Monday, August 31, 2015

On Deadlifts and Dance: An interview with Monika Volkmar of DanceStronger

I am very happy to share this interview with Monika Volkmar - Dancer, strength coach and author of the awesome upcoming DanceStronger book and workout program.


Monika Volkmar
K: Hello, who are you? :) Please tell me a bit more about yourself (in dance and life)

M: I’m super stoked to be featured on your blog, Khalida. On paper, I am a dancer, a strength and conditioning specialist, owner of The Dance Training Project, a Thai massage practitioner, and level 1 Neurokinetic Therapy practitioner. Really though, you can call me a movement nerd and dancer enhancer who enjoys spending free time riding her bicycle, doing yoga, and eating scones.

Through the DTP I am on a mission to show the dance world that yes, you can (and should!) become strong, and by being strong and moving well fundamentally you will feel incredible improvements in your dancing, while becoming free from pain and preventing injuries. Sounds pretty awesome, right? That’s because it is. Strong feels good.

But I wasn’t always this optimistic. I used to be in pain, was quite unhealthy, and pretty weak (mind and body). Then things went further downhill after a string of injuries that I never felt the need to get proper rehab for, and so had to stop dancing.

Fun fact about me: I briefly competed in French kickboxing (Savate). There is Youtube video of me fighting a girl. And losing. Just try to find it, I dare you.

K: How did you transition from the world of dance into the world of body work/health/strength mojo for dancers? What sparked your interest initially?

M: That’s a fantastic question. As I’ve already alluded to, I did not used to be the image of dancer mojo you point me out to be. I had cripplingly low self-esteem, I developed an eating disorder, I disconnected completely from pain signals (which would have been really helpful for preventing the ridiculous number of injuries I would eventually accumulate). While at university for dance I became extremely over-trained, I still continued to eat unhealthily, was in chronic pain daily (which I continued to ignore), was stressed out of control, not sleeping enough, getting injured but not resting or getting rehab, and generally hating my life.

Eventually, this all climaxed in the form of a gnarly hamstring strain that forced me to stop dancing. But like most devastating, identity-shattering obstacles, you learn from them and they become a catalyst for personal growth. The down-time I was forced to take from dancing allowed me to refocus my energy on something that was becoming more and more fascinating to me- Strength training, and how it could help me return to dance and help other dancers who needed it.

The one healthy thing I was doing throughout this period of overall negativity, was that I had become certified as a personal trainer and had begun strength training. Too bad I was so over-trained that the strength training was not highly effective. Oh well. I did see some improvements in my dancing, and so did my teachers. I was starting to feel stronger until the day I injured myself in a jazz warm-up, because I never warmed-up properly.

So to keep this story short, immediately after graduating I started the DTP as a summer program. Since then, I’ve continued to learn and develop my dancer-enhancer skills, writing the DTP blog and sharing what I’m learning along the way. It’s been a sweet ride, so far.

K: How did you come to write your first blog post on the now fabulously information-rich (and award-winning!) blog at ?

M: I did it because someone told me to.

I could stop there, because it’s as simple as that. My web/PR girl at the time was really interested in my mission, and said, “Yo Monika, you should be writing about this. It’ll be good for business, too”.

I never considered myself a writer. I’m really not very good at it. But I found that I had a lot of things to say, and really enjoyed the freedom of writing it exactly how I wanted to. I knew I should probably start to take it more seriously when a reader emailed me to tell me to stop with the profanities. The F-bombs in particular, so that she could share the articles with her students. At first I laughed, and then I decided that probably keeping things (mostly) PG wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Because I was learning as I went, my blog served (and still does serve) me mostly as a way to clarify my thoughts. If I could articulate my thoughts to an invisible audience, I knew I would be able to explain concepts and coach my clients better, too.

K: What are your own favorite blogs on bodywork/health for dancers?

M: In all honesty, I don’t follow that many dance-related blogs these days. I’ve been focusing more on output rather than input, meaning that I will read relatively little compared to the amount of experiential learning I try to do. Maybe read one concept, and then take that and run with it for a while. Mostly, my learning about movement and strength is coming directly from a few colleagues of mine who have taught me exercises that I experiment the crap out of. Knowledge is useless until you apply it, after all.

That said, these are a few blogs I often refer to when I need to clarify something or share it with my community (not necessarily dance-related, but human being related, so that includes you).

-Dr. Dooley Noted
-Stop Chasing Pain

And some other more dance-related ones by my internet friends that you should check out:  If you’re in the ballet/contemporary world  If you’re a breaker  If you do dancesport

K: Can you tell us a bit more about the new Dance Stronger program/book?

M: With pleasure :)

Dance Stronger started as a free 4 week program availble on my website. It was pretty ok. I got a reasonable amount of people emailing me to thank me for it, and that it was helping. And as the years went by, I realized that it really wasn’t my best work, and it got to the point where I felt deeply wrong about having it on my website knowing that I could do much, much better.

This past May I gathered a group of about 60 dancers online from all over the world, and they witnessed the re-creation of Dance Stronger version 2 (DS2). When I started, what I had in mind to do was simply re-shoot new videos and re-design the program with new exercises and structure. But then I realized there was so much that I felt dancers needed to know before started to ensure they actually got results. So of course I had to write a book to go with it.

Dance Stronger is essentially everything that I try to teach to a new dance client within the first month of us training together. It covers the most basic of the basics, and includes the tools I feel so essential to becoming the best dancer you can be, while reducing pain and injuries.

In the program itself you’ll find some fundamental concepts for training to improve movement quality and strength, everything you wanted to know about breathing, how to warm-up properly, how to use outcome measures to monitor your progress, the truth about core training, and then 4 weeks of training with complete video tutorials so you can immediately apply what you’ve been reading and integrate it into your life (application is key!).

I’ve been told that Dance Stronger is more like a lifestyle change than a 4 week training program. And that’s pretty awesome, because that’s how I feel about it, too. 

DanceStronger in action
K: What was the motivation for you to get started on this new version?

M: Oops, kind of already answered that. Cognitive dissonance. The last Dance Stronger was, pardon my language, pretty crappy. It made me feel bad inside to not update it. Also, someone told me to (same person who told me to start blogging as it happens), and apparently I’m easily persuaded to create stuff.

K: In what way does this program differ from the ‘old’ Dance Stronger program?

M: It’s different in a few ways, besides the overall improved quality, quantity of information, and exercise selection.

There is now a home program option that uses only bodyweight, bands, and optional resistance if you have the means. The choice of exercises are pretty different, too, as I already mentioned. The video quality is much better (I essentially coach you through each exercise as opposed to just showing it). There’s also a lot more emphasis on the concepts and “why” for choosing the exercises in the program, and explaining how things should feel, along with many opportunities to regress or progress exercises based on your current skill level.

Another exciting new part of the program is the online community you get to be a part of. We have a really inspiring private Facebook group where program participants ask questions, post about their successes and frustrations, and I get to help answer questions a little more quickly than through email.

And like I mentioned above, the new Dance Stronger asks you to take a good hard look at yourself, and to change your habitual ways of doing and thinking, thus changing your dancing (and probably the way you live your life).

The new Dance Stronger is the exact metamorphosis, written step by step, that I have experienced over the years I’ve been trying to “rebuild” myself to dance better, stronger, and with less pain.

K: What do you hope it will achieve?

M: I’m hoping Dance Stronger will accomplish a few things:

1) Give dancers a tool to help them start a sensible cross-training program. One that isn’t just crunches and stretching.
2) To give dance teachers a tool to start to integrate some movement and strength exercises into their classes (Dance Stronger is actually in the process of being transmogrified into a class for dance teachers in London, Ontario with help from my colleague Bizz Varty, who you’ll remember from her popular SI Joint Whisperer blog posts).
3) To emphasize the need for dancers to change their mindsets as it relates to stretching, core training, lifting weights, restorative exercise, and best-practices in general.

Like I mentioned above, Dance Stronger describes the changes you will need to make if you want your body not to hate you when you’re 30, or like me, have to stop dancing at 22, with worse hips than my mother’s.

K: What were your findings/experiences about the DS2 trial run this summer? Were there any things that surprised you? And/or surprised you not?

M: The best part of the trial run was getting to “know” the awesome people in it! Everyone in the trial group is amazingly hard working and dedicated to the experience, even though I was totally winging it and creating as I went. I was so great to be getting immediate feedback on what was working, what wasn’t, and which ideas were just plain awful (there were some…).

The most surprising thing was that people were actually getting some crazy awesome results! I was expecting some people to say, “These are cool exercises but I don’t feel any different”, or “Monika, this sucks”, or, because most of the exercises in the program are deceivingly simple, I was expecting people to say it was too easy and boring.

But no. Many people were getting great results just from the breathing and prep week alone. So that was amazing. And I didn’t have to face my biggest fear- That Dance Stronger would be a total failure. I’m also surprised and so excited about how active the online community is on our Facebook group. I feel like I’ve really gotten to know the most active members of the page, and so many of them have gone above and beyond giving me feedback on the exercises, helping me to edit the chapters, and even give me financial advice. Hilarious and amazing. I feel truly grateful to these wonderful people (that includes YOU Khalida).

K: Who do you think would benefit most from the new program/book information?

M: There are 3 main types of people who will appreciate Dance Stronger:

1) Dancers who HAVEN’T been injured yet. Why? Because Dance Stronger will help them prevent injuries and not have to go through all the hell that I went through. Dancers that are smart will use DS2 as a preventative program, to help them get strong so they can not only improve their dancing immediately, but not get hurt in the future.
2) Dancers who have already been injured, are struggling to get their bodies back into dancing shape, and are losing hope (thinking they may have to soon stop for good). Like I mentioned already, DS is the exact metamorphosis I’ve achieved for myself to bring me back to dancing pain-free, from chronic pain and a string of injuries, and I think these dancers (or non-dancers) will benefit the most.
3) Dance teachers who are looking for some tools for their students, or are interested in adding in some extra strength training exercises into their classes. So many teachers settle for crunches as their foundation of cross-training exercises, but you shouldn’t! I hope that dance teachers will use DS not only to help themselves but to help their students.

Above all, Dance Stronger is for people who want a change in the way their body feels on a daily basis, dancer or not. If you think you’re perfect already, and that everything you’re doing is totally sustainable for the rest of your dance career, then DS is probably not the program for you. But if you know you need to do something different and you’re not sure how to start or what to do, then DS2 will absolutely be something that helps you on your journey to better dancing.

K: What is the best advice on (dance) health you’ve ever received? 
M: Wow that’s a tough question. There have been so many small bits of advice that on their own haven’t been “the best”, but together have helped me realize what I should be focusing my energies on.

The best guidance I’ve been given for training actually came from my favourite Yoga teacher, who now lives in India. He always said, “Find the relaxation within the struggle”. At the time, I was thinking “Is he out of his mind”… But this I now something I encourage my students to do as well. This guidance has stuck with me through all aspects of life, yoga, training, and dance.
Acknowledge the struggle, work at the edge of your abilities, but try to also find the part of the movement or position that isn’t a struggle, that you can focus on to make it a bit more bearable.

Good advice for dance, movement, and life. 

K: Thank you very much Monika for your extensive and open-hearted replies

Monika in action

PS: See for the latest updates on Monika's upcoming book and movement program. 

For all you blog readers: Use code KHALIDAROCKS to get a special nice lil' bonus on the page

Dance Stronger - The Book

Also: Check out this blog post (scroll all the way down) for my experiences in being part of the trial version the past few months:

Happy reading!

x K. 

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