Pilates has long been part of the professional dancers supplementary training. In fact, Joseph Pilates Studio in NYC was in the same building as NYC Ballet! At the time this was under the directorship of the great Balanchine!
It should come as no surprise that Pilates has loads of benefits for dancers!
Whether it be in a rehabilitation capacity after injury, working towards your strength goals or for injury prevention, Pilates improves your stability, flexibility, strength, body awareness and coordination!
See, there’s a reason all major Ballet companies in the world have Pilates studios and teachers in house.
A ballet class is fantastic at teaching technique and coordination. However, Dance Science shows us that alone, it is not enough to recreate the demands of performance.
This leaves dancers vulnerable to injury, especially when tired. Commonly, this results in failures of coordination.
Most of the injuries dancers get are around the lower limbs and are due to overuse. Expressed another way, you can argue that dancers aren’t robust enough for their workload!
The only way to combat that is to get stronger and utilise active recovery strategies!
If you are a dancer, Pilates is a great way to do this!
My name is Lorien Slaughter, and I am a physiotherapist and Clinical Pilates instructor at Complete Pilates. I trained as a dancer at the Royal Ballet school before performing with the English National Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet. After spending time with K-ballet in Japan, I retired as a principal from the English Youth Ballet after 5 years. This is where I began my road to becoming a physio and trained formally in Pilates.
This article aims to address the benefits of Pilates for dancers and demonstrate why it could be an important addition to your training and recovery programme.
How does Pilates help dancing?
1. Pilates enables you to move with assistance or against resistance!
Pilates, particularly equipment Pilates, makes use of tension from springs. This means that the resistance can either add load, or take it away.
By taking away resistance, you can help the body get into positions it may not normally be able to. This makes it an excellent choice if you have an injury.
With an injury you are likely to decondition which is a major problem. By using the springs for assistance, it means you can keep moving from the time of injury, right up until your return to performance.
During your recovery, the equipment can support areas of your body which need it. This allows you to do other Pilates exercises which target different areas of your body to maintain your strength.
Pilates benefits dancers by enabling them to support their body, learn new movements and repattern painful ones.
Repatterning painful movements is key as most of us suffer from niggles which we cannot get rid of!
Using the assistance of the springs can help us break down any movement patterns which may be contributing to your pain and then build your movement back up. The key thing is, you can do it whilst you are still performing!
Further down the line, the springs can then be set to resist movements. This will challenge the muscles and stability of joints.
Increasing the resistance is a great way of building strength. This helps your body to be injury proof, particularly when you fatigue.
Pilates exercises on the equipment is also another great way for ballet dancers to stretch muscles in a safe way.
By adding assistance with the springs, we can stretch close to, but not at your end of range. Because it is more comfortable, it allows the body to relax which means you can stretch without putting your joints at risk.
There’s a lot of work being done around stretching for dancers!
Research has found that eccentric strengthening (lengthening the muscles under load), is recommended as a good alternative to traditional passive stretching.
Isometric holds (a static movement against resistance) near end of range, has the advantage of strengthening the body at the end of your range.
Both of these mean that you are more likely to be stronger through a greater range of movement allowing you to really show your splits in a grand jete.
Advice around stretching will come down to the individual’s needs.
Anecdotally, I see a need for strength and control far more than I see a need for actual increases in range of movement.
Later on, I will explain a few great Pilates exercises which will use resistance and are great for dancers!
2. Improve your balance and stability
Pilates also benefits dancers by improving balance and stability
Pilates works through a range of hip rotation positions, not just the classic external rotation found in classical ballet classes. For instance, during Pilates footwork on the reformer, we can work with the feet turned in, parallel or turned out.
These are all positions that come up in choreography, but are rare in a ballet class.
Consequently, it allows you to train all the muscles around your hips and pelvis and work through a larger range. This in turn creates balance around the joint, protecting you from injury!
It also means you will find it easier to achieve the positions actively during choreography.
You will also find moving around in everyday life becomes easier, as your body is used to these different positions!
It is also very easy to do single leg work in a variety of positions, add unstable surfaces and reduce feedback on the Pilates equipment.
Using the springs to aid squats (grand plie) at the end of the trapeze table for example. Start on two legs and progress to a single leg variation and then build up to doing them without any assistance.
I often see dancers are great jumping off two legs but lack the strength when jumping off one leg.
Exercises like this will really help to build strength unilaterally.
3. Improve your core strength
Answering honestly, have you ever had sore abdominals from doing Ballet?
In a decade and a half of dancing professionally I never did. But I definitely needed a strong core when lifting my partner over my head!
There is no better technique for improving deep core stability and awareness out there than Pilates.
Pilates teaches us how to use our core musculature and also breathe whilst we do it.
In previous blogs we have spoken about how your abdominals play a key role in breathing. So, to work them effectively, you also need to breathe!
I see dancers holding their breath in class all the time and it definitely shows in their dancing!
Not breathing creates strain throughout the body.
This shows as stiffer movements or harder landings.
As well as looking undesirable, it also stops your body from feeling the subtleties it needs to for balance and stability. It literally will deaden your senses.
Breath is the first principle of movement. If you can’t breathe well, something’s not right.
Joseph Pilates knew this and reinforced it when he first developed his guiding principles: whole body health, whole body commitment and breath!
Considering a lot of his initial clientele was the New York Ballet, he knew that Pilates was incredibly important and had lots of benefits for dancers!