About Lauren Warnecke

Lauren Warnecke is a dance writer based in Chicago, IL, and is a contributing author at 4dancers.org, danceadvantage.net, Windy City Times, and SeeChicagoDance.com. In 2009 Lauren created Art Intercepts, a blog for dance-based discourse that incorporates dance and movement research, editorial commentary, and critical reviews. She is a full-time faculty member at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Dance and Weight Training: A Perfect Pas de deux?

Photo courtesy Richard Foster

Photo courtesy Richard Foster

It seems an unnatural partnership. Big, bulky bodies throwing around weights in the gym can hardly complement the needs of a dancer for strength, flexibility, agility, grace, and performance quality. Weight training is rife with stereotypes that have generally kept dancers off of the power racks and stuck on Pilates and Elliptical machines.
Upon closer investigation, weight training couldn’t be a more perfect compliment to dance training.

A basic principle of training (for sport, health, rehabilitation, etc) is called specificity. Essentially, specificity means that the muscles you work out are the muscles that get worked out. An individual who does bicep curls all day long isn’t going to get a strong back; a person who does only crunches might get six pack abs, but not much else. Specificity also applies to types of activities, and the demands of that activity, sport, etc. For example, if you want to get better at running, you run. Want to become better at swimming? Swim. If you want to get better at dancing, dance.

Sort of.

It gets a little complicated here because sometimes a piece of choreography calls for movements that aren’t necessarily covered by a basic ballet class. To truly follow the law of specificity, we need to look at dance differently and dissect our training to ensure it matches the demands of our performances. The beauty in weight training lies in its ability to adapt to the needs of the client.

And clients, in my humble opinion, should include dancers!

But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with a few of the top myths about weight training.

Top Three Myths about Weight Training:

1. Lifting heavy will make you big.

Lifting weights won’t make you big unless you follow a specific formula for Hypertrophy (the “get big” program). Women aren’t likely to get big unless they try really, really, really hard, and even then they may only get big with the assistance of drugs. The thing is, an increase in muscular size is attributed, in large part, to the presence of hormones in the body. The way a person organizers his/her training variables maximizes the release of these hormones during exercise, and one of the big players here is testosterone. Women, as I’m sure you are aware, have MUCH less testosterone than men, and are therefore MUCH less likely to get big.

So now that that’s out of the way, you might be thinking: “Men dancers don’t really want to get big either.” Fair, but again, lifting heavy doesn’t make you big. A hypertrophy program dictates a moderate weight, for a moderate number of repetitions, in order to obtain a short to moderate rest period, so the client can capitalize off of that hormone release. Lifting really heavy will require longer rest periods, and the hormone response dissipates during rest. This is a common misconception of many “bros,” too – they lift as much as possible thinking that in order to get big, they have to lift big. Lifting heavy ( > 85% 1RM) will make you strong, not big. And if we are thinking about male dancers here, doing body weight activity only, or rocking out those tiny pink dumbbells does little to prepare them to haul a 125 pound beauty above their heads in an arabesque press.

2. Weightlifting leads to injury.

Sure it can, but if we’re being honest, here, dance causes injury, not weightlifting. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself (again). Let’s get some basic distinctions out of the way before moving forward here:

Weight Training is a catch all term for resistance training – adding a load to your basic body-weight movements in an organized fashion with the purpose of gaining strength, building size (hypertrophy), increasing muscular endurance, or improving power. Injury is primarily caused by trauma, a lack of proper technique, compromising weight over form, overtraining, or a combination of these things.

Powerlifting is a competitive sport consisting of back squat, bench press, and deadlift. The objective is to lift as much weight as possible, so the goal of powerlifting is typically maximal strength (despite the name).

Weightlifting (also referred to as Olympic Weightlifting) is also a competitive sport. These are the men an women in the little unitards hauling big colored barbells over their heads in the Olympics’ late night show. Again, the name is deceiving, because the primary lifts performed in Weightlifting – Clean & Jerk and Snatch – require power (unlike Powerlifting, which requires strength).

Confused? Don’t be. The overall point here is that there are different kinds of lifting weights, and ALL of them have a relatively low rate of injury compared to other sports.

Sports Injuries (Per 100 participant hours in school sports)
Track and Field 0.57
Soccer 6.20
Basketball 0.03
Football 0.10
Gymnastics 0.044
Powerlifting 0.0027
Tennis 0.001
Volleyball 0.0013
Weightlifting 0.0017
Weight Training 0.0035
Source: USA Weightlifting

Dancers are not included here, but if we consider that dance and gymnastics share similar demands, particularly with today’s fancy choreography, we can probably assume that it’s not lifting weights that is getting us injured. Perhaps dancers should avoid playing soccer, however…

3. Dancers should focus on “cardio” for weight loss and endurance.

Weight training is a great way to “tone” the body. It burns fat and builds muscle efficiently, raises metabolism, and creates that lean body that everyone wants. If you consider the demands of dance on the dancer, class and choreography typically call for short bursts of explosive or powerful movements. If we believe in that fundamental principle of specificity (we do), rocking out 45 minutes on the elliptical machine is not going to be helpful in achieving better power or strength.

Cardio training is useful for a dancer when stamina is required. For example, if your choreography involves a continuous jogging and hopping pattern around the stage for 15 minutes, then taxing the cardiovascular system at a moderate intensity is a really good idea. That 50-second Chinese variation in the Nutcracker uses a different metabolic system – it’s essentially a high intensity interval. So, to get better at high intensity activities, you’ve got to train at a high intensity. Plyometric training, kettle bell swings, treadmill sprints, and -cough- Olympic Weightlifting are excellent ways to tax the metabolic pathway you’ll need to utilize in that short variation. Not to toot my own horn, but, toot.

Vocab words:

Hypertrophy – An overall increase in muscular size, brought on by a specific training protocol that capitalizes on the hormonal response to exercise.

1RM – One Repetition Maximum. A basic test of strength in which an individual successfully lifts as much weight as possible for a given exercise one time. 1RM assessments follow a specific protocol ramping up weight to a maximal level over the course of four to five sets.

Muscular Endurance – The ability of a muscle to sustain a moderate level of force for an extended period of time. Endurance training programs typically consist of low weight, high numbers of repetitions, and limited rest.

Power – is defined as a function of force and velocity. With increased power, an individual is able to produce high speed, explosive movements.

At Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Everybody Dances

Dance fans are likely to know Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (HSDC) for its reputation as a world-class professional dance company, but a growing number of community programs are aimed at making dance accessible and available for all. 

“Hubbard Street’s Education and Community Programs create environments in which everyone dances,” says Kathryn Humphreys, who for 12 years has served as HSDC’s director of Youth, Education and Community Programs. “Our mission is always to get as many people dancing as possible… We have worked with a huge variety of special needs populations in the schools and seen the impact that moving with the kids and creating these experiences has on them.”

As the longest running program of its kind in the Midwest, HSDC has a highly successful Parkinson’s Project focused on improving mobility and independence for individuals with Parkinson’s Disease. Parkinson’s Disease is a progressive degenerative movement disorder that causes muscle rigidity and slowed movements, tremors and postural instability. While there is currently no cure, significant evidence favors participation in specialized dance programs to ease the symptoms and possibly slow the progress of Parkinson’s Disease.

Parkinsons Project participants at Hubbard Street Dance Center

Hubbard Street Parkinson’s Project participants at the Hubbard Street Dance Center. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Under the umbrella of Adaptive Dance Programs, Hubbard Street will expand the Parkinson’s Project to include two new pilot programs on site at its studios in Chicago’s West Loop this summer: The Autism Project for youth grades 1-6 on the spectrum, and Physically Integrated Dance for youth ages 8-16 with physical disabilities.

“Our Adaptive Dance Programs will focus on their participants’ strengths — on their talents and potential, as they learn to see themselves as we see them: as dancers and choreographers,” says Humphreys. “These new curricula will highlight concepts of the choreographic process, established dance techniques, and improvisation skills relevant to the goals of each individual. Work is well underway to secure our ability to offer these programs at little or no cost to participants.”

The content of the new programs will be largely decided by committee members at Hubbard Street, with insight and input from Joshua Krasne (Visiting Assistant Director of the Resource Center for Autism and Developmental Delays at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Susan D. Imus (Chair, Columbia College Chicago Department of Creative Arts Therapies), and organizational support from Rush Orthopedics, Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association, and the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. However, even with all those academics involved, Hubbard Street maintains that these classes are not being offered for the purpose of scholarly research.

“We don’t have HIPAA privileges, and it would cost millions of dollars to try. We are pretty clear that these are not dance therapy classes…. our Parkinson’s class was very clear with us that they wanted to take a dance class. They get enough therapy in the rest of their lives. We got similar feedback from this committee that the students and the parents of the students want to find a way for them to have ‘normal’ activities.”

The committee is split on whether or not to create inclusive programming combining children from special populations into conventional classes in the program; Humphreys eventually sees a future for both blended and specialized classes. Having a child on the spectrum, she understands first hand that the type of experience one chooses for his/her child is a personal decision based on what the parent and child’s goals are.

Sarah Cullen Fuller teaching Adaptive Dance Programs participants

Sarah Cullen Fuller, Hubbard Street alumna and founding teaching artist since 2007 for the Parkinson’s Project, with Adaptive Dance Programs participants at the Hubbard Street Dance Center. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

For the time being, the pilot program will be focused on two specific populations, but HSDC isn’t limiting the class to narrow specifications of how Autism or physical disabilities are defined. And if the pilot program goes well…. but it will go well. Humphreys has no doubt that the Adaptive Dance Programs will be successful, and fill an important and underserved group of aspiring dancers.

“I’ve got it on the schedule for Fall,” she said, and if Hubbard Street runs its educational programs anywhere near how they run their professional dance company, the program, like everything else they do, will be a smash hit of the highest quality.

Further details about Hubbard Street’s Adaptive Dance Programs and pilot sessions are available upon request, by email to adaptivedance@hubbardstreetdance.com, or by phone at 312-850-9744 X 133.

Note: The author has not professional or financial affiliation with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago.

The Long and Short of Achilles Tendon Health

It feels great to have Lauren back at Dance Advantage after a hiatus. She is excited to talk about one of her favorite topics: Tendons!

Achilles stretchingThis isn’t the first time we’ve had a tendon talk. A few years back I discussed Achilles tendonitis and comments have continued to roll in with questions about how best to treat and avoid tendonopathies in the lower leg.

The balance between strength and flexibility:

Part of overall muscular fitness is recognizing that every athlete (and I’m including dancers here as athletes) must have a balance between muscular strength, muscular endurance, and flexibility. The ratio of each of these components changes based on the demands of the sport, and obviously most dance forms require a higher degree of flexibility than other athletic pursuits.

Dancers are ultra-aware of the importance of maintaining good flexibility, but the demands of today’s choreography also require a considerable amount of strength, endurance, and power. Too much emphasis on strength, and the dancer risks injury from tendons being too tight. Too much emphasis on stretching, and loosey-goosey tendons can easily become overstretched and at risk for injury.

Hands down, the best way to avoid lower leg tendon injuries is to be diligent about proper technique, particularly when performing jumping movements.

Jumping puts a lot of stress on the Achilles tendon, and most techniques require the dancer to press through the heels to cushion the landing. Every time a jump is landed, the dancer completes a soft, toe-ball-heel progression before pushing off into the next jump.

Aside from protecting the tendon from injury, this technique will also load the tendon and allow its natural elasticity to recoil and propel you into the next jump.

The Stress Reflex: [Read more…]

How To Devise an Effective Pre-Show Warm-up

Warming up is an essential part of the performance process.

While it’s widely recognized that we should warm up, it may be less understood how to do so effectively.

The amount of time spent warming up before a performance depends a lot on the demands of that particular performance.

Ask yourself these questions:
  • Does the choreography require a lot of jumping, highly athletic movements, or extreme range of motion?
  • How am I feeling today? Am I sore? Injured?
  • How old am I?*
  • Where in the performance does my part occur? How much time will pass between the warm-up class and actually dancing onstage?
  • What type of floor am I dancing on?
  • What shoes am I wearing for the performance?
  • How cold is the theater?

All of these factors can and do influence how much you need to do to be properly prepared.

Class of dancers sitting, stretching side. Photo by Savage Rose Photography

A warm-up class (assuming you have one), often occurs an hour or more before the start of the show, and your body only stays “warm” for about 5-15 minutes (depending on room temperature, clothing, etc) without continued activity. So it may be necessary to repeat a warm-up routine closer to when you perform.

In the exercise world, we divide warm-up into three basic categories: Passive, General, and Specific.

 Passive Warm-up [Read more…]

Dance Instructors and Injury Management: Leave it to the Pros

The diagnosis and treatment of injuries isn’t up to you…

An x-ray of the footExperienced dance instructors have seen hundreds of sprained ankles. We know the signs, symptoms, and basic treatment of common dance injuries.  Heck, I spent the last year of graduate school studying how to identify and treat injuries.

Regardless of the extent of our knowledge, it’s important that all dance instructors understand the clear boundaries between our jobs and that of a health care professional. Though doctors often lack experience working with dancers, there are a few reasons why dance teachers should steer clear of diagnosing or treating their students’ injuries:

Health care professionals have licenses for a reason.

While it is fine to make “recommendations”, you should be very clear when talking to an injured student and/or her parent that you are not a doctor, and use extreme caution when mentioning any sort of treatment or medication.  Using suggestive rather than definitive language looks like this:

“Well, it looks like it might be a sprained ankle.  You may want to put some ice on it and elevate your foot.  I’m not a doctor, but your symptoms are consistent with a sprain. To be sure, I would get it checked out.”

What NOT to do:

“You sprained your ankle.  Put some ice on it and elevate it, take some ibuprofen and in about a week or two you’ll be ready to dance again.”

If, in fact, your student didn’t sprain her ankle but instead broke her foot, tore a ligament, snapped a tendon (or perhaps has an allergy or negative reaction to the medication you recommended), following your advice is a quick way to a shortened career and, potentially, a lawsuit.

Injuries can be complicated, and aren’t always what they appear to be.  

During college, a friend and fellow dancer Melissa Carlson (now Lewis) found this out first hand.  In her words:

After landing a grand jete with my left foot turned under, I noticed immediate pain; severe bruising and swelling ensued within an hour or two. Thinking that it may just be strained or sprained (or in truth–NOT THINKING!) I attempted to dance on it the next day, despite the fact that my foot was much too swollen to fit inside a ballet slipper.  I finally went to the ER for x-rays and found that the 4th and 5th metatarsal bones had broken.

Later that week, I went to see an orthopedic specialist who prescribed three months of total rest and a regimen of nutritional supplements to help increase my lacking bone density.  Being extremely unhappy with this reality of a diagnoses, combined with being headstrong and immature, I decided that the best way for me to heal was to pretend as much as possible that nothing was wrong and go back to dancing as soon as I was able to bear weight on my injury.

Of course my foolish inaction resulted in disaster, with improper and incomplete healing and the specialist suggesting surgery and a full year of rest… I did nothing of the sort, and went back to rehearsing and classes as soon as I was able.  The short-tem results of the injury were pain and discomfort, whereas the long-term results have been the inability to wear pointe shoes or stand unsupported for long periods of time, and arthritis within that area of the foot.

Thankfully, through good nutrition and supplements I was eventually able to bring my bone density up to normal and keep it that way.  Had I originally listened to the doctors advice, I think the injury may have healed with no severe consequences, like the ones I forced my self into suffering through bad judgement!

Dancers are passionate people, and our careers are short. During injury, we are so anxious to return to our craft that we often shortchange the recovery period. In truth, this probably contributes to why our careers are so short, and a little patience might create more longevity among dancers. Small injuries, left undiagnosed, misdiagnosed, or untreated can become career-ending injuries faster than you can say “metatarsal”.

The Dance Instructor’s Role

Instead of playing doctor, there are several important functions you serve that support a student’s recovery. Angeline Lucas nicely outlines a plan for dancers with chronic illness here on Dance Advantage. Injury management can and should follow a similar plan, and to summarize, here are a few key points:

Talk to the dancer, and the parent, on an ongoing basis throughout recovery.
Work in tandem with the doctor(s) using a team approach.
Provide a modified training plan and/or alternative activities.


Making accommodations

Speaking of alternative activities, there are a few considerations for students who are returning from injury.  Just because a dancer is down, it doesn’t mean she is out, and once cleared by a physician to return to activity it’s possible to train and take class keeping these important points in mind:

Let the dancer drive the bus.
Only the dancer herself knows what she’s feeling as she returns to dance.  While you can provide a barometer based on feedback from the medical team and the student’s body language, it’s important to try and allow the dancer to take control of her recovery.  This may sound contradictory to the story above, so let me reinforce that this is in cases where the dancer has been cleared for activity from her doctor.

Training the uninjured side while the affected side recovers creates a bigger problem.
Injuries often occur on the weaker side of the body, so if the dancer is recovering from a foot, ankle, knee, hip, shoulder, etc. injury it is important to not simply keep on with the uninjured side during recovery.  If able to continue training, work equilaterally. Find activities that decrease, rather than increase the strength disparities between the two sides of the body. Maybe that means working on the floor, or in a pool, or simply not raising the arms overhead. If needed, work with a physical therapist to identify the needs of the student and create a program that will assist in her recovery.

That can be really hard in a class of 30 dancers…
Indeed.  An older, trained dancer may be able to take responsibility for making some modifications, but it may be more productive to work one-on-one with her or have her work exclusively with a physical therapist.

In all cases, don’t be afraid to recognize what you don’t know, or can’t handle, and ask for help.

Have you continued dancing on an injury or followed inaccurate advice and regretted it?

Tell us your story in the comments!