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!

*    *    *

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…

*    *    *

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!

3 thoughts on “Fitness For Ballroom Dancers, Part 1

    1. I’m actually really glad I had mentioned using the wall, because the dragon couldn’t stand on one leg on his own. I had to move the weight bench against the wall and then put the dragon’s hand up to make that picture work.

      The things I go through for my art… 🙂

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