By Josef Brown
Working smarter, not harder
I responded recently to a post on a teachers Facebook page that had suggested that every dancer needs to learn to ‘fight’ through every class.
Their comment, which on the surface seemed quite reasonable, was in reaction to seeing some students choose an easier path in class while stretching. Rather than raising the barre, they chose a more comfortable option and the teacher pulled them up explaining that to get the most out of the class and the particular movement they needed to choose a more challenging position. Fair enough and I’m sure we’ve all done the same.
The teacher then went on however to suggest that students must always choose the more physically challenging path, must always ‘fight’ and work through difficultly and not be tempted to walk the more comfortable route and that this was also a good life lesson.
I responded (this is a slightly edited and extended version):
Yes of course you’re right. In order to gain strength one needs to push to create micro-tears in the muscle which then causes adaption – when combined with adequate rest – to produce improved muscular strength and/or power.
Dance however is not only nor always about strength; it’s also about creating energy efficiency and fluidity of movement.
Therefore individual classes and the programming of classes over a week or month, need to strike an intelligent balance between elements that develop strength, speed, power and increased flexibility with those elements that focus of energy conservation and improved efficiency i.e movement pattern co-ordination.
It’s perhaps easy in our sport obsessed culture to want to make the connection that dance is akin to an athletic pursuit, one merely about developing the right strength, power and flexibility. And yet that is only one side of a multifaceted die. Such students and teachers who develop this focus liken the act of dance as though being in a gym and tend of fall into the trap of overworking and over-stressing the musculoskeletal system which typically leads to injury over time.
In contrast, professional dancers find – if not straight away then over time – that in order to endure and preserve their careers, that they must strike the right personal balance of working hard for improved strength, tone and adaptability to account for differing repertoire versus developing improved efficiency and ease of movement.
In other words, some days don’t fight, but instead work for improved flow.
A willingness and determination to push and battle through difficulties is of course an important quality, but so too is appreciating the flow and a more nuanced approach that works gently with the body to discover increased ease of movement. To this we can add the artistic, emotional connection to music which is also hindered when we’re overly focused working on muscular improvements.
It should also be noted that muscles, tendons, ligaments and bone adapt at differing rates to stress. While muscles can adapt quite quickly to added stresses, typically within days and weeks, our tendons are slower to adapt and ligaments again are even slower still, with bone taking many months to adapt to an increased workload.
So while we may feel stronger because our muscles have made improvements in strength and power, the rest of the body may not have adapted and may be at risk of injury if we keep pushing continually for improvements in strength, power and flexibility. It’s important to understand that while most muscle and tendon strains will typically improve given rest, time and the right movement regime, ligament and bone damage can be more long-term and severe often requiring ongoing treatment and even surgery to rectify.
It is for this reason that top athletes and body builders – who despite their cliche of being all brawn and no brain, utilise the most scientific approaches to diet and training because gaining and keeping large amounts of muscle is actually incredibly difficult – have periodic training programs or sports periodisation to account for these differences in adaptation and ensuring that the body is also receiving adequate rest and recovery time.
Sometimes we need to work smarter, not harder.