Those of us who are well-versed in dance culture, and even many who have never danced, would probably agree that for dancers, movement quality trumps movement quantity. Unless you’re a competition dancer and then it’s all about how many turns and flips you can do. Kidding….
Although tricks are fun and can definitely improve your chances of getting hired and impressing people at parties, the number of turns you can do is relatively insignificant compared to the overall quality and expression behind your movement.
A good friend of mine, who is a singer/musician, once told me that singing was 80% expression (the other 20% being related to technique, tone, pitch etc.). I think this holds true for the art of dance as well.
What makes a dancer really stand out isn’t quantifiable: the number of turns, leg height, jump height. These technical proficiencies can be easily measured, but are not necessarily what makes a dancer great. They get you bonus points, but are in themselves empty qualities.
To become a better dancer, technically and artistically, wouldn’t it be nice to have an objective measure of movement quality to guide you?
Objective measure is paramount to improving just about anything. If you can measure it, you bet you can improve it more quickly. This poses a difficulty in dance because “objective art” is a contradiction. There does exist, however, a small objective aspect of dance that we can measurably improve.
This objective, measurable quality of dance is fundamental movement: Crawling, rolling, walking, squatting, lunging, twisting. Basic function clean of compensation.
This isn’t anything new, and is not something specific for dancers either. Performing basic movement well is important for everyone, especially athletes, but it might be a new concept for dancers.
Very rarely in my dance training was I treated as a person first and a dancer second. My basic human movement was never held at the same standard as my ability to perform dance movement. Was that a mistake?
I will argue that the best dancers can’t always be quantified by technical skill but are superior for their quality of movement. This is easy to agree on, I think. Where we could potentially disagree is on which level are we qualifying the movement? How do we measure movement quality in dancers? How should we do it? What will it accomplish?
When we judge movement quality in dancers, are we looking at the quality of dance specific movement-Their ability to express through movement and technique? I don’t see this as the best way to objectively measure because I don’t think we can quantify artistry, and the movement we’re trying to measure is at a deeper level, not just their technique. It’s something even more fundamental and unique.
Fundamental movement is what the best in the rehab, athletic, and fitness world are already measuring in their clients and patients.
Gray Cook has already spoken so much about this in his book, Movement. His popular and effective inventions, the Functional Movement Screen (FMS), and the Specfic Functional Movement Assessments (SFMA) are systems that we in the dance world can learn from. Their goals are important ones: Evaluate fundamental movements, motor control within movement patterns, and competence of basic movements uncomplicated by specific skill.
When a dancer hits a plateau, the answer isn’t always to add more hours of training, but perhaps to see if there is a fundamental movement dysfunction preventing them from excelling in dance. Movement quality before quantity.
If a dancer moves well fundamentally, will they move better as a dancer? My guess is that yes, probably they will, not considering subjective qualities such as performance experience or artistic maturity of the dancer.
At the very least, maintaining a good quality of fundamental movement will ensure that the dancer, who maybe isn’t quite there yet artistically or technically, will survive the often physically, mentally and emotionally grueling training, to eventually find their place in the industry. Because not all of us are so genetically blessed.
I believe that even if indirectly, learning to move well fundamentally without compensation can help the dancer excel. It is a mistake to only look at specific skill quality without ever looking at a dancer’s fundamental movement quality.
Movement patterns can atrophy if they aren’t used. Even the ones most basic to our human existence.
The point of all this is that I think we’re missing something huge if we don’t objectively screen dancers for fundamental movement quality. I’m not certified in the FMS or SFMA, but I agree with the philosophy on which they were created, and that it is unsafe and to train dancers in complex, extreme, technical skill without teaching them first what it feels like to move well fundamentally.
Do you do the FMS of SFMA with dancers? I’d love to hear about that. Tell me everything you know…
Grab My Leg Baby Please. I fondly recall this mnemonic with which I first was taught the names and attachments (distal to proximal) of the much underrated adductor group.
Ah, the adductors.
The adductor group. Gracilis (grab) attaching most distal (farthest from the head), and pectineous (please) most promixal (closest to the head).
More recently at NeuroKinetic Therapy (NKT) seminar, we were taught a mnemonic that is somehow even more badass, to remember the muscle tests for the individual adductors: Please baby love my groin. (G for gracillis, with the foot pointing in towards the groin. So awesome).
Anatomy is sexy.
But sexy mnemonics aside, this article is all about the important function of the adductors for dancers.
Much like you’d expect, the primary action of this group of muscles is to adduct the leg (bring it towards the center of the body). They also, depending on the context you’re moving in, rotate the leg in and help flex and extend the hip.
And not only do they create movement, but help to stabilize the leg, hips and pelvis while other prime movers are working dynamically (think your supporting leg during a balance). In this sense, the adductors could considered a “core stabilizer”. The adductor magnus has been referenced by The Postural Restoration Institute (PRI) as being the most important internal rotator muscle to hold your pelvis and hips together.
From my PRI notes: Adductor magnus is suuuper important for alignment
This context dependent variability of function is why that seated adductor machine (where you sit and squeeze your thighs together) doesn’t quite cut it if you’re trying to train the adductors for performance, injury rehab, or even for that mysterious goal of “toning”.
This is unintentionally becoming the sexiest article I’ve ever written…
For dancers, proper adductor function is a HUGE deal for lumbo-pelvic-femoral stability. Weak, over-stretched adductors can lead to loss of joint range of motion, postural and movement dysfunction, and eventually even pain and injury. And I am a living example of this (but more on that later).
Why do dancers tend to have dysfunction in the adductor group?
In dance we are encouraged to stretch more often, and more intensely for longer durations at the wrong times. One thing you can do right now to improve your adductor situation, is to no sit in the splits and stretch them before class. PLEASE STOP DOING THAT. Stretching a muscle is a method of downregulating it. Do you think it’s a good idea to weaken an important stabilizing muscle prior to using it? Noooope.
The emphasis of turnout in many styles of dance also has it’s toll, as we tend to work in extreme ranges of hip external rotation, with little emphasis on maintaining internal rotation (those adductors), which causes us to lose range of motion into adduction- The leg becomes unable to cross the center line of the body without compensation in the pelvis.
It’s never good to lose a range of motion, at any joint, much like losing the ability to posteriorally tilt the pelvis can wreak havoc on the SI joint and lower back.
Bear with me now while I talk about myself for a bit. Because I can.
Recently I had the amazing opportunity to get assessed using 3D motion capture analysis at The Performance Lab here in Toronto. It’s the same technology they use to make graphics for video games. Very cool stuff.
Just call me MoCap Monika…
Yes I know. I make motion capture technology look good ;0
3D motion capture analysis is super helpful for anyone who wants to learn more about how they move, but especially for dancers, who are the masters of sneaky movement compensations that slip past the untrained eye.
I have a fun history of multiple back injuries, hamstring strain, hip pain, knee pain and neck strains, and am currently experiencing right-sided almost-every-joint pain. I was ecstatic to be finally getting a comprehensive view that could show me WHY things were feeling so nasty. What compensatory movements could be contributing to my pain?
While I won’t go into ALL the details, the biggest take-away for me was that my right pelvis moves excessively to compensate for the fact that I have very poor motor control over, wait for it, the adductors and internal rotators.
Further muscle testing with a friend and fellow NKT practitioner revealed that my adductor magnus is poop. Good times.
Because blame is fun and useful, I will blame years of forcing turnout and sitting in the splits cold before class. Also, big round of applause for my huge ego, for telling me it was a good idea to fling my body into larger ranges of motion than I had control over. My ligaments all hate me. I’m also really glad I didn’t ever work on core strength while I was a dancer, because then I might have had a brilliantly successful dance career, and wouldn’t be writing this today.
Over the years it seems I have down-regulated the crap out of my adductor group. Magnus in particular. And if you dance (or are hypermobile, do gymnastics, yoga, or anything else requiring you to be flexible), it’s quite possible that you have too.
How do you know if you need to develop some adductor strength?
- You walk and stand toed-out.
- It takes effort, or feels unstable to stand with your feet touching in parallel (think mountain pose, for the yogis)
- You can do the splits/over-splits like it’s nuttin’.
- Your groin feels “tight”, like you need to stretch a lot (although this is probably due to protective muscle tone, because of over-stretched hip ligaments…)
- When you lie on your back with your legs straight your feet flop out, and it’s serious effort to turn your toes parallel, up to the ceiling.
- You’re more comfortable sitting with your legs open, or cross-legged than knees together (ladylike)
- You have poop for hip internal rotation ROM and strength, or are very turned-out.
- You have knee, groin or hip pain, or even lower back pain.
If most or some of the above apply to you, then maybe you should learn to activate those adductors. Your performance will improve, your stability will improve, and you’ll definitely reduce your risk of injury.
Over-time, if you continue to dance and live without adductors, there could be some unpleasant risks associated in the form of:
Over-stretched ligaments. In particular, the pubofemoral ligament which should, if intact, prevent your leg from lifting past your face. And remember, when a ligament becomes stretched, it will never contract again. If that ligament isn’t holding you together, what is? Well, it should be your muscles. Enter the adductors…
Chronic displacement of femur in acetabulum. The demands of dance to turnout the hip, lift the leg into large ranges of motion, and the minimal emphasis on training core stability in many large classes can cause the head of the femur to shift outwards and upwards in the socket. This can cause pain and pinching and awful grinding, which could contribute to hip impingement, labrum tearing and joint degeneration, as well worsening of the already poor motor control and joint positioning.
I would love to give you some strategies to help with this adductor situation, but to be quite honest, I’m still trying to figure out the most optimal plan for restoring muscle synergy. I’ve been experimenting with some simple activation drills before my usual strength training sessions (and have been training more single leg exercises if I can do them pain-free), and have noticed, anecdotally, that almost all yoga poses now feel easier in class. So I’ve been activating my adductors daily. Seems logical, right?
My favourite so far, and the simplest, is the PRI 90/90 hip lift. On each exhalation, squeeze the living crap out of the foam roller/towel/whatever implement.
I will try to keep you updated on my progress restoring adductors to good function. If you have any helpful strategies that have worked for you or your clients, please let me know so that I can try them out.
PLEASE NOTE: This article isn’t for inactive, inflexible people. That population will have different adductor issues not covered here…