Why do dancers take class every day? While there are many answers to this question (and we could certainly go down a few rabbit holes here), the basic, universal reason is to gain specific skills and build the strength required to perform those skills. Stellar technique comes from not only having the muscle memory and coordination to manipulate the minuscule details of your body but also from having the proper strength and stamina to be able to manipulate your body with that level of control.
The exercises at the barre don’t just serve as a warmup for the rest of class or rehearsal. They were developed (however intentionally or unintentionally it may be) as a dancer-specific exercise program so to speak – a way to build the skills and strength a dancer needs to improve her art. It’s not just a series of random movements that were set as a standard and tradition back when ballet began. Each exercise has a purpose of building your skill set and strength.
But, what happens when you try to focus on both skill and strength at the same time? Since you can't put 100% of your efforts into skill development and 100% into strengthening, both of them are going to suffer in that they get less than your full, undivided focus.
Have you ever found yourself at the barre gripping and grinding your body in an effort to improve to the point where your actual movements felt congested and restricted? Have you found yourself discouraged in class because you felt like you were trying so hard to get things right, but your technique just didn't seem to be working? Everything felt like a struggle where the harder you tried, the more your flow and skills fell apart.
This is a trap I would fall into time and time again. I would get caught up in trying so hard that I would actually end up hindering my own progress because I was gripping and flexing and working…but not letting myself flow. My skills suffered because I was working too hard to improve my strength at the barre and in center…and my dancing ended up looking robotic, congested, and tight.
Not to mention, I started to despise dancing because I was neglecting my artistry in my efforts to get ahead. I thought that if I just pushed hard enough, flexed strong enough, and gripped with all my might, then I would surely improve. But, after years of struggling through this and pushing my body out of disregard, my dancing seemed to get worse, and I started resenting ballet. I dreaded ballet class because I had turned it into a source of punishment, neglecting all the artistry and passion that should be behind it.
This harsh reality is what lead me to start training differently. What if you could separate the two essential components of your training – strength and skill? Focus on maximizing each in separate situations where you could put 100% of your efforts into improving in that area? That way, neither strength nor skill would have to suffer in your training.
The best part about this is that it is actually quite simple to separate these two components of your dancing. Here's how:
Focus on developing your strength with a dancer-specific cross-training program outside of the studio. With the right program, training once or twice per week is all you need to get killer results and feel a real difference with your strength and stamina levels in your dancing.
Then, focus on developing your skills in the studio. Class can become a platform for paying attention to the minuscule details of your body and how it moves through space. Rather than grinding and squeezing your technique out, you are freed up to flow and focus on your lines, artistry and expression.
The most efficient, effective method to improve your dancing is to separate the way you train. Build a rock-solid strength in the weight room, and then let your skills carry you through class and rehearsals. By putting 100% of your efforts into these separate situations, your undivided focus will get you results in both these areas that are essential to your technique. Perhaps the best outcome that occurs from this separation is that it gives you back your flow – it allows you to let go in your dancing and indulge in your passion again when you do hit the studio or step on the stage.
Side Note: Professional athletes train this way, too, by separating the strength and skill components of their sports. If all the sports medicine knowledge and money put into developing the careers of professional athletes has determined that this is the most effective way to train and improve, wouldn’t you think dancers could benefit from a similar training program? It's worth a try, right?!!!
Photo credit (top panel): Hoku Creative