Dance Homework!

“My daughter has been working so hard this year and really wants to move up to a higher level jazz class next fall.  She has been at the intermediate level now for a few years.  Is there anything that I can do to help her at home achieve her goal?  I am also concerned that over her long Christmas Break she will lose some of her strength? Is that true? What can I do to help?”
– Betsy,  dance parent from California

Two great questions, Betsy.  I think that I can answer them both with my top ten list of strengthening exercises for aspiring young dancers.

We are hitting the time of year when dance studios and school dance programs take a break for the holidays. So this is a great time to bring up this top ten list! As a dancer, often balancing packed schedules of rehearsals and classes takes a toll on the body, so  it is nice to have a break.  It is important to rest your body and take time to heal over-worked muscles.  But, only for a few days or a week at most.  What is equally important and often not discussed, is the importance of keeping your basic dance muscles active or you may lose valuable strength.

It is common knowledge in the fitness industry and among advanced athletes that it takes about two weeks for your muscles to start losing their strength and muscle tone when you take a break from your regular workouts.  That’s right,  muscles that you worked really hard to build over months can start to disappear that quickly!  You might remember the saying, “use it or lose it!”   This applies to your dance training too! If you wish to maintain the qualities and strength that you have developed  and worked so hard to achieve over the past few months then it is important to do some strength training over the holiday break.

Top ten muscle building
exercises to keep you fit and dancing strong
over your holiday break, into the new year and all year-long.

1. Crunches
I often tell my students that your abdominal muscles are your best friend as a dancer!  Treat them well, give them lots of attention and you can never do too many. They should feel very loved!  Ideally you should be able to complete 100 at the very least. Please work up from that and build up in multiples of 50 and adding in variety of positions.  Obliques, legs of the floor, reverse crunches etc… A great idea is to do full sit-ups with a buddy and hold each others feet.  Parents that means that you should take a turn too!

Plié Relevé in First Position.

Plié Relevé in First Position

2. Plié Relevé in First Position
Standing in First Position,  with your body aligned and tummy held nice and tight, Plié  and press through your legs and feet into Relevé. Use all your muscles making sure to not hop.  Please see the picture above of the correct position of the feet in a full demi-pointe.

What Not to Do, Sickling!

What Not to Do, Sickling!

Foot should be aligned, with ankles directly over the toes.  Notice how the heals are right in line with the ball of the foot.  Weight should be evenly distributed over all your toes.

It is really important to make sure that you are not sickling. This is when your ankles roll in or out and is often a sign of weak ankles. The picture to the right demonstrates, what not to do! As you complete the exercise, you should make certain that you are not sickling!

Ideally you should be able to complete the exercise at least 50 times. Nice and slow so that you are controlled with your movement. It is good practice to count very slowly to four as you press up.

3. Foot Circles
Simply draw circles with your entire foot, focusing on moving slowly through the entire foot. Making sure to move through full flexion and extension of your foot.    Start with 10 each direction.  Work your way up to 50 each direction!

Another great variation is to write the alphabet with your toes, exaggerating the letters and really working through the entire foot!

4. Second Position Grand Pliés
With the legs a little wider then shoulder distance apart and with legs and feet turned out, lower slowly through a grand plié.  Here is a video clip from the New York City Ballet Workout DVD that demonstrates the plié well.  Make sure that  you are thinking about your posture and keeping the knees from rolling inwards. It is important to move slowly and thoughtfully, engaging your muscles as you move.  Start with 25!

5. Push-ups
Traditional, push-ups!  Modify if you need, but 50 is the goal!

6. Jump Rope
That’s right, good ‘old fashioned jump rope, which can be performed with or without a real jump rope.  Just pretend if you must!  Especially if you are accident prone like me! The goal is to get your heart beating.  Start with 50.  Work your way to 500!


7. Tendus
A very important basic to practice religiously!  Tendu’s strengthen both the feet and the legs muscles.  Done correctly, they are a valuable tool to keep you strong and injury free!  Ideally a tendu uses the foot to press along the floor and peel the foot away from the floor starting with the heel, then through the ball of the foot to the toes.
Here is a video by Lisa Howell, Dance Physiotherapist, that is a fantastic breakdown of the key points I stressed above!  I love how she really breaks it down so that you can see it, and of course, I agree with her, break your bad habits now and it will save you lots of injuries later in your dance career!

Complete from first or fifth, en croix. (which means front, side, back, side)  Start with 10 each side.  Work your way to 20 each side!

8. Lunges
Lunges are vital to implement into a dancers cross-training.  These exercises help to strengthen and develop the  hamstrings, quadriceps and glute muscles, which in turn will help you jump higher and plié deeper! There are lots of  lunge exercise variations.   You are welcome to pick your favorite.  I prefer what is traditionally called the forward lunge. This is where you alternate legs and pressing back up to where to started.

Start with your legs together, body aligned, abdominal muscles pulled in tight and your arms at your sides. Step 2 to 3 feet forward with your right leg. Bend both of your knees to lower yourself down into a lunge. Both knees should create 90-degree angles. Keep your front knee directly over your ankles and behind your toes to avoid unnecessary strain on your knees. Push off with your right leg and return to the starting position. Repeat with your left foot stepping forward.

Lunging with proper technique ensures that your muscles will benefit and you also reduce the risk for any injuries. Please do these carefully and keep your abs pulled in nice and tight the entire time!

To see a good video demonstration and break down, please watch one here.  Start with 25.  Work your way to 50!

9. Plank
There are so many reasons to LOVE the Plank!  It is a fantastic exercise to quickly strengthen your core muscles, lower back, upper body, quadriceps as well as improve your posture.  Make sure that you are making a straight line with the body, from your head to heels, as pictured below.  It is essential to energized the muscles of the stomach up towards the ceiling,  right where the arrow is in the picture below.  It is also helpful to engage the glutes and slightly tuck the pelvis, which protects the lower back from arching and strain.  It is important to also  pull the front of your thighs upward towards the belly button and lengthening your legs as much as possible.   If you feel this in the lower back, then you are not using your abdominal muscles correctly.

Proper Plank Position

Proper Plank Position

Start with 30 seconds.  Work your way up to 3 minutes!

10. Stretching… and lots of it!
Stretch the entire body; quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, glutes, arms, back, hips, neck, core, ankles, wrists and feet.  I could write and write, and then write some more on this subject!  We will have to break down specifics another day, but in the mean time, STRETCH AWAY!

Remember that if you have a goal to achieve your splits, it is vital to stretch the entire body, not just your splits.  The body works together as an intricate team of muscles,  working in cohesive units and buddy systems.  Often just stretching your splits isn’t enough.   Paying special attention to stretch the entire body will help you to reach your goals much faster!


These top ten exercises are also great to bring into your daily/weekly routine throughout the year.  So many times strength is truly what holds dancers back from progressing to the next levels in their dancing.  I see it year after year and it is my hope that you will feel empowered to take your (or your child’s)  strength training into your own hands and apply the  “fun” dance homework!

“The dictionary is the only place that success comes before work. Hard work is the price we must pay for success. I think you can accomplish anything if you’re willing to pay the price.”
– Vincent “Vince” Lombardi,  football coach

Happy dancing and happy holidays!


***Special thanks to Ms. Erica from South Bay Dance Center for being my gracious “Plié Relevé in First Position” and “what not to do” foot model.

Lets further the art of dance together… ASK MS. SONYA, I want to help!


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