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'Strictly' Pilates for Dancers

August 25, 2019






It's that time of year when BBC's Strictly Come Dancing start selecting their contestants their annual 'Dance Off', when motivated dancers and novices dust off their suede soled dance shoes and sign up for dance lessons ready to 'trip the light fantastic'.







The beauty of dancing is that it can be anything you want to it to be:




A chance to meet like minded, sociable people


An absorbing hobby


A sport


A distraction from the harsh realities of life


A way of keeping strong physically and mentally


A chance to dress up and look amazing


A way of creating an alternative personna.









Dancing is exhilarating, exciting, challenging, frustrating, tiring and hard work but, when you get that 'step turn' correct or get 'round the floor' without stopping, the feeling is sensational.



I often think of Billy in the film 'Billy Elliot'  when, at the end of his disastrous ballet audition, he is asked what dancing feels like and he says:


'Flyin like a bird. Like electricity. Yeah, like electricity'.




 There is no getting away from the fact that you have to be fairly strong and flexible to get the maximum benefit out of dance lessons. This means a strong core, excellent balance, good co-ordination, spatial awareness, great posture and flexibility. 







Followers (for those who don't dance) are the poor souls who's feet get trodden on and have the task of dancing backwards, no mean feat. This can be challenging to do as a learner because you are using your muscles, bones  and ligaments in the opposite direction from what you normally do in your daily life.  You cannot use your eyes to guide you because you are reliant on your 'Lead' who uses their body language to tell you when to turn, in what direction and with which foot.  This means having excellent posture to mirror your partner's 'frame', a strong core to support your arched back, strong hips to rotate on spin turns and strong knees and ankles to help with balance.


A famous quote by the famous dance partner of Fred Astaire - Ginger Rogers  - sums it up beautifully:


"I do everything the man does, only backwards and in high heels".


Followers often make the mistake of just learning their steps but to learn the lead steps as well takes a lot of pressure off their lead.







Leaders have a lot of work to do in that they have to think for themselves as well as their 'follow', they have dance in the 'line of dance' at all times, watch other dancers to protect their partner, know their own steps and have a rough idea of their follow's steps too. The lead has to string some steps together that match the music as well as suit their partner's skill level. No mean feat!


Leaders have to provide an excellent 'frame' to encircle, protect and guide their partner so that their follow will feel secure. Good posture, strong core, strong hips, knees and ankles provide the strong support for the 'frame'. 











 When you first take dance lessons (or return after a long break) you will be using muscles that you have not used for a while. You will learn how to create your 'frame', how to keep your head up so that you can see around or over your partner's head, how to step forward purposefully whilst leading your partner, how to turn in a corner using a heel turn, how to turn your partner to keep in the line of much!  You will step on your partner's toes but that is down the follow not moving fast enough. 


Pilates exercises will help build your posture, strengthen your core, improve your flexibility and balance. Your concentration and co-ordination skills will be improved as well as your spatial awareness. 





Your first lessons will be how to  learn to dance backwards, how to keep your arms up to mirror your partner's frame, how to keep your hips in line with your partner's, as well as match their steps. You will be using muscles in reverse so a real challenge for your body. The worst thing that a follow can do is 'hang on' to a partner for support, rather than supporting themselves. 


Pilates will build your arm and shoulder strength for the frame and will improve your balance, flexibility, co-ordination and internal strength. Pilates will build your back and core muscles so that you can propel yourself backwards with elegance and not impede your lead.







Joseph Pilates set up his Pilates Dance Studio in New York in the early 1900's and worked with some very famous dancers:


Rudolph Van Laban


Mikhail Barinshnikov


Hanya Holm


George Balanchine.


Pilates adapted his Contrology Method to help injured dancers, reduce risk of further injury and help with rehabilitation. He quickly gained a reputation within the dance world. Pilates developed his eight principles that reflected the essence of what he was trying to achieve through his 'Method':






-The ability to focus on the movement or area of the body - a vital skill for dances.




Allowing breath to move wide and full into the back and the ribs increasing oxygen intake to propel the body. The ability to breath correctly certainly helps in fast dances like the Quickstep.




Creating strong core muscles around the centre of the body, developing the muscles in the back, maintaining good posture to support the arms and legs. These are vital for both followers and leaders.




Focusing on precision of movement and placement. Ballroom dancing is built on precise movements.




Each movement or exercise should flow into the next, making the movement appear effortless and graceful. There should be no pause from the transition of one movement to another.




Knowing where your body should be in time and space a vital skill on a busy dance floor.




Dancers can build their strength through repetitive movements and a lot of stamina is needed to do the Cha Cha Cha or the Viennese Waltz.


These Pilates Principles will compliment the instructions and corrections given by dance teachers within any genre of dance class.









Pilates exercises creates long, strong and lean muscles.


Pilates exercises means lifting your own body weight so that the muscles are developed in an even manner.


Pilates stretches muscles as well as strengthens.


Pilates creates a strong back and mid section,


Pilates exercises provide protection from injury.


Increases overall muscular strength.


Pilates can help create fluid, controlled motion and movement - ideal for dancers.


Pilates exercises gives greater flexibility.


Pilates improves balance and co-ordination - ideal for heel turns, dips and sways.


Pilates exercises builds the smaller muscles which support the hips, back, shoulders and knees so that the body is better supported.








"Dancers performed mat-based Pilates exercises for 11 weeks (2 sessions per week) - slowly performing three sets of eight repetitions of each exercise - increasing one rep each week until 12 were reached.


All dancers  who participated in the Pilates sessions increased their levels of muscular strength and flexibility.


The Pilates sessions, by continually engaging the abdomen muscles, hip flexors and gluteal muscles created muscular adaptation which contributed to a stronger core"




'Pilates technique for Improving Dancers Performance'  

Tanya Amorim and Matthew Wyou. Research Centre for Sport, Exercise and Performance, University of Wolverhampton 2014.







If you are considering taking up ballroom/Latin dance lessons then come along to one of my 'taster' classes or one-to-one Pilates sessions in my private studio. You will be amazed how much Pilates can enhance your ballroom dance skills and compliment your dance teacher's instructions and corrections.











































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