Pilates and Dancers

Melissa Penn

Senior Instructor -- Equilibrium Pilates Studio & Cecchetti Instructor and Ballet Company Co-Director -- Main Stage Center for the Arts

A client recently asked me how I got started in Pilates. After 15 years of teaching it’s such an integral part of my life, I had to really stop and think about what brought me to this passion. My first love is ballet. As a young professional dancer, I was introduced to Pilates and the reformer in particular after a groin injury. My quick recovery and relatively short amount of down time made me fall in love with the method. Fast forward to my retirement from performing and I knew immediately that I wanted to bring Pilates to my future dance students. I chose Stott Pilates certification for its contemporary approach to the work of Joseph Pilates.

So, how does Stott Pilates apply to today’s dancers? A long time ago there was a belief that the only way to cross train for ballet was more ballet. You couldn’t swim, bike, or run because it would build the wrong type of muscles for the frail, waif-like look of a ballerina. Thankfully that archaic thought has come and gone and science and research have proven that dancers need to be strong and flexible in all ranges. Although I first encountered Pilates as a way to rehabilitate an injury, my goal as an instructor working with dancers is to help prevent injury in the first place.

As in many sports, overuse injuries are common in dancers who are training or performing intensively. A dancer’s body is pushed to extremes in class and rehearsal. They are always striving for more rotation, higher extension, and faster transitions. It’s important to take a step back and look at the opposing muscle groups. This is where Stott Pilates really shines! The Stott method utilizes bio-mechanical and medical research to achieve the optimal workout.

The various equipment and mat exercises are perfect for fixing muscle imbalances. Dancers’ legs are strong but the lateral rotators tend to be more developed than medial rotators. That imbalance could lead to disaster when put against the gravitational forces of landing from a jump. The rotational disks on the reformer are an excellent tool to help correct any weakened alignment in the hip, knee, and ankle. Working in parallel, medial, and shortened lateral rotation against spring tension will strengthen the smaller inner leg muscles and rotators. The disks provide clear visual cues if stability and symmetry is not maintained. Transition these exercises to the jump board to increase awareness in a low impact situation.

dancer melissa penn graebertDancers know their bodies very well. They know what “full out” means. They know how to push their bodies to the maximum. They push to that extreme in every class. Where they have trouble is pulling it back, or “reigning it in” so to speak. When I am training dancers, I don’t let them go to that maximum range. I encourage them to find the median, the middle ground, and it tends to be very uncomfortable for them. In this case, whether on the barrel, reformer, chair, or mat, Swan Dive can be a challenge. Dancers tend to have extremely flexible backs and they will automatically go into that deepest extension without thought of how they get there. I encourage my dancers to elongate their Swan position, making “space” in their lumbar. This helps them to more effectively engage their posterior chain and subsequently deepen their abdominal connections to maintain the position. Adding Grasshopper gives them a sense of choreography and flow.

My daughter Genevieve began dancing at a young age. She excelled early on and began Stott Pilates mat classes around the age of 12.  This training improved her alignment, strength and body awareness. At 15, she transferred to Canada’s National Ballet School continuing her training. After graduation, she has become the youngest company member of the National Ballet of Canada. Her Stott conditioning and excellent ballet technique have helped her achieve this goal and kept her virtually injury free. The grace and beauty that a dancer can bring to the exercises is a joy to see in the studio. It can be fun to challenge them with complex choreography and flowing transitions. I am truly blessed to be able to combine my two passions into one. The sense of accomplishment from seeing young artists grow in strength and awareness is something I’m thankful for every day.

Melissa Penn Graebert