Use dancing to become a better climber

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For years, yoga has been touted as the panacea of ​​spiritual magic for climbing deficiencies. Is your body consciousness zero? Try yoga. Are you breathing badly? Yoga. Do you have the flexibility of an I-beam and the balance of a turnip? You guessed it: yoga.

The problem is that I hate yoga. I hate Spandex, sexy people, witty gibberish, awkward poses, all that stuff. At least once a year I read a new article promoting benefits for climbers and try again, thinking it will be different this time. I walk into the studio, with visions of myself doing the splits and circular breathing and sliding down the rock like a happy little Zen orangutan. Then, an hour later, I leave feeling unnerved by weird wrinkles on my back.

My more enlightened friends tell me it just means I need more yoga. I tell them they are wrong.

But then, at the start of 2022, I found myself coming out of a particularly grueling competitive ice climbing season. It was my first year competing on the European Cup circuit, and I put in dismal performances. Then the World Cup series was canceled thanks to a double of COVID and war (Russia, which invaded Ukraine in late February, was due to host at least two events).

By March I was tired, exhausted and my climbing progress had stalled. I knew the set had more to do with technique than strength. Sure, I could always hang on more, but that paled in comparison to my complete lack of body awareness and complete ignorance of where my hips were in space at any given moment. If I wanted to break my plateau, I had to deal with these issues first. I needed to try something new.

Yoga, of course, was out. I thought about it had to be something else – something that didn’t involve crawling on the floor next to half-naked strangers. Something that could teach me the sense of rhythm and how to move my body through space.

Then I came across a video of Adam Ondra does ballet. Sure. I thought. I’m going to try a dance class.

The ballet sounded lame—and I had a feeling my giant arms wouldn’t look good in a leotard—so I started looking at other options. Break dancing sounded cool, but I remembered I was trying to get out from my comfort zone. (As I had learned while bouldering, I was already good enough to repeatedly throw myself to the ground.) I needed something more subtle. So, I went for the most subtle and alien dance style I could think of.

I signed up for belly dancing.

For the uninitiated, belly dancing involves moving your hips, stomach, rib cage, and shoulders completely independently of each other. It’s weird, subtle, and stupid, and it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

After my first lesson, I almost cried. After my second, I almost gave up. After my fourth year, the teacher kept me after class to explain to me how music works. But, despite everything, I discovered that I had started having fun. It was fun to try something new. And it was fun to be so bad at something that I had no choice but to laugh at myself. Amid all the seriousness of the competition, it was a skill I had lost.

So I continued. Then I went to a swing dance class. I tried the aerial hoop (painful), and the aerial tissues (a little less painful). After a few months of dabbling, something started to click. I learned to point my toes and stop hunching my shoulders. I learned how to expand my hands without seeming to gasp for air.

The bristles have helped me improve my balance and strength (as pictured here), as well as my flexibility and overall body awareness. (Photo: Corey Buhay)

Then in May I took a rock climbing trip to Indian Creek. That’s when I noticed something was different.

For the first time, I felt like I knew exactly where my body was in space – what my toes were doing while I was busy with delicate ring locks, or how my heart was engaged when I changed corners. I was able to find a rhythm, both in my breathing and in my movements. For the first time, I felt…gracious.

The more I danced, the more improvement I saw. At the gym, I was suddenly able to solve my own bouldering failures instead of asking friends to do it for me. I started unlocking sequences faster than before.

I’m sure part of the credit goes to the physical benefits of dancing. After all, NFL players turned to ballet for years to hone their flexibility, balance and timing. Others claim the lateral movements of the dance help build resistance to knee and ankle injuries. But for me, the benefits of dancing were mostly psychological.

I had always been strong and flexible enough to be basically good at yoga. The dance was another story. By forcing myself out of my comfort zone, I finally started to get better at failure. I began to approach my failed attempts with curiosity instead of judgment and frustration. (This could be one of the reasons why dancing is so effective for reduce anxietyas good as stimulate memory and cognitive functions.) And unlike yoga, which is pretty slow and serious most of the time, dancing is a party. It is the physical expression of joy. I had forgotten that I used to feel that way about climbing too. Dancing helped me remember.

Of course, dancing won’t solve all your climbing problems, nor will any other cross-training method. But, in my experience, it has been an amazing way to dramatically improve my motor skills and learn to have fun again. Well, it sure is better than yoga.

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