4 tips to travel further and more powerfully through space

The dancers in Abby Zbikowski’s Abby Z and the New Utility Company travel across the stage with such momentum, such explosive force, that it feels like a miracle when they are able to, on the verge of colliding with another or one to stop viewers.

Zbikowski’s rousing, highly athletic style is unique. But the need for dancers to be able to explode across the stage – “eat up the room,” as some teachers say – is not. Even with dance forms that focus on elegance or ease, the ability to travel farther and thus take up more space can lead to more exciting, dynamic performances.

But “eating up the space” can pose psychological challenges — sometimes dancers are asked to reject the socialization that encouraged them to do so fewer Space – as well as physical.

Change the way you think

If you’ve often been told to dance bigger, or find it difficult to keep up with the group during the traveling motion, it may be worth looking within and questioning the way you were trained. The world at large is teaching women and other marginalized identities to take up less space, Zbikowski says, and traditional studio culture often doesn’t address this in ways that would empower dancers to take up more space. She says that in her classes at Ohio State University, she often encounters students who are afraid to move with force and explosiveness or who have a psychological block. “You’re standing in front of this pretty image of what people think of as dance,” she says. “And that sometimes locks people in their bodies.”

Embracing the idea that, as Zbikowski says, “everyone has the right to take up as much space as possible in a dance studio,” isn’t as easy as flipping a switch. Know that like any new mode of transportation, this may feel unnatural at first, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong, she says.

use the ground

To travel powerfully through space, dancers need to feel connected to the floor so they can truly push off, says Ivalyo Alexiev, a faculty member at the Boston Ballet School. During his own dance career, Alexiev found that wearing barre in socks helped him understand his feet’s relationship to the floor, and he recommends dancers who normally dance in shoes experience the floor during barre in this way, when they are looking for more groundedness . Zbikowski agrees that utilizing the floor is key to explosive moves in any style: “The floor will help you get where you need to be, whether it’s up or down or outside or inside,” she says. “That connects us all.”

Connecting to the ground is key to traveling through space, says Ivalyo Alexiev, who teaches at the Boston Ballet School. Photo by Igor Burlak Photography, courtesy Boston Ballet.

Sportiness of the channel

A challenge for many dancers is breaking the space while maintaining the technique and artistry that the choreography requires. Zbikowski, whose approach focuses more on functionality and sensation than sculpting forms, suggests that dancers harness their power by allowing themselves (at least temporarily) to not care about what their movement looks like. For her, “dancer or athlete” is not a binary choice, and she encourages dancers not to erect a wall between dance technique and other types of movement. She helps her students channel athletics through an “attack/defense” exercise in which dancers band together and “defend their space” without touching. “You can’t let your partner pass you by,” she says. “To do those fast breakaways, you have to drop your weight to the ground and lever it in a certain direction. Putting people in such scenarios allows the body to break out of certain strict regimes and discover things for itself.”

Short dancers, fret not

Petite or short-legged dancers may feel at a disadvantage when it comes to traveling far and fast. But that’s not necessarily the case, says athletic trainer Lauren McIntyre. Small dancers actually have potential advantages, she says, like a lower center of gravity and the ability to turn their stride faster.

build strength

Learn how to prime your body for explosive movement, according to athletic trainer Lauren McIntyre, who works with dancers at NYU Langone Health’s Harkness Center for Dance Injuries

Sports trainer examining a dancer's foot
Lauren McIntyre. Courtesy of NYU Langone Health.

Refuel smart. To explode into space, your body must have carbs available to fuel that move, says McIntyre, who warns that a low-carb diet probably won’t help dancers develop more strength.

Train for the Force. Keep in mind that cardio, strength training, and resistance training are different, McIntyre says, and that most cross-training dancers already do is most likely more geared toward the former two. Plyometrics and HIIT can be useful for strength building, she says, as can lifting heavy weights to build muscle. She also recommends using slightly lighter weights — about 30 percent of your maximum load — but doing faster reps, especially during the concentric portion of the action (e.g., the “up” portion of a weighted squat). Before increasing the load or speed, make sure you are confident in your form.

Rest. Tired, overworked muscles will struggle to move explosively, says McIntyre, who cites a study showing speed decreases with fatigue. This can be difficult for dancers with demanding schedules, especially when incorporating cross-training like plyometrics, which can be key to building strength but requires adequate recovery time to reap the benefits. She suggests that when dancers add cross-training to their routine, they look at their schedule as a whole and where they can fit rest — even if it means cutting one less dance class per week.

Adjust your warm-up. If you’re performing choreography with large, explosive movements—especially if that movement comes early in the piece—make sure your warm-up includes activating the fast-twitch muscle fibers you need. In addition to dynamic stretches, foam rolling, and raising your heart rate, McIntyre recommends plyometric exercises — like butt kicks, high knees, or jumping jacks — to “get your engine revved up,” she says. “It’s about activating this metabolic pathway.”

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