Pilates as a Conditioning Method for Dancers

Contributed by Markella Kefallonitou 

The Pilates method is nowadays widely known for the benefits it offers on core stability, postural alignment and correction as well as strength. While Joe Pilates was creating this method in the early 1900s he was influenced from different forms of exercising and one of them was dance. He studied a variety of dance techniques and he was influenced from some of the most famous modern and classical dance choreographers.

There are 6 principles Joe Pilates based his work on: control, breath, precision, centre, concentration, and flow. These principles are very common with the qualities and values of dance training. Pilates has been a favourite conditioning method for dancers for a long time because it gives the same detailed work of fine control movement as required in dance. Dancers work extremely hard to achieve demanding positions with their body. Refined movement skills along with core strength and flexibility can help them to achieve their goals.

Dancers using Pilates can work on generic core stability and strength as well as very dance specific skills on the mat and the Pilates equipment (Reformer, Cadillac, Wunda Chair). The adaptability of the Pilates equipment makes them versatile to tailor the exercises to the dancers’ needs. The use of the equipment helps dancers to receive “feedback” in the body to achieve dance positions and challenges them to stabilise as well as move at the same time.

Dancers naturally have a lot of flexibility but some times lack in strength to support the joints in the extreme ranges. It is very important they are very strong to support their joints and avoid the risk of injury. The apparatus provides a wide variety of resistance to strengthen and challenge the muscles in the all ranges of movement and teaches dancers how to control the body maintaining flexibility.

Working in a demanding environment, dancers often work long hours and repeat the same choreography multiple times within the day or week. This repetitive nature of dance training can potentially cause muscular imbalances in the body. The dancers may not identify these imbalances unless they are challenged. In Pilates we can train dancers in a unilateral (use of one side of the body) way to notice possible imbalances, but also to correct postural deviations, strengthen the weaker side and improve balance in the body. Muscular balance is vital for better mechanics in the body and for injury prevention.

Jumping is an important part of dance training. Dancers spend a large amount of time jumping in the dance studio, trying to perfect their position in the air and the height of their jump. The Reformer is a fantastic piece of equipment to train jumps, to refine all aspects of a jump (preparation, jumping, landing) and to strengthen specifically the ankle and foot. The BASI Systems Reformer has the unique characteristic of a wider and longer frame providing a lot of space for dancers but particularly tall dancers to jump using the jumpboard. Also the BASI Systems jumpboard is wider and provides a great platform for more complex jumps.

BASI Systems Reformer Jump Board

The BASI Systems Wunda Chair is also a wonderful piece of equipment offering a wider platform to stand on and to train the leg positions during a jump. Using the upright poles, a dancer can press upward and suspend in the air while performing various leg positions in the air having the “extra” time to apply corrections without worrying about landing quickly on the floor.

BASI Systems Wunda Chair

Apart from performance enhancement, Pilates is a valuable tool for dancers during and after an injury. Physiotherapists use Pilates as a conditioning tool to strengthen dancers while they recover, either strengthening gradually the injured site or working on the entire body to avoid muscle weakness while the dancer is off dance. The versatility of the apparatus and the mat exercises offers a great variety of options to tailor the exercise program according to the dancer’s limitations at a given time. Using supine, side lying, prone and sitting positions on the equipment can help dancers maintain and improve muscle strength and technique returning safely to dance feeling stronger.

As a former dancer, I have used Pilates during my dance training and it was a valuable tool both during recovery and as a conditioning method to improve my performance. Overall, it gives a great insight of the body for better understanding of the anatomy and biomechanics of movement which is crucial for every dancer.

BASI Systems Spine Corrector with F2 System

Markella Kefallonitou holds a BA degree in Dance Education, an MSc in Dance Science and a Certificate of Accomplishment in Cunningham Technique. She is a qualified Pilates instructor through BASI Pilates. Markella works at the Royal Ballet School and The Pilates Clinic in London. She is BASI Pilates Faculty member teaching the BASI Global Comprehensive Program and the BASI workshop “The Foot - our base of support” focusing on foot strength and mobility.  She offers dance-specific Pilates workshops. She is an Onassis Foundation Scholar.

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