Developing Feet and Legs for Dancing
22 Aug 2004
“CHECK OUT THOSE LEGS!!” by Bija Satterlee, published in Dancebeat, August, 2004
Who, in your opinion, has the best legs in the world? We are very spoiled in the ballroom; looking at fabulous feet and legs all the time, sometimes even perhaps taking their beauty for granted. Slavik, Karina, Jonathan, Katusha, to name just a few... all have classic dancer’s feet and legs. Enviable, mesmerizing, transcending technique yet built on technique, they are exquisite tools of the trade, and something aspiring dancers can work to achieve. Whether you are fond of women’s legs or men’s legs, there are certain qualities that command our attention: strength, suppleness, power, curves. And sexiness too, of course. Those legs produce almost animal-like movement, from the floor, through the body and extending into space. We’ve seen it, we love it, but how can WE get feet and legs like that?
Obviously, genetics plays a huge role in determining who gets the great legs. Some people seem born lucky. (Yulia Zagoruychenko has feet and legs seemingly from Heaven). Even without much training, someone with “just right” proportions and posture can stand up and look fairly decent on the floor. It is the TRAINING, however, that over many years time, develops mere potential into genius, and sculpts feet and legs to die for. While you are training to be the best dancer you can be, why not simultaneously develop your physical assets to their fullest? The ideal physical requirements may be slightly different for Standard and Latin, but basic physical soundness is required for success in both.
Three things you need are strength, control, and flexibility. There are countless exercises for the lower body, and many are great for dancing. Certainly, ballet training and pilates produce beautiful, fluid movement. These disciplines emphasize multiple-joint movement which translates well to ballroom dancing. However, we can also benefit from simple exercises which develop strength and control, that sculpt the legs and don’t leave you bulked up or stiff. With a balanced fitness program (cardio / strength / flexibility) your body should feel even more suited for dancing than before. In the case of some dancers, those hyperextended legs and ankles we drool over can actually be a liability. Excessive joint mobility without supportive strength can lead to injury and arthritis. Balancing strength with flexibility is even more important in their case.
GREAT EXERCISES FOR THE LOWER BODY
While heavier gym equipment does have its place, you can greatly benefit from using just your body weight to develop strength and coordination for dancing. Here are some of my favorite lower-body exercises, and ways to modify them. These should be done slowly, emphasizing control. Doing two sets of 12-20 repetitions of each exercise should build strength, and sculpt your muscles, without adding bulk. To increase intensity, add hand-held weights or go even more s-l-o-w-l-y. You should always warm up for 5-10 minutes first, with some light cardio. These are not intended to comprise a complete exercise routine.
• Wide Squats
Stand with your legs wider than shoulder-width apart, toes pointing out to the sides as far as comfortably possible. Hold a pair of dumbbells at your hips. Keeping your heels firmly planted, slowly bend your knees, dipping your butt until your thighs are nearly parallel to the floor. Pause, then slowly straighten your legs and squeeze your butt. Continue to rise up on the balls of your feet. Pause, then lower your heels back to start.
• Sit-Back Squats
Stand with a chair behind you. Sit far back into the chair ~ but don’t really sit down! When you’ve lowered, your thighs are parallel to the floor and knees over your toes. Do these sit-back squats with your abs pulled in and your chest up. Alternatively, you can stand sideways in a doorway, hold onto the frame, and “sit” back until your thighs are parallel to the floor. When you stand up again, squeeze your butt as hard as you can for a second or two. You can also do them one leg at a time, or stay in the ‘down’ position for two seconds before slowly coming up. You will be amazed how this shapes your thighs and derriere! Remember, you don’t see yourself from the back, but everyone else does!
Once you get the hang of squats, you can do them in the center of the floor, holding weights in your hands. For the more athletic dancer, do squats without weights, and jump up into the air as high as you can in between squats. This is a plyometric exercise, is somewhat explosive, and develops power. Only do this one day a week, and only if you are in very good shape, as there is more chance of injury with jumping. Do this in sneakers, not dance shoes!
• Lunges target your quads and gluteus in a slightly different way. Stand with feet far apart, one forward, the other back, feet parallel. You can use a step or stair (about 8-12” high) for your forward foot if you like. Keeping the feet parallel, bring the back heel off the floor to start. Bend both knees 90 degrees. You want to go down-and-up, not forward-and-back. Do them to fatigue on one side, then change feet. Or you can alternate feet with every lunge. Holding light weights helps you balance.
SPECIAL EXERCISE!! >> If you’re someone who cares about how your behind looks, this next exercise is for you!
• Dead Lifts
Stand up, holding light weights in both hands, in front of your thighs. Keeping your knees straight (but not locked) bend over until your hips are at a 90 degree angle, back flat and parallel to the floor. Let the weights hang straight down. You should feel a stretch in your hamstrings. Now contract your gluteus and hamstrings to stand up straight. Squeeze your gluteus at the top. If this does not challenge you enough, you can do a more intense version of this exercise. This one is a killer! Get ready for:
• One-Leg Dead Lifts
The same as Dead lifts, but done standing on one foot. Put one foot behind you on a chair (or ball), and holding lighter weights in front of your thighs, bend over, lowering the weights to shin-level. This exercise, if done correctly, should intensely target your high hamstring/glute area, even if you are only holding a water bottle in your hands. It also challenges your coordination and balance. Do 20 on each leg. (I’d love to hear from anyone who tries this exercise).
Now on to the lower leg. I love well-defined calves! They create a balanced look to the leg and when defined, are just plain sexy. Even if you wear trousers as a rule, you should train your calves, for your dancing sake. The main muscle is the gastrocnemius, which creates the shapely bulge in the back of the lower leg. Here’s my favorite exercise:
• Calf Raises
Stand on a step, weight on the balls of your feet, heels lowered down off the ledge. Rise up as high as you can onto the balls of your feet. Emphasize the contraction of the calf muscle at the top. Then let your heels down again for a stretch. Keep feet perfectly parallel, most of your weight on the inside edge of the balls (toward the big toe). Just use a fingertip for balance. Do 20 repetitions, going through the full range of motion. Do not hyperextend your knees or back. You can significantly intensify this exercise by doing them on one foot at a time. You will feel the burn! Be sure to stretch at the end by standing with your heels DOWN, letting the achilles tendon and calf muscles lengthen for a minute or more.
Many dancers produce rather vague footwork; it could be so much more beautiful, if only more attention were paid to strengthening the feet and ankles. Do these calf raises, focus on lowering slowly, especially on one foot. This will give you more control when lowering, such as coming out Promenade, (avoid the klunk), and give your standing leg more power when you push out of it. This is true for Latin as well as Standard.
If you do these exercises twice a week, you will notice better tone and definition in your legs and gluteus. You will enjoy new strength and coordination in your dancing. Remember, Champions leave nothing to chance, and you will be generously rewarded for developing your feet and legs. Because dance careers are not very long, and the competition is quite tough, you should use every tool you have available to you!