Perspective: Effective Cross Training for Dancers with Royal New Zealand Ballet Artist, Christian Renforth

Cover Photo: Christian Renforth, Courtesy of Cincinnati Ballet. Photo by Hiromi Platt

Cross training: What does it mean? How do we do it? Where and when do we even begin? According to the American Council on Exercise, cross training is typically defined as:

“An exercise regimen that uses several modes of training to develop a specific component of fitness.” 

These “components” depend on our individual goals and what we are looking to accomplish overall. Some of these components may be very targeted, such as strengthening our core to increase control in our dancing. Or they might be a bit broader. Think things like minimizing the risk of injury, creating a more well-rounded and physically capable body, or just trying to vary our exercises to support and strengthen our dancing.

So now that we know the benefits and purpose of cross training, how do we get started? With so many options out there, it's hard to know which form of training is best for each of us individually. Should I buy a yoga membership? Maybe I’ll join a rock-climbing gym. I’ve heard Pilates is helpful...

We sat down with Royal New Zealand Ballet Artist, Christian Renforth, to break down his self-aware approach to cross training as a professional ballet dancer. 

Christian Renforth, Artist with Royal New Zealand Ballet

Christian Renforth, Artist with Royal New Zealand Ballet.
Photo credit: Stephen A'Court.

For Renforth, it’s all about tailoring your cross training to fill the gaps of what you may not be getting during your dance day. “As a professional dancer, the repertoire I perform changes with each and every production, so the demands of my body may also be different for each role change.” 

For example, if you are working on a Bournonville ballet, it may be overkill to continuously focus on leg exercises at the gym, as Bournonville choreography is known for it’s demanding petite allegro and intricate footwork. “Being in tune with your body and knowing what your body needs (or doesn’t need) for that specific week can be more beneficial than following a rigid six week training program,” says Renforth. “If I’m doing a lot of partnering in rehearsals, I’ll do less weight lifting and maybe focus more on doing exercises with the Theraband to help create a healthy joint.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are times when more cross training is needed. “If I’m not doing as much dancing in a show like Giselle, for instance, that's going to change my cross training.”

While cross training is clearly a physical exertion, it can also include mental strengthening and awareness, as well.

“The key for dancers is making sure that you are in a healthy headspace to identify your weaknesses and approach them in a healthy way. Setting your ego aside is the real hidden art-form of cross training.”

This “art-form” is something that will allow us to diagnose our true needs, instead of just looking at cross training from an aesthetic standpoint. It is what will ultimately allow us to grow beyond just how we think we look in the mirror.

Christian Renforth
Christian Renforth, Courtesy of Cincinnati Ballet
Photo by Hiromi Platt

Christian is also sensitive to the complex relationship some dancers may have with exercise. "Routine for ballet dancers is very comforting. But, it can become a trap and even become unhealthy," he says. Making sure to maintain balance is as important as the training itself. While it may be enticing at first to push your body to its maximum, day in and day out even after long hours in the studio, this can become a detrimental habit over time. “When you get overwhelmed or try to do too much, you might end up just quitting everything altogether. Incorporating things here and there throughout your day to help strengthen either your weak muscles or the muscles that don't get as much attention will make you a more holistic individual.”

To do this, he’s found ways to sprinkle exercises into his daily routine, even inside the studio.

“When it comes to cross training, something that I've had to deconstruct is that I don’t have to go somewhere to do it. It doesn't have to be solely that standard image of cross training in the gym. Even just standing at the barre in parallel, doing sixteen slow calf raises while you're on the sidelines, in between barre and center, after class, or when it's a full company call and you have some down time. Just doing a few things here and there can be part of your cross training. Having the mentality of, "I can't do anything but ballet for six hours, and then I need to work out for another two hours afterwards," can be harmful.”

But when he is out of the studio, what’s one of Christian’s favorite ways to cross train? “I love spinning! My favorite form of cardio is being on the bike. It helps you work in a parallel range of motion by getting the joints moving consistently in that linear direction.” He also finds that it’s just as helpful for ballet as it is for contemporary. “Working in a turned in position is just as important as being turned out. Flexibility has been a blessing and a curse for me, and working in parallel helps me be able to control it all.”

Christian Renforth, Courtesy of Cincinnati Ballet Photo by Hiromi Platt
Christian Renforth, Courtesy of Cincinnati Ballet
Photo by Hiromi Platt

Another form of cross training Christian enjoys is Pilates. At Royal New Zealand Ballet, Pilates mat classes are offered twice a week before ballet class. “We also have a rotation of semi-private Pilates classes that are available, along with an optional hour-long ballet class during our lunch hour. So, if you don't have rehearsal you can take that class. Lots of young dancers, but also soloists and principals, will take it depending on what the day has in store.”

All in all, there is no one way to cross train. It is an individual endeavor that can - and should - change with you to meet the goals and demands of your body at any given point in time. And, cross training is not only physical. It can be an excellent opportunity for you to check in with yourself and ensure that your goals are coming from a place of function, rather than being solely aesthetically driven.

So, whether you are heading to the swimming pool after rehearsal or doing some relevés at the barre after class, always continue to reevaluate your body, your mind, and your goals for ultimate cross training success!

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