by Susie Mattox
Ballroom dancing is a physically demanding sport – each dance offers its own unique challenges. As a newcomer practicing for my first showcase, I struggled to maintain enough stamina to complete my samba routine on a regular basis. I was surprised that my daily morning run didn’t help with the energy and stamina required for samba. My coach wasn’t surprised. “Yeah,” he said, “running’s not going to help with samba.”
So, my question was, what would help with samba, as well as tango and quickstep and jive? What would strengthen and improve my dancing outside of the studio?
Six-time Fred Astaire National Champion-turned-coach, Kim Richards, agrees that the only thing she did when she was competing was dance. As a former athlete, she says there is nothing she’s found that gives better cardio training than dancing your routines or syllabus figures for one to two minutes without stopping.
“Even when I was competing with students,” she says, “all we did for at least two lessons every week was put on a variety of music and dance our routines. And I would not stop them or let them stop for any mistakes or corrections. It was strictly for conditioning and trying to build stamina and muscle memory.”
While most of us would agree that nothing takes the place of dancing your steps and practicing your frame, many of us can’t train six to eight hours a day, every day, in a studio. So, what to do?
Pilates & Yoga
Richards maintains that outside of dancing, Pilates and yoga are the only activities she recommends to improve dancing. While there is absolutely nothing that gives you conditioning and stamina like “all out dancing,” she says, “Pilates and yoga help with balance and flexibility, and for you to understand your body more, how it moves.” They can also help with muscle isolation and keep injuries at bay.
Pilates and yoga instructor, and a ballroom dancer herself, Carolann Arthur says, “Both require engagement of the whole body and require mental focus in executing the movements and poses. Both teach the student how to use the breath to facilitate movement, stamina, and maintaining a sense of calm throughout a routine.”
“Pilates in particular,” she continues, “focuses on developing the cross-body movement and patterns so essential in ballroom dance. It promotes both strength and fluidity in these patterns. Pilates is a total body condition system, and so it is also excellent for developing core strength and control. One learns the connections of the various muscles that comprise the ‘core’ and how to call each into action as needed – again, in a fluid and controlled manner.”
Richards agrees, saying, “Building core endurance is essential in a dancer’s training because core strength is the foundation for all dance moves.”
The Importance of the Core
In a Pacific Ballroom article, “The Core of Ballroom Dance,” author Carol Smyres emphasizes the plank as a vital part of a ballroom dancer’s workout regimen. “The plank is one of the best exercises for core conditioning. The plank is an isometric core strength exercise, that engages multiple muscle groups simultaneously, unlike crunches and sit-ups which only target your abdominal muscles. The plank also strengthens supporting muscles such as the glutes, hamstrings, shoulders and arms.” It also improves posture and balance.
In addition, Arthur says, “Practicing yoga regularly can have many positive benefits. Obviously increased flexibility, particularly in the hip flexors, aids in the swing motion required of ballroom dance. Lengthening and strengthening of the abdominals and the chest and back muscles is achieved with regular practice and definitely helps with the frame and posture required of dancers.”
She furthers her point by saying, “Another key focus of both yoga and Pilates is the ‘transition’ between poses or movement from one position to another. One learns that the transitions are as important as the final pose or apex of a movement. Developing muscle memory throughout these transitions translates as well into better balance, control, strength, and fluidity in our dance.”
Richards’ own daily regimen includes planks and push-ups, ending with a 30 minutes of stretching. She believes working out in a gym can build bulky muscles, and as a dancer, your muscle needs to be longer. So, she does leg lifts and some squats, but reiterates that nothing will strengthen your legs for dancing quite as much as simply dancing to time.
Arthur adds that Pilates (and yoga depending upon your level of practice) promote the development of long, strong, sculpted muscles with flexibility and increased range of motion.
“As with any practice,” she says, “the level of benefit depends upon the level of practice. Both Pilates and yoga require a sustained practice with intent to push just slightly beyond your edge in order to see development over time. They are, however, very accessible to beginners and allow one to progress at an individual pace. Classes are taught at various levels and modifications of individual techniques and poses are taught to accommodate beginners or those with particular limitations.”
Similar to Pilates, the Gyrotonic Method, created by dancer Juliu Horvath, uses specialized equipment to improve balance, strength, and flexibility. Pilates, yoga, and Gyrotonic expert, Lynne Ellen Kershaw, owns her own studio in Montgomery, Alabama which focuses on the various techniques of each. She says that Gyrotonic is used to “achieve full range of motion in your spine and joints, while nourishing every nerve and organ in your body through spinal mobility and breath. It is truly the most versatile system to be found.”
“Like Pilates,” she says, “it’s great for core strengthening and body awareness. While Pilates is very flexion-based with most exercises in the sagittal plane, Gyrotonic is much more three-dimensional, with flowing, spiraling movements. The spine is arched, curled, side bent, and spiraled. It’s like a dance with a machine.”
As the method was founded and developed through dance, as well as other modalities, Kershaw says, “it’s the most perfect method for any dancer. Gyrotonic is simply elegant.”
20 Minutes a Day Can Make a World of Difference
Pilates, yoga, core strengthening, and Gyrotonic all work to enhance and strengthen your ballroom dancing techniques outside the studio. They can also go a long way in improving your overall appearance and health.
“The mind,” Joseph Pilates said, “when housed within a healthful body, possesses a glorious sense of power.”
And what dancer doesn’t want that?
Susie Mattox is a writer who lives in Montgomery, Alabama, with her husband (minus two kiddos who’ve flown the coop) where she herds two dogs, and two cats who are not hers, and tries to samba without appearing constipated.