By Danielle Pierce-Master, MA Dance / Edited by Samantha Bellerose, B.Ed, Dip.Dance (Performing Arts)
Cross-training is important for dancers to develop strength, improve balance and flexibility, and prevent injuries. As your dancer advances in their studies, odds are they are going to want or need to do some cross-training.
The Pilates Method of Body Conditioning, sometimes called “Contrology,” is an excellent method of cross-training for dancers. Pilates focuses on the deep muscles of the core and helps the practitioner to maintain a healthy spine that is both stable and mobile. Pilates is a great option for dancers and their parents when they want to work out together.
Read on for some Pilates exercises that you and your dancer can do together!
Why is Pilates Good for Dance Parents?
Dance is a great activity to help kids maintain a healthy and active lifestyle. It is important that dance parents model this by finding ways of staying active too! Seattle-based Pilates Instructor Suzanne Singla says, “Pilates exercises can benefit not only dancers, but anyone wanting to improve stability, strength, flexibility, and body awareness, which in turn can prevent injury.”
21st-century life can have horrible ramifications for posture and spinal health. Sitting on zoom and texting on phones lead to postural deviations that can lead to pain. On top of that, many dance parents get the “privilege” of driving their dancer, A LOT.
If not done mindfully, this can wreak havoc on one’s posture. Sitting (a necessary part of driving) can make the hips incredibly tight. Exercises of any kind are beneficial to counteract these habits, but Pilates specifically can help because of its focus on placement and the balance between stability and mobility.
How Can Dancers and Parents Practice Pilates Together?
In an ideal world, it would be great if dancers and their parents could attend semi-private apparatus sessions together with a qualified instructor. However, we all know that the world is not ideal. Thankfully, Pilates is the type of workout that you can really do anywhere as long as you have your body and comfortable space.
There is a multitude of Pilates workout videos out there. Here I’ve listed a few exercises that Singla, Pilates/Ballet Teacher Mary Carpenter, and I think are especially great for dancers and their parents.
Joe Pilates’ classical program included these exercises performed in a very specific order, and many classical mat classes still follow that order. I personally enjoy experimenting with the order of exercises and noticing how different exercises feel when performed in a different sequence.
Many people associate Pilates Matwork with supine exercises (lying on the back), but some of my favorites actually involve finding a neutral spine on all fours.
Starting on all fours, hands underneath the shoulders, knees underneath the hips. Long, energetic line from the crown of the head to the tip of the tailbone, front hip points and pubic bone parallel to the floor. Breathe in to prepare, and on an exhale lift the knees an inch off of the floor.
Stay still for a breath and release the knees on the exhale. The spine stays stable and neutral while the knees lift and lower. Repeat 6-8 times.
Spinal Stabilizer/Watch Dog
Also a favorite of Carpenter’s, this exercise really helps the participant find their abdominals quickly. Balancing a small stuffed animal or plastic cup on the sacrum is a fun way to self-assess balance.
This exercise begins the same way as short plank: all fours, hands underneath the shoulders, knees underneath the hips.
You want a long, energetic line from the crown of the head to the tip of the tailbone, front hip points, and pubic bone parallel to the floor.
Inhale to prepare and on the exhale, reach the right arm forward and the left leg back, maintaining stillness in the shoulders and hips. Inhale to return the limbs to center, and repeat on the other side for one rep. Do 6-8 sets.
The shoulder bridge is a great way to activate the backside of the body, as well as the abdominals. It fires up the glutes and hamstrings and I consider it to be an essential part of my personal warm-up before a ballet or jazz class.
Lying on your back, knees bent, feet hip-width apart and parallel. Breathe in, and on the exhale press the hips up towards the ceiling, aiming to have a straight line from the shoulders to knees. Take a breath at the top and then replace the tailbone on the floor. The goal here is to maintain a neutral spine the entire time.
When asked what she thought were the most important exercises for dancers and their parents, Singla offered two quintessential Pilates exercises, the Hundred and the Abdominal Series:
Start with lying on your back with your low back pressing into the mat (posterior pelvis); lift knees one at a time into a tabletop position.
Reach arms and fingertips toward your feet in line with the hips; inhale prepare and exhale curling upper spine and shoulders blades off the mat and take your eye focus towards the abdominals; straightening legs between 45 and 90 degrees or keep knees bent; then pump your arms up and down in a small range of motion; breathe in through the nose for 5 counts and breathe out of the mouth for 5 counts repeating a total of 10 x’s (100 hundred total!).
*Note that if you feel any strain in your neck, lower your head to the floor and regroup, or perform the exercise with hands behind the head.
Abdominal Series (perform each exercise 8-10 times)
A) Single Leg Stretch: Same set up as the hundred but hands are behind the head. One leg is bent while the other leg is straight forward out from hip alternating and moving reciprocally
B) Double Leg Stretch: Start with knees bent and in an ab curl with shoulder blades off the mat. Extend legs out while arms extend next to the ears and move out and around while bringing legs in. Breath pattern is: inhale reach and extend and exhale bring it back in
C) Lower & Lift: Legs start straight, in line with hips up in the air, external rotation in the hips press legs together and lower ¼ to ½ way down on the exhale and lift on the inhale back to 90 degrees.
D) Criss Cross: This exercise combines an upper body rotation with “Single Leg Stretch” known to some as “bicycle”: Rotate torso and reach shoulder (not elbow) towards one bent knee and switch to the other side.
In the traditional Pilates sequence, the roll-up comes right after the hundred. I personally find that people need their abdominals to be a little warmer and prefer to do it later in the sequence.
Start on your back with the heels together and the legs slightly turned out. Breathe in as your arms reach to the ceiling, nod your chin, and as you exhale, curl up off the floor one vertebrae at a time, keeping the legs heavy on the ground.
If you get stuck along the way, you can bend your knees slightly, or grab behind your thighs, but you really want to keep the legs rooted on the floor.
At the top, take a breath and roll back down to the floor, starting with your tailbone and letting each backbone above hit the mat one at a time.
This one takes SO much control to do properly! Keeping the legs slightly turned out is the “original” version of this exercise.
An adaptation is to keep the legs parallel and together, or parallel with a ball or yoga block between the ankle bones.
Swan Prep is a great way to strengthen the muscles that extend the spine and help promote good posture. Start lying on your stomach with your hands underneath your face.
Keep your legs parallel and hip distance apart, pressing the hip bones and pubic bone into the floor to keep the spine neutral.
Take a breath and allow your head, hands, and heart to lift off of the floor. You can either lower on the exhale, or exhale and maintain the lift, lowering on the next inhale. Try to play with it both ways.
To Find Out More
If you’ve tried out these exercises and are hungry for more, I’d suggest searching for a Pilates Studio near you!
Even if private lessons are out of your budget, group mat and equipment classes with a trained instructor can help you make sure your form is correct and you avoid bad habits.
There are also some great places to find Pilates online:
Suzanne Singla and Mary Carpenter, both mentioned above
Mary Carpenter at the American Liberty Ballet
NVP Studio – Natalia is a former Ballerina who offers an on-demand program. She also posts amazing exercises on her Instagram Page.
Pilates on Fifth– This is where I did my instructor training and they offer an on-demand subscription for videos, as well as virtual classes over zoom.