Taking Time Off...
First, Remember Why You Train
The purpose of training is to repeat a skill again and again, properly, until it becomes automatic and refined. So, it should come as no surprise that taking time off and sustaining your ability and strength as a dancer (or an athlete) is a mutually conflicting condition.
The masters can take time off and get back to their level of skill sooner because they have already invested thousands of hours into their training over the span of many years. The masters also work with a team of experts to achieve their ability, and keep it.
So, what if you are in a place in your life where you are taking weeks, or months, or years, off from training? What then?
This article will provide a summary of the brain-body connection to remind us why training is so important. It will then reveal different training methods that may be used to help you stay connected and conditioned to movement while you are absent from training in the studio.
Please note that these training methods cannot (and should not) replace regular ongoing dance classes, and these training methods must be lead by qualified individuals who have acquired the proper knowledge and practice that allows them to facilitate these practices safely and effectively.
Neurophysiologic Principles, and Skeletal Muscles
“Neurophysiologic” is the physiology (how it works) of the nervous system, and skeletal muscles are part of the mechanical system. Our mechanical system moves our muscles, but it is our brain that sends the signal to the muscles when we want our bodies to move. This is the process of training when it comes to dance.
Therefore, when you hear the term “muscle memory” it is important to acknowledge what is really happening: we choose a movement (the choice starts in our brain), and our muscles move with effort in accordance to that choice. Our muscles perform refined movement only because they have been conditioned over time, and on purpose. We have learned, and then practiced, how to move our bodies in the exact angle, pattern, and speed that creates our movement in dance. Our brains have been trained to accept dance terms and assign meaning to them, and then connect those meanings to movement.
I argue that, on this level, there is no such thing as taking long periods of time off from training and believing that muscle memory will help you pick up where you left off. The truth is that you will lose skill dramatically when you stop training prior to investing enough practice hours into your ability.
The Law of Facilitation
I often talk to my dancers about this neurologic principle to encourage them to train right the first time, and to realize that slow and steady wins the race.
The law of facilitation is the path that is blazed between thought, choice, and movement. How the movement is repeated (practiced) will determine the ongoing movement in the future (potential).
Realizing this should change the way parents and students view dance training. It should also help teachers understand why they need to break down dance movement and technique into its fundamental form, and then build from that place while teaching.
The law of facilitation should also help explain the importance of prioritizing training over results. The human body needs to learn all structured movement in dance, and this takes time because there are many things happening at once such as cognitive processes, balance, spatial awareness, critical thinking, recall, alignment and placement, timing, comprehension... (this list is not exhaustive).
Without proper training and proper practice, the dancer is not able to perform any particular dance style well, period. Creative movement is useful in its own right, physically and neurologically, but it will not refine a dancer’s ability or teach a dancer how to dance.
Muscle Memory is a Thing, but it is Not Everything
Here is where the law of facilitation helps or hurts the dancer, and I will provide two scenarios.
Scenario No. 1: the dancer learns and repeats (practices) technique over time, correctly, and expands their dance vocabulary over time. This dancer’s movement will grow in complexity and become polished over time. Eventually, this dancer will be able to go into and come out of transitional movement with ease and exceptional skill. Movement will become instinctive, like a reflex, and the body will advance with confidence and ease.
This scenario is not so much muscle memory as it is the result of proper training, proper practice, and a conscious commitment to improving over time. It takes many hours to get close to this level, and taking long and/or frequent absences from training prior to reaching this level will slow development and possibly cause a significant reversal of what skills were acquired up to that point.
Scenario No. 2: the dancer learns and practices incorrectly, misses steps, skips levels, and acquires bad habits as a result of poor practicing, which is a result of less training. For this dancer, the mistakes picked up will be fused into their movement. This dancer will be unable to accurately perform movement sequences, and will struggle greatly with movement that is more complex.
To refine dance movement and add complexities, the dancer must have the patience to go through the process of learning, which requires more than muscle memory; it requires self-discipline, attention, use of language, critical thinking... the list goes on when it comes to how we learn skills and what is required to become proficient.
I want to say a few words about curriculums. In college, you have classes within subjects that require cumulative knowledge. You learn in a sequence: Biology 101, 102, 201, 202... and you cannot skip a course to enter a higher level without proving your knowledge via a placement exam, or learning (class time) and evaluation (exams). If a college student took a semester off, or a year off, from attending classes, would we assume that this same student could enter a higher level class? If they skipped weeks of classes, would we expect them to have the same knowledge and understanding of the subject matter as the person with excellent attendance? The same applies to dance.
Curriculums are designed to provide knowledge and specific skills in stages. The information is cumulative on purpose. Different curriculums in ballet, modern, or jazz will train different details in arm placement, head placement, torso placement, and artistic style even though all curriculums support the same fundamental techniques.
Ancillary Training Programs
Ancillary programs for the dancer help bridge the gap in strength and neurological pathways that may be missing otherwise, and work very much like how cross-training works for the athlete. Since the intention of these programs is to create and sustain a strong physical environment within the body, and the success of these programs rely upon the concept of muscle memory, it only makes sense that ancillary programs be developed and lead by qualified individuals .
It is important to note that ancillary programs cannot and should not replace regular dance classes. Dance technique and performance is not trained into the body via ancillary training programs. It is only trained into the body by attending classes that focus is on developing the dancer over time.
Types of Ancillary Programs
Progressing Ballet Technique is an ancillary training program founded by Marie Walton-Mahon, who worked alongside a team of physiotherapists while putting this program together. Physiotherapists abroad are equivalent to Physical Therapists and Certified Athletic Trainers in the United States, and these professionals spend years in school, attend specific hours of required practicums, then sit for a three-hour licensing exam, and attend additional classes every few years to maintain their license. These professionals oftentimes move on attain advanced degrees as well. And, although Certified Athletic Trainers and Physical Therapists have been working with dancers and dance companies for more than 25 years, it is nice to see an ancillary program designed to support ballet dancers, specifically.
A brief summary about the founder of PBT and ballet curriculums: Marie Walton-Mahon trained under the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) curriculum, and passed all exams including Honors and Advanced in the early 1970s. She continued her ballet training in France where she was offered a professional contract, and then segued into teaching the RAD curriculum and acting in the capacity of dance examiner. Ballet schools, and professionals like Marie Walton-Mahon, use a codified ballet curriculum with strong technical training, performance studies, and exams. Students must prove their proficiency and knowledge before they are allowed to move up to the next level. The program that Marie Walton-Mahon founded, is to be used in addition to the students' regular ballet classes, and in addition to their regular technical training, which is continuous throughout the year.
Interval Training, Flexibility Training, and Plyometrics are also excellent ancillary programs that can help maintain the neuromuscular performance of the body while away from dance class. These training methods must be lead by a qualified professional (certified through an accredited training program, or degreed/licensed) because there is potential for injury should these methods be performed incorrectly.
Interval training develops strength, speed, and muscular endurance. This is an excellent way to train if you are a dancer who is attending fewer classes toward the end or the year, taking the summer off (drop-in classes do not count), decreasing classes for a few months, or missing more than three weeks from regularly scheduled dance training throughout the year. Interval training can be developed to suit each individual or suit a particular training session, and is offered at many community centers and gyms.
Flexibility training is intended to increase the range of motion within a joint over a period of time. Certified Yoga instructors and their students understand that it may take six months to more than a year of regular classes to realize the full range of motion within a joint. We should have the same timeframe in mind when it comes to dance especially if the activity of stretching is not practiced often, or if the practice of stretching is not taught effectively.
So, why so long for flexibility? The process of increasing flexibility requires a desensitization that comes with elongation of a muscle thanks to the Golgi Tendon Organ (more on that in a future article). Find a certified professional who understands this, and you will experience a greater range of motion and freedom in your movement.
A word of caution: be careful of the "overstretch", especially when props such as yoga blocks or (gasp) stairs or a chair are used in splits... there are a lot of images and videos on social media where people are using props to stretch beyond a joint's typical range of motion. I cannot say whether this is good or bad for those individuals, but I can say that I would not recommend stretching beyond a normal range of motion for your joints. Be sure to work with professionals who know what they are doing, and will incorporate symmetrical training into your program.
Plyometrics is a training method that a dance teacher will only mention, and perhaps try to use, if they have a friend who has trained in sports, or if they have a friend who is a certified professional who trains athletes. Plyometrics is a training method that improves the connection between the brain and the muscles and develops quick bursts of action, which gives the dancer speed and power. This is an advanced form of physical training and must be lead by a qualified professional.
With regards to interval training and plyometrics, the person leading these methods must be proficient in identifying improper body mechanics as well as fatigue. Dancers are not wired to slow down if they feel fatigue or pain, and yet fatigue and pain lead to poor body mechanics, which leads to injury. Be sure to find a certified professional to train with in all of these methods.
Move When Young, Move Better When Old
There is now another wonderful reason to keep up with your training (or movement, or ancillary programs), and it is found in the results of a study that contains science-backed evidence!
A study released in January 2019 provides very strong evidence that the myonuclei within the muscle tissue retains its ability to be conditioned back to where it was after time off from training. This finding, and the study's interpretation, suggests that the physical activities during childhood up through teen years correlates to lesser chance of weakness and frailty during old age, and a greater chance of movement throughout a lifetime.
With the rise of childhood obesity and diabetes, and now evidence that links physical activity to a higher quality of life throughout the lifetime of a human and into old age, it is important to include dance (or some form of movement) into your child’s life. There are dance classes in every community, there are fitness professionals too, and it is affordable. There are exercise apps, YouTube videos (be careful to make sure the video host is qualified), and there are DVDs available.
And do not worry if you didn’t move much as a young child, teenager, or adult. Starting is what matters. Muscular and cardiovascular endurance is in its potential state at all times, and all you need to do is a little bit every day. One more plug for movement and why we need to move: movement helps regulate our hormones (insulin and epinephrine are hormones, and dopamine is a neurohormone!) and our hormones control cellular function. In short, movement is good!
Mindset over Matter
We spend a lot of time in the bigger picture where our goals and dreams are, and we forget about the daily habits, physical efforts, and mindsets that get us to our goals and dreams.
Consistent and proper training in the dance studio is required to learn correctly and to attain the success story we all want. Therefore, seek professionals who not only know what they are doing, but also know how to get you to your goals; then attend classes regularly. And, when you have to take time off from attending dance classes, remember the alternatives that will help your body and mind stay conditioned.