CONDITIONING Offers Ballet Students Ounce of Prevention.
Pacific Northwest Ballet's school in Seattle typifies the emphasis on conditioning as a part of dance training. PNB faculty member Marjorie Thompson helped design the Therapy and Conditioning program at the PNB school. A former dancer with New York City Ballet, Thompson directs the conditioning program as well as teaching classical ballet technique for the school and the company. She was certified in Pilates technique and studied anatomy and kinesiology at the Dance Notation Bureau in New York.
"Conditioning is important for younger dancers," says Thompson. "When I was in City Ballet, it used to be that injured dancers did almost nothing. You were just out, and then you'd go right back and take Mr. B's barre. Now we try to keep the dancers training while injured." At the PNB school, Thompson says, "We are offering more maintenance physical therapy, more conditioning and encouraging aerobic training. This is critical to keeping dancers healthy and keeping insurance and liability costs down.
"The younger students do their warm-ups and strengthening exercise as part of their classes," adds Thompson. "We teach the basics of conditioning and warming up to the students in Levels One through Four in the first ten to fifteen minutes of each ballet class. That includes some stretching, abdominal work and extensions for the upper back. We teach separate conditioning classes to dancers when they are in Level Five and up, usually at about age 13, depending on their physical as well as emotional maturity. By the time the students are 14 to 15 years old, almost all are doing some supplemental conditioning work."
The program uses fundamental Pilates technique, as well as training and education provided by conditioning expert Karen Clippinger, who was invited by school director Francia Russell to start the conditioning program fifteen years ago. Many of the PNB conditioning staff have training in, or knowledge of, Pilates and have adapted exercises from it.
Supplemental conditioning at PNB involves either mat work or exercises with apparatuses. The mat class includes exercises for trunk stabilization, abdominal conditioning and strength training, with an emphasis on alignment and stretching specific to ballet. The apparatus class uses equipment such as the Reformer, a carriage with springs and pulleys for resistance, and the Cadillac, a large table with springs and loops and a hanging bar with other attachments. The attachments allow for differing levels of resistance to develop strength.
The young dancers like the conditioning work because they get a lot of individualized attention. "Dancers are very goal oriented," says Thompson. "They see the conditioning work as a practical rather than an aesthetic call. They enjoy the conditioning because there is such a sense of accomplishment in it. In ballet class, there's seldom a sense of completion--there is always something to work on. The conditioning work gives them a great sense of pride, and they leave the sessions feeling good about themselves, physically as well as mentally."
Thompson varies the conditioning programs with the addition of large elastic bands and free weights. "You can always have them in your dance bag to do a stretch in the hallway, before class," says Thompson of the bands. "I recall Allegra Kent, who was a principal at NYCB when I was in the company, coming in at the end of class, her chiffon scarf wrapped around her ankle. She'd put her leg on the barre a la seconde then take the end of her scarf in her opposite hand and use it to pull her leg up beside her ear and then beyond."
While many athletes subscribe to the adage that one warms up to stretch, not the other way around, Thompson sees things a little differently. "All dancers seem to need to stretch before they can begin a class, as a way of warming up," says Thompson. "These may not be the same stretches they do after they are already warm. Before a class you want to coax your body into its comfort zone and make sure that certain parts of you are already warm before the teacher starts giving exercises that may not focus on your specific needs."
For many conditioning enthusiasts, a warm-up is more than a dance ritual. A good warm-up increases the core temperature of the body, the heart rate and blood flow to the muscles, the breathing rate and lubrication of the joints. As a result, muscles will be more resilient and pliable, the cardiopulmonary system will be able to meet the increased demand for oxygen and the stress of rapid or sudden movements in the joints will be reduced.
"Whatever the dancers are doing for warm-up or conditioning, it has to be individualized," says Thompson. "We have to recognize that the younger dancers who are going through a growth spurt are tight and less flexible. Their bodies are changing, so we need to be careful in how we load the exercise, that is, how much resistance we offer in the conditioning exercises."
Young dancers in particular need to work all major muscle groups with a variety of equipment and balance flexibility with strength. "We all tend to be one way or the other, so a `Gumby' needs to become stronger and a `muscle builder' more flexible," says Thompson. "Just because a young dancer is naturally turned out does not mean that she or he doesn't have to work on strengthening--stabilization of joints is in fact really important for the young dancer."
Some young dancers may remain unconvinced about the benefits of conditioning, believing instead that a long, injury-free career is more a function of proper technique and even having a body "built for dance." But Thompson believes conditioning encourages better dancing. "Conditioning will not make you a prima ballerina unless you're meant to be one, but it will maximize your body's potential," she says. "As a result of this conditioning, we'll have a lot fewer hip replacements in this generation of dancers! Young dancers are much more aware of their body limitations and possibilities these days. They know that the most important thing for dancing professionally and recreationally is ballet technique class, but even with the most perfect facility they need some supplemental conditioning work to prevent injuries and help realize their dance goals."
Gigi Berardi, a Dance Magazine correspondent, is the author of Finding Balance: Fitness and Training for a Lifetime in Dance (Princeton Book Company, Publishers) on which some of the material for this article was based.
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|Date:||Nov 1, 2000|
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