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  • Jennifer Milner

What's the Deal With Cross-Training?

It’s a phrase you can hardly avoid these days - “cross-training”. You hear it from friends, as in, “I need to up my cross-training before Nutcracker starts!” Or you overhear teachers and educators discussing how to incorporate cross-training into a school’s curriculum. Artistic directors espouse it, physical therapists encourage it, nervous parents request it.

But what exactly is it?

Let’s dig a little deeper into the dance science of cross-training, and get some of the basic questions answered.

What is cross-training?

The dictionary defines cross-training as “the action or practice of engaging in two or more sports or types of exercise in order to improve fitness or performance in one's main sport.” So at its most basic, cross-training for a dancer is any sport/exercise other than dance that you do, specifically to make you a better dancer.

Is taking another dance style cross-training? In one way, yes, but not so much. For our purposes, I consider a ballet dancer who takes hip-hop or tap to make her a better dance someone who is working cross-genre. It’ll challenge her in new ways, but most likely have similars holes in training that ballet does. A dancer steeped in the Vaganova method recently sidled up to me and said shyly, “I’m cross-training now! Last week I took a BALANCHINE class!” Definite points for stepping outside her comfort zone, but not quite what we mean when we suggest cross-training.

Why should I do it?

Great question. After all,, you’re dancing twenty to forty hours a week; it’s not like you’re not in good shape already, right?

Except . . .

Dance is a specific way of moving, with predictable patterns in the way you train. In daily class or rehearsal, your heart rate rarely elevates and stays at a high level like, say, soccer. Aerobic intervals are brief compared to other forms of physical activity. Think about a dance class - the last twenty minutes are spent jumping, but let’s be honest, you’re not jumping the whole time. The teacher shows a combination, you mark it, you do it twice through, everyone else goes, you get corrections, you do it again, lather, rinse, repeat. So you are exerting yourself for about a minute and a half, then standing around panting for four or five minutes, then doing it again.

And then you wonder why you can’t last through 11 minutes of Snow.

Plus, teachers and choreographers approach dance moves from a very different point of view than personal trainers and sports coaches. A dancer looks at a step - say, fouette turns - and breaks it down into easier steps to learn and master it. Passe releve. Pirouettes from fourth. Fouettes at the bar. Perhaps a turn in seconde. Then put it all together for fouette turns.

A trainer, by contrast, would look at fouettes and say, “What’s needed to do this? Standing hip strength. Proprioception. Correct use of turnout. A loose neck.” And a trainer would give the dancer completely different exercises and challenges designed to make her stronger for those fouettes, none of them ballet-based.

As Dr. Matthew Wyon said in his excellent “Towards a Different Training Methodology” -

“What separates the two disciplines (of sports and dance) is that dance training is nearly totally focused on skill development to the detriment of physical fitness and sport is the opposite. Though this seems to be a sweeping generalization and exceptions can easily be found due to the umbrella terms of dance and sport encompassing very diverse forms, on the whole the basic training environment for the disciplines have very different emphasis, with dance class the focus is technique enhancement whilst for sport, development of the sport-specific physical attributes of the participants. These different approaches manifest themselves at the elite level with dancers demonstrating excellent economy of movement due to their high skill level, though this means that the long daily dance schedules have no beneficial effect on their underlying fitness levels. Elite sportspeople in comparison have highly developed physical fitness levels accompanied by less comparably developed skill levels.”(1)

In other words? We need to challenge our bodies in new ways, and treat ourselves like the athletes we are. (And athletes should take a dance class, but that’s another article . . . )

I get it. I need to cross-train. So when should I do it?

To me, there are three different categories of cross-training:

  1. Rehabilitative You got injured, you’ve gone through physical therapy, and now you’re training to get yourself back up to speed. Perhaps you aren’t quite released to dance, but you can do some deep-water running for endurance, or non-standing Pilates work to keep your core strong. As you rehab your injury, you’ll work the imbalances that may have caused it to keep it from happening again. Ankle sprain? You’ll put in an awful lot of time on ankle strengthening, agility exercises, and balance challenges so you recover completely and don’t roll it again.

  2. Prehabilitative This may be a made-up word but stick with me. Your ankle feels wobbly and you never have as much confidence in balance on it as you do on the other ankle. So rather than wait for ye olde ankle sprain, you get in with a trainer and strengthen those muscles and proprioceptors NOW, before it happens. Prehabilitative cross-training anticipates issues and tries to make them, well, non-issues. I have insanely hypermobile dancers who train with me just so that they won’t get injured as they’re flailing their bendy bodies around all the time. Yeah, I don’t feel sorry for them either.

  3. Performance enhancement This is my favorite place to start. You’re totally healthy, no injuries, no inklings of one on the horizon, you’re good. But you want to be BETTER. One of my dancers at New York City Ballet came to me wanting to up her game: she was determined to give it her all and try to get noticed for some roles. She pushed herself hard but wisely, fine-tuning technique and working with me twice a week. Two months later she was offered Dewdrop in Nutcracker, as a corps member. Now, I am not saying I’m responsible for making that happen - she is! She took what she had, saw the holes, and worked hard to make it better. In this type of cross-training, we set out goals and re-assess them every few months - and if you go all-in you will absolutely see progress.

All these bullet points are a fancy way of saying, it’s always the right time to start cross-training. Just figure out which category you’re in now so you know how to pursue it.

What kind of cross-training is right for me?

The best formula, I think, is -

Yeah, as if I’m going to hand out a one-size-fits-all recommendation. There are lots of ways to cross-train, and they do different things for you. So let’s look at some options:

First, ask yourself, What do I need? If you are getting ready for Nutcracker or a puffer piece, you absolutely should have some cardio in there somewhere. And in general, I think dancers need more cardio in their lives anyway. Swimming is probably my favorite form of cardio training for dancers; it works on breath control, is non-weighted, works your legs and glutes, and is great cardio. Running is probably my least-favorite, with it propensity for tight leg muscles and lower extremity injuries. But I know some dancers who run regularly with no issues and love it, so to each his own. Go for a bike ride; run soccer drills; do interval training with cardio. Find something that works for you - and that you LIKE. Because it’s hard enough to get up early to exercise, let alone do something you hate.

If you have the cardio down, and you’re not currently injured or nursing an almost-injury, look at what your dancing needs in general. There are lots of ways to go depending on what your body needs:

Pilates You knew I would say this, didn’t you? Pilates uses equipment that can either assist or resist you, depending on what you need. Exercises can mimic dance moves, but in a different relation to gravity to make them more challenging. Pilates focuses on light resistance and balance challenge to build lean overall muscles and especially a strong core. Pilates is great for hypermobile people or anyone looking to get their bodies under control; it was practiced by George Balanchine, who sent many of his dancers to study it, so it’s got a long historical association with ballet.

Gyrotonics Gyrotonics also uses machines, but is built around a spiraling concept. The machines can also load or unload your body as needed, and is wonderful for opening up and releasing restrictions and tight movement patterns. Gyrotonics is great for most bodies, especially tight or restricted dancers looking for more movement freedom, as well as strength in that movement.

Yoga Yoga is fairly mainstream now, and for good reason. It can be calming, relaxing, but also strengthening. Holding static poses forces your muscles to work in ways different than the always-moving dance world does. Yoga can also stretch you out and loosen you up. Of Pilates, Gyrotonic, and yoga, yoga is the least likely of the three to elevate your heart rate at all, though, so make sure you consider adding cardio as well.

Personal Trainer Personal training is great if you find someone skilled in sports performance. They can shape a program for you, including cardio, strength-training, agility, and more.

Group classes Go find something you think is interesting - Kick-Boxing Square Dancing, or maybe Physioball Drumming, and give it a try. Group aerobic-based classes are fun and interesting and ever-changing. Find something you enjoy and keep at it! My one request is that you assess yourself periodically: since you don’t have one-on-one time with a trainer or coach in this setting, take a look at how you feel. Are you seeing results in class? Are you feeling stronger/more supple/more in control? Are you feeling tight or twinge-y anywhere consistently, that might mean an injury in the making? If your shoulder’s bugging you all the time now, perhaps you should drop the boxing class and find something else.

So where do I start?

Finding a good coach/trainer/group class can be daunting. If you’re in the rehabilitative phase (see above), your PT or doctor will be directing you on your next steps and can hook you up with someone to continue the work once you’re released from medical care. If you’re feeling prehabilitative (let's just make it a word!), talk to your PT or company doc and ask for recommendations; lots of times medical professionals have people like me they like to refer out to because they can work with me to build a comprehensive program for you. And if you’re in the performance enhancement phase, ask around! Ask your friends what they do, where they go, who they like working with. Dabble around, and find what works for you.

Bottom line? I believe dancers need to consider themselves both artists AND athletes, and work themselves accordingly. It’s never the wrong time to try cross-training. You’ll feel better,and your career - and health - just might thank you for it.

(1) Wyon, Matthew. Towards a new training methodology, in Ballet, how and why?: on the role of classical ballet in dance education, D. Brown and M. Vos, Editors. 2014, ArtEZ Press: Arnhem, Netherlands. p. 111-118.

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