A publication to engage the dance community. Learn. Discuss. Contribute. Enjoy.

Gaining Perspective

Cross-Training to Improve Your Dancing

By Joel Torgeson

Well, dear reader, it’s that time of month again. Time to try to come up with something you’d like to read. The task gets harder each month, and the tardiness with which I turn in my article increases accordingly.

In my defense, I was not planning on being around this week to write an article at all! Had things gone as originally planned, I would be camping on an island in Lake Victoria right now, doing field work in my major. Unfortunately the political situation in Kenya was deemed unsafe for us just two days before our plane would have left. I’m glad to be safe and sound here in the Cities, but I can’t help feeling a bit disappointed at opportunities missed.

New doors are now open, however, and I’m excited to take advantage of them! For one, I plan to use this newfound time to work on collecting new stories and perspectives to relate to you, my readers.

I have also begun training for a triathlon! The parallels between triathlon preparation and dance are interesting and have prompted me, this month, to wonder about how cross-training affects ballroom, and what kinds of cross-training might be most effective.

To start, I’ll give you some of my athletic history. I picked up soccer when I was young and played it until my junior year of high school, ten years all told. I also ran track in high school, and though never exceptionally fast, I enjoyed the 800- and 1,600-meter runs (half-mile and mile for those unfamiliar with track). Arguably my best event was high-jump. If you’re 5’6” or shorter, I could have jumped over you.

Since then, it’s all been ballroom. Before this last month I’d hardly jogged more than half a mile or biked more than three at any one time. I rock-climb relatively regularly, but that’s more recreational than a workout. Ballroom has kept me moving and working for almost two years, and as I’m sure you can tell by now, I love it.

Ballroom has not come without its toll, however. Apart from a high ankle sprain in soccer and a nastily dislocated shoulder in track, I’ve generally escaped most serious injuries with regard to athletics. Ballroom is not an exception, exactly, but the nature of dancing--repetitive motions and complicating factors (like partners! I’m kidding. Sort of...)--can allow slight discomfort to bloom into debilitating pain with surprising ease. Pushing too hard or moving to more advanced concepts without fully grasping the fundamentals can land you on a cold, hard chair on the edge of the dance floor very quickly.

Take my left knee, for example. I’d never had a problem with it until this past fall. Nagging, slight discomfort on the top of my knee in October blossomed into tough knee pain by Nationals in November, and a few weeks after that I had to limp down stairs. Not fun. As it turned out, I had a propensity to take my hips out from under my shoulders, mostly in smooth, which caused my knees to get (what I have assumed was) a repetitive stress strain just below the quadriceps. Ouch.

What have I done about it? Well, first off, I got a lesson and figured out what I was doing wrong. That’s the start of the solution. Now I’m on to the harder part: working on regaining lost ground. It started with plain ol' squats to teach the knee how to properly move again, and now that the pain is mostly gone I’m working on strengthening up the knee (and, by extension, the rest of my body) so that this sort of thing doesn’t happen again. Enter the triathlon.

Triathlons, for the uninitiated, are composed of three events completed back-to-back. The first official triathlon (the original Ironman) was run in Hawaii and consisted of a 3.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a full marathon (that’s 26.2 miles) run in one day. Needless to say, that’s a lot of work! Caloric intake of Ironman triathletes is usually in excess of eight thousand, more than most of us consume in three full days. I will not be running an Ironman triathlon. I don’t want to die!

My distance of choice is in the sprint category. The specific one I’m planning on doing involves a 400-meter swim, a 14.4-mile bike ride, and a 4-mile run to cap it off. Target time? Less than one hour and thirty minutes. I think I can do it.

Here’s why this long-winded, self-indulgent athletifest might be worth your time: I think my dancing is benefiting. In fact, I know it is. Not only is my knee feeling better than ever (one of the original goals of this experiment) but also I’m finding it easier to focus on different areas of my dancing at the same time, like posture and timing. I can practice for longer before my form deteriorates from tiredness, and I just generally feel better.

Cross-training in other sports or activities can have a good impact on your dancing as well. I’ve taken up some yoga (because I’ve never been flexible, and hey, it helps you stand up straight!) and several dancers I know have had success with the Egoscue method, for both working on posture and relieving chronic pain. Core workouts are also good for ballroom; you might be surprised how much movement originates from your core (hint: darn near all of it!). If you’re interested, I’m sure Kate Bratt has a few exercises to recommend.

At the end of the day, I’m sure nobody’s entirely shocked that exercising in a different arena helps dancing, but as a closing note, I also found it interesting how practicing ballroom is a lot like long-distance running or biking; it’s more about how you train than how much you train. Anybody can jog three miles or do twenty minutes of rumba box steps, but that time doesn’t mean much unless you are constantly monitoring and thinking about your form, technique, and goals. As obvious as that may sound, it’s true. If you take the time to ask questions, self-analyze, and (the hardest part for me) ask for help, your dancing, running, and life-ing will improve markedly.

But that’s enough of an exercise infomercial for one column, isn’t it? One measly column isn’t going to convince most people to try cross-training or triathlon-running. But maybe, just for a second, I’ve gotten you to consider it. Everybody starts somewhere!