By Elisa Withers
Dancers Can Find Balance Through Pilates
Dancers are required to be performing artists as well as elite athletes and combine graceful and seemingly effortless movement with strength, endurance, flexibility and exceptional control. These highly repetitive and complex movements place undue stress on dancers bodies. When these movements are performed on a misaligned body or with poor control injuries occur. Further, dance is a highly asymmetric art form. Most dancers will pay evidence to the fact that they favor their ‘turning leg’ in pirouettes and fuertes and their ‘extension leg’ in arabesque or such movements of the leg behind the body. Dancers also bias the direction of their turns, jumps and splits. These biases repeated hundreds of times in a day, inevitably lead to asymmetries and imbalances.
High Rate of Injury
A recent systematic review tells us that injury rates in dancers is high and that overuse injuries account for 75% of all reported dance injuries (Smith P.J., et al 2015). Further, professional dancers often face grueling rehearsal and performing schedules as well as constant, vigorous and stressful scrutiny from within and those surrounding them.
How does one train their mind and body to meet such demands? Since the 1920’s when Joseph Pilates first opened his studio to the New York dance scene, dancers have flocked to Pilates (originally named Contrology) for its effectiveness in improving flexibility, muscular strength, and mind-body awareness. Joseph Pilates, born in Germany, first started developing his mind-body conditioning method, now widely known as Pilates, in the First World War camps. Joseph best describes the fabric of his method as ‘Contrology develops the body uniformly, corrects wrong postures, restores physical vitality, invigorates the mind, and elevates the spirit’. Over his time, Pilates documented hundreds of movements, which are firmly based on the principles of dance: fluidity, precision, accuracy and total body movement. Given this overlap of philosophy, Pilates does seem to be a natural choice of supplementary training for dancers.
More recently, dance researchers, clinicians, teachers and dancers themselves have placed importance on adjunctive forms of supplementary training, such as Pilates, for the education, injury prevention and longevity of dancers.
Increase Awareness & Appropriate Engagement of Muscles
Pilates training provides dancers with a method which shares many of its principles with dance and assists them in several ways. Firstly, Pilates teaches awareness and appropriate engagement of the deep abdominal muscles whilst maintaining correct alignment of the spine and pelvis. This is essential in providing active support to the spine and pelvis in a measured way so as to provide stability and not rigidity to the spine and pelvis. This being vital to dancers whose movements demand control yet fluidity, ease and grace.
Fig 1: Regaining awareness of the deep abdomino-pelvic muscle unit and correct spinal alignment.
Secondly, Pilates progresses to integrate selective movements of the arms and legs, while ensuring the precise control of abdominal core, spine and pelvis is maintained. Such movements are initially selected according the specific movement requirements of the dancer so that the dancer is training in a familiar, functional and meaningful way. Here the principles of Pilates and Dance begin to merge as one.
Fig. 2: Adding a Pilates leg movement to a stable abdominal base and spine.
Thirdly, control and accuracy through movements of the spine and later full body are introduced as greater control is achieved and larger loads on the spine are appropriate. Essentially, by this stage, Pilates has developed the dancers’ sub-conscious awareness of their alignment and abdomino-lumbar control which essentially allows for greater freedom of controlled, graceful and precise movement.
Fig 3: Pilates Shoulder Bridge teaches controlled and fluid segmental spinal control.
Fig 4: Pilates Swimming with attitude leg to the back requires total body awareness and control.
For Pilates to achieve this goal, there must be an emphasis on incorporating the Pilates principles of movement into all dance movement as early as possible. While many dancers practice Pilates, the difference in hours spent in Pilates class compared to hours spent in the ballet studio is vast. Therefore, the dancer needs to be practicing their ‘Pilates’, i.e. its principles, when working at the ballet Barre, during Centrework, throughout class, rehearsals and when they leave the rehearsal room. Habitually bad postures (i.e. ‘sitting in the hip’) often appear while standing at the barre waiting for class or at the side of rehearsal room awaiting their choreography and can be avoided by being mindful of Pilates.
Recently researchers have studied the effect of Pilates for Dancers. McMillan et. al, (2007) investigated the effects of a twice weekly Pilates programme on dynamic alignment in dancers. Results showed improvement in dynamic alignment over a 14-week training period compared to the control group who showed no improvement. Another study by Amorim and Wyon (2014) found that dancers who participated in a 12-week Pilates mat programme increased their levels of muscular strength and flexibility compared to a control group who showed no changes participating in normal dance class.
As a dance Physiotherapist and Pilates teacher, I see the rewards that Pilates pays to the dancers who practice. Pilates marvelously connects the mind and body and in doing so builds greater awareness of control and alignment to allow fluid, yet accurate movements to prevail. Pilates, through its graded approach towards control, precision and fluid movement and its philosophies, which mirror those of dance, is a natural choice for many dancers.
Amorim, T. & Wyon, M. Pilates Technique for Improving Dancers’ Performance. IADMS Bulletin for Dancers and Teachers. 2014;5(2).
McMillan A, Proteau L, Lebe R: The effect of Pilates-based training on dancers’ dynamic posture. J Dance Med Sci. 1998;2(3):101-7.
Smith PJ, Gerrie BJ, Varner KE, McCulloch PC, Lintner DM, Harris JD. Incidence and Prevalence of Musculoskeletal Injury in Ballet. A Systematic Review. The Orthopedic J of Sports Medicine. 2015: 3 (7).