Cross training is always a good idea, and with dancers it is no different. Somatic practices attract dancers looking for a little extra training, and among these practices, yoga and Pilates tend to be the most popular. But why? What is it about yoga and Pilates that draws dancers to these somatic practices?
Stability is a good place to start. Pilates and yoga are low-impact, but really focus on holding or controlling motions, which activates our stabilizer muscles. “One thing that really ties them together is the control involved in both. Pilates challenges the body to use complete control and stability while flowing through each exercise,” Grace Nicklos of The Movement Project and certified Pilates instructor, says, “Dance also calls on this control from dancers. While dance can also be loose, thrown, rebounded, and released, most dance training includes a great deal of control to grow the strength and agility of particular muscle groups needed to complete movements.” It’s hard to find other disciplines, even among somatics, that are as efficient at training the body as Pilates.
Nicklos has been at the Pilates game since college. She has noticed a marked difference in her dancing since practicing Pilates, “I have grown in my muscular strength, I have gained an anatomical connection to my dancing, I am able to give deeper breath into movements,” she explains, “I have become more athletic and agile, my range of motion has increased dramatically, I have more muscular stamina, I have had a large decrease in pain, I am more confident in my body's movement, and I have gained my mind's ability to tap into each movement patterns’ deepest nuances.”
Anna Roberts, a Pilates instructor and ballet dancer, has found that Pilates has very directly influenced her own dancing as well as the dancing of her students, “For dancers, it's an awesome tool to balance out your body. As much as dancers want to work in turn out and focus on adductors, we should all be strengthening abductors because generally they are weaker--especially for ballet dancers,” Roberts says.
Yoga is also another popular practice for dancers. Elyse Morckel, of The Movement Project and yoga instructor, has found yoga to be the best way for her to approach dance,
“I think that prior to committing to my regular practice, I spent a lot of time in rehearsal and technique class being extremely critical of myself, and not in a productive type of way. My focus was deeply internal as a result and it affected my performance in class. Now I feel like my mind is not constantly drawn towards judgmental attitudes and that I can think clearly and find solutions when it comes to challenges in phrase sequencing or general elements of technique. I have become more at ease with projecting confidence in my abilities as a mover.”
Interestingly, yoga also has a mental facet to its function...it has a clear element of discipline, “Yoga has made me a stronger mover, I feel that I am able to be attuned to what parts of my body need to be working,” Morckel says, “[This makes] my dancing more energy efficient in connection with stronger breath.”
“My mom got me into yoga in high school,” says Heather Young, a local yoga instructor and modern dancer, “Then I started practicing more regularly in college & grad school. After grad school I tried to make it a daily practice. I was initially drawn to the physical benefits but soon I realized how much it helped me mentally.” Young believes that the mind/body connection in yoga is the best benefit of this practice, as it brings a sense of calm and control to their movement, and can quiet an overactive mind.
But maybe we are getting ahead of ourselves, here. What is yoga, and what is Pilates? Where did they start?
Yoga is an ancient practice originating in India. The practice is actually quite broad and can encompass many aspects of wellness (yoga such as Hatha are just small aspects of the umbrella of yoga). Yoga creates techniques for a more balanced life, and can delve into the practice of meditation and separation from the material world. The experience of it is defined by the individual practicing it.
Pilates takes a more biomechanical and direct approach. Created in Germany by Joseph Pilates in the early 20th century, this system is based on his personal limits as a sickly child. Eager to build strength and stamina, Joseph studied and refined his approach to exercise, and Pilates was born. Early on, this became a popular training practice for dancers, and Hanya Holm even learned and utilized Pilates exercises in her technique.
If yoga and Pilates doesn’t seem like your thing, there are many somatic practices you can try (including workouts like spinning and gyrotonics). However, one of the biggest benefits of yoga and Pilates is their flexibility...unless you are practicing Pilates Reformer, all you need is a mat. This makes it much more convenient with dancers’ schedules, and even allows freedom to practice at home. If you think yoga or Pilates sounds like a good idea, take a look at the links below to find where each of these experienced instructors teach:
Grace Nicklos, Pilates at ReForm Pilates
Anna Roberts, Pilates at AR Pilates
Heather Young, Yoga at Yoga Roots