repeat with the other arm.
Cobra with Foam Roller
Lie on your stomach with your forearms resting on a foam roller and palms facing down. Press your arms into the roller, pulling it toward your body as your back lifts. At the same time, extend your back up into a small cobra position. Slowly return to the starting position. Work on keeping your shoulders away from your ears and your abdominals lifted, says Kesting.
"When you're doing lifts, a lot of times you're extending through your chest so your partner can lift you, using your upper back almost as a shelf," she says. This exercise strengthens the latissimus dorsi muscles and promotes mobility in the thoracic spine.
Reps: 2 sets of 10