Author: Mary Roberts
As competition season is well under way, and visions of Nationals dance through young competitors’ dreams, now is also the time to really focus on healthy movement practices. Even as dancers tap in to deeper emotions, the physical expectations placed on young dancers can be very high. Expectations come from many sources, but ultimately the dancer’s own body is affected, either positively by reaching new heights of potential, or negatively in injury.
As a commercial dancer, and then as a dance educator, I saw patterns of dysfunction in myself, and other dancers. I worked through a number of injuries and then shared the best of what I learned with my students. Dysfunctional movement patterns can be corrected when dancers know the best, most efficient ways to do so.
Would you like to achieve more turns consistently? Perform emotionally with abs of steel and no lower back pain? Battement higher and with more control?
Then check out three main areas I’ve focused on and how you can not only correct common dysfunctional patterns, but also be your best “performance you” this competition season!
First, dancers with weakened neck muscles will have slower spots and more difficulty achieving consistency turning and even balancing. There are a number of articles out there on the subject of full neck rolls and in each, allowing the head to knock backwards is shown to have many negative side effects.
However, here are some great online resources. In Olga Kabel’s article for Yoga For Your Body, she explains the problem with full neck rolls:
“When you move your head back beyond the point of just looking up, you can put pressure on the vertebral arteries and with that reduce the blood flow to the brain. The situation gets worse if the arteries are clogged. The result – dizziness, maybe even loss of consciousness.”
Other options are included in a follow up article, Kabel shows excellent choices to stretching properly, guided by this visualization of the neck.
“..we cannot think of the neck, head and upper back as three separate entities. They function more like a tree trunk with the roots and the crown.”
In a committed attempt to perform bigger and more “full-out,” many dancers will flare the front of their rib cage open causing a disconnect within their torso, loss of abdominal engagement, and ultimately, stress to the lower back.
In the article, Rib Flare: Why It Sucks and Why You Should Care, author Jennifer Booton goes on to show exercises that help to fix the issue. She shows the difference between rib flare and proper positioning:
We all have watched students in the former position struggle to gain breath, strength, and dynamism in their movement. They may also struggle with an ability to properly engage the abdominals or control the movement of their lower back and hips. There are several reasons for this. Booton describes rib flare as bad for the body for these four reasons:
1. When your ribs are flared, there is no integration between your diaphragm and the abdominal muscles.
2. It’s impossible to come into a truly full exhale when your ribs are stuck in a flared position.
3. When your ribs are pulled into flare at the front, your upper back, or thoracic spine gets pulled forward into extension.
4. When your ribs are flared, your lumbar spine is pulled forward into an excessive extension and your pelvis goes into anterior tilt.
From Deborah Vogel, movement analyst, neuromuscular expert and co-founder of the Center for Dance Medicine in New York City, the following exercise is suggested for developing awareness of the ribs:
“Wrap a Thera-Band around your rib cage,” she says. “Breathe in and notice how the Thera-Band—and your ribs—move laterally in all directions. Also notice that the height of your rib cage doesn’t change. Do this three times with an equal length of your inhale and exhale. Then try it with the exhale twice as long to make sure you aren’t holding your breath.”
With contortionist level flexibility on the rise, dancers who are both naturally flexible and those who are not, rely on ideas of over-stretching in order to gain greater heights and “wow” factor.
In order to stabilize the lumbopelvic area, there are a number of simple exercises dancers can work on daily. Emma Faulker, physical therapist who works with Atlanta Ballet, says:
“For lifting the leg above 90 degrees, the psoas is the best hip flexor to use…but dancers often have weak and tight psoas muscles. When the muscles become stuck in an over-contracted state they quit and become weak and tight, and are unable to lengthen properly."
Written by Sylvie Guillem, Six Ways to Improve Your Extensions, Guillem outlines fantastic exercises that have more benefits than just better extensions. Guillem’s six ways are actually written as rules and include:
Use Glutes First
Some of my favorite exercises are given in this article and include the following:
Leg Lifts on a Stability Ball
Lie on your back, hips on the ground in a neutral position, with heels on top of a stability ball, legs extended.
Find your right psoas by palpating with your fingers between your belly button and hip bone. Place the left hand on your quad.
As you exhale, lift your right leg off the ball using your psoas, without gripping your legs or glutes
Modified Runner’s Stretch
Kneel on one knee with the other foot planted in front of you, hips square.
Find an exaggerated tuck of your hips under, then shift your weight forward into a lunge.
Reach up with the same arm as your standing knee, close to your head. Continue to keep the tuck and lunge as you side bend away from your standing knee. Hold for a two deep breaths.
Through learning and applying more efficient movement practices, dancers can not only perform at their best, but also be safe as they reach for their dreams. As part of Impact Dance Adjudicators, I hope these tips help your dancers achieve their best performance throughout this season and every year after.
Mary Roberts, currently based out of Tallahassee, FL, received her MFA in Dance from Florida State University and teaches somatic practices in aerial yoga and pilates. As a working dancer, she performed on land, river, and sea. As a director and choreographer, Mary is currently working on projects within the cruise ship industry.