Cross-Training for Technique

Improve your strength and stamina outside the studio.
Published in the August/September 2009 issue.

Photo by Nathan Sayers

When San Francisco Ballet soloist Elizabeth Miner found herself huffing and puffing through David Bintley’s The Dance House, she knew it was time to increase her cross-training. “The piece was nonstop,” says Miner. “Just running it was not enough. I needed to build my aerobic capacity.” In addition to Pilates—which she already did—Miner began using the elliptical trainer for 30 minutes three times a week. She noticed a change almost immediately. “I could finish the ballet and not be completely exhausted,” says Miner. “I felt more in control, able to think about other things onstage, like the music and movement. Being tired is the last thing you want to focus on.”

Whether it’s running, yoga, spinning classes or weight lifting, non-dance exercise can help improve your technique. Marika Molnar, director of physical therapy at New York City Ballet, believes cross-training is an essential part of any dancer’s regime. “I don’t just recommend it, I insist on it,” says Molnar, who has been working with NYCB dancers for the past 30 years. “Because dancers perform the same movements using the same muscles all the time, strength, flexibility and motor coordination exercises help to nourish the body.” NYCB apprentices are offered a full wellness program that includes an individualized workout. “Once they experience how great it is, they make time for it,” Molnar adds.

A physical therapist or trainer can help you find the regimen that will be most effective for your body. Generally, exercises should be done two to three times a week, working to the point of fatigue to build strength while making sure your form is correct at all times.

Problem: Low Extensions

According to Molnar, strength at the end range of your flexibility is crucial to developing higher extensions. “Pilates reformer exercises are great,” she says. “One of my favorites is the single leg circle; it helps to improve abdominal stabilization while strengthening the whole leg through the range of motion.”

Athletic trainer Mike Howard and Pilates teacher James Harren, who both work with Houston Ballet dancers, recommend strengthening and stretching the psoas muscle through slow, deep sit-ups with the abdominal muscles contracted both on the way up and down. “Everything is connected, so extensions are easier with a stronger core,” Harren says. “Because the psoas attaches to the inner part of the thigh bone, it rotates the leg and lifts it.” Add the obliques in by twisting slightly to the left and right. Do two sets of ten three times a week.

Don’t leave out the strength of the standing leg. Harren recommends placing one leg on a medium-sized physio ball while lying down, the other leg in the air turned out and in first position, then lifting and lowering the pelvis in this position.

Problem: Low Jumps

Stretching correctly is the first step to improving your jumps. “Hanging out with your leg on the barre while chatting with friends will weaken ligaments and negatively impact your jumps,” warns Molnar. “Ideally, stretches should only be held for two to three minutes.” Molnar also believes plyometric training (which builds muscle power through quick, explosive movements) is essential to improve the strength, elasticity and activation of the muscles you use to jump. Try jumping with a two-pound weight, or jump on and off a six-inch box. “Have someone put their hands on your waist and push down to provide resistance,” Molnar suggests.

Howard advises strengthening the feet to improve your jumping. Try picking up marbles or cotton balls with your toes to engage the muscles in your arch.


Problem: Weak Port De Bras

Harren has dancers practice port de bras while lying on a roller. “Balancing on the roller will steady the core and build greater sensory motor coordination,” he says.

To strengthen the shoulder joint, stand up and do small shoulder circles with a dumbbell. Have a trainer determine the appropriate amount of weight. Any exercise where you pull something in front of you backwards, like on a rowing machine, will strengthen the muscles of the shoulder blades, creating a strong back.

Problem: Lack Of Stamina

Elliptical training, swimming and biking all offer low-impact ways to increase your stamina. Be sure to set the elliptical on a smaller incline and use light resistance. If you prefer the treadmill, Molnar recommends walking (both forward and backward), not running. “Running puts extreme force on the joints, especially the knees.” says Molnar. She advises staying away from the StairMaster altogether because it’s stressful on the knees and good form is hard to maintain.

In any aerobic exercise, try to achieve 65 percent of your maximum heart rate (you can determine your MHR by subtracting your age from 211). You need at least 15 to 30 minutes three times a week to see a difference in your endurance. “Make sure you are breathing in the lower lungs and not just the upper chest,” Molnar says. You can continue working on your endurance even while dealing with some injuries. Ask a doctor about low-impact swimming or biking.

Nancy Wozny covers the arts and health from Houston, TX.