Dancers as Athletes

Lisa Giannone is the founder and owner of Active Care, a physical therapy and sports rehabilitation clinic located in San Francisco. Giannone is a physical therapist and biomechanical specialist with a particular focus on sports rehabilitation and training. She is a member of the SF Ballet Health and Wellness teamed headed by Supervising Physician Dr. Richard Gibbs and serves as the rehabilitation and conditioning specialist for SF Ballet.

How did you get your start with professional athletes?
In the 1990s the San Francisco 49ers brought me in to consult on a rehab issue that became tricky and had a slow recovery. I was successful and quickly became known as a problem solver for multiple, “high stake” rehab cases. I went on to write a protocol and several progressions that the NFL and university training rooms use today. I’ve worked with NFL teams across the country including: the US Olympic Decathlon team, gold medalist Dan O’Brien, Stanford sports, the USA Basketball Women’s National Team, the Golden State Warriors, as well as boxers Andre Ward, Andre Berto, and Robert Guerrero. Yuri Possokhov was the first SF ballet dancer I worked with over 16 years ago. Now, on any given day, you are likely to find SF Ballet dancers training, fine-tuning, and rehabbing at Active Care.

How do you see dancers as athletes?
Working with dancers sparked an initial discussion around seeing them as athletes. My training and understanding of how motion affects bodies helped me realize that it doesn’t matter if I’m working with a football player or a dancer, the issues are similar, if not the same.

Think about it: just like training for a marathon, the Olympics, or a championship game, SF Ballet’s season is an event—a challenge that you have to train for. The nuance in prepping and training is in the details. You can’t just jump into CrossFit or run up a mountain. You have to figure out how to train these particular bodies to have them ready for the load they’ll have in the season. Activating precise muscle action and cardiovascular and muscular stamina is a big thing I work with the dancers on. Training, durability, and sustainability without beating up their joints is key.

How have you found dancers to be similar to NFL players?
Dancers and football players bring higher skill level to the party. Both sets have high responsiveness to cues. I can make an adjustment, say something, or cue in a certain way, and they respond precisely. Their determination and the “you can’t beat me” sort of approach is very similar.

It’s interesting to see the mutual respect for one another when they’re training side by side at Active Care. The athletes will look at the dancers working out and say, “What they’re capable of is crazy!” They have huge respect watching the dancers use their bodies with such high precision and apparent ease.

In many ways, lots of actions can be similar between dancers and football players. You can take any discipline, study it, break it down, and define the right type of work for whatever their needs are, whether it’s wearing pointe shoes on stage or throwing a football.

What is unique about dancers’ athletic abilities?
With dancers it’s not so much about big force production. They are not hitting, pushing, tackling, or making forceful contact. The biggest force they generally have to carry and move is their own body weight. It’s their body weight that must be accelerated across a stage, spun repetitively, and held in long and elegant positions. A dancer’s game is about control through a range, not just brute force. For dancers, it’s more about how they’re using a smaller amount of force precisely to control and create beautiful movement.

What’s your one piece of advice for someone looking to enhance their own workout?
Properly holding one’s body weight in a squat position can turn on so many key areas of the body. It can work your hips, glutes, quads, and core and is an incredible performance-enhancing event. I have another upper body postural core exercise that’s very powerful. But you have to come to class at The Garage, Active Care’s performance, training, and injury prevention center, to see for yourself!