Dancers are artistic athletes, creating expression and beauty through the use of their body. This form of athleticism requires great amounts of strength, flexibility, balance, control, endurance, and aerobic stamina.
Research has shown classical ballet dancers to work at intermittent levels of 80-94% of VO2max within classes, rehearsals, and during performances (Twitchett, Koutedakis, & Wyon, 2009). These values are similar to those seen in short and middle distance runners, soccer players, and gymnasts.
The allegro (fast) portions of classes specifically challenge the anaerobic stamina of dancers as work-rest ratios range from 1:1.6 to 1:3. These are similar to intervals seen in racquet sports, such as tennis (Twitchett, Koutedakis, & Wyon, 2009).
The Development of a High-Intensity Dance Performance Fitness Test
(Redding, et al., 2009)
Due to the technical nature of dance, the physiological development and preparation for performance has often been overlooked. In 2009 researchers in England set out to develop a testing protocol that mimicked the effort levels of dancers during performance.
- 1-minute work (dance)
- 2-minutes rest
- 4 bouts
- TIME = 12-minutes
The dance efforts included three circuits of:
- Jumps in first and second
- Rolls to the floor
- Weight transference from feet to hands and back to feet
- Circular springs with arm pattern
- Parallel jump forward with arm swing
Dancers were instructed to complete the combination at all-out effort for the 1-minute duration. Results showed that this induced an average heart rate of 90% during the work efforts.
Aerobic Demands of Ballet Dancers
Classical ballet has been defined as an intermittent cardiovascular activity due to its variations in work and effort requirements. Studies have shown it to be similar to sports such as soccer and tennis, which have explosive bursts of movement followed by moment’s requiring precision and skill (Twitchett, Koutedakis, & Wyon, 2009) (Wyon, et al., 2007).
This indicates that dancers need to have a solid aerobic foundation and high anaerobic threshold to limit the effects of blood lactate (aka. lactic acid) accumulation. With conditioning and practice, the body becomes better at flushing out lactic acid, thus better able to maintain balance, poise, and coordination after a high effort burst of work.
Research has shown that classical ballet training, rehearsal, and performance do not elicit significant long-term aerobic benefits to improve cardiovascular heart functioning and do not meet the ACSM guidelines for weekly accumulation of cardiovascular exercise.
Furthermore, over the years, it has been common for dancers to limit the time outside of dance to further train their aerobic capacity, and thus limit their performance abilities while on stage. It has not been until recently that supplementary training programs have been used to enhance a dancer’s cardiovascular system, and in term their longevity on the stage.
Training for the Aerobic Demands of Dance
Due to the nature of dance, researches have emphasized the importance of dancers developing both aerobic and anaerobic training. They need to focus on developing a 1) strong aerobic foundation, 2) producing maximal power, then finally 3) enhancing the fast glycolytic system (Wyon M. , 2005).
This is beneficial as developing a strong aerobic system increase total energy available during anaerobic events. The high aerobic system aids in a faster recovery between bouts of high-intensity exercise.
Classical Ballet Classes
Peak into a traditional ballet class.
Classical ballet classes are comprised of two (2) distinctive parts, which are observed as three (3) distinct phases. These parts include Barre & Center work, and are broken down as shown below.
- Phase 1: Barre exercises
- Phase 2: Center barre exercises (adagio)
- Phase 3: Center floor exercises (allegro)
It is also important to note that while flexibility and stretching are not included in traditional ballet classes, dancers are highly encouraged to complete this work on their own before and after class.
Phase 1: Barre Exercises
“Barre refers to the series of exercises done at the barre to warm up and strengthen the body as preparation for the second part of class. In today’s ballet class dancers often execute a series of pre-barre exercises that warm up the body and prepare them for performing the traditional barre exercises.” (Kassing, 2013)
Exercises focus on correct placement while developing core and leg strength, directionality, balance, foot articulation, and weight transfer skills.
Barre exercises are characterized by low-moderate intensity periods of work, requiring the aerobic system to be the primary source of energy.
Key Points of research on this phase of classes include:
- Work periods up to 5 minutes depending (Wyon M. , 2005)
- Work can be as short as 60-seconds, followed by a 30-second rest period (2:1 ratio) (Twitchett, Koutedakis, & Wyon, 2009)
- Average heart rates range from 117-134 bpm (Wyon M. , 2005)
- VO2max have been shown to be as low as 36% during this segment of class (Twitchett, Koutedakis, & Wyon, 2009)
Phase 2: Center Barre Exercises (adagio = Slowly)
The second segment includes additional technique work, but now there is a great emphasis placed on completing dynamic movement without the support of the barre. These combinations put the technique learned at the barre into practice.
Exercises focus on selected exercises from the barre to refine technique, balance, and directionality. These are performed slowly (adagio), combinations include classical ballet poses, arm and foot positions, steps, and turns.
This section is characterized by low-high intensity periods of work, requiring the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems to supply the muscles with ATP.
Key Points of research on this phase of classes include:
- Work periods are shorter during this section that at the barre, with 10-40-seconds of work to 85 seconds of rest (1:3 ratio) (Twitchett, Koutedakis, & Wyon, 2009) (Wyon M. , 2005)
- VO2max effort levels have been shown to be around 43% of max level during this portion of class (Twitchett, Koutedakis, & Wyon, 2009)
Phase 3: Center Floor Exercises (Allegro = quickly)
The final segment of class includes exercises of higher intensity, including jumps, travelling, and mid-air turns.
Exercises are done quickly (aka. allegro) and include small or large jumps, hops, and leaps that are performed either as short combinations moving side to side, front or back, or across the floor (Kassing, 2013).
Dancers need to be efficient in plyometric (jump training), agility, and power in order to successfully complete these challenging segments of classes.
This final phase of class is characterized by high-intensity periods of work, requiring the anaerobic energy systems to supply the muscles with ATP.
Key Points of research on this phase of classes include:
- Work efforts are typically 15-seconds, with as great as 75-seconds of recovery (1:6 ratio) (Wyon, et al., 2007)
- VO2max has been found to be as low as 46% and as great as 94% (Twitchett, Koutedakis, & Wyon, 2009)
- Effort levels are shown to resemble those seen during stage performances (Wyon M. , 2005)
Flexibility & Cool-Down
While this is not a common portion of a traditional ballet class, all dancers are encouraged to leave the studio and complete flexibility exercises on their own. This allows the body to recover from the work, and continue to gain flexibility for the technique required.
As can be expected, dancers have been shown to have greater than normal levels of flexibility in their lower-extremity joints (Twitchett, Koutedakis, & Wyon, 2009). This is due to the nature of the technique, and practice on their own.
Okay, so maybe you aren’t a science and research junky like I am, but these are some pretty cool finds from the world of exercise science to validate that dance fitness can have its place in the cardiovascular training space.
References & Good Resources
- Franklin, E. (2004). Conditioning for Dance. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
- Haas, J. G. (2010). Dance Anatomy. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
- London, B., & Deyo, L. (2004). Work in Progress – Classical Ballet Structure and. 34th ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference . Savannah: Frontiers in Education.
- Mackie, J. (1978). Basic Ballet: The Steps Defined. New York, NY: Penguin Group.
- Martins, P. (1997). New York City Ballet Workout: 50 Stretches and Exercises Anyone can do for a strong, graceful, and sculpted body. New York, NY: William Morrow and Company, Inc.
- Sides, S., Ambegaonkar, J., & Shawn, C. (2009). High Incidence of Shoulder Injuries in Collegiate Modern Dance Students. Athletic Therapy Today, 14(4), 43-46.
- Struthers, J. (Ed.). (1993). Step-By-Step Ballet Class: The official illustrated guide. United Kingdom: Kbury Press.
- Twitchett, E. A., Koutedakis, Y., & Wyon, M. A. (2009). Physiological Fitness and Professional Classical Ballet Performance: A Brief Review. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2732-2740.
- Vincent, L. (1978). The Dancers Book of Health. New York, NY: Andrews and McMeel, Inc.
- Wyon, M. (2005). Cardiorespiratory Training for Dancers. Journal of Dance Medicine & Science, 7-12.
- Wyon, M. A., Deighan, M. A., Nevill, A. M., Dogerty, M., Morrison, S. L., Allen, N., . . . George, S. (2007). The Cardiorespirtaory, Anthropometric, and Performance Characteristics of an International/National Touring Ballet Company. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 389-393.
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