Welcome to a new series of posts that I sincerely hope I can stick to: Dance Like a Human.
About a year ago, I started a series called “Stretches You Need to Stop Doing“. But I abandoned it because I felt bad about telling people what they should or should not do. And the title “May I Make a Suggestion About Your Stretching Practice That I Respectfully Ask You to Reconsider?” just wouldn’t have the same effect.
Anyway, the goal of this series is to explore a topic close to my heart, that is, helping dancers reclaim and maintain a requisite level of movement quality for better performance (the sexy), faster recovery (the less sexy), and injury prevention (the holy grail).
In proper Volkmarian fashion, part one of this series will simply be a long-winded introduction to the topic of movement quality and it’s importance as it relates to dancers. I predict approximately 7 of you will read through this blog post in it’s entirety.
But I’m cool with that, ’cause my mom always reads my blog, and she thinks I’m cool.
Word, Milhouse. I understand you.
Ready to begin? Hell yeah you are!
Why Movement Quality and General Physical Preparation Matter
Dancers face a unique challenge as athletic artists (see what I did there, Khyle Eccles??). They are trained to move in beautiful, yet unnatural ways, often dependent on pathology to succeed, but without a base of fitness, fundamental movement, and general physical preparedness to support them.
The result? Movement quality deteriorates rather rapidly, as there is no quality to support the quantity of training dancers often do, and we can observe this in the high injury rate.
3. Insufficient appraisal of fundamental movement quality as part of many dancers’ training and rehab (low or asymmetrical FMS scores, for example, although some people will argue with that, and there are other methods of evaluating movement quality).
4. Not enough rest and recovery, both in-season between classes, rehearsals and performances, and off-season as a whole (although whether dancers even get an off-season is a topic of scrutiny. And how I scrutinize).
6. Insufficient strategies to unwind from dance: Most dancers don’t have a movement practice or participate in supplemental cross-training that is not a specific skill related to dance. Floor barre doesn’t count. Barre fitness classes don’t count. And Zumba… Does. Not. Count. Dance fitness is NOT fitness for dancers.
More skilled movement doesn’t equal better movement quality.
The above sentence summarizes the exact conversation I had with my very smart friend David Wu (aka, male-Asian-Monika) last week: You can excel at specific skills and create the illusion of having good movement quality, but the tricky thing with “skilled” movers, is that they can mask their lack of fundamental movement quality with their impressive skills.
That’s exactly what dancers do. So tricky!
And this is why many dancers may have poor experiences with rehabilitation, or may hurt themselves when they start strength training. An uninformed physio or trainer can really mess a dancer up if they don’t look for some sense of fundamental movement quality hidden beneath all that movement skill.
To an untrained eye, I can make most movements look good. Most dancers can, too because that’s their job.
Not all dancers are “good movers” as human beings. The humanity! In a movement form in which virtuosity and pathology are a package deal, we often sacrifice our quality of human movement for our art. Does it have to be this way? Maybe…
But if you choose to become informed (by reading this awesome blog, for example) you can create new options. Form new habits around your dance training that will allow you to delay an inevitable degree of damage, learn to manage pain effectively, and reclaim some (but perhaps not all) fundamental movement.
Ready to go down this rabbit hole with me? Yeah you are.
Let’s talk about natural human motion, neuroplasticity, and movement variability.
I Move Therefore I am (Human)…
Would have been a more accurate statement for Descartes to make. You can’t think without a body, after all, you need a body to live, and you can’t be alive without movement: Air flow, circulation, neurons doing their thang, etc.
So what is natural human motion?
Because dancers are obviously humans (or are they…), we need to have this discussion of what is actually meant by human motion (otherwise known as functional movement, fundamental movement patterns, blah, blah, blah).
Chris Sritharan said it best:
“Human movement is trained, human motion is not… If you’re going to engage in a sport that is not natural human motion, just make sure you have a strategy to unwind it”
For the purpose of this blog post, here’s a working definition:
Natural human motion: Refers to joint motions that naturally occur in the human gait cycle and in fundamental movement patterns.
We must understand that all motions the human body is capable of performing serve an important purpose in movement and need not be feared or avoided.
To consider there is no human motion that can be labelled as “bad” allows us to move with a complete map of our bodies which dancers must be able to do for optimal performance and recovery. Spinal extension isn’t bad (neither is flexion, and you probably need more of it). Pronation isn’t bad. Knee valgus isn’t bad. Joint compression isn’t bad.
Dance-specific movements are specifically trained, meaning we didn’t learn naturally them in our early development. Natural human movements are what we develop as young human beings as we first learn to centrate our joints and put our feet in our mouth, roll over, creep, crawl, and eventually stand up, fall down a bunch, and then walk. This was all a reflexive process. No one had to train us on how to do it.
Human motion is hardwired. Dance… Not so much.
I feel you, girl.
And another problem arises.
Learned disuse: You Just Forgot How to Move Like a Human!
Or rather, when you were 3 years old and your parents decided that you would specialize in dance while you were still developing a base of fundamental movement (or not), your brain decided to optimize some circuitry that preferred dance-specific movement over human motion.
That’s why ballet schools like to get ’em young. Little kids brains adapt quickly. And they are more bendy, too. That’s just one of the reasons why I wasn’t accepted into the National Ballet school when I was 15, having started ballet at the ripe old age of 12. Catching up on knowledge gaps is the story of my life.
Neuroplasticity: The brain is capable of changing itself based on what we use or don’t use it for, and this happens until we die, for the better or worse.
Our preferred movement patterns are the result of neural circuits that have become optimized based on specific inputs (dance, for example), how often the input is received, and how well-liked it is. Synaptic connections are continuously being modified and re-organized in response to these demands, repetition, and emotional connection to them. These cortical plastic changes occur both when learning a new skill, and after injury through disuse or avoidance of movement patterns.
Learned disuse, for dancers, can refer to the optimization of dance-specific skills, at the expense of “forgetting” how to perform some important movements, like big toe extension at the expense of toe flexion (both being required to walk like a proper human).
What happens when you work solely on pointing your toes, extending your back, and stretching your adductors so you can kick yourself in the head, but you never make time for the complimentary pattern?
This leads to the next point(e)…
Movement variability: You can have your cake and eat it too.
It doesn’t need to be and either/or choice: Only dance, or, only strength training, or whatever sport or activity you ascribe to. One big problem is that some teachers and dancers don’t understand this, and believe that supplemental training that is not dance will undo all the hard hours of dance training. This is untrue.
You can do it all in whatever ratios allow you to best manage your desired proficiency at dance technique, pain symptoms, movement quality, and strength, ie- You can follow a training program that creates the most appropriate options for you, as a mover. You just need to be smart about it and know what you need in what quantities.
It will depend on how much dance you’re doing and how seriously you take it, what season you’re in, and whether you’re injured and/or over-trained.
Ask yourself: as a dancer, what do you value most? What are your needs, what does your schedule allow, and how can you create opportunities to develop movement variability within this reality?
For example, if you are uninjured, in an off-season, and struggling to get past a technical training plateau, that sounds like an awesome opportunity to jump on movement/strength development.
If you’re injured, in-season, and classes make you sore, then you probably don’t need to add extra hours of training, but take more time to recover, work on movement quality, and regress your technique a bit to work on fundamentals.
Variability keeps you honest by keeping you out of a pattern. Constantly appraising your needs and adjusting your training inputs accordingly will prevent you from getting stuck in only one way of moving that could be your undoing.
Which Pill Will You Take?
It’s your choice.
You can continue to live blindly, blissfully, and not worry about this learned disuse and movement variability stuff, or, you can explore the #truth.
Hate to break it to you, but you’re not invincible just because you’re really good at ignoring reality. Just because you’re perfectly comfortable doing fouette turns to the right, standing on your left leg, doesn’t mean it’s not a pattern that needs a complimentary strategy to manage.
Next up in this series we shall discuss some super sexy examples of the human motions we sacrifice for dance-specific movement patterns that require supplemental strategies to unwind
In writing this blog post today I am procrastinating the completion of a massive piece of editing. I’ve created a monster. I’ve been assigned the rewarding task of creating a resource paper for Healthy Dancer Canada. “Write two pages”, they said. Naturally, that exploded into 10 (concision isn’t a strong suit of mine…).
My brain’s going a little dead, so, to avoid making silly editing decisions, I’m giving the paper some space so I can remember why I’m writing it in the first place.
When you lose sight of the purpose, just sit with it. The solution often comes when you take a step back, zoom out, remember the bigger picture.
Anyway, let’s talk about me: I’m in a weird place with my training right now, and I’m pretty sure some of you will be able to relate.
I haven’t deadlifted since November 2015.
I know… Who am I??
I love lifting. I love feeling strong. I especially love doing what I do best- Sagittal plane extension-based movement. But I’ve lost sight of a greater “why”.
Honestly, taking Anatomy in Motion was the catalyst. AiM forced me to reflect on this idea of movement vs. exercise. This course explores natural human motion, and participants get to bring to life, in their own bodies, what this means at every joint, in every plane of movement (and I’m excited to be re-taking this course in May in New York).
After AiM, I realized that I no longer had the desire to “exercise” for the sake of exercising. It needed to mean something more, and I needed to re-evaluate the relationship I had with it.
So I dropped anything that felt like “exercise”. My training is now quite minimalistic.
I was trying to explain this to my room-mate.
“What?? You’ve stopped deadlifing? The king of all lifts?” Incredulous.
I told him that the distinction between “what is movement and what is exercise” had become muddy. I needed to step back from it and sit with this idea for a while until I had clarity.
The look he gave me.
“So what are the distinctions?” He asked me.
“I don’t know… I’m still figuring it out. And until then, I don’t do anything that feels like exercise”.
This also puts me in a very weird position in my field of work.
As a trainer/strength coach/movement coach/massage therapist/detective, people expect me to help them exercise and get strong, often in the presence of chronic pain. I’m happy with that expectation, but I also feel that expectations are limiting. How lovely would it be if every client came in with zero expectations? Imagine how much they would grow, being totally open, completely trusting the process?
Most people come see me, or are referred to me generally because they want to work on their “fitness” and learn “exercises”, or get a program to “do”. But not everyone cares about their relationship with exercise.
I do my best not to bring my personal biases into my work with clients because they might not serve my clients’ goals. This happens a lot in the fitness industry: Trainers imposing what is important to them on their clients, but not considering what their clients really value or need.
I won’t force my ideas on my clients, but I really want them to take the time to think about this exercise vs. movement thing. I feel that it is important, especially if you’ve been recommended to train with me because you want to move forward from pain.
Even dancers rarely take the time to consider this idea.
I’ve asked dancers: “Why do you dance?”, and many of them say that they enjoy the physical exertion. They like getting exercise in a way that isn’t boring, like working out at the gym or jogging.
If this is you, I encourage you to dig a bit deeper. If you’re dancing because it’s the most enjoyable, least boring form of exercise you can find, consider whether your relationship with dance is one of exercise or movement. What does that mean to you?
I used to be an exerciser. Physical activity was a huge value of mine and my family, and I think this is a great thing. But while I loved the “exercise” component of dance, it wasn’t just about the physical exertion. It was escape, exploration, and self-expression above all- things that are facilitated through movement.
And then that changed. Somehow, the focus became burning calories, strengthening muscles, getting “toned”, and my relationship changed from “movement form” to “exercise form”.
The same thing happened with my training. Work-outs were exercise. There was no goal but to work hard, sweat, and burn calories because I felt it was necessary for no particular reason. That changed a bit when I started focusing on strength, but it was still a need to exercise.
Where I am at now, I don’t want to workout because I feel like I need to exercise. Exercise is important. I recognize this. But our relationship with exercise matters more.
These are a few distinctions and ideas that have come up as I rethink movement vs. exercise:
1. Movement training embodies Wu Wei: Effortlessness. Action through non-action.
A Taoist philosophy. This is the feeling of being mobilized to act, not forcing oneself to train out of a sense of need or guilt. Rather, movement training implies the want to explore motion, with an intrinsic momentum pushing you forward, curiously.
It should feel effortless. Not effortless in the sense that you’re not working hard while training, but effortless in your summoning of will to do it and desire to work hard at it. Exercise is often difficult to bring ourselves to do. We put it off, skip it, and are relieved when it’s done. Just a tick on our daily check-list.
2. Movement quality vs. exercise quantity: How much do I really need to lift be “strong”?
I used to train in a power-lifting style. I got pretty strong in a relative sense, and I guess I still am. But my body didn’t feel great after a solid stint of Wendler 531.
With dancers, too, I feel there is a point of diminishing returns where it is no longer useful to become strongER in an absolute, or even relative sense. Strength is only one component of fitness that dancers require. Too much “exercise” interferes with movement quality.
Ironically I feel stronger in this non-exercise phase. How do you explain that? I think it is because moving well as a human is requisite for being strong: Movement quality is potential to tap. Or because I’m always well-recovered?
The more I experience this “strength without strength training”, the less I want to exercise, and the more curious I am to explore how movement quality improves physical resilience.
3. Exercise requires movement, but movement does not always imply exercise.
I love a fallacy. Which should we be prioritizing?
4. Movement helps us enter flow state.
Because there is a goal in mind beyond working hard and sweating, which is generally what comes to mind when we hear the word “exercise”.
5. Movement teaches us about ourselves and the world.
As in movement, so too in life. When we feel challenges come up in our body’s ability to perform, we can almost always see this same challenge present at a different level in our lives: Why can’t I do this? What’s holding me back? What options am I creating for myself? Why am I stuck in this pattern? Am I being honest?
It is always amazes me how revealing movement is of who we are. Exercise tends only to help us tune out and distract us (which isn’t bad, just different).
Sounds like I’m anti exercise, doesn’t it? I’m not. Just for right now. I’m trying on a different perspective. I felt lost for a while, through November and December when I stopped exercising, but I’m comfortable now with the fact that whenever I feel like it, I can come back to exercise because it will always be there.
Movement, on the other hand, won’t unless we take the time to explore it and own it. Movement quality deteriorates with non-use, but we can always exercise without movement quality (well, maybe not always…).
This distinction will be different for everyone. I still train, but I choose not to do exercises that feel like exercise.
I encourage everyone to have a think about this exercise vs. movement thing.
As dancers, it also serves us to take a step away from dance momentarily to consider why we’re doing it. Know that the things you’ve attached a particular meaning to will always be there for you, even after you’ve dropped the attachment, you can always come back.
When you lose sight of the purpose, just sit with it. The solution often comes when you take a step back, zoom out, and remember the bigger picture.
And finally, a relevant topic for this time of year, off-season training.
If you’re lucky, summer means you get a bit of a break. If you’re in university or college, you get 4 months off regular classes, rehearsals, and performances. That’s a long time… What are you going to do with it?
This is exactly what I wanted to discuss with the dancers that came out to the workshop.
What is off-season training and how is it different than in-season training? What are the components of a solid off-season training program, and how should you prioritize them? Where does dancing fit into this? How do you schedule everything in without going insane and still having a life?
I learned some stuff, too. In particular:
Based on this small sample, seems like dancers are not using their off-season effectively, and the understanding of what are the components of a well-rounded off-season program remain relatively illusive.
Dancers need to feel that it’s ok, and sometimes a really good idea, to prioritize rest and rehabilitation, because they may often feel pressured to keep dancing, or just don’t appreciate that rest is a component of fitness.
The gaps preventing dancers from participating in off-season training include time/priority management, budget, and not knowing what to do.
Below you can check out a few video clips from the workshop:
My understanding of what is good off-season training for dancers is incomplete. 4 months of off-season makes things easier to plan, but what about when you dance year round and don’t have a predictable off-season?
What happens when you’re an independent dancer, living from gig to gig, never knowing when you’ll get a break, and dreading too long of a break because if means no cash money?
What happens when you’re a professional in a company, and you get 5 weeks of the year off, and maybe not 5 consecutive weeks?
Where does “off-season” training fit in when you don’t have a clearly defined off-season? And with such a busy schedule, how is there even time to fit in “in-season” training?
These are the questions I wish I had the answers to. Here is one of the problems: We have research showing evidence that supplementary training and periodization for dancers is good, but we don’t know how to implement it. As I was discussing with my colleague, the wellness director for the National Ballet, unless the way a company’s rehearsal and performance schedule are adapted to include extra training, there is no way to fit it in without over-training the dancers.
This is important. The difference between “making space for”, and “fitting it in”. It’s a huge difference! And until that shifts, and every dance institution/ individual dancer decides that supplemental training is something to make space for, it will remain this illusive thing that, no matter the amount of evidence backing it’s efficacy, will never be actualized.
Kudos to the ballet companies that are “making space”. May they set the stage for other companies around the world.
And you can check out the handout from the workshop, too:
If you’re soaked in sweat by the end of the first plie exercise, you’re doing it wrong.
I used to think it was “correct” to be working so hard that what should be an easy warm-up becomes a heart-pounding, sweaty ordeal.
So too we see this trend in fitness, but just because you’re sweating, red in the face, and tired does not mean you’re being effective. Making a fitness class “hot” does not automatically make it more useful (although our brains may perceive it so if we’re taught that to sweat and work hard is synonymous with “better”).
Plies, the first exercise to prepare us for a ballet class, should set the stage for the rest of the class: To find a sense of effortlessness. But when we are in a tug of war with our bodies, creating this illusion of “ease”, is anything but easy.
What if it didn’t have to be an illusion? What if “effortless” was the natural intended state? What if our bodies were hard-wired for freedom in our movement? If this is true, then it doesn’t make sense to try harder to work less. It’s paradoxical, like yelling at a dancer to relax.
Things become effortful when our body loses its optionality; an injury, a behavioural pattern, or a habitual way of moving that once served us (but was never meant to be permanent). Through learned disuse, we “forget” ways of moving.
If there’s a block in the road, we take a detour, a less ideal, longer, more frustrating way of getting from point A to B. For every forgotten movement, there is a detour, too.
Missing movements are the block in the road to effortlessness. We need to accept that perhaps there are some pathways we need to rebuild, because that detour is starting to piss us off.
So part of letting go of effort is first to find “what’s missing”. Which movements are you being denied? Which ones are you protecting yourself from because, at one particular point in your life, it served you to avoid them? Avoidance may not be serving you now. You need a new option, or rather, reclaim an option back.
The next step is to explore that uncharted territory. This can be unpleasant, but there is a whole map of your body to explore, especially the uncharted, fuzzy areas.
You may have vague recollections that exploring one area of the map seemed threatening and unsafe. Or maybe you can’t even remember visiting this part of the map, but I promise, you’ve been through all of it before (with the potential exception of some significantly limiting experiences in childhood/birth…).
Be brave enough to explore the unknown, and trust that it really isn’t that unknown. You’ve been to each part of this map before, and this will seem so evident to you when you trigger the memory by taking the leap of faith.
When you are moving with a complete map, you know that you’ve visited every corner (or are in the process of). You can feel confident that “you” won’t become lost, because you know where you are. You have reference.
Now, with this complete map, you find yourself standing in first position. Things feel, easy… Unexpectedly so. Your weight feels centered in your feet. Your legs naturally rotate into the position you want them to with little extra effort.
“Ahh”, you think to yourself, “Now I can start to enjoy the movement!”
Because you finally had enough of the detouring, the extra energy expended trying to get “around”, and not allowing yourself to move “through”. And because you were brave enough to explore the missing movements on your map that once felt unsafe, or difficult, or plain foreign.
Valgus, pronation, exhalation, pelvic posterior tilt, spinal flexion and extension: Perhaps these movements were not on your radar. You may have experienced that you couldn’t breathe and you were off balance, as you explored these motions, but you stuck it out and put them back on your map and taught yourself they were safe. Reclaimed them as yours.
And now there is no need to create a maximum effort contraction to simply keep from falling over, or to get to “neutral”. There is no need to hold your breath as you enter these motions, because you’ve practiced breathing through them, creating a safe environment for them to take place.
And this word, safety, is huge. When we don’t feel safe, we will find a strategy. But we don’t want to be dancing with strategies, we want to be dancing.
With a complete map, you’re simply standing there, waiting without purpose, confident that your body knows how to react because it has this wisdom it didn’t have before. So you can stop thinking. Start letting go of effort. Feel a sense of uncontrolled, yet anchored, momentum, not a restricting sense of “tightening” to forcefully achieve the desired aesthetic.
And you look over and see the woman across the room sweating buckets after plies. And you can’t believe that this exercise, that once would have had you sweating, too, felt like nothing. Like nothing, but like everything: Effortless embodiment. Joyous, reactive movement.
And if we can move through our whole lives like this, effortlessly, because we’ve fearlessly explored the missing pieces of ourselves that we were denied, what can’t we do? How much energy could we conserve? How present could we be if we’re not fighting just to stay on our feet?