You head to your first dance team practice, ready to nail your fouettés and switch-leaps—only to be asked to demonstrate your headsprings and rubberbands. Yikes! You're embarrassed that you're behind the acrobatic abilities of the older girls, and scared to ask for help.
Just as pirouettes and leaps require diligent practice, acro tricks need weeks, or even months, before you get the hang of them. We spoke with three college dance team coaches to find out what dancers can do to master these critical skills.
Strengthen and Stretch
How should you prepare your body for acro? "The core is a great place to start," says The Ohio State University head coach Melissa McGhee. "Kip-ups and headsprings require a flexible back and a strong core. And aerials require toned glutes and quads—the leg push-off is your momentum."
McGhee suggests high-intensity interval training, or circuit training, to improve your overall strength. Towson University head choreographer and technique coach Laura King varies her dancers' workouts for each practice, from kickboxing to barre exercises, with a special focus on leg power. "Squat jumps will help you find the correct spring for acro," she says. "I also focus on chassés because the push from plié through full pointe integrates every single leg muscle."
The Carolina Girls performing at the 2015 NDA Collegiate Dance Championship (photo by Varisty/Courtesy the Lewis family)
It might not be intuitive, but flexibility is just as important for acro work. San Diego State University's head coach Kaitlin Collins finds that dancers are often lacking in shoulder and back flexibility, which is critical for back walkovers and handsprings. "I have my girls start with their backs to a wall, reach back to touch it, then walk down the wall to their bridge and walk back up," she says—an exercise that improves back, shoulder and core flexibility.
Break It Down
If you're having trouble coordinating a trick, slow it down. Think about each of its essential components in sequence. "My team was landing their headsprings with knees either turned in or turned out, so we practiced each part separately," King says. "First we worked on entering the trick, determining exactly how to put the head on the ground; then we lifted to a pike position; then we added the flip over." While dancers may be used to landing tricks by rolling through the foot, Collins has her dancers land their headsprings flat-footed, with hips high, which creates greater stability. "Wear a light workout sneaker to absorb the impact," Collins advises.
Use a Friend—or Many!
Sometimes, your coach won't have time for one-on-one attention in practice. Ask if you can reserve additional practice time for yourself in the studio, then find an older member of the team, such as a captain, who can help you master the difficult skills. "If you're trying a new trick, always have an experienced spotter with you and perform it on a mat," Collins says.
Front and back walkovers are great tricks to perfect with friends. King suggests trying a front walkover into a lift, or a back walkover out of one, to really understand your hip and shoulder alignment. Having extra hands on you helps you control your momentum and guides you out of your back walkover gently, so you can feel more comfortable when practicing one on your own.
A version of this story appeared in the April 2017 issue of Dance Spirit.