“Students need more than just ballet technique to become ballet dancers, especially the men,” says Jacqui Haas, athletic director for the Cincinnati Ballet. “Many dancers should be much stronger.”
Strength training is essential for building a solid foundation for dancing, especially partner work. Male dancers not only need to execute complicated movement—double tours or lifting a lady high overhead—they also must look good doing it. They may worry that bulking up will ruin a lean, aesthetically pleasing line or decrease flexibility, but with a little extra time and the right exercises, your male students can embody both proper form and function.
To avoid injury later on, strength training should begin when the dancers are 8–12 years old, before they start taking partnering class. At the Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center, young boys start with push-ups, pull-ups and crab walks, exercises that use their own bodies instead of weights. “This makes sure they are strong enough before starting with weights,” says Homer Bryant, director of CMDC’s pre-professional program. He incorporates weights at 12 or 13 years old, and boys do at least three hours of strength training per week. Length and frequency increase as the boys get older.
Keeping Their Figures
To create long, lean muscles without building bulk, use heavier weights and low repetition. “This develops strength but not muscle mass,” says Scott Hagnas, a trainer who has worked with the men of Oregon Ballet Theatre. “Pick a weight with which your student can only do the exercise four or five times.” The nervous system becomes more efficient at using the muscle he already has, so he can lift more weight without getting any bigger.
Dancers often fear that building muscle will make them tighter, but having flexibility without an equal amount of strength may lead to injury. For example, if a student’s shoulders are hypermobile, but he doesn’t have strength to support that mobility, partnering can result in painful strains or dislocation.
Remember that lifting doesn’t happen solely with the arms, so it’s important to focus on developing a strong core. Plan exercises that target the large muscle groups of the legs as well, like deep lunges and squats. Hagnas also suggests working a single arm or leg at a time to help combat muscle imbalances most dancers have. If one leg is weaker, a dancer should do the exercise on that side first, and never do more reps or use heavier weights on his strong side than what his weaker side could handle.
Making the Time
Strength training is most effective when boys have a separate class several times a week. But if your schedule or space doesn’t allow for an added class, you can still incorporate strengthening into technique classes, like Bryant. “Boys take ballet class wearing five-pound ankle weights,” he says. “Or I have younger students do pliés and tendus on a trampoline, which takes more control.” Even adding just a few exercises to weekly training will develop a male dancer’s overall strength and confidence. DT
Transform your male students into perfect partners with these exercises suggested by Scott Hagnas, who has trained the men of Oregon Ballet Theatre, and Jacqui Haas, director of dance medicine for the Cincinnati Ballet.
This exercise works the upper thighs and hips, and it is ideal for students with strength imbalances of the legs and hips.
* In a lunge position facing away from a 10-inch platform—a step or a stacked mat—hold dumbbells at arm’s length by your sides. Place your back foot on the platform.
* Lower straight down, to a count of three, into a deep lunge. Let your back leg bend until your back knee lightly brushes the floor. Keep your torso vertical and tall. Don’t allow your front knee to track sideways or forward—it should stay directly above your foot.
* As you feel your back knee touch, straighten your standing leg, and imagine being lifted like a puppet on a string—don’t lean forward! Do 3 sets. Start with 8–10 reps, and over several weeks reduce to 4–6 reps, increasing the weight used each session.
Single-Arm Twisting Push-Press
This exercise works the arms and back muscles. It mimics the way a male dancer moves while lifting a female dancer overhead.
* Hold a dumbbell in your right hand at the shoulder. Your elbow is tucked in tight to your side. Stand tall with the left foot about 12 inches in front of the right.
* Keeping your core tight, dip slightly down while rotating about 45 degrees to the right. Explode upward reversing the rotation to the left. Keep your feet planted. This powerful drive should originate from the hip and launch the right arm upward. Continue pressing the dumbbell up until the arm is straight overhead. The shoulder blades should stay down and back.
* Lower the dumbbell back to the shoulder slowly to start the next rep. Repeat 4–7 times before switching sides. Do three to five complete sets of both sides.
This exercise combats hypermobility of a male dancer’s shoulders. External rotation targets the muscles at the back of the shoulder joint, and internal rotation targets the front.
* With elbows flexed at 90 degrees by your sides, hold an elastic band tight in both hands.
* Rotate your arms outward, keeping the elbows snug at your waist. Hold 2–4 counts, keeping the front of the chest open. Repeat 3 sets of 12.
* Begin in the same position, but reverse the band. Hold it in one hand, with resistance coming from the outside of the body, tied to a supported structure.
* While exhaling, pull inward against the resistance of the band, keeping the elbow at the waist. Hold 2–4 counts; repeat 3 sets of 12—focus on keeping your shoulder down. Repeat on opposite arm.
Target the upper body and shoulder muscles by doing push-ups with your hands on a small trampoline. This requires more power and control than a run-of-the-mill push-up, and it takes more work to stabilize the shoulders.
Kaitlyn Burch is a writer, dance teacher and choreographer based in Portland, OR.