With Thunder We Ride, With Lightning We Strike

This past weekend was a competition for me. Overall, I think things went pretty OK. There was a lot about the dancing I did during the day that I am happy about, but there were just as many points that I was not happy with. That’s all good though – it’s a learning process, and I have some time before my next competition to work on correcting the issues that I have control over.

But I phrase it like that intentionally because there was an issue that I ran into at this competition that I don’t know if I can really fix. Yes, “ran into” – my problem that morning was that a lot of the other competitors on the floor during my rounds did not seem like they knew what they were doing, and I got run into a lot. A. LOT. I like to think that I have come a long way over the years with my floorcraft skills, but it seemed like almost every time I had to pull my own steps short to avoid running into someone who crossed into my path without looking, someone near me did not and then they ended up  smacking into me. Yeesh.

Hitting people is something I really worry about, and do my best to avoid if at all possible. People hitting me is a different story. I am very solid because of years and years of weightlifting, so depending on how my feet are set on the floor when I hesitate, I will barely budge when someone runs into me. Most of the people I dance against are not very big by comparison, which is why I go out of my way to avoid hitting them accidentally. I move a lot and I am pretty heavy, so I could really hurt them.

This competition made me wonder if I could also really hurt them if they are the ones doing the striking, and whether I should try to do more to help prevent that from happening. I haven’t quite thought of a way to do that yet, but the idea has been noodling around in my brain. Obviously I am unable to look behind me, since I don’t have eyes on the back of my head, and Sparkledancer is doing a quasi-backbend when she is in frame that prevents her from looking over my shoulder as well. Maybe if I had a headband, I could fashion a rear view mirror for myself? I bet I could make it look classy if I tried.

While the idea of a dance rearview mirror sounds pretty awesome to me, I don’t think that my coach will be so eager to let me try it out. So, for now, I’ll have to file that idea away somewhere and try to think of a different one. Sigh…

Two of my rounds were very different, because they had no one participating in them. The first one had only two other couples on the floor besides Sparkledancer and myself, while the second one (which was Foxtrot and Tango) was basically a showcase performance for us all alone. I wonder why neither of the couples from the first round wanted to do Foxtrot and Tango? With no one in my way during that round, and to some extent the Waltz and Quickstep round with only the two other couples on the floor, I was free to move around as much as I wanted, and things felt pretty good.

What didn’t feel good in that instance was the floor. As soon as I had room to stretch my legs, I could really feel how slippery the floor was. It was like someone had gone out to wax the floor the night before and then never made a note about it, so the morning crew came in and waxed it all over again because they thought it hadn’t been done. During the Quickstep round there was a spot where my right foot slid more than I expected and I ended up rolling my foot all the way over onto the side. Luckily I didn’t put any weight on it when that happened so I didn’t get hurt or anything, but it threw off my momentum a bit until I managed to get to the end of the figure I was dancing and was able to pull back a little to reset.

Otherwise, the competition went good. The results were nothing to be ashamed about, there were just points in the dancing that I didn’t feel went as well as I wanted. Everything seemed pretty normal, all in all. Except for one thing… the strangest thing I want to mention about this competition actually happened after I was done dancing.

The events were all running really early, so I had time after I finished up to find a place to change back into my street clothes and go back to the ballroom and watch some rounds before I had to leave to make my trip back home. There were some people who I knew who were dancing that day, and I wanted to see if I could catch them on the floor and watch how they did. Sparkledancer decided to come hang out with me as well, and to chat with all the people at the competition that she knew. I’m not as popular as her, so I just stood there quietly most of the time.

While I was standing there though, a competitor that I did not know approached me. He introduced himself and shook my hand, and then told me that he thought I was a lot of fun to watch. That’s always nice to hear, nothing weird about that. But then he said (and I quote), “Your poise is very strong, and you do a great job of keeping her [gesturing toward where Sparkledancer was talking to someone] under control.” Then he excused himself to head up toward the on-deck area, leaving me standing there.

So. Many. Questions.

What in the world do you think he meant by that? I waved Sparkledancer down so that I could relay this brief conversation to her, and we both stood there scratching our heads to try to figure that out. I never feel like Sparkledancer is out of control, so I don’t know what that guy saw me doing that made it look like I was keeping her in control. Is it actually a good thing that I am keeping my partner under control? I have heard that ladies like to boogie away from you if you don’t hang on to them when you’re dancing… but that’s not really an issue in International Standard.

I didn’t know what to make of that comment, and since the guy was going on during the next rounds and I had to leave shortly, there was no chance for me to ask him to elaborate on that observation.Since that was the last notable thing to happen to me while I was in the ballroom at the competition, that little nugget of information has colored all of my thoughts about the event. Not to worry though – the more time that passes, the funnier that the comment gets, and I’m sure I will use this as an inside joke between Sparkledancer and I in the future. She won’t have much choice in the matter, since I am so good at keeping her under control, obviously. 😛

With that event out of the way, the next thing that I got a chance to go to this week was Latin Technique class on Monday night. Because Lord Junior and a number of his competitive students were still preparing for a competition (which they left Wednesday afternoon to head out to), in class this week we touched on techniques in several different Latin dance styles to help with their training. This was fun for me because one of the styles we got to look at this week was Pasodoble, and you know by now that Pasodoble is my favorite International Latin style.

But that was the style that we looked at last. To start with we worked on Botafogos from Samba. The point that Lord Junior really wanted to emphasize in this figure that several of his competitive students in class hated doing was the hip placement when you landed on the third step. As I’m sure you know, when you finish each Botafogo and you hold briefly before the next figure, you are supposed to have the non-standing leg’s hip lifted as much as possible. Lord Junior likes to describe it as being like a shelf that he could set his drink on.

My white-boy-hip syndrome really prevents me from looking good while trying to do this. Sure, I have the mechanics basically right, and my body parts are in the right place as far as I can tell, but when I look at myself in the mirror I think that I just look silly. I don’t know if I could ever fix that problem.

Next up we spent a bit of time looking at Jive. The figure that Lord Junior used for our exercise here was the Mooch, but he really only wanted to have us work on the kicking action from that figure, so we only did the rock step and the kicks and then switched to the other leg without traveling anywhere. I don’t do Jive too often anymore, so my kicks may have looked a bit more martial arts-esque than they should have for a Swing dance, especially when we were doing them super slow.

Finally we got to the Pasodoble, and this was the only style we got to work on with partners during class. Two of the ladies that were in the class that night had never done the Pasodoble before, so the figures that we did were pulled from the Bronze syllabus to keep things simple. We did a basic Promenade and Counter Promenade, and then went into a Grand Circle to finish.

Even though the figures were fairly simple, we ran into an issue because those same two ladies that had never done the Pasodoble before had also never done any ballroom dance styles before, so they didn’t know what ‘Promenade’ or ‘Counter-Promenade’ meant. Even after Lord Junior spent a few minutes demonstrating the differences, it took several repetitions of the figure for one of the two ladies to get the idea of what she was supposed to be doing. I didn’t mind though – more time on the Pasodoble makes me happy.

Finally, on Wednesday night I got a chance to meet up with Lord Dormamu and Sparkledancer. This session started off with us spending twenty minutes or so going over our results from the competition. Through the wonders of technology and one of us remembering to bring our paperwork from the competition to the lesson with us, we got to review all of our results for each heat and see what went well and where we needed to focus on in preparation for the next competition.

A point that Lord Dormamu told Sparkledancer and I based on the results actually had to do with the judges. We had the names of the judges who had marked our rounds available, and Lord Dormamu knew who all of them were (since he just knows everybody in the dance world somehow). He was able to point out a difference in our marks from judges who were formerly high-level competitors in International Standard or American Smooth versus the marks from judges that were former competitors only in American Rhythm or International Latin.

He told us that the judges who knew about ballroom dances would be able to see the difference in our quality of movement versus our competitors, which is why the marks we got showed that they had scored us really highly. Judges who had never spent much time studying ballroom dances gave us a more mixed bag of scores. One judge in particular Lord Dormamu didn’t like, because he was part of some faction of dancing that is out of favor with ‘the powers that be’ (whomever they are), so his marks we were told to just ignore entirely.

My obvious question for Lord Dormamu was, if we are always going to get marked better by judges who know more about ballroom-style dances, can we either A) go to competitions where all the judges for our rounds are ballroom experts, or B) do something that will make us look better so that even the judges who are experts in Latin and Rhythm will see us as the winners? Lord Dormamu laughed at me and told me that there is a competition where all ballroom-style dance events are judged only by judges who are experts in Smooth or Standard, but I am nowhere near ready to go overseas to compete in that yet (I’m sure you can guess which competition he was referring to).

So that leaves us with working on looking better so that even judges who are not experts in ballroom styles will see us as the best dancers in our rounds. Lord Dormamu’s initial suggestion was to look at volume for Sparkledancer, and posture for me. Sparkledancer’s volume is an ongoing thing, one that she is going to be constantly improving as time goes on. He can’t force her to bend more and create even more space between her head and mine. She has been working diligently on improving her flexibility, so the volume will continue to improve as she continues to improve over time. He did give her some suggestions on tweaks to her frame through certain figures, and they spent time working on how she looked in Promenade Position before the night was over.

But for me, things were a bit more difficult. Lord Dormamu was quick to admit that my posture is really improved, and out of all the events that he has been judging recently where he got to watch dancers at my level (including a few events where I was dancing), I stand out a lot because I not only am standing up tall and straight, but I also look imposing through my chest, shoulders and arms when Sparkledancer is creating enough volume that a judge can see me clearly. But he mostly sees me while I dance during our lessons, which may not be exactly what I do while on the floor at every competition.

His thought for me was that I may not be maintaining my posture the whole time I am out on the floor. We spent some time looking at this in the context of the Quickstep, where we had our closest call in the results from the competition. After dancing through the routine a couple of times, his impression was that we were moving with a lot of power, but there were places where he could see our topline wiggling a bit more than he would have liked.

What he told me that I should do to fix this was to continue to practice the idea that we had talked about during my last session, which was to allow gravity to drop my body at the points where I needed to lower, rather than trying to control the lowering action the whole time. Lord Dormamu thinks that when I am working to control the action rather than just let gravity do the work, that is what is causing the wiggling that he is seeing in my upper body. And anytime my upper body is wiggling, that guarantees that Sparkledancer’s upper body will wiggle too, since I weigh so much more than her.

Allowing gravity to do the work did significantly improve the way our Quickstep looked, so yay for that! I was a bit worried, much like I was the last time we had looked at this, since I thought that dropping myself so quickly was going to have a negative impact on Sparkledancer (I would be, I imagined, like an anchor dragging her down). Sparkledancer told me that what we were doing was working pretty well, and that she would let me know if my actions become too much.

So, since that seems to fix the lowering action in the Quickstep, I had to ask Lord Dormamu about the Waltz before we wrapped up for the night. Should I be doing the same thing and letting gravity drop me faster as I lowered in the Waltz, or should I keep controlling that action like I am currently doing? He told me that he would like to see me incorporate this same idea into my Waltz if I could over the week while Sparkledancer and I practice. Once he can see how I look dropping myself in this manner, he would tell me if it is too much and I need to pull back. He said that it is going to feel like the fall is happening too fast if I am dancing the Waltz to slowed down music, but when dancing at tempo it shouldn’t feel weird.

So that is what my plans are focused on for this weekend. Lots of practice, working on giving up control to gravity a bit more when I am dancing, and focusing on always maintaining a calm and strong topline while I move. We are looking at going to a small competition during the month of March where we can get some initial feedback on these changes, and then a larger event in April where hopefully everything will look perfect by that time.

I’m still moving forward – that’s always the right way to go.

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Floating In This Cosmic Jacuzzi

So, how were the last two weeks? Interesting? I hope so. It was entertaining for me to think about what I wanted to say, and then think about what should be cut since it turned out that I had way too much to say about fitness-related topics that help with dancing. Hopefully someone out there got a thing or two out of my notes. 🙂

Let’s turn back to more normal topics for this week. I realized over the weekend that I have gotten so accustomed to coming back to this site to refer to my dance notes about things that I was taught in lessons/classes that now I seem to have a hard time remembering what I did if I don’t write it down here. But that’s OK, I managed to make it through all my practice sessions and still accomplish something. Good for me!

Since last Thursday, I got a chance to meet up with Sparkledancer and Lord Dormamu twice, first on Saturday afternoon, and then again yesterday night. Both meetings were supposed to be used for us to run through everything in preparation for the competition that I am going to this weekend. Oh yeah, did I mention that I am competing this weekend? This event seems to have snuck up on me faster than I would have liked. There are a lot of things that are going on in my world right now, and even though I have been keeping up with my training and practice, the thought of going to a competition has not been in the forefront of my thoughts over the past couple of weeks. I guess I need to change that, since I’ve only got a day left before I take to the floor!

The first session I had with Lord Dormamu on Saturday was supposed to cover everything, but we never actually made it that far. We started with the Waltz, and then moved on to the Quickstep, and ended up stopping there. Not because there were so many things wrong with the Quickstep that everything was terrible, but because there was a section in the Quickstep routine that Lord Dormamu thought needed to be “upgraded.” Apparently we made that section look too easy, so he wanted to change the way we did it to make us look more advanced.

Yeah, sure. Go ahead and change things in our routine. We had a week to go until our next competition. Plenty of time, right? Yay……………

Waltz was the easy for us to get through, since we had been spending so much time looking at it overall in the last few months. The only real subtle change that Lord Dormamu asked of me was that I do my best to spend a little more time getting into the rise on step two of the Natural Spin Turn. Since I was already asked in the past to work on extending my time holding step two to make it slightly longer than the beat in the music, if I rise up into that hold too fast it makes the figure look inharmonious. So I just need to keep that spot in mind, rise a little slower, and emphasize the sway a bit more to give the figure a more balanced look from beginning to end. Piece of cake.

Switching over to Quickstep, we ran through the routine a couple of times to start with so that Lord Dormamu could get an idea of how we currently looked while going through the routine. It had been a while since we had spent any time working on this style. Once we had finished running the routine, rather than talk us through points that he wanted to see us do better, Lord Dormamu zeroed in on one area of the routine that he was underwhelmed with – the first corner.

This is a part of the routine that we have gone through quite a bit. When I was first given the routine (feels like that was ages ago!), the first corner figure was nothing more than a Natural Turn with Hesitation. Somewhere along the line we changed the figure to be a Natural Spin Turn followed by a Reverse Pivot. Then, back in September, we altered the Spin Turn to be something else that I couldn’t even begin to describe. Finally, last December we changed it again so that the figure looked like half a hexagon with a Reverse Pivot.

Now we are changing things again. Most of the change involves adding in a lot of rotation to each step. The only real point of reference I was given to tell me how much rotation to shoot for was that by the third step, which is a checking action on my left leg, I am supposed to be wound up enough so that I am easily able to face backing line of dance. In order to get to that place though, the first two steps have to pivot quite a bit. The pivoting makes it hard to keep the three steps moving in anything but a straight line, so now it feels like we are traveling straight down the short wall until we hit the Reverse Pivot at the end.

I was also told that since all those steps now look like they are rotating so much, and then we go into a Double Reverse Spin right after the Reverse Pivot, I have to make a clear distinction with the step that travels straight as I enter the Double Reverse Spin. To do that, the Reverse Pivot obviously needs to be controlled so that its rotation ends before I take the next step, or else I will continue to rotate during that step. Also, Lord Dormamu wants me to make the step itself bigger. I know that it’s a step before Sparkledancer goes into a Heel Turn, so normally I would keep it short to help her collect her feet, but Lord Dormamu wants us to work on the transition so that we can make the step as large as possible and still accomplish the Heel Turn successfully.

So yeah. Just totally changing up a piece of the routine a week before I am competing. That puts no undue pressure on me at all, right?

Other than the change to the corner, the only other thing that was mentioned about our Quickstep routine that day was about the sharpness of the ‘quick’ steps at the end of the first short wall. Overall we have made really good headway on keeping the quicker steps in all the figures sharp and crisp, but at the end of the first short wall is our first Running Finish, and something about that figure seems to take the edge off those movements (see what I did there? Sharp? Edge? I’m hilarious!).

Since we were running out of time after spending so long talking about the changes that Lord Dormamu wanted us to make in the first corner, we didn’t spend a lot of time going over that Running Finish, but the expectation is that Sparkledancer and I would go back and take care of the issue through practice before we saw him next.

With a few days in between to get several hours of practice under our belts, Sparkledancer and I were back at the Endless Dance Hall on Wednesday night to meet with Lord Dormamu once again. This time we did manage to get farther than just Waltz and Quickstep – we doubled that and managed to touch on Tango and Foxtrot as well before time ran out! Much of the time was still spent on the Quickstep though, so it doesn’t really feel like we accomplished much of anything in the Tango and Foxtrot that night.

To start with we touched on the Waltz again. The only takeaway we were given this time was that I needed to make sure that I am keeping my upper body from leaning forward during a few key figures, like the Double Reverse Spin or going into the Hesitation Change in the first corner. These were places that Lord Dormamu saw me wavering slightly on our first pass through the routine, but they looked fine during later iterations, so it’s just something he pointed out for me to stay aware of.

Next up we looked at the Quickstep again. We didn’t make any changes to more figures this time around, which was a relief – this time we focused on overall techniques to make the look of the whole Quickstep routine better. Before we got too far though, I did make a point to ask Lord Dormamu about the figure in the corner that we changed last time. With all the different alterations that Sparkledancer and I had been given to “upgrade” the figure over time, I wasn’t sure what to call that figure anymore. Lord Dormamu told me that the figure is still technically a Reverse Pivot from a Natural Spin Turn, even though I don’t think it looks anything like that.

At least now, if some judge pulls me aside at a competition and tells me that the figure doesn’t look like anything in the syllabus, I will have a name for what it is supposed to be that I can give. Hopefully the information will keep me out of trouble. I mean, if I just say that the figure was a Reverse Pivot from a Natural Spin Turn that I did horribly wrong, that will totally keep me from being disqualified, right?

The big note that I was given for the Quickstep in this session was that I needed to lower more. The way Lord Dormamu actually described it to me was that he wanted me to “literally allow gravity to pull the mass of you upper body down” during appropriate parts of the figures I do. This would make my lowering faster, and also make the action quite clear even while I am moving fast. While trying this out with Lord Dormamu I was able to pull the technique off easily enough, but when I was dancing with Sparkledancer I held back to maintain a lot more control over how much I dropped.

Why did I do that? Well, I’m pretty sure I weigh somewhere around twice as much as Sparkledancer, so if I am holding on to her and I let gravity drop my upper body down, she will have no choice but to drop with me. I feel like there are all kinds of things that could go wrong in a situation like that until she is aware of what it is going to feel like. Maybe after a few weeks of practice we will get to that point, but for now I will default to keeping things safe and not allowing myself to drop quite as heavily.

Running low on time, we managed to move off of the Quickstep and look at the Tango. The overall concept that Lord Dormamu wants Sparkledancer and I to start working on adding into our Tango now is to make the ‘breath’ action more distinct as we move. This is probably not something we are going to be able to have down by this weekend, but it is an overall adjustment that we want to start working on before the next competition we go to, which I think will be next month.

Lord Dormamu described it as almost being like having rise and fall in our Tango. I know that is going to seem like anathema to anyone who has ever done International Tango before, but hear me out… What he wants us to start working on is actually lowering slightly before we go into sections of movement, almost like exhaling. When we come to a point where we stop movement, we can come up slightly, almost like an inhale.

We’ve touched on this notion in the past, but now Lord Dormamu wants to make the action more pronounced. The place in the routine where we looked at this was right at the beginning. Once we get into frame, we go into a Back Corte as the music starts. To do this, just before I start moving he wants me to lower into my standing leg before I push myself to the left. I would stay at the same level as I push onto my left leg, and it is only once I pause again in the middle of the Back Corte that I would come up slightly – not during the movement itself.

I did work on this while out at practice earlier this evening, but I’m not sure that it will be quite fixed in my muscle memory this weekend. Hopefully I went through the action enough that there will be at least a glimmer of what it is supposed to look like while I dance my Tango rounds this weekend. That’s all I can hope for.

Finally we managed to look at the Foxtrot for the last five minutes. Since this is our strongest dance style, overall things were looking good for the competition this weekend. Once we get back from the competition, I was told that Lord Dormamu and I would need to have a long talk about the idea of what it means to finish an action in Foxtrot before we go into the next action. This is a concept that Lord Dormamu said took him years to figure out back in his youth, so there was no way he was going to be able to help me fix it in five minutes. It will be the next hurdle to leap over in my Foxtrot as I continue my progress. I guess that is something to look forward to?

So now that my head is swimming with even more information to keep straight, it is time to run off to compete again. Hopefully I won’t cause myself too much grief trying to keep everything in mind while I dance, and I can actually feel OK about how I fare at the event. I guess we’ll have to see. Tune in next week and I’ll tell you all about it!

Fitness For Ballroom Dancers, Part 2

Let’s pick up where we left off last week. If you are new here, be sure to go back and check out Fitness For Ballroom Dancers, Part 1 to get yourself all caught up!

Before I start in on anything new, I feel like I should reiterate the disclaimers that I posted last week, just in case anyone new here does not want to follow the above link and read them there:


DISCLAIMER #1: Please don’t try anything I mention if you do not think that you are physically capable of doing the exercise. If you are unsure whether you can accomplish any of the exercises but you still want to try them out, make sure to modify the movements so that you can be successful. There is no shame in modifying your movements or using lighter weights if it helps you finish your workouts successfully.

DISCLAIMER #2: Every trainer I have talked to and every exercise program I’ve done has made it abundantly clear that there are some important rules to follow when you want to exercise. I’m going to narrow it down to just three rules to keep it simple., which are the same rules I like to use for dancing:

  1. Safety – always rule number one. We want to get results, not get hurt!
  2. Form – form (a.k.a. technique) is crucial while exercising just like it is while dancing.
  3. Fun – having fun is what keeps you coming back to dance, right? If you apply that same line of thought to exercise, having fun will help keep you working out to improve yourself. Fun is important!

DISCLAIMER #3: Resistance training is important, even for ladies. ESPECIALLY for ladies that avoid doing resistance training altogether. You can do cardio workouts until you keel over, but it probably isn’t going to give you that toned look that you were going for. Adding in weight training will help.

If you are a normal, healthy woman, YOU WILL NOT BUILD A LOT OF BULKY MUSCLE BY LIFTING WEIGHTS! Unless your hormone levels are super messed up, women just don’t have a lot of testosterone in their bodies. No matter what you might think, you are NOT going to add lots of muscle to your body by lifting weights a couple of times a week for a couple of weeks. Period. Full stop. End of line.

Ladies can build a bunch of muscle, but to do so requires a much more meticulous level of eating than a male has to do in order to build muscle mass. Plus you would have to be eating something like one gram of protein for every two pounds of body weight you have in order to build muscle fast. And it would have to be real meat, not vegetable proteins like tofu, because eating a lot of meat will help increase your natural testosterone production, which in turn helps you develop more muscle.

Are you planning on eating that much meat? Or taking testosterone supplements? If not, you shouldn’t worry about gaining weight by building muscle through weight training. More often, women find that they lose weight through weight training because it can burn a lot more calories when you push yourself. If you find yourself gaining weight after a short period of weight training, most likely the problem is something in your diet, such as not actually sticking to your calorie goals.


With those disclaimers out of the way again, there are a couple of new areas of fitness that I want to talk about this week. I’ll start off by touching on core fitness, then spend a little time talking about balance, and finally I’ll give you some thoughts on eating to fuel all of this physical activity. Sound like a good plan to you? Let’s get started!

CORE

This is probably the area of the body that you thought I was going to do second, right? And for good reason – the core is really important for a whole lot of what happens in dancing any style. Plus, if you want to compete at high levels in Latin or Rhythm, where the guys wear shirts that seem to be unbuttoned down to their pants and the ladies wear dresses that seem to be made of little more than floss and sequins, having a strong and toned core can help give you the body confidence to throw on an outfit like that and hold your head high!

I might even be willing to make the argument that the body confidence could do more to help improve your dancing than anything else, but that’s probably a topic for a whole post all by itself…

The way a lot of people think (I was certainly guilty of this in my youth), they assumes that Core = Abs, so their instinct is to lay on the floor to do a million crunches to try and develop a six-pack. But I promise you that if you look in the mirror, you will notice that your core is shaped more like a rounded box, so to truly have a strong core you need to work on all four sides!  We already talked about the back separately, since I feel that it needs its own section, so let’s look at the other three sides of this hyperrectangle below your head, shall we?

Crunches, Et Al.
Most of the exercises that you will find to work on the front of your core (i.e. the abs) are going to be some variation of this movement, so I can’t really get away from mentioning it. Since I’m pretty sure that everyone has done at least one basic crunch before and knows what it looks like, let’s look at some more advanced variations to build on that baseline.

Remember last week when I mentioned taking a weighted plate from a barbell and holding it to your forehead while doing Cobra? How about your take that same plate and put it behind your head like a pillow and do a crunch! As before, increasing the resistance will help you build more strength than just using body weight alone.

How about you try doing crunches slowly to really feel the burn! Start off by doing three seconds as you crunch all the way up, and then three seconds to lower back down. If you’re feeling super strong, make it six seconds! Personally I wouldn’t make them any longer than that. Five crunches at six seconds up, six seconds down will already take you over a minute to finish, and you don’t want to be lying on the floor forever, right?

Oblique V-Ups
This movement is sure to work the sides of your core. Lay down on one side and bend at the waist like a V. Let your lower arm just rest on the ground – but be sure to keep it loose. Pushing up with the arm isn’t working your obliques! Take the fingertips of your upper arm and hold them at your temple so that your elbow is pointing toward the ceiling. Now bring your upper body and your legs up off the ground to try and touch your elbow to the side of your upper leg. If you can get it – great! If not, come as close as you can and try and do better each time you do this exercise.

Pause for a second at the top and then lower yourself back down to your starting position. In order to balance on your hip when you lift your upper body and legs off the floor, you may need to lean back some, and that’s OK! Just don’t lean back too far, or you risk rolling yourself onto your back. If you’re in public and you accidentally roll onto your back, try quickly rolling to your other side and starting the Oblique V-Ups – it will look like you totally planned it, and people will think you’re super smooth!

Plank Twists
This is a great movement for working your whole core. Holding a plank properly forces you to engage everything so that you don’t stick your butt up in the air, and bringing your legs underneath you really works your hip flexors and your obliques. Plus, this movement is more fun than just holding a plank without moving.
Start out by getting into a plank. Make sure it’s a good one, with your heels going back, your back and neck straight and your butt in line. Now, take one leg and bend it, raising your knee up as you twist your body to the opposite side of the leg that you are moving. Keep the leg off the floor the whole time, and try your best to get your upper thigh perpendicular with your body. Rotate the body back as you replace the leg – now you’re back in plank position. Repeat with the opposite leg, switching back and forth on each repetition.

Russian Twist
This is another move that is more synergistic in nature, working multiple sides of the core in one exercise. The rotational action here should feel really familiar to anyone who dances ballroom styles and uses figures with a lot of Contra-Body Movement (CBM).

There are multiple variations of this movement that you can do depending on your fitness level. The most basic involves sitting down, feet flat on the floor, knees slightly bent, and leaning backward as far as you can go while keeping your back straight and your feet on the floor. In this position, clasp your hands together like one big fist and then twist your body from side to side, striking the ground with your hands on each side as you twist back and forth.

If you feel like the basic version is too easy, the next step would be to lift your legs off the ground and hold them up so that your shins are parallel with the floor as you twist back and forth. When you feel like you’ve mastered that variation, it’s time to add some resistance. Go back to the basic setup, keeping your feet on the floor. Now take a single dumbbell and hold it in both hands. Keep the weight more toward the center of your body the whole time – the weight is used to make it harder for you to hold your body up on an angle as you twist, trying to bring your elbows as close to the floor as you can.

Once you get super strong, try combining both variations! Use the weight to add resistance against your upper body, and then lift your legs off the floor at the same time! If you get through this variation without breaking a sweat, you should feel pretty accomplished with your core fitness.

Misc.
There are lots of programs out there specifically designed to work on core strength. For example, Pilates focuses on core work quite a bit, as you might know if you’ve ever taken a class. But the amazing thing about core work is that it is incorporated into almost every workout that you do. Martial arts will help you work your core if you are doing the movements right. So does Yoga. So do even basic exercises like push-ups, where you really need to keep your core engaged the whole time to keep from having a bow in your back. You just can’t escape!

Like all other muscle groups though, you don’t want to destroy your core by working it super hard every day. It’s one thing to work the core in a secondary manner as a byproduct of working your other muscle groups – it’s another thing entirely to focus on a routine built specifically for core strengthening. Try to limit focused core work to no more than three times a week with at least a day in between to give your muscles a chance to recover.

BALANCE

I’ve been told often enough by various strangers over the years, ‘Oh, you’re so lucky that you have such good balance.’ That not really true – I had to work on it to make my balance look this good. And unless you have some kind of medical condition that upsets your body’s ability to remain stable, balance is something that you can work to improve as well.

The good news is that there are things that you can do to work on balance that aren’t as boring as standing around on one leg. I have done balance training in Yoga lots of times, but I found that a lot of the poses that they used were some variation of doing just that. Think about Tree pose, for example, or Warrior III, or Half Moon (if you don’t know what these poses are, you can find pictures online pretty easily). Holding poses like these can certainly help you improve, but as a dancer the first thing that you are usually asked to do is to be able to balance yourself while moving around. Creating the fancy lines where you are balancing in one place with little movement usually comes later.

That’s not the Tree Pose I meant!

So, I like to practice balance while doing other exercises that force me to move around! Last week I mentioned doing Single-Leg Calf Raises, which is a perfect example of this concept. You have to balance yourself on one leg, but then you are also moving your body as you perform the calf raise. Think about doing a Natural Turn in the Waltz, where you have to remain balanced as you plant one foot and rise up on your toes while drawing your other leg in to close. Tell me you can’t see the similarities!

Another exercise I mentioned previously that this concept works well with are the Lateral Raises for your shoulders. You can easily transition to standing on one leg while lifting your arms to your sides. In fact, a lot of common upper body exercises can be modified in this way – Bicep Curls, Overhead Tricep Extensions, Shoulder Presses, and so on. Doing any of these movements while standing on one leg will help you improve the strength in your ankles and knees needed for balance, all while you also working on another body part at the same time! Plus, I personally think it is more entertaining than just standing there staring at a wall.

But balance is more than just how well the ankles and knees can hold you up – there is a lot that core strength can do as well to help improve your balance. If you stand up right now and lift one leg off the floor, do you find yourself engaging the muscles in your core to help keep your spine in one place over your standing leg? Training your core muscles to help keep your spine stable can do wonders for you!

One entertaining way that I’ve found to do this is actually through push-ups. In normal push-ups you have to keep your core engaged to help keep your spine straight while you raise and lower yourself. Now, as a challenge, how about you find a couple of medicine balls (the solid kind, not the squishy kind) and put one under each hand. That’ll make you keep your core engaged to keep from falling over!

Too easy for you? Make it one medicine ball under both hands, or find two more medicine balls for a total of four and put one under each hand AND one under each foot! If that’s still too easy, find yourself one of those bigger stability balls and try to do push-ups while gripping either side of that thing. If you’re a glutton for punishment, try putting your feet up on the stability ball while you put your hands on top of one of those medicine balls you thought were too easy earlier. Yeah, using your core to balance your body while your feet are on a stability ball and your hands on the medicine ball is hard all by itself, and on top of that I’m asking you to try doing push-ups at the same time! Not so easy anymore, is it?

My point from all this is that if you want better balance, you need to work on it, but you don’t have to be bored while doing it. Yes, Yoga certainly can be great for improving balance, and also helping you calm your mind as you get into the flow, but there are other options out there. Over the years I’ve done all of these – including Yoga – to continue challenging myself, and challenge is what helps me improve and break through my plateaus. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t have good balance if you weren’t born with it – work on it and see how much better you can get!

NUTRITION

To get the results that you want out of any fitness regimen, you have to eat properly. Pure and simple. There’s no magic involved with being in shape – it’s all achievable through having a proper fitness plan and putting the right fuel into your body.

I’m going to start off by telling you the unpopular advice that you probably don’t want to hear: if you want to eat for the body you dream of, you have to eat right. That means that you should start today, go through your refrigerator and all your cupboards and THROW. OUT. ALL. THE. CRAP.

I know, it’s bad to waste food. If it makes you feel better, give it all away instead. If it’s unopened, donate it to a food pantry somewhere. If you have opened sweets, take them to work and pawn them off on your coworkers. Just get rid of it somehow. DO NOT EAT IT!

If you are looking to do something transformational with your body, like lose a large amount of weight or build up a lot of muscle, you have to eat for those results. Once you have those results you can have some of those ‘treats’ around, but until you achieve what you want it is better to not even have the temptation. Cake and ice cream? You don’t need it. Chips? How about no. Pizza? Don’t even go there. Beer, wine or liquor? Naught but empty calories. Get them all out of your house and don’t buy any more until you achieve the results you want! Even after you succeed, you should limit what you have in your house to avoid undoing everything you’ve worked so hard for.

Don’t tell me that it’s too hard. I do it all the time. I don’t eat donuts when someone at the office brings in a box to share with everyone for free. There is almost never any ‘snack foods’ at my house, even when I really want some. I will go out with friends to bars and only have water while everyone else has adult beverages. If I can do it, you can do it too! All it takes is a little willpower to make a huge difference in your dietary intake.
Now, once the crap in your house is gone, we have to do a little math. I know… not many people like math, but trust me – these are important numbers that you will want to have in mind constantly while you are training. These calculations are what works best for me, so I will be using myself as the example. If you find that these mock-up calculations don’t work for you, I would recommend seeing a specialist to get specific recommendations for your body.

The first thing we need to do is calculate your caloric baseline, or how many calories you should eat per day just to keep on keeping-on. The math is pretty simple:

If you live a sedentary lifestyle when not working out (desk job, lots of time in front of the TV), use (Current Weight) * 11

If you live a moderately active lifestyle when not working out (walk a lot, always park in the back of parking lots, play with your kids all the time), use (Current Weight) * 12

If you live an active lifestyle when not working out (never sit down all day, don’t own a TV or a couch because you are always traveling and sightseeing), use (Current Weight) * 13

For example: I have a sedentary job, where I am always at my desk or sitting in meetings when I’m at work. When I’m not at work though, I spend six days a week at the dance studio. For me, the moderate plan works best. My current weight is roughly 205lbs, so 205 * 12 = 2,460 calories per day is my baseline..

Now, we need to add in calories for your workouts. This is where it will be harder for me to give you guidance unless you are on some kind of regular workout plan where you can get approximate calorie burn estimates, but there are three principles that holds true no matter what you are doing:

  1. If you want to lose weight, you need to eat less calories than you burn while working out (but not zero calories – you still need some fuel for the workout!).
  2. If you want to maintain your weight, you need to eat the same amount of calories you burn while working out.
  3. If you want to build muscle mass, you need to eat more calories than you burn while working out.

Seems pretty straightforward, right?

My food intake for working out also factors in my rough body fat percentage (8%), and the fact that I work out six days a week with one day of rest. I am currently looking to maintain my current weight, so I am adding in 600 calories a day to fuel my workouts. 2,460 + 600 = 3,060, which I round down to 3,000 calories every day just to make my life easier.

Because I am working out six days a week, I eat the same amount of calories every day, including on my one day of rest (to give my body the fuel to repair itself). If you are not working out that frequently, your overall weekly caloric intake will look different from mine.

Now, let’s talk about what you want to eat. To make life easier, lump foods into three major categories:

Proteins – This is your primary nutrient for building muscle, because it is the only nutrient that the body can convert into muscle tissue

Carbohydrates – Carbs are not to be avoided, because these are what your body will use for fuel! Energy is essential for… well, for life. The problem with avoiding carbohydrates in your diet is that your body’s first response to get the energy it needs will be to start breaking down your muscle tissue, which is not a good thing if you want to keep those strength gains that all the exercise gives you!

Fats – another primary source for energy that your body actually requires. I know that talking about eating fats sounds terrible, but eating well does not mean eliminating fat entirely from your diet. You just have to be sure that you eat the right kinds of fats! Healthy fats will also help you fight inflammation, joint pain and muscle soreness – three problems that can keep a lot of people from going back to work out again day after day.

For me, lately my meal plans fall into two categories: a muscle building plan, and a body sculpting plan. When eating to build muscle, I have to eat a lot to fuel my cells to work hard and build back bigger. Even right now, when I am just trying to maintain my weight, I eat as if I am building muscle. My calories break down per day to roughly 25% Proteins, 60% Carbohydrates, 15% Fats.

When I finish up a phase of training and I want to burn off any excess fat accumulation to really give me that more defined look in my musculature, for a short period of time I will cut back on the calories to fuel my workouts (down to about 200 calories rather than 600) and change up my breakdown to 50% Proteins, 30% Carbohydrates, 20% Fats. This is only a short term change, usually no more than a month.

Now I know what you’re thinking, “Hey, wait a minute – you’re currently eating 3,000 calories a day, and 60% off that is carbohydrates? I can’t imagine that you eat 1,800 calories worth of bread a day! That’s nuts!” Well, you would be right. The thing is, carbohydrates has to be further broken down into the major food groups that give you carbohydrates – obviously there are starches like bread, but this also includes legumes, fruits and vegetables.

These four categories should all be included in your calculations when you plan out your meals. If you only eat starches for carbohydrates, you will miss out on a lot of the dietary vitamins and minerals that your body craves! If you look at that 1,800 calories of “carbohydrates” I am eating per day, it’s actually more like 35% starches, 30% legumes, 25% fruits and 10% vegetables.

(I know that having only 10% vegetables seems really low, but if you realize that 2 cups of raw spinach, or 1 cup of raw carrots, or 1 cup of raw bell peppers is only roughly 25 calories, then you’ll see that I am actually eating a lot of plants just to hit that 10% mark every day!)

So how does this all work for you? Well, in all of the good diet plans I’ve used over the years to help fuel my workouts, the constant recommendations have always been that if you want to lose weight you want to eat a higher protein, lower carbohydrate and fat mix, and if you don’t need to lose weight and need energy to fuel your body through all your daily activities you need a higher carbohydrate, lower protein and fat mix.

If you are just starting out and have some fat to burn while you build strength, try starting off with a 40% Protein, 30% Carbohydrate and 30% Fat mix. That is a pretty safe starting range that will help you learn what how you feel. I would highly recommend going back and reevaluating your plan every 30 days. As you burn off the fat that you wanted, start converting to more carbohydrates instead of proteins. Don’t forget to recalculate your calorie intake if your weight has changed as well!

Of course, going back to my first point, that 40/30/30 mix only works if the food you’re eating is good. If you are still eating crap, even if you manage to fit the crap into the mix calorie-wise, you are not going to get the results you desire. Yes, that bag of chips on your counter is TECHNICALLY a starch, and thus a carbohydrate, but you don’t need all the extra salt and grease that’s also included in that bag! Just get rid of it!

Think about how much more satisfied you would be if you took that 300 calories from the bag of chips and instead made a salad with chickpeas (for your legumes servings) and spinach and some apple slices, with an ounce of shredded cheese thrown into the mix for a protein serving. If you’re feeling super fancy, you can sprinkle a tablespoon of crushed walnuts on top for one of your good fat servings for the day. 300 calories of a salad like that is a lot more food, so you will definitely feel more full when finished, and there will be less food regret afterward!


Sorry for making this so long again. Hopefully some of this information was useful for all of you out there. If you have any specific questions, feel free to ask me! If I don’t know the answer, I can usually at least point you in the right direction. I’ve been living this lifestyle for a decade now, so I’ve learned a thing or two in that time.

I’ll get back to talking about specific dance things next week, I promise. Until that time, <Insert the motivational workout tagline you like here>!
-stay with the fight
-don’t stop until you’re proud
-you don’t get the ass you want by sitting on it
-do your best, forget the rest
-keep pushing
-whatever it takes
-you don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great

Fitness For Ballroom Dancers, Part 1

It’s funny – remember last week, when I asked whether anyone would be interested in some pointers on fitness-type things for dance? Well, on Saturday evening as I was finishing my normal workout, I got a text message from a dance instructor at a studio where I go to practice a lot. He wanted to know if I would come out to the studio on Sunday afternoon to take a Pilates class with him. The studio was being rented out for an hour that afternoon to do a special ‘Pilates for Dancers’ class, and I think he wanted to make sure he wasn’t the only guy there.

Since I’m always up for any kind of physical challenge, of course I went! That felt like a sign to me that I needed to go through with writing all of these notes down for all of you. Before I start though, let me get some disclaimers out of the way before we talk about anything specific…


DISCLAIMER #1: Most likely I don’t know you, so I don’t know anything about your strengths/weaknesses/injuries/preferences. Please don’t try anything I mention if you do not think that you are physically capable of doing the exercise. For example, you wouldn’t try to do push-ups if you were born with no arms, right?

If you are unsure whether you can accomplish any of the exercises but you still want to try them out, make sure to modify the movements so that you can be successful.

DISCLAIMER #2: Every trainer I have talked to and every exercise program I’ve done has made it abundantly clear that there are some important rules to follow when you want to exercise. I’m going to narrow it down to just three rules to keep it simple. I also keep these same rules in mind while I am dancing, because they are just as meaningful in that context:

  1. Safety – please, please, please make sure to keep yourself and those around you safe when working out.
  2. Form – much like dancing, form and technique is super important while exercising. A few repetitions with perfect form will help you get results faster than a bunch of repetitions with crappy form.
  3. Fun – you just have to have fun! If it’s not fun, it’s not worth it! I don’t mean that every exercise you do is going to be fun. The workouts I do when I decide to push my limits and increase the size of the weights I use are always kind of terrible… but overall I still find the physical exertion to be fun, and the results I’ve gotten make it even more enjoyable!

DISCLAIMER #3: Yes, I am going to talk a lot about lifting weights. If you and I were to ever talk about fitness in person, I would always strongly recommend lifting weights, even for women. Cardio-type exercises alone are not enough to create the type of body that people usually describe to me that they want when they say they want to be “in shape.” Resistance training needs to be used in conjunction.

This disclaimer will emphasize this point right not – if you are a normal, healthy woman, YOU WILL NOT BUILD A LOT OF BULKY MUSCLE BY LIFTING WEIGHTS! Unless you have a major hormonal imbalance, women just don’t have a lot of testosterone in their bodies, which is what helps men build muscle faster. No matter what you might think, you are NOT going to add pounds of muscle to your body by lifting weights a couple of times a week for a couple of weeks. It’s just not going to happen, end of story.

I could send you article after article about this if you don’t believe me. If you are starting to work out and you are putting on weight, the most likely reason is not that you are building a bunch of muscle. Period. End of story. To build a bunch of muscle you have to be lifting a lot of heavy weights, eating a lot more calories than you need to the point that eating is making you almost uncomfortably full, and taking the right supplements to encourage muscle growth. Are you planning on doing all that? I doubt it.

So if you want to add in a couple of days of weight training each week and you find yourself gaining weight after two or three weeks, we would need to go back and check your diet, because most likely that is the culprit. Usually we’d find that you are eating more than you think because you are suddenly hungrier with the increase in activity. That is why it is SUPER IMPORTANT to set a nutrition plan with at least a base calorie goal and macronutrient spread before you start any exercise regimen, and then STICK. TO. IT. Snacking on top of your meal plan is what causes the weight gain for most people.

Sounds so simple, right? We’ll talk more about eating later, I promise.


OK, with those disclaimers out of the way, let’s talk about exercise ideas that are, in my personal experience, most helpful for dancers. I’ll break this down by body sections to keep the groupings logical. Let’s start off by talking about what, in my opinion, are the most important body parts for dancing.

LEGS

Who really likes to work their legs? Not a lot of people. But since you are a dancer, you know that almost every action that you do starts with the legs. They are the engine of all your dance movements, which is why I believe that having strong legs is so important for a dancer. Think of strong legs like driving down the highway, riding around in a muscle car with a throaty V8. Having weak legs is more like riding down the street on top of your robotic vacuum cleaner. Which one would you prefer?

I cannot recommend enough spending at least one day a week on an all-around leg improvement workout. There are so many benefits to doing so. But for this post, let’s keep things simple and look at the two different categories of leg exercises you need for dancing: leg strength, and leg speed/agility.

Leg Strength: This is, simply put, how strong your legs are, which will definitely help you push off that standing leg as you move yourself around. Part of strength training should also be muscle endurance training, which will help your legs perform at a high level for longer periods of time. Don’t you want to do 50 heats at a competition without feeling wasted afterward instead of 20 ? How about 100 heats, or maybe more?

Leg Speed & Agility: This is how fast you can move your legs with precision. Really important for those faster tempo dances like Cha-Cha or Quickstep. It’s one thing to be able to move your legs fast, but you also need to be able to do it while placing the leg exactly where you want instead of just looking like your legs are flailing wildly.

Let’s get a bit more specific, starting with leg strength.

Note:
I like to keep it old-school when weightlifting. All the resistance exercises I will talk about going forward can be done using basic weights (barbels or dumbbells) and other simple pieces of equipment (a solid chair, weight bench, etc.) that should be easy to find. No complicated fitness contraptions will be required!

Calf Raises
Ladies, if you compete in Latin dances and wear the short dresses (like I often see at competitions), you should really want to have strong calves. Not only will they look nice when you do a press line, but strong calves will help you stand forward on your toes better in heels.

This is a simple exercise – take two dumbbells and hold one in each hand while resting them on your shoulders. Depending on the type of dumbbell and the weight of it, you might consider putting a towel down on your shoulders to protect your skin. With the weights secure, raise yourself up onto your toes as high as you can, pause for one second, then slowly lower yourself back down.

We want to do three sets like this: first set with your toes pointed straight forward, second set with the toes turned out, and the third set with the toes turned in toward each other.


I guess I should quickly mention what a ‘Set’ would be for you. The general rule of thumb I like to use is as follows…

-To build muscle, you want to use as heavy weight as you can to complete 8 to 10 reps. You should start to feel the burn around number repetition number 6.

-To tone muscle and build endurance, you want to use lighter weights and do 15 reps. The weights can’t be super light, because you still want to feel the burn, but this time the burn should come around the 12th repetition.


Single-Leg Calf Raise
This exercise will help you work on balance as well as strength. If your balance isn’t that great right now, do this exercise near a wall so that you can put a hand up to steady yourself as needed. Don’t keep your hand on the wall the entire time though, or else you really aren’t going to do as much to build the strength in the ankle that would help improve your balance.

These are similar to the normal Calf Raises, but we are going to be standing on one foot. This time, take a single dumbbell and hold it in the arm that corresponds with the leg that you are standing on. Use lighter weights here if you need to because of the balance component. Put all of your weight on one leg and hook your other foot behind the ankle of the standing leg. Keep the arm with the weight hanging at your side with the weight in line with your body. Raise yourself up onto your toes as high as you can, pause for one second, then slowly lower yourself back down.

Because we are standing on one leg, you only do these with the toes pointed forward. Make sure to do this with both legs! You don’t want to be lopsided, after all. 🙂

Forward & Backward Lunges
If you do any of the ballroom dances in American Smooth or International Standard, you should know that to properly travel you have to be able to accept the weight into your moving leg as you shift from one standing leg to another on a traveling step (‘traveling step’ being defined as a step where you are driving yourself forward/backward in a figure, as opposed to rotational steps or non-traveling steps in a figure). I have found that an exercise that really helps me work on transferring weight and accepting the weight into my new leg is by doing Forward and Backward Lunges.

From a standing position with your feet underneath you about shoulder width apart, take one weight in each hand and hold them at your side. To do a Forward Lunge, step forward with one leg as far as you are comfortable going and then lower your body down toward the floor between your legs. Keep your back knee bent and try to lower the body until your front leg is in a 90° angle – i.e. with your upper leg parallel to the floor – but don’t go any lower. Pause for a second when you hit your lowest point and then raise your body back up and step your front leg backward to the starting position.

To do a Backward Lunge, step backward with one leg as far as you are comfortable going and then lower your body down toward the floor between your legs in the same manner. Keep your back knee bent and try to lower until your front leg is in a 90° angle – i.e. with your upper leg parallel to the floor – but don’t go any lower. Pause for a second when you hit your lowest point and then raise your body back up and step your back leg forward back into the starting position.

Speed & Agility
There are a couple of different kinds of workouts that I enjoy using to help improve my own speed and agility. One recommendation I have is looking into Plyometrics, a.k.a. ‘Jump Training’ – literally doing exercises where you are jumping off the ground. This is a higher-impact type of workout, so make sure that you feel comfortable with that before you try it out, and only do the workouts somewhere where you have a padded floor. A gym with concrete floors would be a terrible life choice.

Plyometrics will really help you develop that explosive power in your legs that you need to move quickly, and learning to jump with targets will help you improve the precision in your movements. If you decide to give it a try based on my advice, I bet you will thank me when you are hopping around like a pro during your Quickstep routine!

If a high-impact workout like Plyometrics seems like a bit too much for you, the other recommendation that I have that can help improve the speed and agility of your legs is taking up some form of martial arts. This is something that I will probably reference quite a few times, because there is so much about training for martial arts that can really benefit you as a dancer. You don’t have to spend a bunch of time working toward gaining a black belt to get the benefits – any type of martial arts program that involves kick actions can help you build leg speed.

I am not an affiliate with any program, nor am I trying to sell you on anything, but since I am being specific about exercises that I like to do in this post… I used to live near a place that offered BodyCombat classes. I love BodyCombat. Seriously. Imagine doing various martial arts moves in time to awesome music – that’s what BodyCombat is. As a dancer, that sort of workout might be right up your alley. It’s certainly up mine. 😉

If there’s a place near you that offers live classes, drop in once and see if you like it. If you don’t have a place near you but you have an empty room in your house (with a well padded floor for jump kicks), the online classes they offer are also fun. Make sure you have good speakers on your computer though, because it’s so much more fun when you pump up the jams!

*    *    *

Enough about the legs. Let’s move on to what I think is the next most important area of your body as a dancer. It’s probably not the one that you’re thinking, but I’ll cover that one in a bit.

BACK

Yeah, I’m going to pull the back muscles out specifically rather than group them in with the core muscles like other people do.

There is so much that having strong muscles in your back does to help you as a competitive dancer. Strengthening the muscles in your mid-back helps you stand taller, and all dancers know how important posture is when dancing competitively. I was always taught that any arm motions that I might do when dancing are supposed to originate from the muscles in my back, specifically the rear deltoids (‘delts’) and the latissimus dorsi (‘lats’). For example, when I dance competitively I always find myself keeping my frame wide by pulling my lats out to the sides.

Aside from the benefits to your dancing, strengthening the muscles in your back can help protect your spine better, allowing you to avoid back injuries. Back muscles are super important!

Reverse Flys
This is a really great exercise for strengthening your rear delts. The rear delts are a small muscle group, so when you do Reverse Flys you don’t need a lot of weight. There are two ways to do rear flys – one gives you the option to brace your upper body against something, which will allow you to use slightly heavier weights. But even braced, 20lbs is going to seem super heavy for most people, so be sure to choose the right weight and stay safe!

Standing Reverse Flys are done by setting your feet shoulder-width apart, keeping your back flat and bending at the waist, pushing your glutes out behind you. You want to bend so that your upper body is at slightly more than a 45° angle, but not so much that your back is parallel to the floor – that’s too much.

Let the arms dangle down toward the floor with the elbows slightly bent and a weight in each hand. Bring the arms up until your elbows are in a straight line with one-another, pause for one second, then lower them back down. Be sure to lower the weights slowly and with control, otherwise you risk slamming the weights into each other at the bottom with your fingers stuck in between. Ouch!

If you have a weight bench available to you, you can raise the bench up until it is in the medium position and rest your chest against the bench while you perform the movement. As I said, this will help you brace your body, and can help you try the exercise with slightly heavier weights, but make sure you still stay safe!

Cobra/Superman
A simple pair of exercises that are really good for strengthening the muscles in your lower back. The only difference between the two is whether you leave your legs on the ground or not.

Start out lying on the floor on your stomach with your legs together. For Cobra you can place your hands flat on the floor next to your head; Superman obviously has to have the arms held straight out in front of you. Inhale and raise your upper body off the floor to do Cobra, and raise both the upper body and lower body off the floor as you inhale to do Superman. Make sure that you keep looking down at the floor while you do this to avoid any strain in the neck. Pause for a second when you’ve raised up as high as you can go, then exhale as you bring yourself back down to your starting position.

For a simple variation to help build more strength while doing Cobra, you can take a light weight (a barbel plate works great for this) and rest your forehead against it. Hold the weight against your forehead as you inhale and raise your upper body off the floor. This will increase the resistance that your lower back muscles have to lift while doing the exercise.

Overhand Pull-Ups
You’re probably all going to hate me for recommending these, but this is another super simple exercise that helps strengthen the muscles in the mid back. While doing Chin-Ups is also helpful, a lot of people tend to incorporate a lot of bicep work when they do Chin-Ups – we want to focus on the back muscles here, so I recommend making sure that you are wrapping your hands over the top of the bar before pulling yourself up.

The trick to Pull-Ups is to make sure that you are pulling from the muscles that run underneath your shoulders and in the middle of the back. If you are feeling a lot of the pull from anywhere else, you are probably doing the action wrong. Keep your hands on the bar at about shoulder width to start with if you don’t really do Pull-Ups right now. As you get stronger, you can try widening your grip to challenge yourself, or bringing your hands closer together if you want an even harder challenge!

If you are not strong enough to do a Pull-Up right now, bring over a chair to the bar and put your feet up on it. Taking the weight of your legs out of the mix will make the Pull-Up easier. Over time you can graduate to using only one leg, and then to doing one or two with no legs on the chair and the rest using the chair, and finally to not using the chair at all. As always, modify to be successful rather than avoid something you think is too hard!

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SHOULDERS AND ARMS

We’re going to attach these two muscle groups together (Ha! See what I did there?).

The shoulders and arms are used quite a bit while dancing. Are you holding some kind of frame with your partner? The shoulders and arms are involved there! Are you competing in American Smooth or Rhythm or International Latin, and while in an open position with your partner and you don’t want to have your free arm hanging down like a limp noodle? The shoulders and arms are involved here too!

One big complaint that I hear from instructors I know who compete in Pro/Am is that, after dancing a bunch of rounds, their partner starts to get tired and struggles to keep their frame up. As their partner begins to droop, they tend to put a lot more weight on their Pro, which can put the Pro under a lot of physical stress. These Pros work at keeping their own strength and stamina up to help alleviate this problem, but wouldn’t it be better if their Amateur took away some of this burden by improving their own strength and stamina to keep their frame up stronger for longer?

Upright Rows
If you don’t know by now, I personally compete in International Standard, so keeping my own frame up is critical when I am out on the floor in front of the judges. If you compete in American Smooth, especially in the Closed Syllabus levels, there are requirements for how much of your routine has to be in closed dance frame as well. For the ballroom-style dances in Smooth or Standard, I find that Upright Rows are the perfect activity to train me to keep my elbows up while under pressure.

These can be done using either a barbel or with dumbbells. A barbel can help keep your elbows level as you lift, but if you have wrist issues a dumbbell will allow you to rotate your wrist more freely with the weight to stay comfortable.

Standing tall with your feet shoulder-width apart and your knees bent to protect your back, hold the weights down in front of you with your arms fully extended. Draw the weights up the front of your body, bending your elbows and pulling them back in the process. Pause at the top for a second when the bar/weights are under your chin, and then slowly lower them back down to the starting position.

Lateral Raises
Here’s another exercise that helps you strengthen the muscles involved with bringing your arms up. This movement focuses more on the muscle at the side of the shoulders.

Stand up straight with your feet shoulder width apart. Grab a pair of dumbbells (you want lighter weights here) and hold them at your sides. Bend the elbows slightly – locking the elbows during this exercise can be painful. Raise the weights up to your sides until the arms are in line with your shoulders. Pause for a second at the top and then lower the weights back down slowly.

Tricep Extensions
The triceps are the muscles at the back of your arms. A lot of people spend tons of time working on the biceps in the front of the arms, but the tricep muscles are actually underneath more of the surface area of the arm than the biceps, so why wouldn’t you want to work on improving the triceps as well?

These are also the muscles that you use to pull your lower arm out when you extend your arms straight, so strengthening them will help you with that action. Don’t you want to have amazingly toned upper arms when you throw your arms out for Crossover Breaks or New Yorkers while dancing the Rumba or Cha-Cha?

Like with the Upright Rows you can do these with either a barbel or with dumbbells. This exercise is done lying down, either on the floor or on a bench. Start off by taking the weights in hand and holding your arms up straight away from the floor. Keep your elbows in – if your elbows start to drift away from your chest, either fight to keep them in or use lighter weights.

Bend your elbows to lower the weights down. If using a barbel, you would be lowering the bar toward your forehead; if using dumbbells you are lowering the weights to either side of your head. Make sure to control the weights on the way down! Pause for a second at the bottom, then slowly extend the arms back to the starting position.

I shouldn’t really have to say this, but please don’t crush your face while doing this exercise…

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Man, I feel like I’ve gone on forever, and there is so much more that I could say! So many more exercises that I could recommend in each section! But, unfortunately, I am not trying to design an entire workout routine here, I’m just offering up some notable exercises that I like to do which help pinpoint muscles used in dance.

Because this is already super long… how about I cut this in half and we’ll go over part two next week? Stay with me, and next week I will go over exercises to help dancers with their core, we’ll talk a bit about balance work, and finally I’ll spend some time talking about eating to help fuel these sorts of workouts.

Check out part two of this topic in next week’s post!