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Strength training and muscle tone in dance - are perceptions changing?

Whether we like it or not, we are all aware of how society in general expects a dancer to look. This is particularly the case in ballet, where the dancers have previously been expected to be lithe and ethereal. Contemporary dancers on the other hand have been described as having a more muscular physique. However, without sufficient muscular strength and endurance to carry out the demands of choreography, dancers are risking injury or fatigue and burnout.


Even within dance medicine and science, when discussing strength training we have continued to share the idea that dancers are scared of increased muscle girth (hypertrophy) due to a fear that it would impact the aesthetics of dance, and specifically this idea of the "ideal dancer".


However, the whisper on the wind is that these ideas are shifting towards more acceptance of muscular tone in dancers, and a desire from the dancers themselves to participate in strength and conditioning as they see the benefits to their dance performance as well as to their health and wellbeing.


Recent research has suggested that this shift is happening in particular amongst student and professional dancers. They understand that increased muscular strength and endurance can help them to meet the demands of the choreography they are being asked to perform. It makes them feel better, both physically and mentally and they even suggest that it enhances how they look. In addition, students are keen to address the gender imbalances in strength training, stating the strength training is beneficial and should be available for all genders.


Previously it has been presumed that strength training in particular was specifically required for the male dancers but not the female dancers. The image of the male dancer lifting the female dancer continues to drive these perceptions and often perpetuates discrepancies in the training provision and equipment provided to each gender for this purpose. However gender roles in modern choreography are beginning to be eroded, with females lifting other dancers, and dance genres requiring floorwork, inversions and more weight bearing through the upper body. We therefore need dancers who are sufficiently prepared to meet these demands, with safe and effective strength and conditioning training as an integral part of their schedule.


This is an exciting shift, and perhaps a cultural shift towards a more accepting sector, with dancers viewed for their physical and expressive capabilities rather than a particular body shape or aesthetic.


So where do we go from here? If the dancers are eager to participate in strength and conditioning we now need to understand what will help them to achieve this.


Do they have access to reliable knowledge and expertise in correct training technique and training programmes? Do they have access to equipment? Is there space within their existing timetables and rehearsal schedules to include strength and conditioning without putting them at risk over overtraining?


References

Farmer, C., & Brouner, J. (2021). Perceptions of Strength Training in Dance. Journal of dance medicine & science : official publication of the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science, 25(3), 160–168. https://doi.org/10.12678/1089-313X.091521a


Koutedakis, T., Stravropoulos-Kalinoglou, A., & Metsios, G. (2005) The Significance of Muscular Strength in Dance, Journal of dance medicine & science : official publication of the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science, 9(1), 29-34.


Liiv, H., Wyon, M. A., Jürimäe, T., Saar, M., Mäestu, J., & Jürimäe, J. (2013). Anthropometry, somatotypes, and aerobic power in ballet, contemporary dance, and dancesport. Medical problems of performing artists, 28(4), 207–211.


Rosenthal, M., McPherson, A. M., Docherty, C. L., & Klossner, J. (2021). Perceptions and Utilization of Strength Training and Conditioning in Collegiate Contemporary and Ballet Dancers: A Qualitative Approach. Medical problems of performing artists, 36(2), 78–87. https://doi.org/10.21091/mppa.2021.2012


Wyon, M. A., Allen, N., Cloak, R., Beck, S., Davies, P., & Clarke, F. (2016). Assessment of Maximum Aerobic Capacity and Anaerobic Threshold of Elite Ballet Dancers. Medical problems of performing artists, 31(3), 145–150. https://doi.org/10.21091/mppa.2016.3027



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