Q: from Elaine L: Can you recommend a few Pilates exercises that would be helpful for a ballet dancer? I’m a student and I can’t afford the extra tuition outside dance class but I’ve heard that Pilates can be better for dancers than gym routines and other workouts because it builds strength without bulky muscles and without losing flexibility and you don’t need a lot of space or equipment either.
A: from Julia Hollas:
I appreciate your question! I’m a professional dancer in San Francisco, as well as a Pilates instructor. I did Pilates throughout my dance training, and the powerful results it brought me, both in improving my technique and in recovering from injury, is want inspired me to become an instructor myself.
For most dancers, the greatest benefit Pilates brings is core strength. The core is what connects your upper body to your lower body, keeps you balanced in your pirouettes, and allows you to move with ease and flow across the floor and through transitions. It’s essential to ballet technique, and yet typically underdeveloped by the ballet class. If the core is weak, other muscles, typically the hip flexors and lower back extensors, take over. While it’s possible to dance like this, you’ll feel like you’re fighting yourself to get your extensions up, balance becomes harder to achieve, and you may be setting yourself up for injury later on.
For someone such as yourself interested in a home program, I am careful as to which exercises I recommend because there are a great deal of Pilates mat exercises that, when done with the wrong muscles, will just contribute to the tight hip flexor and lower back extensor problem. A good Pilates instructor can help you find the right muscles and so, even if it’s only occasionally, I really recommend taking a class. The difference between the right muscles and the wrong ones is subtle and powerful and will benefit your dancing to no end. (Some studios may give discounts to dancers or students, and some would love a work-exchange person who may be interested in cleaning or administrative duties in exchange for free classes. Don’t be afraid to ask!)
But back to the crux of your question – the home program! Whether or not you’re taking Pilates classes, doing these 3 or more days a week will help you immensely.
The Pilates Bridge: (6-8 reps): A great exercise to open the hip flexors and engage the hamstrings with core support. Pay close attention to the do’s and don’t's in the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?
The Roll Down/Roll Up (do 8-10 reps): Sitting with your feet on the floor, arms out in front of you, exhale and roll your spine down to the floor. Think of your spine as a string of pearls and try to place one vertebra down at a time, beginning at the lower back, through the middle back, upper back, and finally laying the head down on the floor. Inhale to bring the arms up to the ceiling. Exhale to lower the arms, reach through the fingertips, and peel yourself off the floor, one bone at a time.
Essential! Keep those feet glued to the floor the whole way up and the whole way down. Don’t use momentum coming up or down, you want to be in control the ENTIRE time. If you can’t do this when you first start, hold on behind your thighs with your hands and use your arms to support you. Once you can do the exercise in control with knees bent and feet glued to the floor, you can make it harder by straightening the legs. In this position, flex your feet – you MUST keep your heels glued to the mat the whole time. Here’s a good video, which goes more into shoulder placement as well. http://www.youtube.com/watch?
Rolling Like a Ball (do 8-10 reps): Here’s a video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?
Once you can do Rolling Like a Ball, add Open Leg Rocker (8-10 reps): http://www.youtube.com/watch?
The Clam (8-12 reps): A great exercise to train the core to stabilize your spine while using your external rotators. I couldn’t find an awesome video of it, but here’s what it looks like: http://www.youtube.com/watch?
Make sure you think of stacking your hips and shoulders. Imagine you’re between two panes of glass – you’re engaging those muscles you found in rolling like a ball and the roll ups, not to curve the spine, but to stabilize it in a neutral alignment. Draw your navel backwards to your spine, and create a little window under your bottom waist by lifting it away from the floor (so you’ll be balanced on the side of your hip and ribcage). As you raise the knee – be certain that your top hip doesn’t roll backwards at all, and your lower back stays in the exact same shape. You’re looking to find pure external rotation (that’s your turn out). You may be surprised to see you have less than you thought you did – but doing these exercises properly will improve your turn out when standing.
Side Leg Kicks: Once you have found that core with your roll ups and rolling exercises, then used it to stabilize your spine with the clam, here’s a fun series that will further strengthen the hips and train your core to be active while you move your legs. We dancers benefit a lot from that! Notice that she’s working a lot to minimize the motion of her torso – keeping the hips and shoulders stacked. (The music is a little silly, but maybe good for motivation. ) http://www.youtube.com/watch?
Single Leg Kick (6-8 each leg): A great exercise for the upper back extensors and hamstrings. Pay careful attention to the set up and do’s and don’t's in this video so you get the true benefits and don’t strain your lower back: http://www.youtube.com/watch?
I hope those help! Joseph Pilates has this famous quote – “In 10 sessions you’ll feel the difference, in 20 you’ll see the difference, and in 30 you’ll have a whole new body.” If you do these 3 times a week for 10 weeks and you notice a difference in your dancing, I’d love to hear about it! You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Learn more about Julia at: