This past March Valerie Harper was given only 3 months to live, and now, her doctors say she is close to remission. So what do you do after beating Cancer!? You sign up for the most grueling, life altering, inspirational experience on television, also known as Dancing With The Stars.
With her professional partner Tristan MacManus, the 74 year old star has set her sights on the mirror ball trophy, and that will require a skill set she hasn’t used since she started her career as a Broadway dancer. But her decision isn’t “one last hurrah” or a “dying wish”, the American Cancer Society has reported, that exercise is generally encouraged for patients with cancer. By stimulating your body, mind and emotions with activities such as dancing, you can help reduce your symptoms and improve your quality of life. So in addition to be being a celebration, joining the cast of the show is just good medicine.
One of the key components to her success, and to any physical activity regime, is to first get in shape to avoid injuries. I like to say you have to get in shape, to get in shape. With only 4 weeks practice before the first show, that’s not a lot of time. Here’s how I think she should do it:
One of the greatest concerns for Valerie while learning, adapting and performing her many new dance routines is the risk of injuries. She was a dancer in her 20’s and can tap into some of that muscle memory, grace, and musicality, but her body will have to regain the strength and flexibility required to keep up the pace.
Valerie will need to be flexible, strong, balanced and focused with the variety of dance moves needed for each competition. The endurance and stamina portion of her physical training will need to be daily to avoid fatigue, mistakes and injuries. So what exactly does she need to do?
Let’s talk dance.
The Jive dance requires sharp, quick and accelerated moves. You need strong ankles, legs and proper trunk posture to maintain balance and accuracy with timing. Strengthening and flexibility exercises for the calf muscle can be performed with Calf raises and Calf stretching. Also, standing with the Stork Stance, positioning one leg out to the side, and the Hip Extension exercise, will provide additionally support and stability for the ankle .
The Quickstep dance is fast paced with fancy footwork and requires proper timing which only practice can accomplish with a partner. Additionally, to assist with her fast pace dance is controlled breathing. Efficient breathing with exercises can be trained to create a relaxed foundation for strenuous activities. Fast pace Marching in Place exercises with a specific breathing routine improves efficiency and lessens fatigue. Focused breathing with exercising consists of breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. Seated Leg Press with an elastic band provides a variable resistance to increase your effort, while focusing on breathing. Creative fast footwork exercises can be practiced through Heel-Toe Walking for balance and coordination to avoid tripping.
The Latin dances requires a mobile pelvis and hip motion which can be conditioned in the swimming pool, while focusing on leg kicks for hip or buttocks strengthening.
Flexibility exercises for the hamstrings can be performed with a Hamstring stretch and needs to be added to the warm up. Strengthening of the buttocks and legs can be performed with the single leg Stork Stance using an elastic band for upper extremity, buttocks and trunk strengthening. Wall squats with an exercise band provides leg and hip strength, when sliding up and down the wall at a continuous slow or fast pace. Hip Out exercises are to be performed seated using a resistive band to strengthen standing side-to-side hip movements.
The Rumba dance is very precise and requires accurate movements with the core and the trunk to avoid an increase in low back pain. A mobile trunk is essential to any Rumba routine. During the dance warm up, seated Trunk Flexion and Standing Trunk Extension exercises are to be performed. Trunk stretches increase mobility at the spinal joint segments, as well as, flexibility for the ligaments and muscles. Conditioning the trunk for stresses associated with extension movements can be found in Backwards Walking exercises. Trunk balance and coordination is improved with a backwards walking exercise because the focus is not to fall.
The Tango dance has very specific movement patterns which consist of slow and fast combinations, requiring proper balance in the legs and trunk. And in the Argentine Tango, the lifts and tosses make balance upon landing crucial. Trunk balance and leg strengthening go hand in hand. To be able to land and be balanced, you have to increase your leg strength while maintaining postural alignment. The Stand Stork , Standing Squats and Heel –Toe Walk exercises incorporate an upright posture while being challenged in balance with weight shifting maneuvers. Repetitive training with these exercises will provide muscle memory for landing balance and support of your knees, hips and ankles.
The overall strategy of slowly developing dance legs and muscle strength through practice will improve strength, flexibility, balance and posture. The exercises listed above for strength, flexibility, balance and posture can be combined to cross train for most dance routines. Most importantly, anytime an unusual, new or different dance movement is perform then always look for dance specific exercises to properly condition to avoid injuries.
All of these dance styles will require Valerie to develop and maintain proper postural strength and body mechanics when moving to avoid injuries. At 74 years of age, to protect her joints, she can focus on not overextending her knees and back. Muscle memory responses in her routine will automatically kick in with practice so she can repeat steps, turns and tight execution moves with ease. The muscle conditioning she receives with hours of training will not only improve her timing and sensory awareness of where she needs to be, but also prevent injuries. Rest, ice, and proper warm ups and cool downs will aid her body to overcome the stresses of the arduous training.
Dance practice not only includes learning new styles and techniques, but also what to wear. The most important aspect of her wardrobe are the SHOES. Dancing with high heels is always a challenge. DWTS shoes need to be functional and supportive for the ankles while not giving away performance. The lower the heel, the more stable the body and the more stable the body the more perfected the performance. Based on past rehearsal footage from previous seasons, most celebrities choose to wear low comfortable shoes while learning the moves, and then transition to the shoes they will perform in.
I know Valerie has a great instructor in Tristan MacManus, to focus her on proper technique, timing and advice to listen to her body. Remember, the body doesn’t lie to you. The fastest way to injury is to override the body’s natural signals and try to work through the pain.
We’ve gone over the mechanics of what Valerie needs to bring to the dance floor to win. But she has a secret weapon to use to her advantage. Valerie brings the greatest gift to everyone who tunes in to watch. She has a passion, intensity and focus that allows her to follow her dream of never giving up, no matter what the obstacle. Life is about living each moment and her spirit and tenacity is refreshing to everyone who follows her. Focus with your heart and see with your eyes because where your focus goes, your energy flows.