Asian Music and Dance

Fitness – What does it have to do with performance in South Asian dance forms?

At the Navadisha conference in Birmingham last summer, the subject of fitness in dance was raised. It’s a subject often associated with contemporary and ballet dance, but if classical ballet companies have now embraced fitness and conditioning, how might this also benefit South Asian dance?

“…the need to…reduce the risk of injury is imperative.”

With the ever-increasing demands of choreography across all genres of dance, the need to train to meet these demands and reduce the risk of injury is imperative. Ballet and contemporary dancers have reported injury rates of 80 per cent, with the highest number of injuries relating to the lower body, ankles and knees. The perceived cause of these injuries was predominantly from overwork, fatigue and recurrence of old injuries. Based on anecdotal observation the common sites of injury are mirrored within South Asian styles such as kathak and bharatanatyam, with pronated feet and internally-rotated femurs (inward-pointed knees) a familiar problem among dancers.

“…the onset of fatigue can be delayed through a high level of physical fitness.”

As the body begins to fatigue through a performance, the precision of movement is reduced, movement patterns are disrupted and risk of injury is increased. These can affect the aesthetics of the dance and the overall performance; however, the onset of fatigue can be delayed through a high level of physical fitness.

“A lot of injuries happen…when the dancer is too tired.”

Within other classical forms such as ballet there was initially resistance to fitness training outside the dance studio. In an interview for the Independent, ex-Royal Ballet dancer Deborah Bull noted: “A lot of injuries happen at six o’clock when the dancer is too tired. Some injuries are just bad luck; others are the result of having to, or choosing to, work when something is painful.” 

“Sometimes the stage looks like a running track before the show.”

Despite reservations from other classical ballet colleagues, Deborah began a training regime including running (aerobic training) and short bursts of exercise such as sprinting (anaerobic training) to prepare for the demands of performance. “They used to laugh at me…but some of them would say ‘Why aren’t you tired, where does your strength come from?’ and gradually there was a lot more jogging going on. Sometimes the stage looks like a running track before the show.”

Helen Laws of One Dance UK recently discussed the challenges of managing fitness and health in dancers. Health professionals, dance companies and individual dancers actually all want the same thing: to be able to create the most inspiring, moving, energetic, exhilarating performance while maintaining the health of the dancers. 

“Dance training…has traditionally focused on technique with little consideration for stamina.”

Research has demonstrated that dance class alone does not produce a significant change in levels of fitness, notably in aerobic capacity and strength. Dance training, in all forms, has traditionally focused on technique with little consideration for stamina.

Each dance genre, and within that, each piece of choreography ‒ classical or contemporary ‒ makes different demands on the body: repetitive movement, changes in dynamic movement, control of fast and slow movement, as well as speed and power. Therefore ensuring the body is at peak fitness, encompassing muscular power, strength and endurance, flexibility, aerobic and anaerobic capacity, is important, not only to reduce the risk of injury, but to be able to perform to the optimal potential with the grace, beauty and inspiring physicality associated with dance.

How does this relate to South Asian dance?

Kathak, for example, sharing roots with flamenco, can involve short bursts of high-intensity movement, with percussive movements of the legs and feet, fast spins, and expressive movements of the upper body. An additional physical demand for kathak dancers is the weight of 2.5kg of brass bells around the ankles to complement rhythmic patterns with the bare feet striking rapidly upon the floor with an average of 240 steps per minute. Bharatanatyam and kuchipudi also use high-intensity movement, but with added deep pliés as a key movement characteristic. Alongside this, as one of the most important elements of South Asian choreography, nritya – classical dance with abhinaya (expression) – requires physical control and balance of the body, while nritta (pure dance) requires endurance and stamina to perform dynamic movement over long periods of time.

“Choreographers…demanded a new physicality…”

Training for the demands of performance is key across all dance genres. Choreographers have often stretched the traditions of kathak to attract today’s audience by fusing traditional movement vocabulary with contemporary dance; this has demanded a new physicality from their dancers and introduced a greater range of movement and flexibility. The same is true of other classical dance forms such as ballet, where boundaries have been challenged through collaboration with choreographers from other dance genres.

“…importance of a warm-up and then cool-down after intense dance activity…”

Furthermore, the importance of a warm-up and then cool-down after intense dance activity cannot be understated, as discussed in a preliminary investigation with kathak dancers looking at cool-down after intense dance activity. An abrupt end to exercise can contribute to muscle soreness and cramping. This is where cool-down is important as a vital aspect of training, by allowing the heart rate to reduce gradually, allowing the blood to be redistributed throughout the body and replenish muscle energy levels. The results of the kathak dance study suggest that an active cool-down consisting of light jogging and slowed down kathak-specific movements, conducted for a duration of fifteen minutes at an intensity of 60 to 70 per cent of maximum heart rate, is optimal following intense kathak dance activity (90 per cent of heart rate max). Passive (seated) recovery resulted in a rapid decline in heart rate and should be avoided after intense dance activity. During this study recovery/cool-down was monitored through readings of heart rate and blood lactate levels. 

“…what…would help you perform…one extra chakkar, ending in a stoic pose…”

Although there is currently little dance medicine and science research within the South Asian dance genres, the first steps to investigating these demands have begun and are key to ensuring the continued health and wellbeing of dancers and the longevity of their dance careers. Working alongside leading dance medicine and science researchers and advocates, we would encourage South Asian dance artists to explore these components of fitness: what aspects would help you perform to your optimal potential? – to perform one extra chakkar, ending in a stoic pose; to make sharper movements, or to maintain balance and stability as you perform slow, graceful movements in vilambit laya (slow speed) while sustaining the stage presence for which you have trained hard. This is a young topic in dance science for which a collaborative communication between dance educators and dancers is required to fill the gaps in knowledge and to create an awareness of the physicality of these art forms. 

Dancers can help dance science understand the demands of South Asian dance and dance science can help dancers to create more beautiful, inspiring performances. 

This article has been written on behalf of Akademi, National Institute of Dance Medicine and Science and One Dance UK. Claire Farmer MSc is Interim Manager of the National Institute of Dance Medicine and Science at One Dance UK and Dance Well Project Officer at Akademi. Seema de Jorge-Chopra MSc is a Dance Science Graduate Intern, kathak disciple of Shri Abhay Shankar Mishra, kathak educator and conditioning coach.

Further resources




Cited articles 

Ambegaonkar, J., Caswell, S., Winchester, J., Caswell, A. & Andre, M. (2012), ‘Upper-body muscular endurance in female university-level modern dancers: A pilot study’, Journal of Dance Medicine & Science, 16(1), pp.3‒7. 

Andersen, J.C. (2005), ‘Stretching before and after exercise: Effect on muscle soreness and injury risk’, Journal of Athletic Training, 40, p.218. 

Castillo-Lopez et al (2014), ‘Metatarsal Pain and Plantar Hyperkeratosis in the Forefeet of Female Professional Flamenco Dancers’, Medical Problems of Performing Artists, 29 (4), pp.193‒7. 

Chopra, S. & Needham-Beck, S. (2015), ‘Effects of active and passive cool-down protocols on recovery following intensive Kathak dance and footwork’, MSc Dance Science thesis, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, London. 

Daly, E. (1996), ‘I would have been anorexic if I’d had the willpower’, the Independent, 23 October. Available at http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/i-would-have-been-anorexic-if-id-had-the-willpower-1359863.html 

Herbert, R.D. & Gabriel, M. (2002), ‘Effects of stretching before and after exercising on muscle soreness and risk of injury: systematic review’, British Medical Journal, 325(7362), p.468. 

Koutedakis, Y., Cross, V. & Sharp, N. (1996), ‘Strength training in male ballet dancers’, Impulse: International Journal of Dance Science, Medicine & Education, 4(3), pp.210–19. 

Koutedakis, Y. & Jamurtas, A. (2004), ‘The dancer as a performing athlete: physiological considerations’, Sports Medicine, 34(10), pp.651‒61. 

Laws, H. (2006), Fit to Dance 2: Report of the Second National Inquiry Into Dancers’ Health and Injury in the UK, England: Dance UK. 

Laws, H. (2016), ‘How do we cut down on dance injuries?’, The Stage, 14 April. Available at https://www.thestage.co.uk/opinion/2016/helen-laws-how-do-we-cut-down-on-dance-injuries 

Laws, H., Marsh, C. & Wyon, M. (2012), ‘Warming up and cooling down’, England, Dance UK. 

McEldowney, K., Hopper, L., Etlin-Stein, H. & Redding, E. (2013), ‘Fatigue Effects on Quadriceps and Hamstrings Activation in Dancers Performing Drop Landings’, Journal of Dance Medicine and Science, 17(3), pp.109‒14. 

Olsen, O., Sjøhaug, M., Van Beekvelt, M. & Mork, P.J. (2012), ‘The effect of warm-up and cool-down exercise on delayed Onset Muscle Soreness in the Quadriceps Muscle: a Randomized Controlled Trial’, Journal of Human Kinetics, 35(1). 

Philips, M. (2013), ‘Becoming the floor/breaking the floor: Experiencing the Kathak-Flamenco connection’, Ethnomusicology, 57(3), pp.396‒427. 

Redding, E., Weller, P., Ehrenberg, S., Irvine, S., Quin, E., Rafferty, S., Cox, C. & Wyon, M. (2009), ‘The development of a high intensity dance performance fitness test’, Journal of Dance Medicine & Science, 13(1), pp.3‒9. 

Rodrigues-Kraus, J., Kraus, M. & Reischak-Oliveira, A. (2015), ‘Cardiorespiratory considerations in dance: from classes to performances’, Journal of Dance Medicine and Science, 19(3), pp.91‒102. 



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