I take my students through a pilates exercise or two during our warm-up for class. (A good warm-up is much needed when you’re an adult!)
I’ve been thinking through this for quite a while. I’m a bit of a geek, I admit, and geek out on subjects I love. I’ve been fascinated with ‘conditioning’ for ballet almost as long as I’ve been doing ballet itself. Dancing certainly comes naturally to me, but the strength to do it hasn’t. Mostly it’s my health – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder really damages your health 😦 But it’s also that I’m super-flexible, ‘hypermobile’ as the physios call it. This means that though I can get myself into groovy positions like crazy-high Grande Battements, I can’t sustain anywhere near the same height when, say, doing a develope. My body just isn’t strong enough to make practical use of all that fancy flexibility. (Why hyper-mobility affects strength is a whole nother post…)
Well it wasn’t strong enough until I started doing pilates once a week. Pilates has, and still continues to strengthen not just my ‘core’ but all the stabilising muscles in my entire body, which allows the rest of my muscles to focus on doing what they need to do to get, say, that higher develope.
Pilates has also trained my brain to understand what stability is, and how to harness what strength I have to achieve those developes. And lug the groceries round. And pick up all the toddlers – and often enough, older kids – in my life. And move furniture. And ride my bike more easily. And…
Back to my geekery. When I first started teaching, I wanted to make sure my students had access to that ability in their own bodies. I didn’t just want to teach plies and tendues, I wanted to teach them how to do a tendu as efficiently as possible. Life’s too short – and ballet is too difficult! to waste energy on things you don’t need to. If you do your tendus and plies in the most efficient way, you have all that extra left over to put into the real business of ballet – the dancing.
Before I started teaching, I bought every book I could get my hands on, on dance anatomy and dance conditioning. Each book has its own merits, but with the exception of very step-specific exercises (like, say, practising standing in retire with the weight over the ball of the standing foot to facilitating pirouettes) the more general dance conditioning I saw in these books didn’t offer more than what pilates offers.
So I figure I may as well stick to pilates, both for me and my students!
Pilates has another advantage over the books. You can go to a real life teacher and be instructed in how to do it properly. As a large part of conditioning for dance is about teaching the brain and nervous system how to use the body the most efficiently, following a conditioning program from a book won’t help much. I suspect you’d simply be reinforcing patterns that are already there, good and bad. That’s not going to help much. Being properly instructed in pilates will gradually teach you a better way to move and use your strength for dance than you had before.
Perhaps if you do all the exercises in the books with the same mindfulness as pilates, understanding how to do them in exactly the right way, they’d work as well as pilates. But to do the exercises wel, you need to know all that stuff you learn in pilates, already …
Which again comes back to pilates. Pilates teaches it. Hands-on, direct individual tuition on how to use your body efficiently, and how to strengthen what needs to be strengthened to move with that efficiency.
So why pilates? Well it kind of covers all the bases!
Some further reading:
This article explains why it’s not just doing the exercises, but how you’re doing it that makes the difference, as well as some recommendations for exercises for dancers.
I found these ones through Darwin Ballet School, so thankyou to them 🙂
This one is about yoga for dancers, and it talks about similar things – for many dancers they’ve found the same kind of help I get from pilates, through yoga.