I spent most of my professional dance career proudly telling people that I’d only ever been to a gym once, and that was to go to the jaccuzzi. Dancers don’t go to the gym, right? Er...wrong.
It’s not like I was being lazy - as well as performing 8 shows a week, I went to dance classes, did Pilates and yoga, went running or swimming, and did a modest amount of sit ups and squats in my living room when I felt like it. I thought that that was more than enough, and that people only went to gyms if they were vain, didn’t like exercising outside, or wanted a disproportionately large upper body, and none of these things (hopefully) applied.
But I was wrong - really wrong - and I have fully changed my errant ways.
"You need to be stronger"
I had a problem with my left Achilles’ tendon which just wouldn’t go away. Resting would help for a bit, only for it to flare up uncontrollably - and eventually, after a week long ballet course at the RAD left me limping for days, I was referred through the NHS to the NIDMS Dance Injury clinic at Mile End Hospital.
(This is a brilliant thing. I found out about it through One Dance UK, as it’s a service set up to help freelance dancers access specialist healthcare via the NHS - if you’re an injured dancer, check it out immediately!).
I was diagnosed with Achilles Tendonopathy, and sent to see a specialist physio with experience working with dancers. I’d started working at the Royal Ballet Company’s amazing Ballet Healthcare centre by this point, and my notions of “dancers don’t go to the gym” had already been well and truly debunked by the evidence before my eyes - they most definitely DO, and it’s incredible (see the article below for the mind-blowing details). So when my new, expert physio started planning out a rehab plan for me, entirely gym-based and starting from that very day, I was too embarrassed to tell him that I didn’t have a gym membership and did some frantic googling on the way home.
Tendons are fibrous tissue connecting muscle to bone, and they take a lot of load when you have high forces at work on your body - for example, from dancing, running, or playing high-impact sport. A tendonopathy happens when the tendon isn’t coping with what you’re asking it to do - either because of a lack of strength, or because you’ve tried to increase your activity levels too quickly. Strength, stabilisation, and not stretching the area are key to getting the tendon back on track, and for an Achilles, that means slow, heavy-resistance calf raises, a gradual return to jumping and running, and intense strengthening work on supporting areas such as the hip and glutes.
And, do you know what? It worked. I followed the plan to the letter, and my Achilles got better, over several months, just like they said it would. Tendon injuries are notorious for recurring, so I’m not off the hook - I will need to maintain the hard work to keep my tendon healthy, so I won’t be giving up that gym membership anytime soon - and nor do I want to! I can jump higher than ever, land softer, lift my legs more easily, and I get less tired. It’s literally changed everything.
Things I’ve realised are great about the gym:
It’s time you are spending absolutely on yourself - no distractions, no “I’ll just stop and put the washing out” halfway through your workout
It’s loud, it’s a big space, it’s somewhere to go, and there are other people around - not usually things that attract me, but the last few months have involved far too much quiet solitude for my liking
Feeling strong is great. You can do 30 mins of hard work and feel like superwoman for the rest of the day - at least until DOMS (the harmless but inevitable Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) strikes the next morning
It feels like a miracle when you go back to class and everything has become easier - you might have worked hard in the gym, but it still feels like magic...
Have I convinced you? Different forms of exercise give you different results, and as a Pilates instructor, I’m certainly not suggesting that the gym is the only way - I won’t be giving up my beloved mat or ballet barre, which are a really important part of my life. But, as part of a well-rounded fitness regime, spending some time working with weights and resistance challenges your body in a different way, and ultimately that’s what we’re built for - variety, challenges, and a wide range of movement. So, don’t be like the old me - save the jacuzzi bit for after the workout. #dancersarestrong #s&cfordancers
Want to know more?
• The Australian Ballet’s pioneering work on strength over stretch: https://australianballet.com.au/behind-ballet/strength-beats-stretch
• A brilliant article about the Royal Ballet’s approach to strength training: https://www.redbull.com/gb-en/theredbulletin/royal-ballet-london-revolutionary-sport-science