I was somewhat disappointed with myself when I realised that despite the name and tagline of this blog, I have so far only published one directly dance-related post.
Although fitness is the focus at this point in my life, I am acutely aware of the fact that most, if not all, of my attitudes, opinions and behaviours, towards both fitness and life in general, have been shaped by a childhood that was dedicated to daily dance classes, exams and performances.
It can be quite difficult to explain, but I have no doubt whatsoever that anyone who has grown up within a dance environment, particularly (in my experience) in heavily structured institutional systems, such as graded ballet syllabus organisations, would understand in an instant the immeasurable influence it has on a person’s life.
Not that you have any idea of this when you’re three years old and running around in a pink leotard and soft ballet slippers.
Nowadays, I am noticing more and more how certain aspects of my day-to-day training benefit from behaviours that, thanks to dance, come very naturally to me.
I’m not saying that I’m any different to anybody else – of course I’m not – everyone has strengths and weaknesses. But in terms of your attitude and approach towards a fitness regime, there are certain things that can be learned from everyone who started out in that little pink leotard.
5 Dancer Lessons for Every Fitness Freak
1) Spatial Awareness
Having some sense of where you are and what’s going on around you is absolutely crucial when you’re working out. It’s pretty important that you avoid hitting someone in the face with a dumbbell, or whacking someone in the crotch mid-kettlebell swing. However, as well as the standard rules of gym-etiquette, having a sense of where your own body is in space (called proprioception) is really handy.
Dancers need general spatial awareness so that they know where abouts to be positioned onstage in relation to everybody else. They also need proprioception so that they know that their body is creating the correct aesthetic, and fulfilling each movement in a safe and effective way. For movements that travel or turn, where there is not enough time to stop and focus on what your body is doing and where, it is particularly useful to have a heightened automatic sense of spatial awareness.
Equally, when you’re working out, it is really important to know where your body is and what it is doing, so that each exercise can be performed correctly, even when there’s noone there to help you. Take the squat, for example. You need to be able to know that your knees are over your toes, not falling in, that your hips are pushed back and that your chest is up. You need to know that you’re standing in the middle of the bar and that your hands are equidistant apart, so that things don’t start going lopsided.
Know where you are and what you’re doing. It’s easier said than done.
Dancers, ballet dancers in particular, are renowned for their discipline. People often ask me how I’m motivated enough to go to the gym every morning...but to be honest it’s not a special skill, nor is it particularly hard work. Partly, of course, because I enjoy it, but also because training has replaced dance classes within my weekly routine, which means that it’s ingrained in me to go. It’s not an option to skip a pre-planned session, just as it was never an option to skip a ballet class. You just do it without thinking about it, and when you’re there you do the best that you can do. Practise makes perfect.
Even this morning, as I was counting out my reps, I stumbled after the count of 8, and had to think about what came next. Not because I’m mathematically deficient, but because in dancer world, 9 doesn’t come after 8. 1 does.
Whether there is music or not, a dancer always has a rhythm and beat to the way they move – it’s what makes you able to spot them out in a street filled with people.
Although only counting to 8 isn’t necessarily the most productive way to train, I do think that having a sense of rhythm is crucial to any good work out. I’m not saying you need to bop along to music as you lift (in fact that’s probably not sensible at all) but having a rhythm to your movement really helps to keep the pace going and stops you falling behind. For me, it also helps me to find genuine enjoyment in whatever movement that I’m doing.
Technique, technique, technique. It’s what’s drilled into every dancer from the moment that they can plie. Toes pointed, legs turned out, bottoms in, stomachs in, shoulders back, long neck, soft arms….etc. etc. etc.
Every dancer knows that they won’t get anywhere if their technique isn’t spot on – and it’s the same in the gym. Whether it’s a tiny little bicep curl or a full-out sumo deadlift, every moment has to be executed with correct technique or else you’re essentially training your muscles incorrectly, which is unproductive at best, and more often dangerous.
It’s totally worth taking the time to make sure that every movement you do is executed with spot-on technique. It’s also important to do regular accessory work to make sure that each individual muscle is strong enough to execute said technique.
Perfect technique takes a whole lot of time and patience – it is by no means a quick fix or an easy job. Nonetheless, it will, in time, improve your lifts and make them a whole lot safer. Work for it, and it’ll work for you.
5) Performance is Everything
I’m not going to lie, it still baffles me the amount of fuss and noise people make when they’re lifting. If you made those sorts of grunts when performing a grand jete en tournant in class then you’d get a slap on the thigh and told to start the whole routine again.
Dance is a performance, which means that you don’t just have to physically exert yourself, you also have to act like it’s the easiest, most enjoyable thing in the world. Grunts, barks and shouts strictly not allowed.
Personally I think that, in this context*, this is brilliant for your mindset. If you’re not allowed to show weakness then you have no choice but to be strong. I can’t help but think that all those men making a massive deal over their deadlifts would be so much stronger if they didn’t waste all their energy shouting about it.
* feel free to vent afterwards, of course. Whilst i genuinely believe that not showing weakness can be an asset during an exercise, it’s not good to bottle everything up 24/7.