How to Cross Train for Dance

As a teenager growing up dancing in the 90s and early 2000s in a small city in New Zealand, I don’t think the words ‘cross training’ ever passed my ears. Now, many years later, cross training has become an important of my regular training.

So what is cross training?

Cross training is training in other styles of movement that will assist and improve your dance. Things like yoga or pilates may spring to mind straight away, but cross training is about more than that.

Why should I cross train?

A regular dance class is a fantastic way to build your dance knowledge and prepare your body – for dance. But if we only train our bodies in one way, then we’re only working one set of muscles. Those of you who have done ballet will know that you almost never work in parallel. Ballet makes your turn out muscles strong but neglects the muscles that strengthen your turn in – and both are important.

Cross training can not only strengthen other groups of muscles, it is also a great way to build your cardiovascular fitness. Since regular dance classes do not sufficiently elevate your heart rate to increase cardiovascular stamina, cross training can help you increase your stamina so that you’ll last longer when you are dancing and have more power and energy to draw on in those big virtuoso movements. Research has shown that cross training can also reduce muscle fatigue, lowering your chance of injury. If you are on a break from dancing over the summer it can also be a great way to stay in shape while your classes are on holiday.

How do I cross train?

There are lots of different ways to cross train and you need to consider a couple of things. Firstly, what types of physical activity do you enjoy doing? And secondly, what weaknesses do you want to address?  Here are a few options that you might like to consider:

Pilates

Pilates is a great way for dancers to cross train, and one of my favourites. With its focus on core strength it is a great way to strengthen the body and increase the stability and strength of your core – something that is super important for all dancers. Many dance studios provide mat based pilates classes that are customised for dancers, but don’t be afraid to visit a regular pilates studio. Many pilates instructors have experience working with dancers and working one on one with an instructor can be a great way to get targeted feedback – it can be expensive though. For those on a tighter budget, most libraries have a range of pilates books and DVDs which can provide a great introduction.

Yoga

Yoga is another great way to condition your body. I particularly like the focus on breath, as this is such a core part of movement that is often neglected in dance teaching. Yoga not only lengthens and strengthens your muscles, but the focus on the intrinsic muscles in your feet is great for developing stability and balance when on pointe or demipointe.

Swimming

Swimming is probably one of the most effective ways to cross train. Being in the water removes the effects of gravity on your joints, lessening the impact of movement, actually it’s zero-impact. This makes it an ideal form of movement for those recovering from injury.  Not only does it use your whole body, it is also a fantastic cardio workout and great for increasing stamina.

Running

Running has long been a point of contention in the dance world. The main issue is that running turned out is extremely bad for the knees. The constant pounding on the joints can also be damaging for dancers. That said, running can still be beneficial for dancers. Dancers are typically sprinters – the types of movement they are used to are short bursts of intense anaerobic energy, so running can feel quite different. I still personally enjoy the sense of freedom I get from running, but I prefer to keep it to the warm up period of a work out – no more than 10 minutes and usually on a treadmill. If you’re keen on running, go ahead and give it a go it’s a great way to build cardiovascular fitness, just make sure those feet are pointing straight ahead!

Strength Training

Strength training is also known as weight lifting, but that doesn’t mean you should steer clear. Quite the opposite – it’s a great way to build strength. You can do this either using exercises that use your own body weight – think plank, push ups etc. or using free weights or gym machines. Lifting a heavier weight for a smaller number of repetitions will help build strength without adding muscle bulk. Plus it’s a great way to target specific muscle groups. I’ve found this particularly useful for building my upper body strength for contemporary.

Aerobics/Gymnastics

Aerobics or gymnastics are also great supplements to dance training. Aerobics will help build core strength and cardiovascular stamina, while gymnastics helps to increase flexibility and upper body and core strength.

A few important things to remember:

Listen to your body – if something doesn’t feel right, or you’re feeling more muscle fatigue than usual, stop and seek professional advice.

Wear the right gear – supportive shoes for running or going to the gym are really important as they protect your feet and reduce impact. If you are going to be doing these activities regularly it is worth shelling out the money for a good pair of running shoes.

Fuel up – increasing your physical activity will mean you burn more energy – meaning you need to give your body more fuel. Eating a good balance of food and including protein in your diet is really important as is drinking water.

What are your favourite ways to cross train?

Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) or Why do I hurt so much more the next day?

We all know the feeling – you feel great after a tough class just a little tired, but then you wake up the next morning stiff and sore. This is known as DOMS or Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness.

 

DOMS is the gradually increasing feeling of muscle soreness that occurs between 24 and 48 hours after exercise, but don’t worry it’s not uncommon. As dancers we’re typically pretty fit, and flexible, so what it takes to make us sore is generally a lot more intense than your average person. That said we’ve all had the grueling class that pushes us to our limits, and it’s when we hit these limits that we typically experience DOMS. In fact for students studying at vocational (pre-professional) level, it can be a regular part of life.

 

DOMS typically occurs when muscles are worked harder than they usually are day to day, and is particularly common after a break of holiday from dance or when increasing the frequency or intensity of your dancing increases. It is part of your body’s natural response and adaptation process to working harder. The good news is that it leads to increased stamina and strength as your build up muscle.

 

It’s important to realise that gradual soreness of DOMS is different to the tiredness and fatigue that can happen during exercise or the sharp, sudden pain of a muscle strain which often causes swelling and bruising. Doctors believe that DOMS is the result of microscopic tearing of the muscle fibers. The amount of tearing and soreness you feel depends on how hard you exercise. Although any movements can lead to DOMS, eccentric muscle contractions such as push ups, plies and squats seem to cause the most soreness.

 

So, what can you do to help with DOMS?

Unfortunately, there is no one solution, however the following things may help alleviate some of the soreness:

  • Drink lots of water
  • Try yoga or gentle stretching
  • Make sure you are eating enough protein so that your body can repair muscle
  • Listen to your body – rest if that’s what your muscles are telling you
  • Elevate your legs – lying with your legs up a wall can help reduce soreness
  • Ice any parts that are particularly sore, alternating with heat
  • Wear a compression sleeve, or compression or tight clothing
  • Foam roll or use a tennis ball to gentle massage muscles and increase blood flow
  • Make sure you warm up properly before your next session

 

References:

American College of Sports Medicine. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness.

Dance Spirit Magazine. Your Aches and Pains Addressed: Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness.

Sports Medicine. About.com Muscle Pain and Soreness After Exercise.

Fitness and Exercise. Webmd.com Coping with Soreness After Exercise.

The Organised Teacher

A while ago, I wrote a post on how to stay organised as a dance student, but it’s not just students that need to stay organised – teachers do too! Here are my top tips for keeping on top of things:

  • Stay up-to-date. I use a combination of a diary and the calendar on my iPhone to organise my schedule, which can be a bit crazy at times. It doesn’t matter what you use to do it, as long as you know what’s coming up and what’s on the horizon.
  • Use timesaving tools. I’m a big fan of apps that help me save time.
  • Get the to do list sorted! As dance teachers we always have things on the go and a million different things to keep track of – to do lists are essential! I keep my personal to do list organised through Trello and the school I work for uses DropTask, so I use that for my professional to do lists.
  • Organise your music. Whether it’s playlists on an iPod/MP3 or CDs. Keeping track of the music you need for classes is vital. I have over 4000 songs in my itunes library. I use playlists to organise these into music which might useful for classes and then I create specific playlists through Terpster, an app especially designed for dance teachers.
  • Maintain your social media presence. Admittedly this is something I am not great at, but I am learning to make time for it. Scheduling and dedicating time to maintaining a strong and postive online presence is important in a world where the vast majority of spend time online every day. It’s especially important if you work with young people as this is their world in many ways. Using apps like Hootsuite to schedule posts can help if (like me) you are extremely short on time.
  • Set aside time for yourself. In the busy, wonderful and often chaotic world of performing arts and teaching, this can be hard to do, but that makes it even more important! I use a couple of apps to help me remember to stop throughout the day. The first is Intention Reminder, which lets you set intentions that will pop up and remind you at pre-set times. The second is Buddify, a meditation app that has a huge range of focused meditations or visualisations for all sorts of situations. I also set myself non-work times in the evenings to spend with my family and often use the small window of time before bed to read of practice yoga.

What things do you do to stay organised and on top?

 

 

A New Website and New Classes

I’ve been a bit remiss in posting lately, but I have a good reason for it! Several, in fact. The first is that my son T. was born a month and half ago. He’s super cute and doing extremely well. And we are absolutely loving life with him.

The second reason is that I’ve been hard at work on making another dream become reality – opening my own dance centre. Of course, like the sensible person I am, I’m starting small, with just two classes next year. The space is all booked and I finished and launched the website this morning. So without any further ado let me introduce The Dance Well Centre:

Dance Well Centre Logo

We’re starting off next year with a choreography workshop class and a dance wellness class which you can find out about here. I’m pretty stoked with the website and logo, having built both myself. Now I just need to finish the marketing flyer and we’ll be all set.

 

If you live in Wellington and are between the ages of 12 – 18 and are interested in one of the classes then please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us. Also don’t forget you can follow us on Instagram @dancewellcentre and like us on Facebook too.

 

And just in case you are worried – don’t be! I’m still planning to keep this blog going with it’s original intended purpose – to provide interesting and useful articles for dancers and dance teachers.

Safe Stretching

This post is part two of a series on stretching. Check out the first part A Beginner’s Guide to Stretching here, if you missed it.

What is safe stretching?

  • Safe stretching is stretching in a way that is as safe as possible for you and your body.

Why is it so important?

  • It helps to reduce the chance of injury.
  • It can actually help improve your flexibility
  • It places limits to stop you from overdoing it.

How to stretch safely:

  1. Warm up properly first with 10 – 20mins of cardio. This could include briskly walking, running, skipping or other movement that get your heart beating faster. From an anatomical point of view, cardio increases your body temperature, thus warming up your muscles and making them more flexible. Cold muscles don’t like to stretch!
  2. Start gently. Don’t throw yourself into splits straight away, do some hip-opening stretches or hamstring stretches to engage the muscles first. Whatever your planning to work on in your stretching session, start slowly as your muscles are still warming up.
  3. Know your limits and don’t force it. If you are sore from a class earlier in the week, then keep that in mind and work to your limits. Similarly if you are recovering from an injury don’t push yourself too hard.
  4. Be realistic. Change (unfortunately) doesn’t happen overnight however much we want to! Progress happens day by day and I know from experience that you do yourself no favours by having unrealistic expectations.
  5. Don’t overstretch. Overstretching is when you stretch for longer or further than your body can realistically handle. This could be sitting in splits for 10+ minutes while watching TV or stretching for long periods of time more than once a day. Either way it’s not good and it dramatically increases your chance of injury. Did you know that 60% of dance injuries occur as a result of overuse (DANZ, 2006)?
  6. Monitor your energy level. If you are already exhausted your more likely to injure yourself. 90% of dance injuries occur when a dancer is fatigued (DANZ, 2006). If you’re shattered after a tough class or a long day, skip the stretching and relax. You’ll be doing your body a favour.
  7. Stretching shouldn’t be painful. A stretch? Yes. Not comfortable? Definitely. Sore Afterwards? Possibly. Actually painful? No! Pain means you’re pushing yourself too hard and increasing the risk of injury. If you do injure yourself apply the dancer’s first aid strategy PRICED immediately.
  8. Feed yourself. So important. Using your muscles takes energy from your body and muscles and you need to replace it help them stay strong, so make sure you eat something within 40 minutes of stretching. It doesn’t have to be much, but something with protein and carbohydrates is perfect.

Happy stretching!

A Beginner’s Guide to Stretching

Stretching.

We all know it’s important but there is so much mis-information out there about it, that’s can be really hard to know where to start.

The tips below are perfect for beginners new to stretching, and a great reminder for the rest of us too!

Stretching is an important part of any dancers' training, but it's important it's done carefully.

Stretching is an important part of any dancers’ training, but it’s important it’s done carefully.

So you want to become more flexible? Well there are few important things you need to know:

  • Improving your flexibility is a journey not a destination. While it’s easy to focus on the end result (for example middle splits), we can often end up overlooking how much progress we’ve made as we work towards our goal. One way to see how you are progressing is to take photos every week or two so you can see the change.
  • Choose one goal at a time. It’s tempting to list everything you want to improve, but it doesn’t make it any easier! Choose one thing to work on, focus on that, and when you feel like you’ve made progress on that move on to the next goal.
  • Usual visual cues to help you achieve your goal. This might be a picture of what you’d like to be able to to do, or a post it note on your mirror. Use it as a reminder of what you’re aiming for and also a reminder to stretch.
  • Celebrate your successes. When you achieve a goal, doing something small to celebrate it and be proud that you’ve managed to work hard to achieve it!
  • Be patient, change takes time. Forcing your self to do something your body isn’t ready to do puts you at risk for an injury. Injuries aren’t fun and they can set you back in progress to achieve your goal, so don’t risk it.
  • Practice safe stretching. This means warming up properly, and not overstretching. If you’re a beginner consider taking a stretch or conditioning class for dancers until you feel confident.

What are your top tips for stretching?

Watch out for part two of our stretching series coming soon – Safe Stretching.

A Quick Update

It’s been a while since I posted anything. Sorry about that! But I do have a very good reason, several in fact! I’ve been busy dancing, learning about dance, trying new movement techniques and getting lots of awesome new content sorted for DanceWell. On top of that we also had a fabulous photoshoot with a gorgeous young dancer L. Sneak peeks coming soon!

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Pretty much my life these holidays!

Here’s a quick summary of what I’ve been up to over the school holidays dancewise:

  • Photoshoot: Knowing that I needed some great photos for the blog I enlisted the help of two awesome people – my amazing mother Marilyn Jessen to take photos and my friend and gorgeous young dancer L. to model for me. Naturally I got roped in to do more than just direct the photoshoot, so some of the pics are mine and if you’re lucky you may even see a few pictures of me too! Mum and I also had a great time taking spontaneous dance shots on the beach too! (Not as easy as it looks…)
  • British Ballet Organisation Concourse: This definitely deserves it’s own post, but in short I spent 3 days taking and observing classes at the BBO course at the New Zealand School of Dance. This included a stretch class, a teachers’ class for ballet focusing on posture and alignment, learning about how neurodynamics can help you be a happy and healthy dancer with less aches and pains (more coming soon on this), watching senior dancers demonstrate the new Coppelia Theatre in Dance Award and finally an awesome mime and gesture workshop with legendary dancer Sir John Trimmer.
  • Swan Lake: Although I was away for most of the Royal New Zealand Ballet‘s 60th Anniversary celebrations, I did make it back in time to see Gillian Murphy in Swan Lake. Those 32 fouettés are even more amazing live!
  • First Aid: While this isn’t really dance – dance is the reason it’s so important to me to have a current first aid certificate, which I now do thanks to my school!
  • MELT Method: Finally, I did an awesome workshop with former dancer and now pilates instructor Cat Eddy of The Mat Class on the MELT Method, which is a self-massage technique to manage pain and discomfort caused by dehydrated connective tissue. It was just an introduction class but I’m hooked. (More coming on this too!)

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So all in all it’s been a busy holidays. I did manage some down time too and catch up with friends and family. I’m looking forward to getting back to school, back into my own dance classes and getting really stuck in to our school production which is on in 4 weeks!

Now it’s your turn! Did you manage to fit any dancing into your school holidays?

Competition Prep

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At school at the moment I teach/coach our Aerobics Gymnastics teams. This is my second year coaching the team and it’s been one of the highlights of my year. I pretty much get to work with the most awesome/lovely/talented/hardworking girls in the school, so what’s’ not to enjoy!

Training has been pretty intense this term with lots of early mornings and lunch times, but the girls have put in so much time and effort and their dedication has been truly awesome!

Tomorrow is their first of two big competitions – they will be competing against other middle school/intermediate teams in the Intermediate Aerobics Comp before heading to regionals next term. Hard though they’ve worked, there still a bit nervous. Today we talked about things they can do to help them get ready for their competition tomorrow, and I thought I’d share them with you. They work well for any stressful event, competition or otherwise, and have been amassed over the years from my gym competitions as a teenager, to ballet exams, to directing dance performances at school.

 

Preparing for Competitions (and other stressful events)

Sleep Well – Get a good night’s sleep the night before and go to bed on the earlier side of your usual time.

Sort Out Your Dance Bag (the night before) – it’s so much easier to stay relaxed if you are not rushing around trying to find bits and pieces at the last minute.

Pack Spares – bobby pins, tights, bun nets… they always break and it’s so easy to have a couple of spares stashed away

Pack Plenty of Food – You’re going to be active, therefore you need to eat. Planning to bring you own food is a. cheaper and b. probably a lot better for you than buying something there (if that’s even an option!)

Drink Water – drinking water is one of the best things you can do for your body especially when dancing

Stop Practicing – this is a big one, don’t spend the 24 hours before a competition practising madly, it just adds to the stress level, use this time to relax. If you still want to practice then mentally walk yourself through your dance/routine.

Don’t Overstretch – the last thing you want is to be sore on competition day. A warm up and a gentle dynamic (moving) stretch is much better then overstretching muscles risking injury.

Relax – do something you enjoy, read a book, play with a pet, anything that takes your mind of the competition and helps your brain to wind down.

Do any of you have competitions/performances/etc. coming up soon? What are your rituals pre-performance?

Students who have Injuries – the Role of the Teacher

Lately I’ve come across a fair bit of discussion in the online dance world – mostly via twitter, about the role of a dance teacher in dealing with students who have injuries, and it’s got me thinking.

As Lauren Warnecke writes in her Dance Advantage article on the topic, the diagnosis of injuries and treatment is definitely not up to me as a teacher. Grier Cooper adds that there are many places to go to when looking at treatment options. All of this is of course completely true, but it leaves us asking the question, well, what is our role as teachers when dealing with injured students?

As a dance teacher in a middle school I see my dance students often – usually several times a week, more if those students are in my class or syndicate, and I’m often present when the are taking part in other physical activity and education during the course of the day, so I have a pretty good idea of the physical demands my dancers face and in a busy middle school like ours, they’re not small. I also teach an age where students face the some of the biggest physical changes as they encounter adolescence. They’re also desperate to try new things and test out their limits (particularly their flexibility). Put all these things together and you’ve definitely upped the risk of injury.

 

So what can I do? Well, for me it’s twofold – prevention and awareness.

 

Prevention

In the dance classroom, I aim to do all that I can to prevent injuries by taking time to warm up with 5 -10 minutes of aerobic activity and 5 minutes of dynamic moving stretches – usually focused on waking up the muscles in the legs, hips and shoulders. We also talk a lot about why we warm up and the effect this on the body, so that my students understand the benefits. I try to keep the warm ups fairly easy and straight forward, starting with large gross movements and then moving to more intricate movements as they get warmer. I usually follow a fairly systematic pattern, and repeat this with the occasional change for a month or two. The benefit of this is that my students have learnt the pattern, and are now running the warm ups themselves, building not only their leadership skills but also their ownership of the warm up process. They can also take this warm up and easily warm themselves up when at performance venues when I’m not able to take them through it as a group.

The second thing that comes under prevention is reminding my students, and discussing with them why it is important to eat after physical activity to replace energy used and help maintain a healthy body – especially important when they all seem to being going through growth spurts.

 

Awareness

Awareness for me is really important and it goes both ways. I need to be aware of safe dance practice as a teacher, but also away of the physical changes my students are experiencing and the temporary limitations this can have on their bodies – there’s not much I can do about it, but I need to be aware.

Likewise I encourage my students to let me know if they have injuries, but my response is usually the same – do what you can even if it’s only watching or doing the arms ( I actually had a student audition for a hip hop crew sitting in a chair as she was on crutches – successfully too I might add). I encourage my students to take responsibility for managing their own injuries as this helps to build their self-awareness.

The second part of awareness is encouraging a dialogue where my students can talk about how their bodies are feeling. Often it is just the usual feeling a bit stiff  or tired that comes up, but sometimes my students will talk about feeling a sore muscle or ache or pain for a several days or even a couple of weeks. At this point I usually ask the question – ‘have you talked to your parent about this?’. To give them the credit they deserve, my students are great at doing this, but sometimes they haven’t and it’s then that I will gently suggest that they might like to talk to their parent about seeing a doctor or physio about it.

It’s not my place to tell them what’s wrong, or tell them what to do. But as a teacher it is my job to guide them to the necessary resources they need to solve problems, and sometimes they just need to have their awareness raised – to realise that there are easy things they can do – like seeing a qualified professional –  to help them feel better.

 

Are there specific things that you do to support students with injuries or help them build awareness?