Any form of dancing requires muscles to be used in various ways. Often we try to get those muscles to do things they are simply not used to, which can lead to strain or injury. Here’s a handy guide to help you prepare your muscles for ballroom dancing.
Understanding which muscles are used when dancing with a partner, and how to train them for the work they have to do, helps make your dancing look effortless and with better technique. Before beginning any exercise routine, make sure to consult with a doctor and work with an expert to determine what your body can safely handle.
The frame is a key element used by both partners to create the upper body shape in ballroom dancing. In the Latin, Rhythm and Smooth dances the frame is slightly further away from the partner but moves dynamically at all times. In the Ballroom dances, the frame holds the partner with elevated arms and open chest. A number of key muscles are used to create and maintain a strong frame.
Core muscles include the abdominal muscles (Rectus Abdominis and Transversus Abdominis). To some extent includes the muscles that surround the abs (Obliques), but we’ll discuss those later. Without a strong core you won’t have good posture and you won’t be able to create powerful forward or back movement, since the frame depends on the core to hold steady during such movement. Pull your belly button in towards the spine and lift the rib cage to engage the core.
To strengthen your core, do exercises such as Crunches, Side Bridge, Oblique Heel Touches, Leg Raises, Flutter Kicks and Mountain Climbers.
The Pectoralis Majors are the muscles that cover the upper area of the rib cage. These are critical for maintaining good posture and for stretching effectively in the Ballroom dances.
To strengthen your Pecs, great exercises are Pull Ups, Push Ups, Bench Press and Flys.
Traps and Lats
The Trapezius muscles connect the back of the neck to your shoulder blades. The Latissimus Dorsi muscles connect the shoulder blades to your hips. These are used to keep your arms in position when they are raised up. When these are strong, you can hold your arms level with less effort or fatigue, and you can keep your shoulders from rising up or hunching forward. In Latin, Rhythm and Smooth, you will engage the Lats as you extend your arms to the sides, as the action begins in the back and then extends to the elbow and finally to the hand. It’s similar to how you throw a Frisbee.
To strengthen these muscles, use exercises such as Pull Ups, Pulldowns, Bent Over Row, T-Bar Row and Seated Row.
Shoulder muscles include the Deltoids, Infraspinatus and Teres, which all work together to help you elevate your arms while keeping your shoulders level.
To strengthen your shoulders, use Arm Raises with light dumbbells, Rear Delt Row, Shoulder Shrugs, Upright Row and, of course, the Overhead Press. Be careful with the latter as you can easily damage your shoulders by exceeding the weight they can handle. Use very light weights to determine what they can handle to avoid rotator cuff injury. Also, make sure you work both the front, middle and back parts of the shoulder for balanced shoulder ability. Many people just do one shoulder exercise which only works one part of this complex muscle.
The legs are the dancer’s main action tools so when these are strong you have more power and better leg action potential in your dancing. As I’ve written about in a previous post, ballroom dancing is based on walking actions, so you need to strengthen the muscles used for walking. These include the following:
Quads and Hamstrings
The Quadriceps are actually a reference to a bundle of several vertical muscles that run down the front of your legs. These include the Vastus Lateralis, Vastus Medialis, Rectus Femoris and others that work together to create forward and back leg action. These muscles are necessary to lift or bend the knee. Do a movement such as a man’s Contra Check and hold it for a long time to quickly feel exactly where these muscles live.
Hamstrings is a common name for another bundle of muscles that run down the back of the upper leg. These include the Adductor Magnus, Biceps Femoris and Semitendinosus. As the Quads in front engage, the Hamstrings assist as partners to balance the use of your leg for walking, running or bending the knee.
To work these muscles, use exercises such as Step Ups, Lunges, Back Squats (careful with these!), Deadlifts and Leg Presses. Leg Curls are good for the Hamstrings. We don’t recommend Leg Extensions, even though you find those machines in every gym, as these can easily cause damage.
Officially referred to as the Gastrocnemius, the Calf Muscles are vital for creating rise and fall action and for proper leg action in the Latin and Rhythm dances. Well developed calves not only look great, but will make your actions look light and easy, especially in fast dances like Quickstep and Jive. The calves are the main tools for allowing you to push away from the standing leg while creating a grounded look that pushes down into the floor to keep you stable.
To exercise the calf muscles, do Calf Raises which can easily be done on any staircase just by placing the heels past the edge of the stair and lifting yourself up and down.
The feet have muscles too! Without the Flexor Digitorum Brevis that run along the bottom of your foot, you would not be able to flex your foot. One way to strengthen your feet is to walk on uneven surfaces with flexible soled shoes like Vibram Toe Shoes which protect your feet but force those muscles to constantly flex and work to create stability. These muscles are also engaged when you do Calf Raises.
Another group of muscles that are critical for good dancing are those used to help the body twist around the spine. Without rotation your dancing would look flat and lifeless, and you would be unable to keep your center connected to your partner in the Ballroom dances.
There are both internal and external Obliques, which are strong muscles connecting the front of your body to the back. As you contract one side, your body will twist in that direction. Some dances, such as Tango, require a lot of highly engaged used of the Obliques to keep your center to your partner while maintaining the movement in a different direction. Figures such as the Chase and Fallaway Whisk maximize the availability of your Obliques. If these are not strong, your ability to do those figures is impacted.
To work the Obliques, do twisting core exercises like Russian Twists, Side-to-Side Crunches and Side Bridge.
Though not actually a muscle, this long band of connective tissue, also referred to as the IT Band, runs from your hip to the knee along the outside of your leg. This includes the Tensor Fascia, which is the upper third of the band.
This muscle is located directly under the IT Band, and allows the leg to swing to the side. It is essential in creating a strong swing action in dances like the Waltz, Viennese Waltz, Foxtrot and Quickstep.
Side Lunges are a great way to strengthen the IT Band and Vastus. Make sure to do a lot of stretching as well, including Hip Flexor stretches so that your workouts, which contract these muscles, are balanced by stretching which releases and expands the muscle’s movement ability.
Adductor and Abductor
The Adductor is located on the inside of the thigh, while the Abductor is on the upper outside of the thigh. These work together, opposing each other, to allow the legs to move sideways. While many gyms contain machines especially designed to strengthen these muscles, it is generally accepted that they are not very effective. The best way to strengthen these muscles is through actual dance movement, especially lunge type lines including the Oversway, Throwaway Oversway and Spanish Drag.