If you are reading this you are a human and you have a pelvis.
And if your name is Dave, you have your own hands, too!
But back to pelvises(pelvi?), Dave. When was the last time you thought about your pelvis? If you’re me, right now! It’s holding your organs, your legs are attached to it, your pelvis is pretty cool.
Today’s post is dedicated to your pelvis, it’s alignment, and getting it positioned proper to help you dance better with less pain and soreness.
Having good pelvic alignment is kind of important for dance. That ain’t no secret.
A good neutral pelvis position, or a centrated pelvis, ensures that the things attaching to it will be functioning optimally. Your hips and spine being the things most directly affected by pelvic alignmnt. Some people like to lump it into one fun word- The lumbo-pelvic-hip complex.
And a well-positioned pelvis keeps your organs happy, too.
When the pelvis is centrated, the muscles and other structures attaching to it will be able to rest somewhere in their middle range of motion. This is what you want. When a muscle is at mid-length it has the highest contractile strength. Neither a lengthened muscle nor a shortened muscle will contract as strongly as one at mid length as they are at a mechanical disadvantage.
Dancers will often do exciting compensatory things with their pelvises to get a little extra turnout, for example. As explained in THIS brilliant paper by Donna Kraswnow et. al.
Dancers may attempt to gain a few degrees of additional rotation by decreasing tension on the Y ligament with slight hip flexion, which lowers the anterior brim of the pelvis into anterior tilt and pulls the lumbar spine into hyperextension. By doing this they sacrifice the stability gained from the Y ligament and alter neutral pelvic and spinal alignment.
Another place anterior tilt creeps into dance is in tendu back-type movements.This can be the cause of or caused by tight hip flexors.
…when the dancer’s leg moves to the back (such as tendu battement to the back and in arabesque) and hip extension is restricted, the pelvis is pulled into anterior tilt and the spine hyperextends. The less hip extension a dancer has, the more contribution from the lumbar spine is required for all posterior movements of the femur.
Give your lumbar spine a break. Want better turn out? Center your pelvis.
Want to get on your leg? Get that pelvis centrated.
Want to manage your back pain? Yep, center that pelvis!
But before you can attempt to find center, you need to take an objective look at your pelvic point A. What’s your start position?
Is your pelvis sitting in an anterior tilt or a posterior tilt?
This is important stuff to know about yourself. A crucial piece of body-awareness that I am going to suggest today that you learn to cultivate.
Welcometo Sorting Your Pelvis 101- Anterior tilt edition.
To keep things super simple (stupid) we will only talk about the saggital plane in this post.
The saggital plane refers to forward and back movement. The pelvis is capable of moving in all sorts of whacky directions, but if you don’t have your forward and back sorted, then nothing else beyond that matters. Yet.
Pelvis Sorting Step 1: Know your habitual alignment.
Do you know if your pelvis tends to rest tilted anteriorally, posteriorally, or fairly level?
To simplify things, let’s think of your pelvis like a bowl of soup. The pelvis being the bowl, and I guess your organs are the soup. Mmm, organ soup.
If you tilt the bowl forward (anteriorally) the organ soup will spill out the front, onto the floor. This can make it look like your belly is bulging forward a little, and many dance teachers will tell you to “suck it in” to correct this look.
Sorry, but you can’t suck in your pelvic alignment.
This position is indicative of abdominals that aren’t stabilizing effectively, but “sucking it in” will do nothing useful. Finding neutral is what you need, and then the abdominals will do their thing reflexively.
If you tip the bowl backwards (posteriorally) the soup spills out the back, and all over your pants. This alignment can make it look like you have no butt, which is sometimes the look ballet dancers are going for. Also a result of constantly being told to tuck under- Not always a good cue, much like “suck it in”.
If it looks like you have no butt, chances are you aren’t using it either, and glutes that function are pretty important for creating force as well as stabilizing your hips and pelvis.
A level bowl of soup is ideal. No spills. No embarrassing pants stains. No prolapsing organs or “long-back” (a term a friend of mine uses to describe people with no butts).
I happen to be an excellent example of someone with a rockin’ anterior tilt.
The horizontal line represents a level pelvis. As you can see, I could do better. Workin’ on it guys. And no, I’m not wearing enough colours. Nearly.
Notice the booty poppin’ way my pelvis, if it was a bowl of soup, would be spilling soup out the front, hence “anterior tilt”. You also see how I try to compensate for this with some rib flare. Pobody’s nerfect.
Getting to neutral requires me to posteriorally tilt like crazy. Unfortunately, this is something my brain has a hard time understanding, nor should it have to try that hard.
If you are like me, then it might feel like you have zero connectivity to your lower abdominals, and no matter how hard you try, you just can’t round your lower back or tuck your pelvis under without clenching every muscle in your body.
You need hamstrings, adductors and a TVA that function.
Pelvis sorting step 2: Do something about it.
So your’re ready to do something about it, eh?
Here are my top 3 drills (right now, probably will be different next month…) to help a little with the anterior tilt situation.
Note that to speed the process it might be beneficial to seek some kind of manual therpy like massage, acupuncture, or whatever gets you results. Work with someone you trust and who has experience helping dancers.
1) Foam roller diaphragm release.
Why? With anterior tilted pelvis also comes a compensatory rib flare indicative of diaphragm tightness. The diaphragm is the king of your body. If you want to change your alignment, strength, flexibility, whatever, you need to optimize your diaphragm function and get your ribs in a better position, deemed the “zone of apposition” by the Postural Restoration Institute. See this post for more info on that.
Use the inhalation to push into the roller, and as you exhale let yourself relax into it. It feels kind of like getting punched in the gut really slowly, so, not very nice.
2) 90/90 hip lift.
I seem to post a lot about this exercise, but that’s because I love it so much.
Why? Uber simple, and uber effective for getting more mobility into posterior tilt and lumbar flexion, continuing to work on breathing mechanics and rib positioning, as well as hamstring and core activation and downregulating the low back erectors a little bit. #winning all around.
With the roller between your knees (squeeze the roller, not your butt), curl your tailbone off the floor by pressing your knees up to the ceiling. Inhale for 4 counts, exhale all your air out (at least twice as long as the inhalation). Let your ribs come down towards your hip bones. Take 5 or 6 deep breaths.
3) Tall kneeling wall hump
I don’t know if I can take the credit for creating this exercise- It’s just tall kneeling up against a wall, but I do hope I can take the credit for calling it a “wall hump”.
Why? I like this because it grooves good core sequencing- moving into hip extension without slipping into anterior tiltage. It’s like a squat from the knees down. If it hurts your knees, don’t do it. Same goes for your lower back.
The goal is to get your hips, sternum, and between your eyeballs to smush into the wall at the same time, moving from the pelvis, and not leading from the ribcage or belly. It’s not a body roll. It’s much less sexy than that.
Try not to clench or squeeze your butt, or sink into your lower back.
As you lower from the wall, lead with the back of your neck. To aid this sequencing, put your hands on the wall and push your head away from it, keeping a slight double chin to maintain a neutral neck. Don’t revert back to anterior tilt locomotion.
Pelvic re-alignment is a journey, not a quick fix. You might never, in this lifetime, get there. It’s progress, not perfection. But if you believe in reincarnation, perhaps your work in this life will reward you with a level pelvis in your next.
And please bear in mind that these exercises are not for everyone. What helps one person achieve a neutral pelvis will not work for the next, and so it’s very important to find someone you trust to help you.
Those who get the best results will test the efficacy of their efforts daily, work on their corrective exercises consistently, and ask for help when they need it.
Next time I’ll talk about some of my favourite ways to centrate a posteriorally tilted pelvis. Stay tuned!
I’m not here to hate on dance conditioning classes. Much.
In fact I’m not totally qualified to hate on dance conditioning classes because I don’t have very much first hand experience participating in them. Because sadly many dance studios I went to didn’t have that option.
Even Ryerson didn’t have one, though I know many university dance programs do.
Indeed many a dance studio, and many a dance program offer a conditioning class of some sort. This is a good thing.
What I find concerning is that most dance conditioning classes are about as safe and effective as Gumby’s attempt to max out on the bench.
Don’t get me wrong, I am stoked that so many dance schools recognize the need for supplementary conditioning. I’m happy we all agree that the physical stimulus in a typical dance class isn’t enough to elicit improvements in fitness and strength beyond a certain point. I am sad, however, to observe how these classes can often exacerbate some of the issues dancers are already dealing with, rather than make them stronger and less prone to said issues.
Like, your spine hates you from back-bends and then your conditioning class makes you do planks. But they look like this:
And you hold THAT for 3 minutes. And then your back hurts more. But it can’t be because of the planks because those are good for you. Your teacher compliments your sweet pants, but shouldn’t she (or he) be correcting your position?
How dance conditioning classes drop the ball
Inappropriate exercise selection.
Inappropriate timing in the schedule.
Too much volume/intensity.
Under-qualified, inexperienced teachers.
No emphasis on educating dancers on how exercises should feel, or that pain isn’t good.
Let me illustrate with a few examples from the real world (although here’s one from this fake internet world, too. This website hurts my soul little).
The inappropriately designed conditioning class by an under-qualified instructor.
I recently met with a client to speak about a project she was working on for her thesis project, and we got on the topic of a very prestigious summer training program that she had participated in last year.
This program happened to include a conditioning class (yay) but according to her- and I consider her to be educated on what is and is NOT an acceptable form of dance cross-training- they did tons of variation of crunches, and exercises that made her hip flexors strain (boo). It got so bad that she decided to express this to the instructor, who responded by saying, “then what should we do instead?”.
First, someone who has been hired to instruct dancers on how to get stronger, presumably with the goal of dancing better, should understand that crunches are not the best choice of exercise for dancers.
And second, if a dancer tells you she is feeling something wrong during an exercise and asks for an alternative, you should be able to give her one. Because you have 5 up your sleeve for this very reason.
To me, this screams unprofessional and under-qualified, and considering the injury rate in dancers is about 80% (but lets be honest, more like 100%), dance schools should do their research before hiring a teacher who is more “boot-camp” than dance cross-training. Someone who will build them up, not break them down.
This class was also poorly scheduled, sandwiched between morning classes and afternoon rehearsals.
When is the best time? I’m not totally sure. I’d like to ask Matthew Wyon that question.
The dance school that offers Zumba as their fitness class.
Ok so I do recognize that for people who don’t do much of anything, much less dance, Zumba can be an intense workout that is probably a totally acceptable thing for them to be doing.
My issue is when dance studios decide to forgo offering a legit conditioning class for dancers because they already have Zumba as an option. They’ve confused “dance fitness” with “fitness for dancers”. It’s not the same thing.
I wouldn’t be caught dead teaching a Zumba class to dancers. No offense, Zumba. I know you’ve changed people’s lives and that’s cool. I just wouldn’t do you. We can still be friends, though.
Many times that I’ve reached out to dance schools in Toronto to talk about the need for dance conditioning classes I’ve been disregarded because they already have their own version of dance fitness, which often is some kind of boot-camp, aerobics, Prancersise-type program that makes me want to cry a little.
And Zumba isn’t dance training either. Want to learn some sweet moves you can use in the real world (whatever that is)? Take an actual dance class. Or do this.
The conditioning class that does the right exercises the wrong way
I had the pleasure of training a lovely young lady who’s dance studio had a conditioning class. They did exercises that I consider good, like push-ups. However, when she told me one day that she did 100 push-ups in said class I was suspicious. In sessions with me, she has difficulty doing a controlled negative.
“Are you sure you were doing push-ups?” I asked. “Well, not like the way we do in our sessions. We have to do he them to the beat of the music ”.
Understandably, when forced to go to the beat of the music her form gets a bit sloppy.
I know you like being on the beat (I do, too) but that does not mean you should have to do push-ups to the beat of a song that is way too fast. Especially if you can’t do one proper push-up. This is another another case where the instructor should know better, allow them to do push-ups at their own pace, and provide appropriate regressions when necessary. Which in the beginning is almost always.
Teaching a group of dancers how to move well, get strong, and get them excited about injury prevention isn’t easy. Often you’ll be met with a group of egos with a no pain no gain mindset. It’s much easier to pander to their wants than to educate them.
They may ask for a stretch class. Teach them neutral spine and how to breathe instead. Make them earn the right to stretch.
I think what’s lacking from many conditioning classes is a measurable goal. How else can you tell your students are making progress? Unless the goal is to move around a bunch, sweat, and feel the burn.
The actual goals of a dance conditioning class
Educate dancers on proper movement quality and it’s importance.
Get the dancers stronger to improve their work and recovery capacity.
Help the dancers build body awareness.
Balance patterns of overuse to prevent injuries.
Serve as a mock “screen” to get a sense of whether a dancer is over-trained, injured, or recovering poorly.
Now I’m not saying that I am the most brilliant instructor ever when it comes to dance conditioning and strength training. I’m just saying that I have certain teaching standards, systems and philosophies that I feel actually make for effective strength development and reduce the risk of injury rather than increase it.
Some strategies to ensure your dance conditioning classes don’t suck
Music is for improving energy, not a beat to work out to. Not every dancer can do exercises at the same tempo. It is cruel and inappropriate to assume all dancers can do push-ups to the beat of Latch. Featuring Sam Smith. Possibly the best song ever.
Be constantly assessing the dancers. Treat every exercise as an assessment. Watch for signs of poor recovery. Ask if they find an exercise painful, where they feel it, how challenging it feels. Don’t just stand there and count the reps out.
Do an appropriate warm up. This should include some work on breathing, core activation, and mobility work/dynamic stretching if needed.
Provide a few alternatives (progressions, regressions, lateralizations) for each exercise. No two dancers are the same and they should not be treated as such.
Include these 3 components: Corrective exercise for movement quality, strength development, and metabolic work. Your ratio of exercises from each category may vary depending on the class. Some classes seem to miss the first 2 and do only the metabolic conditioning (circuits, inervals, etc).
Explain why you’re getting them to do the selected exercises and how it will help their dancing. Dancers are much more likely to want to do exercises if they see how it will translate to their performance or help them overcome and prevent injuries. “This will help your turns”, is a better motivator than “feel the burn”.
Spend minimal time stretching. I don’t want to go into this rant right now, but stretching is not the most effective use of time if you only have one hour per week to help your dancers. Dancers need help controlling the flexibility they already have, not getting more bendy and unstable.
Don’t kill the dancers with high volume and intensity. Especially if it’s the end of the day, or the middle of the day. Or the start of their day… Just help them work at an intensity that is reasonable but still challenging.
I struggled for a while teaching classes not knowing how to structure them properly, how to ensure dancers were performing exercises appropriately, and get them in the right mindset. Maybe you don’t agree with everything I’m saying, and if you don’t, I really hope you have a better way, and that you’ll tell me about it so I can do better, too.
I’ll leave you with these final points. Remember:
Zumba is not conditioning for dancers.
Exercises shouldn’t absolutely be done to the beat of the music.
And please don’t treat your dancers like they’re in a boot-camp. They deserve better. They deserve to be built up, not shattered.
I confess that for the past few years I’ve been doing something wrong.
Not wrong in such a way that I’ve been harming anyone, but I certainly wasn’t being as effective as I could have been, and rather than pretend like I’m brilliant 100% of the time, I’d like to use this blog post to rectify my past mistakes.
Ohhhh man what was I thinking spending so much time on thoracic spine extension drills??
It was an honest mistake, what with all the talk that “everyone needs more T spine extension, you can never have enough”. That was what I was taught a few years ago, after all, before I learned any different. Can you blame me?
I used to assume that all dancers needed more thoracic spine extension, and that was wrong.
Optimizing thoracic spine function in dancers isn’t just about increasing thoracic extension.
Just because the majority of the human population probably does need more T spine extension from spending most of their waking hours seated, does that mean I should assume the same of the dance population? Nope. Dancers, in fact, spend the majority of their time extending their spines, not sitting flexed, and can get stuck in T spine extension.
To boot, the T spine is supposed to be flexed. Relatively. Too much flexion is detrimental, but a “neutral” T spine sits flexed, slightly kyphotic, like the picture below.
To quote physical therapist Eric Schoenberg,
“The sagittal alignment of the thoracic spine is kyphotic: 40 degrees in adults. (Neumann D.A. 2002). With that said, we are not really talking about the T-spine being “extended”, but instead are talking about the relative amount of flexion that an athlete is in. With that description, it’s important to appreciate that T-spine extension drills are working to put an athlete into an acceptable amount of flexion! It is this flexion (or convexity) that provides a surface for the concave, ventral surface of the scapula to “float” on and create the scapulothoracic joint. “
Hear that? Thoracic spine movility drills are actually about optimizing flexion, not necessarily increasing extension.
If you’re familiar with the joint-by-joint approach, we are taught that different segments of the body tend to need either more mobility or stability:
Joint — Primary Need
Ankle — Mobility (sagittal)
Knee — Stability
Hip — Mobility (multi-planar)
Lumbar Spine — Stability
**Thoracic Spine — Mobility**
Scapula — Stability
Gleno-humeral — Mobility
This is well and good, but is it not also possible that a joint can become so mobile in one direction that it gets stuck there? In the case of the T spine, if you spend most of life extending it, it might need help getting back to a reasonable degree of flexion.
I don’t have enough T spine flexion. Some of my dance clients also lack T spine flexion. Are you one of us??
It is common for dancers to have a hard time differentiating better lumbar and T spine extension. Before I would assume that it was because they just needed more T spine extension, and the issue would correct itself. I know now that it’s not that simple.
What if your T spine is already so extended that it can’t move any more, and the only option is to get that movement from somewhere else, like the lumbar spine?
So that said, I want to share with you some of the things I’ve changed about how I work with dancers on T-spine function. Now that I probably know what I’m doing. Kindof. Better than 2 years ago anyway.
Considerations for improving T spine function in dancers:
1. Assess whether it’s actually a T-spine extension limitation, or an anterior core stability issue.
If you’re not assessing, you’re guessing. If it rhymes it must be true.
If you’re just assuming a dancer needs more T spine mobility, worst case you might be hurting them, medium case you’re wasting both of your time, and best case you might have actually helped with something.
That’s 1/3 odds. I’d rather assess.
Most dancers spend life in extension (photo above). Being stuck in extension, with a lengthening of the anterior core can make it difficult to keep them abs engaged when they need to be. A stable core keeps the T spine anchored down, allowing it to extend to it’s max.
To assess this, looks at T spine extension on the floor vs. standing.
If while on the floor, no gravity to fight, T spine extension is fine, but while standing it suffers, then it’s likely to be more related to core stability than an actual lack of T spine extension.
Try this: Perform first a lumbar locked thoracic extension rotation exercise, like below:
Next, perform a standing multisegmental extension, or backbend, like so:
Is her T spine extending? Nope. Check out all that movement at the TL junction though…
If you can extend your t spine on the floor, but not standing up, you might have a core stability issue, not an actual lack of T spine extension.
All the T spine mobility drills in the world won’t help her backbend improve, it might just make things worse, adding mobility where it isn’t needed.
2. Differentiate between a need for thoracic flexion and extension.
These days I’m not doing as many T spine extension drills because dancers are so good at extending through their T spine that they need a little bit of flexion. Yes. Sometimes you need to work on T spine flexion to bring them back to an acceptable neutral.
Remember the core pendulum theory popularized by Charlie Weingroff: A joint functions best when it is centrated, not when it’s stuck in the extreme of one range of motion. If the T spine is stuck off center, in extension, how can you expect it to extend more?
I’m sorry if I’m making posture that much more complicated for you.
Here is one example of a hypokyphotic T spine (needing more flexion):
originally from ericcressey.com
In dance the emphasis is always on extending MORE.
Another sign that you might need to get a bit more T spine flexion is the position of the shoulder blades.
The photo below is a client of mine:
Check out that right scapula. Now, she had a few subluxations that she forgot to tell me about, and there are a few other things affecting her scapula position, but lacking T spine flexion can also create this look. The scapula might be in an ok position, but the T spine may be so extended that the scapula appears to poke out.
It’s easy to confuse this look with hyperkyphosis, but it’s really just the shoulder blade poking out.
TO help correct this, did we do T spine extension drills? Hell no. In conjunction with scapular movement mechanics we also worked on T spine flexion, breathing, and neck alignment. One of the strategies we used was actually coaching her downward dog to get a bit more T spine flexion.
It seemed to help:
Bam. Scapula sitting nicely on the ribcage and T spine.
You can also check out T spine flexion in a standing forward bend. Below you’ll see how her upper back doesn’t flex. Neither does a huge portion of her lower back… A little flexion deficient this one is:
Working on T spine extension drills probably won’t be helpful for her, either.
In many cases, lack of T spine flexion goes hand in hand with poor diaphragm function and rib flare, so working on proper breathing mechanics is hugely helpful.
3. I’m looking more at rotational asymmetries than saggital plane extension.
Most dancers have a strong bias to stand on their left leg and rotate (turn) to the right, in a pirouette or fouette turn for example, which can lead to range of motion or motor control issues with rotating in one direction.
A dance client I’m working with right now has this issue. She has tons of active T spine rotation in one direction, but in the other probably about 50% as much. Passively, she’s got more than enough in both ways, but the motor control is a bit screwy and asymmetrical.
Rotational stability for dancers is a huge deal and is something you should be looking at due to the nature of the art form. DOn’t limit yourself to looking only at saggital plane extension (forward and back bending)
My preferred way to look at T spine rotation is to look at soft rolling patterns in conjunction with NeuroKinetic Therapy rotation assessments, like this:
It’s magical when you find a quad overworking and screwing up a rotational pattern and then seeing how that can help a dancer improve their balance and turns.
Do I sometimes still do T spine extension drills? For sure, but a lot more rarely than I need to work on core stability, T spine flexion, and asymmetries in rotation and control.
So I guess to sum up what you should take away is to get assessed, don’t just guess that you need more T spine extension, because you might actually need to opposite.