What Valerie Harper Needs To Do To Win Dancing With The Stars Season 17

By Bill Case | In Ballroom, Fall Prevention, General Health | on September 11, 2013

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.

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-Physical Therapist 32 yrs. with 19 years in private practice -University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston,TX. - Bachelor of Science in Physical Therapy- 1982 -Post graduate Sports Physical Therapy Specialist --1987 -Inventor: Diagonal Rotary Patterning Machine, Patent 1988 -Lecture: on orthopedic injuries-nationally and internationally -Co-author: for SPORTS PHYSICAL THERAPY -Writer: for The Physician and Sportsmedicine, Self, Men's Health, Fitness and Prevention magazines

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14 Comments to "What Valerie Harper Needs To Do To Win Dancing With The Stars Season 17"

  • Adryenn Ashley says:

    September 11, 2013 at 2:46 am -

    You know what a big fan I am of Dancing With the Stars, but having Valerie on the show is an even bigger deal. Not only is she an icon for the boomers, but she shows that you if you choose to live every moment, you get rewarded with more moments. I love that she is doing the show, at age 74 and with Brain Cancer. She’s an inspiration. If she can do this, at that age, and in her condition, there’s no reason for anyone to stay on the couch! (except to watch the show! Couch sitting is allowed for that!)

    1. theshaynee says:

      January 16, 2014 at 7:49 pm -

      True! It makes me ashamed of how lazy I am most of the time. I’m close to 50 years younger than her and healthy. I literally have no excuses left after watching her.
      So inspiring!

  • Nicole DeAvilla says:

    September 11, 2013 at 4:58 am -

    Bill – you clearly have some dance background in addition to all of your PT and exercise expertise! As a Yoga Therapist and Dance Major in college I completely agree with you that injury prevention is KEY for a successful run at DWTS. I hope that Valerie will be able to do your workouts!

  • Heather Frey @SmashFit says:

    September 11, 2013 at 3:15 pm -

    My favorite line “Life is about living each moment and her spirit and tenacity is refreshing to everyone who follows her.” Never give up and alway keep moving… my motto. I’d love to see Valerie on the show to inspire people of all ages!

  • Joani Plenty says:

    September 12, 2013 at 9:33 pm -

    Wow! Just…wow. I had no idea when I was told to “check out this link”, that what I was about to read would be packed full of information that I’ve actually been looking for, all in one place. I am a former hip-hop dancer and I dream of getting back to dancing just for fun but I have a fear of injury and know that I don’t have the endurance that I used to have. I even recently took a class (I stress “A” as in one single, never-again, class) in breakdancing (how hard can it be, right?). Well, you’ll be glad to know that it WORKED! I broke my thumb! It was actually just a bad sprain but I’m still not able to bend it fully and don’t think that I ever will again. I also liked what you said about not ignoring your body and trying to work through the pain. A few months after learning the “Thumb-break dance”, I pinched a nerve in my back trying to learn choreography on YouTube. I wouldn’t go to the ER, I told my husband that it should pass in a few days…it’s not THAT serious. His reply: “Having to crawl on all fours to the bathroom is a LITTLE serious.”

    But during this time, I mentioned on Facebook that I planned to take a hip-hop class. Come to find out…I wasn’t the only one interested and definitely not the only one fearful or hesitant. It’s been a long time since we’ve had gym class. But everything out there seemed to be for the younger age groups that haven’t had a break in physical activity since leaving high school and/or just teach choreography. Choreography isn’t my issue at age 41 (well, maybe a little…I don’t think the running man is making a come-back any time soon). I need to build strength, endurance and a work on a few things that I hadn’t thought of first (what you mentioned about breathing techniques was great, Bill)! Without everything that you mentioned above, I just don’t think that the older crowd (or ANYONE who is just out of shape regardless of age) would feel comfortable/confident about adding the fun physical activities that we once loved to our routines. Thank you so much for breaking it down FULLY so that I no longer have to question what I need to do and why. Also, for choosing the inspirational Valerie Harper as your example. How inspiring! If she can do it…I can do it!! *reaches for Olivia Newton-John album and hand weights*

    1. Keep Fit and Moving Team says:

      September 12, 2013 at 11:57 pm -

      Thank you Joani! Your excitement is contagious! We wish you the best of luck with your journey back to dance and let us know if there is anything we can do to help!

  • bonyi says:

    October 29, 2013 at 10:47 am -

    Valerie’s passion is something many out there should copy. I’m glad about her passion for dancing to the point of never giving up. Wow! What an example to emulate.

  • JoanMcWench says:

    November 14, 2013 at 3:31 pm -

    Valerie Harper looks amazing for seventy four years old. Just amazing. Her story is inspiring to everyone who knows anything about it. I love her to pieces.
    Dancing is a fun way to exercise. Nothing like putting a spin on something repetitious that encourages you to want to take part in it more often. Music should be a partner in any fitness regime and this is a perfect combination of those things. I love the suggestions, Bill. Bringing up footwear is an aspect so important and so overlooked. Sometimes it has to be about more than looking good.

  • charlee felice says:

    November 25, 2013 at 11:40 pm -

    I am amazed by each detailed posture, move, and exertion that you have magnificently explained in this article. For Valerie, it will be also an emotional accomplishment, along with the physical benefits. I applaud your delicate approach to such a great personality.

  • theshaynee says:

    January 13, 2014 at 7:45 pm -

    I really cannot imagine how much that took out of her. She was so graceful, though. I loved watching her. Even though I was Team Bill and Emma, she was definitely one of my favorites. I was sad to see her go. She always had a bright smile on her face and never complained. There are people much young and not sick at all that wouldn’t stop whining about how hard that was. She took it all with a grin. I knew when she left that she needed the break. But I was really sad to see her go. It was really inspiring for everyone. And there was a lot of emotion when she was saying goodbye to all the other contestants. You could tell they all loved her too.

  • Sandro says:

    January 18, 2014 at 6:15 pm -

    She really was great and a pleasure to watch! It was very sad when she had to go because she always was so positive. And yeah, I totally loved the fact that she didn’t complain at all although the whole experience must have been very hard on her. I think every other contestant had something to learn from her while she was on the show.

  • GemmaRowlands says:

    July 29, 2015 at 5:10 pm -

    I find people like Valerie absolutely inspirational, because it just goes to show that sometimes, even though you genuinely think that life might be over for you, the truth is far from that. It is only the beginning for many people! During the show, I loved the way that she always had a smile on her face, no matter what people said to her, she was able to find the positive side of it. I hope that I am like that at her age. She should be very proud of her achievements, especially after thinking that she may not be here to achieve them.

  • ohserena says:

    August 20, 2015 at 1:46 pm -

    I know the blog posting is a few years old but even though she didn’t win, she was a huge inspiration to senior citizens…heck to everyone. She won the battle with cancer and then danced her heart out. Valarie Harper is a phenomenal woman and I pray she is able to get through her latest health scare.

  • Celerian says:

    October 5, 2015 at 3:31 pm -

    What an inspirational person, more people should aspire to follow her path

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