Building a Healthy Dance Training Schedule
by Sugarfoot Therapy
Dr. Nick Cutri, PT, DPT, CSCS, FAFS, Dr. Traci Ferguson, PT, DPT, and Katie Schaar
One of the most meaningful ways a dance teacher and/or dance parent can help young dancers succeed is to develop a training schedule that will enable them to progress towards their dance goals while maintaining physical, mental, and emotional wellness. Building a schedule for your dancer or for your studio is no easy feat. It is a balancing act influenced by school schedules, family schedules, teachers’ availability, space restrictions, etc. Our hope is to provide some clear guidelines that can help you put dancers’ wellness at the forefront of these many factors. Be warned, these guidelines may suggest that your dancers spend significantly less time training. So we invite you to be open-minded and consider the many positive impacts that could come from following these guidelines.
A Complete Injury Mitigation Program
As Physical Therapists who work with high-level athletes, including many professional and competitive dancers, we are passionate about movement. It is our professional mission to best understand how dancers move and how we can apply our expertise in biomechanics to help them accomplish their goals, whether that is successfully rehabbing an injury or improving physical performance with strength and conditioning programs. But we would be remiss if we did not consider several other critical components to a healthy training and injury mitigation program.
Proper nutrition, proper sleep and rest, and proper training volumes are paramount. As medical practitioners treating dance athletes, we find that we discuss these components with nearly all of our dancer patients. The truth is, a successful physical therapy program relies on these three other components. Piling more physical training (even if it is cross-training designed to reduce risk for injury) on top of an already jam-packed schedule can actually have adverse effects. Before a body can fully benefit from a strength and conditioning program, that body must be well rested, well fed, and not over-trained. There are many qualified nutrition experts (many of whom have contributed to this blog!) who have provided excellent resources about nutrition for dancers. So let’s talk about the other two components, which go hand in hand…Proper Sleep/Rest and Proper Training Volumes.
The Importance of Sleep
Your body needs sleep to repair and regenerate tissue, and to prevent overuse injuries. Mileewski et al’s study found that adolescent athletes who got less than 8 hours of sleep/night were 1.7 times more likely to get injured than those athletes who got more than 8 hours of sleep/night. Even more striking…athletes who reported 6 hours of sleep/night showed 4 times more injuries than athletes who reported 9 hours of sleep/night. So step 1 is to make sure your dancers are getting enough sleep.
Another consideration: when an increase in training load occurs simultaneously with a decrease in sleep, the risk for injury is at its highest. Think about how often this occurs for young dancers. For example, maybe a dancer goes to a summer intensive. They might go from training 15 hours/week to training 40 hours per week. Plus, they might be staying up late socializing and getting less sleep than normal. Their risk for injury is significantly heightened. And we commonly have dancers come to us for Physical Therapy for injuries incurred in this exact scenario.
Another example: your studio has its first competition of the season coming up in a few weeks. This means hours of additional rehearsals. Maybe you add 4-8 hours of weekend rehearsals to finish that one piece? Maybe your dancers are staying an hour longer on weeknights to finish cleaning another piece? If you are adding these hours of rehearsals on top of their regular weekly class schedule, they will likely make up this time by sacrificing sleep and rest. Plus competition season usually starts in the middle of the Fall academic semester, which means young dancers have a higher workload at school (with midterm exams, papers due, etc.). So between school and dance, they are being asked to put in significantly more time. For competitive dancers with a full schedule, the only place they can possibly find this additional time is by taking it from their Sleep/Rest schedule.
As the adults who guide their schedule, it is our responsibility to not leave it up to them to figure out where to make up this time. Young dancers do not have the life experience to make decisive actions that prioritize sleep. We must consistently check in to make sure they are getting at least 8 hours of sleep/night, and we must take direct actions to adapt their training schedules to enable them to get this amount of sleep.
Key Takeaway: Youth and adolescent dancers need to get at least 8 hours of sleep per night. This is not going to just happen on its own. It is the responsibility of the dancers’ parental guardians and dance teachers to make this a priority.
Proper Training Volumes
Health and safety first. Let’s talk real numbers:
Sports medicine researchers at the Loyola University Medical Center and Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago studied 1,206 athletes, ages 8-18, who were given physical exams for sports injuries between 2010 and 2013. They found that young athletes participating in more hours of sports per week than their number of age in years were 70% more likely to incur serious overuse injuries (requiring 6 months or longer for full recovery) than other types of injuries. Given their findings, the clear advice for youth athletes is that they should not train more hours per week than their number of age in years. So 8 year-olds should train no more than 8 hours per week; 16 year-olds should train no more than 16 hours per week. The results of this study are an important reminder that keeping a child healthy and injury-free far outweighs any perceived competitive advantage derived from excessive training. There can be exceptions to the training hours/age rule, but these exceptions should be taken very seriously and should usually seek the guidance of a pediatric sports medicine practitioner.
To stick to these numbers, you might have fewer regular weekly classes on the schedule than you had previously. And remember, this weekly number should include some time for cross-training. Finally, you should be willing and able to adapt the schedule from week to week to accommodate non-regular occurrences like competition preparation. Adhering to this rule might mean you prepare fewer competition pieces because it is impossible to rehearse a certain number of pieces and maintain safe training volumes. It might also mean you cancel some classes in the weeks leading up to and following a convention weekend. Or maybe you spend that class time with alternative lesson plans, such as meditation or dance history!
When less is more:
Beyond the reasons for injury mitigation, less physical training often leads to better quality training and therefore better progress with both technical skill and artistry (i.e. movement quality, emotional passion for expression through dance). Dance schools could benefit from adopting some important lessons that have come to light in the research of youth sports. In the realm of sports, evidence shows that quality of training is more important than quantity (i.e. more time). Adopting the principal of periodization in sports, we can deduce that no dancer can work at high physical intensity all the time and still make gains in technique and physical performance. Consider a competitive team of adolescent dancers that goes from a 90-minute advanced ballet class, straight into a 90-minute advanced jazz technique class, straight into a high-intensity 2-hour rehearsal for a competition “Contemporary” piece. This is a fairly common weeknight for many adolescent dancers. This schedule facilitates 5 straight hours of very similar movements at the same high-intensity level the whole time. This is a recipe for overuse injuries, mental exhaustion, and emotional burnout, and ultimately can prevent the dancer from achieving the many benefits of dance. A healthier schedule might be one of those technique classes (ballet or jazz), followed by a 30-minute meal/rest break, followed by the 2-hour competition piece rehearsal.
Maintaining a healthy schedule relies on a collaborative team of dance teachers who work together. Too often each teacher conducts their class or rehearsals with little or no regard for what the other teachers are doing. Dancers’ schedules need to be organized so that all teachers and choreographers know what their colleagues are doing in their respective classes; and the company director or studio owner needs to take the lead in establishing a collaborative and adaptive environment. We must be willing to change our lesson plan, our rehearsal plan, or the weekly schedule to make sure our dancers are getting the rest and the diversity of movement they need to stay healthy.
Design a schedule that enables your dancers to be fully present in each class and practice quality training every time they step into the studio. If a dancer is working on a specific skill, do not just hammer the skill over and over. Instead, try performing cross-training exercises that will better facilitate the skill; then practice the actual skill only as long as the dancer is inspired and excited about it, and has not reached fatigue; once fatigued, watch a video with the dancer to identify successes and shortcomings in their attempts; and then make sure the dancer has adequate time to rest before practicing the skill again.
Key Takeaway: Youth and adolescent dancers should not train more hours per week than their number of age in years. Dancers should not have back to back high-intensity classes/rehearsals. A high-intensity class should be followed by a scheduled rest period. If a rest period is not possible, the high-intensity class should be followed by a low-intensity class, and ideally a different dance style.
Milewski, Matthew & Skaggs, David & Bishop, Gregory & Pace, J & Ibrahim, David & Wren, Tishya & Barzdukas, Audrius. (2014). Chronic Lack of Sleep is Associated With Increased Sports Injuries in Adolescent Athletes. Journal of pediatric orthopedics. 34. 129-133. 10.1097/BPO.0000000000000151.
Pasulka, Jacqueline & Jayanthi, Neeru & McCann, Ashley & Dugas, Lara & LaBella, Cynthia. (2017). Specialization patterns across various youth sports and relationship to injury risk. The Physician and sportsmedicine. 45. 10.1080/00913847.2017.1313077.
Wyon, Matthew. Preparing to perform: periodization and dance. Journal of Dance Medicine and Science. 14(2):67-72, January 2010.