Zen in the Art of HardStyle Swings

Zen in the Art of HardStyle Swings

If you recall THIS blog post from a few months ago, then you are aware that I’ve been taking a break from “exercise”.

But no, you won’t see me washing myself with a rag on a stick anytime soon #Simpsonschallenge

This break from exercise was to re-evaluate my relationship with it by choosing only to do what felt like “movement”, or “skilled practice”, rather than “working out”.

Well, guess what. I’ve officially broken my vow of abstinence. I confess, I deadlifted last week for the first time in six months.

I’m back in bilateral-extension-land and loving it. My softening calluses have experienced a reawakening, or if you’d rather, a bloody mess all over the kettlebells.

This blog post will serve as a follow up to the “movement vs. exercise” dilemma I was having and, for all 7 of you reading this, I hope it it will provide a new lens through which to view exercise and to explore how movement and exercise are not the same thing. Maybe it will even ignite in you the curiosity to try your own exercise-abstinence experiment. Why?

Movement may be a more useful thing to focus on than exercise. Exercise is something we often use to make up for being sedentary. Movement, on the other hand, when done in sufficient amounts, makes structured exercising kind of superfluous (depending on your goals).

I was very happy to come across something Katy Bowman wrote that echoes my feelings and sees the bigger picture:

Movement, in a natural setting, is incidental to meeting other biological needs. This arrangement between nature and your physiology creates a dynamic and sustainable relationship that is self-regulating.


Now, to answer your first question…

Was I just being lazy?

This was a comment on my Facebook page after I posted the original movement vs. exercise blog post:

I’m at a similar place and was questioning if it is just laziness…”

I struggled with this belief, too; with feeling lazy and like I should be doing more. Where did we learn this belief that choosing not to exercise immediately makes someone lazy and insufficient?

Anything done deliberately is not laziness. 

A deliberate practice, even one of non-doing, is the opposite of being lazy. Laziness as a concept, in my mind, doesn’t exist. Laziness is an excuse we use in avoidance of something. So no, if you’re worried that taking a deliberate break from training or exercise makes you lazy, it does not.

There is never enough time to do all the nothing.

Taking a break from exercise doesn’t mean I spent six months sitting on the couch eating Tim Bits all day. One, because I don’t own a couch. And two, as a proper Canadian, I used to have an addiction to Tim Bits. In third year university I lived across the street from a Tim Horton’s and regularly enjoyed a 20-pack-for-dinner kinda life style.

Never. Going. Back.

Taking a break from exercise didn’t mean becoming sedentary, but temporarily stepping away from ways of training that no longer felt spontaneous, useful, and, for lack of better word “good” in my body.  A sort of “elimination diet” for movement.

Primarily, I removed deadlifts, squats, my sorry attempt at chin-ups, and any other exercises that didn’t feel like “movement”, as well as other exercises that I found myself doing for the sole reason that I felt guilty if I didn’t do them,  because they had become too habitual, our out of a compulsion just to sweat.

So, from November 2015 (after that dang Anatomy in Motion course) up until a few weeks ago, the main forms of movement I performed were:

  • Pistol squats
  • Push-ups
  • Turkish-get ups
  • Yoga
  • Walking a crap load
  • Cycling
  • Ballet
  • Anatomy in Motion stuff
  • Rolling around on the floor

As you can see, this still left me with a plenty of options. And yes, I know, push-ups, TGUs, and pistol squats are”exercises”, but that doesn’t mean I was exercisING.

My criteria: If it felt like a movement skill I could do with a mindset of “practice”, then it stayed in my life. Intention was key, but I’ll talk a bit more about that further along in this post.

And then, an existential crisis…

Whenever we examine movement we are also examining behaviour.

I’ll admit, I had a small identity crisis a few months ago while I was in a dressing room. I caught  glimpse of my back and, if you know me, you know I have extensor tone for days. But what I saw in the mirror was something different. I had changed: My muscle tone was way down.

My mild existential crisis: “Who am I without my extensor tone??”  was followed by the immediate urge to do kettle-bell swings and deadlifts. If I’m being completely honest, I did some swings later that day. It was like a junk food binge, seeking comfort and instant gratification.

Interesting isn’t it? How attached we can become to our physical identity even if it is no longer serving us.

We do this as dancers all the time. We’re proud of how our physiology reveals our identity as a dancer.

We walk turned out. We pop our hips and backs constantly. Stand on one foot whenever possible. Sit around in the splits. Talk about how we are sore all the time. We even brag about how gross our feet are. It’s weird, but we want everyone to know these things about us because they have become a part of who we are, and they reveal that we are dancers. 

This is not unique to dancers. It happens in fitness, in other sports, and many other industries.

My kettle bell swing compulsion was an important reminder that change is scary because letting go of habits that have become part of our identity feels a bit like losing a piece of ourselves, stepping into the unknown, and losing control of our lives.

Don’t know about you, but I like being in control.

A relationship based on trust

My experiment has come to a natural close which feels like a firm desire to never “just exercise” again regardless of what exercises I choose to do. It feels like confidence in the relationship that I have with my body- A relationship rooted in honesty and trust. When my body speaks to me, I listen, like in any good relationship.

For example, today I got hit by a taxi on my bike as I was riding to work (Beck Taxi, license plate number BPED450, fyi).

I’m totally fine, don’t worry, Mom.

But my poor right handle bar will never be the same… 🙁

I think I slid across the hood a little, got thrown off my bike, and somehow landed on my hands, completely calm and unharmed. In my mind I knew what I needed to do to land safely, and I did, trusting that my body had the survival strategies. I left the scene with only a small scratch on my knee despite landing hard on my hands (and head… I was wearing a helmet fortunately, or it would have been a different story).

I think the taxi got the worst of the damage as I was able to use it to break my fall somewhat.

The driver, by the way, was pretty inconsiderate and angry at me. Without even asking if I was ok says, “You should have slowed down!”, and then proceeded to check his car’s damage. What is our world coming to if we value being “right” and our material possessions over the well-being of fellow human beings!

This could have been much more serious, and in part I think I got out of this situation totally unscathed because of the honest, trust-based relationship I was training myself to have with my body. Because I spend time every day being present with my body and its natural ways of moving, not just punishing it three times a week with intense exercise and forceful controlled motions. Oh, and wearing a helmet saved my life. Always wear a helmet, guys!

Never has the motto “train for life” meant more to me.

dance stronger apparel

My mantra, courtesy of Screaming Monkey apparel. Get this shirt here: www.screaming-monkey.com


What 6 months exercise-free has taught me

The metta lesson: Before movement, there was intention for movement, and this is what I have come to appreciate most.

My wonderful friend, massage therapy and yoga genius, Wensy Wong and I had this exact conversation last week in the context of causes of injury in yoga, both of us having sustained yoga injuries for the same underlying reason: Our misguided intention.

Injuries don’t happen because of poor movement mechanics, although that does play a large role. And it’s not about the teacher’s skills and (poor) class design, although that plays a role too. Underlying these external risk factors what really matters is the individual’s intention.

Intention for movement happens in the brain, in the motor cortex, our center for movement intention, will, and skill.

There are physical circuits that exist in our brains that allow us to move and to override stretch and golgi tendon organ reflexes. And when our intention is “I must do this exercise as hard as I can, and it must look good, and I have to do it better than X”, we override circuits that keep our experience honest.

Dishonesty leads to injury, and it happens in our brains before it happens in our bodies.

Physical injuries start in the brain.

It’s your intention. Your ability to listen honestly to what your body is saying and being willing to do things in a less show-offy kind of way. To focus on the movement in a deeper sense, perhaps as if it were a skill to practice, not an merely exercise to make you sweat, punish yourself for eating “bad” food, or to show off.

Moving honestly: What I wish for all humanity to experience.

Here are some of the other lessons I have learned from taking 6 months off of exercise:

  • You can stop exercising for 6 months and not worry about gaining weight.
  • Guilt is not a useful motivator for training, but knowing your body and mind will feel great afterwards IS.
  • Our physical identity drives us to train in particular ways that feel familiar, and becoming unattached to this comforting familiarity is a practice of “movement honesty”: Moving without ego. Moving for a greater purpose than to fulfill an aesthetic.
  • You can get “exercise” as a secondary result of performing a movement practice, but not all exercise qualifies as movement practice (and I prefer the former).
  • I miss deadlifting.
  • Shifting your intention for moving allows movement forms that once caused pain to become healing (ballet, yoga, etc)
  • When something is difficult for us to do or change about our movement practice, it almost always shows up somewhere else in our lives, at some level (honesty, patience, listening…).

And with these important lessons in mind, I’ve made a triumphant return to the gym floor.

And guess what, I’m doing it Hardstyle.

turkish get up

Kettlebells keep me honest. The beauty of a self-limiting exercise like the TGU: You can’t fake holding 20kg of iron over your face.

Yes, I feel honest enough to start learning the StrongFirst system with the help of my amazing friend and coach, Paul Hynes. Each session is a lesson in honesty, patience, and listening. This training system should really be called “ZenFirst”, because I’m learning it’s impossible to produce force without the ability to first wait with a quiet mind.

I’m not training for the SFG certification, although if it takes me there, I’m open to it. Mostly, I’m excited to be training a new skill, and happy to be working with a coach who appreciates my need for this to be about practice not exercise.

Getting back to training things like swings, deadlifts, and chin-ups feels great, and I am reminded that being strong is something that is important to me, and why I began doing it in the first place, years ago, and how it helped my dancing.

So I will close by saying three things:

  1. Be mindful of whether your movement/exercise routine is becoming a part of your identity, and if you are ok with that.
  2. Re-evaluate frequently what your intention for movement truly is and whether it serves you.
  3. Move honestly. Always. As in movement, so too in life.


Dance Like a Human (part 3): Movement Variability

Dance Like a Human (part 3): Movement Variability

#Simpsonschallenge. I must  use a Simpsons reference in every blog post. Because that is how I was raised.

Read part 1 here.

Read part 2 here.

And welcome to part 3. In my mission to be more concise, let us get right to the point.

Today we’ll be talking about movement variability.

Movement variability means having options. But not too many options—>


Movement variability: An optimal amount of variance within the global movements, due to the infinite changing conditions that occur before and during the movement task.

Here’s what’s on our agenda for today:

  • What is movement variability and what is it good for?
  • How can we appraise it in our bodies?
  • How does higher variability help us as dancers and movers?
  • Other random stuff that comes out of my brain.


What is movement variability?

Picture yourself walking down the street. Something shiny catches your eye over the the right. With your eyes in the other direction, you don’t see the uneven patch of concrete and your ankle rolls over  to the outside.

Outcome 1: Sprained ankle. OMG! NO!

Outcome 2: You’re totally fine.

What’s the main factor determining your fate? Could be luck. But it’s more likely that in outcome two, your body understood how to get out of the ankle roll because it had been there before in a more favourable, safe condition, which didn’t result in an ankle sprain.

You and your ankle had the OPTION to get out of the inversion moment because that movement was in your body’s present vocabulary and you knew how to use it reactively without thinking.

This is an example of possessing movement variability, and using it in real life.

Having multiple strategies for joint and segment interaction to accomplish the same movement (walk around while gazing dreamily off in space, crappy sidewalks or no).

Having options (to move your ankle into maximum inversion and get out of it safely).

Having tri-planar movement ability when you want it, where you want it, to do whatever you want with it (to avoid inversion sprains).

The spice of life

Plain food sucks.

Unless you agree with the food shape…

I’m very sorry if that was disturbing for you…

Anyway, as in food, so too in movement; a lack of variability is not only bland, but…

…result in systems that are less adaptable to perturbations, such as those associated with unhealthy pathological states or absence of skillfulness.

~Human movement variability, nonlinear dynamics, and pathology: is there a connection? (Human Movement Science, 2011)

Movement variability provides us the ability to handle errors and make real time adjustments that occur with movement. Not enough variability and we become stuck in a pattern with limited options, increasing the potential for acute or chronic overuse injuries.

Variability creates movement options in multiple planes to cope with volatility (and all life is volatility). How well we get on amidst the volatility is a reflection of how safe or unsafe we feel with this perpetual flux, and how well we can find strategies to deal with it.

INTERESTING ASIDE: A lack of coping strategies is one of the top reasons researchers think dancers get hurt, so variability as a coping mechanism is a huge deal:

…ballet dancers tended to distinguish poorly between pain that is customary in dance performance and pain associated with injury. Pain is typically seen by dancers as an accompanying facet of dance practice, and dancers are prone to “dance through” pain, even when doing so may be detrimental.

…researchers determined that ballet dancers who are taught general psychological coping skills experienced fewer injuries and less time injured.

~Preventing dance injuries: current perspectives (pen Access Journal of Sports Medicine, 2013)

We can also potentially link optimal movement variability with a healthy variability and function of our autonomic nervous system: The ability to relax when we need to (parasympthetic), and to mobilize ourselves into action when necessary (sympathetic). We need to be able to do both to dance.

Evidence also shows us how higher movement variability reduces risk of injury, or, at the very least, is correlated with non-injured states.

You can see that movement variability is a pretty huge deal:

  • More movement options
  • More freedom in movement
  • Ability to reproduce movements reliably in variable environemnts, like, on stage under bright lights and high stress
  • Less injuries
  • Better neuroregulation

Sounds great, eh?

Embrace chaos

What’s interesting is that optimal variability in movement appears “chaotic”, which makes it easy to interpret as “noisy” and not useful. This is incorrect.

One thing I’ve come to appreciate about human movement in the gait cycle, is how freaking chaotic the map of every joint motion seems. But chaotic doesn’t mean unhealthy.

First it is important to distinguish between two different kinds of variability: “End point” and “coordinative variability”.

End point variability: Refers to the product of movement, for example, stride-length, jump height, pirouette, etc. Ideally, this should be low. It’s nice to be able to reliably  perform tasks in a similar way each time we do them. Each step, each turn, minimal surprises.

Coordinative variability: Refers to the variability of the interaction between segments or joints. This should be high, or, within an optimal window that is neither too low nor too high. It’s nice when individuals can use multiple strategies in their bodies to safely achieve the same outcome.

When we look at literature relating movement variability with over-use injuries, the traditional view is that low variability in movement is good, because we want to be able to have a reliable experience when we go and try to use our bodies. Makes sense, BUT this  is only true if we are working with “end-point variability” which refers to the PRODUCT of movement.

When we zoom in, we see that variability in how joints can safely and easily interact should be high.

When we zoom out we can see how variability in the product of the joint and segment interactions should be low.

Having multiple safe and effective routes to drive to the grocery store is more useful than one “perfect” route, and can save you time and stress when 3 of those routes have massive construction.

To put it another way (as stated HERE):

 The path to frailty or injury is identified in this emerging perspective by a loss of variability in fundamental variables reflecting biological function

A loss of freedom. A loss of optionality. Injuries. Disease. Awkward dancing.

Movement variability vs. being skilled at making movement look good

But aren’t dancers already exposed to all kinds of movement? Doesn’t being a dancer imply high movement variability?  

Just because you can make all kinds of movements look good, doesn’t mean you possess the variability to perform the safely, efficiently, without extra compensation, and that you can keep doing them that way for as long as you wish.

Too, many dancers, particularly those who are hypermobile, have so much variability and don’t know how to use it. Too many options is just as troublesome as not having enough options.

This is why as educators, trainers, and health-care practitioners we need to understand how to look at fundamental movement quality.

Dancers need to prepared for infinite movement options, because you just don’t know what the choreographer is going to throw at you.

Ohh Marie Chouinard…

An example is a professional ballet company hiring a contemporary choreogpraher who may ask the ballet dancers to move in ways they are not used to. This often can increase the instance of injuries, despite the technical prowess these dancers possess: They just aren’t prepared for the new physical demand!

The fallacy: Strong technical skill does not equal adaptability, fundamental movement quality, or general strength, although adaptability, movement variability, and physical strength DO create the potential for stronger technical skill. 

So even though we could infer that dancers have high movement variability, this is sometimes an illusion due to skilled, but patterned movement.

As we know, being stuck in one pattern, even one you can do really well, does not create the multitude of options your body craves to perform safely and effectively in a variety of unpredictable situations and environments:

  • Different floors
  • Different lighting
  • Different size or shaped stage
  • Different style of dance
  • External stressor messing up your movement game
  • Uncomfortable shoes

Just consider the injury rate in dance. That should be enough to question: If a non-injured state is correlated with higher movement variability, and dancers are rarely in a non-injured state, how optimal is their variability, really? 

Is it too high, or too low? Where’s the sweet spot?

How did we get this way?

We were all born as bundles of perfect movement potential. Where the heck did things go wrong??

In dance a major factor is that we never mastered the fundamentals. Early specialization plays a role in this.

This is something I discuss all the time in this blog: Never having established, (or lost) a requisite base of fundamental movement. Miguel Aragoncillo wrote something really great on this topic (long term athletic development) a while back, too.

So while many dancers appear to be able to move their bodies in all kinds of ways, they are doing it without a foundation of tri-planar movement to support them, thus desirous coordination and interaction between joints and segments is not happening.

They can make most movement look good (their job as dancers, after all), but when it comes to the fundamentals, they might not be able to demonstrate clean, simple movement.

“Fundamental is not lowest level, but highest importance” ~Source unknown… Probably some Shaolin monk

So maybe you can achieve the range of motion you need, but it comes with an energetic cost, requires some “cheats”, and can cause some problems long term.

How are you doing?

Because I believe that demonstrating the ability to move well in three planes says a lot about you, how you’re doing in life, and the state of your autonomic nervous system. But that’s not really in the scope of my blog, just something I’m observing.

To illustrate the idea of clean, non-compensatory, tri-planar movement, just stand up and give these a try:

  • Can you posteriorally tilt your pelvis without bending your knees?
  • Can you shift your pelvis to one side without also rotating it?
  • Can you rotate your pelvis without also hiking one side?
  • Can you lift your ribcage up without having to lift your chin?
  • Can you shift your ribcage to one side without also tilting your head?
  • Can you tilt your head without shifting your ribcage to one side?
  • Can you inhale without needing to flare your ribs?
  • Can you exhale without thinking you’re going to die?

In other words: Can you do one thing without having to do another thing if you don’t need to? 

How’s your behavioural variability?

As in movement, so too in life…

Can you receive a correction in class without also taking it personally and feeling like a failure for a week?

Can you express yourself and your feelings-be vulnerable, without oversharing unnecessary details. Like that time in Vegas, you know, the incident at the swimming pool, with the peanut butter, and the Elvis impersonator?

Can you eat just one Lay’s chip?

You get the idea. The meta question is, “Do you have the ability to choose?”.

Movement being a behaviour, and behaviour requiring movement, we can see how variability is useful not just for physical performance, but LIFE.

Back to movement though, because this isn’t a behavioural psychology blog.

In an optimally variable system, we should be able to differentiate tri-planar motions, such as in the examples above, meaning, body parts can move in three dimensions independently of others to a certain degree.

Quite often this differentiation is missing: Things get smudged together (technical term). In the motor cortex, areas related to one body part can overlap with others creating this situation in which things HAVE to move at the same time and going through life as a chunk this is not going to feel good for very long.

life as a chink

The “traffic light” variability classification system ©™®;)

Here’s my FMS inspired “red light, yellow light, green light” approach to simplistically classifying potential variability, both for me to observe, and for the individual in question to feel.

I am basing this off results my standard movement screen, part of which uses the Anatomy in Motion model to look at triplanar movement through the pelvis, ribcage, and skull.

I feel that most people can be classified as green, yellow, or red, to varying degrees. Where do you fit in?


  • You can differentiate most joints segments and movements with relatively symmetrical ranges right to left, front to back.
  • You are not completely missing one plane of movement.
  • What you feel happening is an accurate representation of what is actually happening.
  • Strategy: Let’s train hard, swing some bell, and kick ass. 


  • You may have difficulty differentiating some (or many) movements.
  • You have some pretty evident asymmetries right to left, and one or more planes of movement may be completely inaccessible
  • There is some discrepancy between what is actually happening and what you feel happening with movement.
  • Strategy: Let’s train the crap out of what you can do well. Spend some time exploring missing movements in reasonable, safe doses. Keep checking in regularly to see if things are improving. 


  • Most of the body finds differentiating movements from one another troublesome and foreign as a concept, often bilaterally.
  • Very apparent asymmetries side to side and/or multiple planes of movement completely inaccessible.
  • Very little ability to distinguish whether movement is happening, in what quantities, and whether the range or quality differs from side to side.
  • Presence of acute pain with some movements.
  • Strategy: Let’s consider the need for rehab. If they don’t need/want rehab, get them breathing well, build in education on the value of movement quality/differentiation into sessions. Emphasize tuning in to how movements feel. Focus on making movement exploration feel safe with a conservative approach to adding intensity.

As a trainer with manual therapy skills, not a rehab professional, my general role is to help already healthy people get even healthier and perform better, yet due to the nature of the gym I work in (which is also a sports medicine clinic) most of my clients are fresh out of physio, and I tend to see a lot of sensitive, red light folks.

Though they have been “cleared” to begin training for fitness or strength or whatever their goals, just because their treatment is “done” it doesn’t mean Red Light Randy is ready to jump into a training program without first building a movement foundation, and learning to differentiate and appreciate his body in 3 dimension.

Randy: A classic Canadian work of art

I think a good chunk of dancers can be classified as red-lights. Surprising? Not really.

Dancers become really, really good at moving in specific patterns. They take great pride in their patterns, and will hold onto them for dear life. Does this sound like someone who can differentiate movement? Does this sound like someone with variability?

If we think of the biases in dance training and performance (those trained in ballet primarily) there are some “patterns” that can become pretty ingrained, such as preferring to stand and turn on the left leg, turning to the right, and gesturing with the right leg.

But it is useful knowing this lateralization is common, reducing our ability to move in various ways, and points to the importance of providing strategies for dancers to enhance and clean up their ability to differentiate body parts and their movement both right and left, in all dimensions.

Can you move it if you can’t feel it?

We need to back up for a moment and consider that if you can’t feel certain parts of your body at rest, it will be difficult to move them, too.

In your brain there is a physical area called the somatosensory cortex that holds a “map” of your body. In this map, the hands and face have the most representation- more brain tissue devoted to them, compared to the rest of the body, meaning we are more sensitive to touch and sensation in these areas.

What is also pretty cool is that the somatosensory cortex also has a motor function when the motor cortex is impaired.  Just shows that the structure in your brain that allows you to sense your body also is important for moving it.

Furthermore, in this monkey study, it was found that overuse of a particular pattern of movement requiring minimal variability, resulted in  motor control deterioration and degradation of body part representation in the somatosensory cortex.

To boot, in this study, there as a link found between somatosensory afferent input and motor control in people with neck issues.

How well you feel your body is linked to how well you move your body. 

This seems pretty common-sensical, but then you look at the number of people who don’t want to take the time to learn to “re-sense” where their heads are at, literally, and just want quick fix stretches and exercises.

I believe that a piece in this optimal variability puzzle is being able to feel each part of your body and have your brain recognize they exist while NOT moving as well as in motion. To me, this somewhat explains the hypermobile people who have all the movement potential in the world, but without an ability to feel their bodies are unable to fully use them.  Would love to hear some thoughts on this.

Can you sit still, close your eyes, and have a conversation, not a monologue, with your body?

“Hey there ribcage, I feel you there, I know you exist, how’s it going today”

“Actually, brain, I’m feeling like you don’t fully appreciate me, but thanks for checking in. Let’s work on this relationship a bit harder”.

This could be the topic of a blog post for another day, but I believe this ability to sense body parts at rest, to distinguish what you can feel clearly and what you cannot is incredibly important for movement.

Maybe I’m talking about meditation, maybe I’m starting to sound esoteric. But what I’m getting at is that differentiated sensory input = differentiated motor output.

How can you expect to get up and perform complex movements when you can’t even feel a body part at rest?

I would love to see more dancers develop an appreciation for the ability to sense themselves and their bodies at rest, and I think adopting this as a daily practice could be a huge asset.

In the ballet class I go to regularly, we begin each class in exactly this way: Lying on the floor, encouraged to explore which parts of our bodies we are able to sense, whatever that means to us. This has had a profound impact on my ability to connect and feel my body in motion and has allowed me to make interesting connections to why some movements are difficult to do, which streamlines my process of making adjustments in training and in life.

I would love if more dance teachers took the first five minutes of class in this way, to help the dancers tune in and appreciate their bodies in stillness before layering on the complexity in which this appreciation can become easily lost.

In martial arts, the “tuning in” part of training is huge. Being able to feel your body. To see yourself doing something in your mind before doing it with your body. Why is it not seen as important in dance? And in other sports?


  • Higher movement variability (coordinative variability) is linked to being in a healthy, uninjured state, and provides you with multiple useful and safe strategies to perform the same task. Knowing that the world we live in is highly volatile, our ability to adapt and fine tune movement in real time is a crucial ability to possess.
  • Higher movement variability allows us to improve our performance as dancers by improving our ease and freedom in movement, get our joints into the positions we want without strain, and allowing us to easily adapting to new choreographic styles while reducing the risk that we might injure ourselves in the process.
  • The role of cross-training in dance is not limited just to strengthening and improving mobility, but to ensuring strength and mobility are built in a way that enhances movement variability. Often, the choice to participate in a strength training program is enough to enhance variability due to the new novel input.
  • The ability to differentiate the movement of  joints and segments in three planes is a useful way to appraise potential for movement variability, and a great learning experience for the individual.
  • “Tuning in” also plays a role in being able to sense our bodies at rest, which can influence how and what we can move when we are up on our feet. This is something that needs to be discussed and valued more highly in dance training.

That’s all for now. I think I wrote enough. Believe it or not, this post was originally much longer… You’re welcome.

Stay tuned for part 4.

Funding the Future Dance Educational Paradigm: A Political Rant

Funding the Future Dance Educational Paradigm: A Political Rant

This is how the word “politics” makes me feel:

I’ve never been one to follow politics or express my political views publicly. One, because I honestly don’t understand how governments works, and two, because I am completely ignorant of the views any of the political parties in Canada hold (or anywhere for that matter).

Who. Are. These. People…?

Go ahead, judge me. I take full responsibility for my ignorance.

I told my parents about my political ignorance once:

“I just don’t care about politics. I’m sure one day something will happen and politics will become meaningful to me, but right now, I’m perfectly content to be ignorant and let people make the decisions for me.”

They were not impressed, and my father proceeded into a spiel about liberal vs. conservative vs. NDP party views and why I should care. Sorry pop, I zoned most of that out.

All I know right now is that Justin Trudeau can do peacock better than I can, and that makes me proud to be Canadian #Ivotedliberal

This photo makes me so very happy.

The reason I bring up politics today is that “that something” has happened to make politics start to seem meaningful. It’s about dang time, Monika!

I’ve been thinking about the role the government plays in dancers health, longevity, education, and performance.

KEY CONCEPT #1: A dance student’s education should go beyond technique and performance training to include how to take care of their bodies and minds to support their performance and longevity.

In my reflection, I’ve begun to appreciate how interdependent of a system it is that affects a dancer’s education and their potential, whether “success” means to perform professionally, or just enjoy dancing as long as desired without becoming a cripple.

If we are to truly give dancers a well-rounded education (ie one that goes beyond physical and technical training by also addressing their biopsychosocial needs to attain career longevity, even after they stop dancing) we need to more than just preach at them.

Preaching to dancers to take better care of themselves is like the King preaching to a peasant to be less peasanty:

“You need to eat more food so that you can be stronger and toil more efficiently.  And why can’t you get better tools so that you can farm more effectively? Figure out how on your own. I don’t have time to help.”

Foolish expectation to have, isn’t it?

I am somewhat guilty of preaching to the peasant and expecting it to work.

“You need to take better care of yourself, and I know you don’t have the resources- time and money- to learn how. You need to change what you’re doing if you want to succeed, but I can’t really help if you don’t have money.”

I’ve been a jerk, and I’m sorry.

KEY CONCEPT #2: Dancers are doing the best with what education they are given. It’s up to us to change their education, not them. 

Let me explain where this is coming from.

I was recently asked to write a resource paper for Healthy Dancer Canada, which was meant to be a short, two page document describing some strategies for dancers to unwind from the physical challenges of dance training and performance.

I apparently had a lot to say on the topic, as this document turned into a 13 page monster (which I’m quite happy with, by the way, and I can’t wait to share it with you all should the committee approve of my word-vomitry).

The wonderful thing about being a writer is how the writing itself can take on a life of its own and take you to places you didn’t expect, forcing you to think critically about things you might not have otherwise considered.

And writing this resource for HDC was the thing that finally made me think about starting to care about politics.

How so?

My beast of a resource describes a number of ways dancers require support in their training beyond technique classes and artistic development, such as:

  • How to cope with and unwind from the physical duress of dance training
  • The need for accessible support systems and mentorship
  • Why we should address fundamental movement quality before adding more hours of training
  • Breathing. Just do it.
  • The importance of educating dancers on what proper cross-training is and integrating it into their training.


But then I got to the “how” part- How do we fit this information into the current dance training frame-work so that it actually reaches the dancers. I had trouble writing this part.

Who is responsible for implementing these strategies with dancers?

Of course, it’s the dance teachers, isn’t it? Dance teachers have the most influence on the dancers through direct training, education, and mentorship (for better or for worse).

And their ability to do simple geometry…

But many dance teachers only know dance. And while this may be the norm, I think it’s time for that to change. If we want dancers to have the well-rounded training that helps them become their best, dance teachers need continuing education, which is not standard. Yet.

Many teachers have gaps to fill in their knowledge of functional anatomy, biomechanics, and cross-training principles, and should develop an appreciation of the roles the nervous system and movement quality play in their students’ training.

I’m not saying they need to be experts at everything because that is unrealistic, but having a general appreciation is the minimum. A weekend course, or a few books is a good place to start.

So not only do we need to educate and support dancers, we need to educate dance teachers to support the formation of more successful dancers.

KEY CONCEPT #3: Dance teachers need accessible continuing education on how to provide a more well-rounded experience for their dance students, beyond technique.

To educate dance teachers, we need to make teacher training programs accessible to them that go beyond conveying technique.

Not only that, we need to deliberately make space for this in their lives, because a dance teacher rarely makes enough money to take this type of training, or has the time in their curriculum to fit supplemental training into their already packed rehearsal and class schedule, or is even aware that this type of training will be an asset for their dancers.

They don’t see the value, and they don’t see it as a priority. How do we get dance teachers to value their education? To see that they can make a difference in their students’ lives if they did something different?

And hell if RAD has room in it’s syllabus to include “unwinding strategies” as part of their ballet education. Prove me wrong, RAD. Prove me wrong.

So the teacher him/herself lacks the power to elicit change in the system, because teachers can’t teach what they’ve never experienced. I suppose this will be up to the next generation of teachers. Teachers-to-be reading this blog post…

And while it’s great to put the onus on the dance teachers to teach all the things we want them to teach, they need support as much as the dancers do! And I don’t think it’s just as simple as needing better educated dance teachers, but a team of support staff with the requisite expertise.

Kind of like GJUUM is doing for professional ballet in Europe.

KEY CONCEPT #4: Dance teachers can’t be and know everything for their students. A support staff with multiple expertise, or a trusted network working together, would provide the best experience for a dance school/program.

And I kept thinking like this: Going further and further back to find, if not the dance teacherswho could most influence the current dance training paradigm?

Who do we need to speak with who can help teachers see the value in continuing education, and make it accessible to them so they can provide a better experience for their students?

I thought in terms of a university dance program, because that’s the system I have the most experience with.

Got my bike helmet and my BFA, what more could a girl need?

The hierarchy I came up with went something like this.

  • Teaching staff (directly providing education)–> dancers
  • Dance program director (scheduling and influencing what is taught)–>Teaching staff
  • Faculty of arts chair (makes decisions on what can be included in the curriculum)–> dance program director
  • University chair (in charge of budget distribution for all faculties)–> faculty of arts chair
  • Government (decides how much funding universities receive)–> University chair
  • Voting citizens (decide who will make the decisions on university funding)–> Government
  • Advocates for arts education (parents, dancers, dance educators, etc)–>Voting citizens
  • Scientists/evidence (who study the importance of support for dancers and arts education) –> advocates for arts education
  • Bodies who fund research–> Scientists

And that’s as far as I got, but I’m sure it could go on, and I’m sure I’ve missed some important people in between, like where do the parents fit in?

But we can see that to reach the dancer we must look farther back, to a government level to identify the point at which, in this hierarchy, we can make the most impact on the content of a dancer’s education.

And the government level is where the money is.

Dolla dolla bill y’all

Yes, unfortunately it comes down partially to dat ca$h money…

Question: Why do professional ballet dancers have such a short off-season?

Answer: Money.

Ballet dancers don’t make mad money, and so they can’t afford to take that much time off working. If the companies were to receive more funding it would allow the dancers take more time off without worrying about losing money while not performing.

For example,The National Ballet in Toronto gets only 5 weeks off per year. They are left to their own devices to cross-train or hire a personal trainer, and the only time of day they have to cross-train is lunch hour. Compare that to other professional athletes who often get 3 or 4 months off and have an integrated training/medical staff working closely with them. Their strength training is considered crucial and is built into their schedules.

Dance may not be a sport, but dancers are athletes who need a similar, integrated system to support them.

KEY CONCEPT #5: Dancers deserve the care, appreciation, and funding other elite professional athletes receive.

Dance science to the rescue.

A Volkmar original masterpiece

#1 from the “Dancing test tube” series. A Volkmar original.

I now see much more clearly the role the dance-sciences play in supporting dancers.

I am not an academic. I think research and evidence is great, but I prefer the real-life “doing”.  Academics sometimes (not always!) have a poor grasp on how their work fits into real life and, as important as their findings are, they mean little if they can’t be applied.

We all have a role to play, and I’d be remiss not to appreciate that scientific evidence has huge potential to shape the future of how dancers are trained. And it is the government who ultimately decides who gets funding to research what.

How much funding does dance science research get?

My guess is not much. Funding the arts in general is often under appreciated because we don’t see how it helps give us more scientific evidence: The facts and stuff that drive us to make important decisions and “advance” as a species towards enlightenment.

Why did the world decide fat-free food was good? Science told us so (and science was wrong about that).

Science is great and all, but what if I told you that…

…arts education makes the world a better, more compassionate place to live, and helps people innovate better

Read: The arts help people do science better.

This leads me to share my recent fascination with George Lakoff and his teachings in cognitive linguistics and neuroscience. Please watch this video:

Arts education is a big deal:

“Need more innovation? Big ideas come from neural simulation: Reading, thinking, putting things together. Not just doing math and science. These don’t train the imagination in that way. Training people to innovate requires reading and learning about the arts”

What does this mean?

Lakoff explains that to understand why arts education is important, we need to understand how the brain works.

The same part of the brain is used when you imagine something as when you are actually doing it, which can be explained by mirror neurons.

This is called simulation: Engaging mirror neurons to understand and connect with other people and the world and becoming a part of those things. Imagining things that don’t exist in the world but that you could experience through reading poetry, understanding language, seeing a play, visual art, or dance, for example.

Simulation is how we innovate by putting ideas together (ideas being physical circuits in our brain). And innovation is only possible by engaging mirror neurons allowing us to connect with other people and the world around us empathetically, through exposure to the arts.


KEY CONCEPT #6: Exposure to the arts helps us become better at innovation and allows us to connect with other people and world around us- Things we don’t learn from math and science. 

Innovation, new ideas, collaboration and getting along with other people, requires exposure to the arts, and it is sad to see things being cut from schools that provide this experience of simulation: Recess, arts, gym class, things that allow us to embody information and empathize with each other.

Politicians need to understand this.

Some schools want to cut recess, because BEARS!

And maybe dance scientists are so badass because they have the killer combination of arts and science together. Dance scientists may be the innovators we need to change the dance educational paradigm.

I wasn’t expecting to come to these conclusions.

Sometimes I surprise myself.

It appears that to make space in a dancer’s training for supplemental strategies to support their well-being, we need to speak with the governing bodies who dictate who can research and provide evidence on these matters.

This information then needs to be distributed to parents, and advocates of dancers and the arts, who need to express themselves effectively to their communities, convincing the government to allot more funds to allow dance schools and programs the space within their budget and schedule to educate and train dance teachers on how to convey these important ideas, who will then be able to reach the dancers.

And the resources can finally reach the peasants.

To support the dancer is a mission requiring the interdependent cooperation of many, all of whom have an important role to play.

I’m caught in a paradox, and I don’t know how to get out.

I believe that dancers must understand how to take care of themselves and be self-efficacious. No one can fix them and care for them but themselves.

I learned this the hard way.

But self-efficacy must be learned, as with any other skill, and unless we create a pathway to get the information to dancers and teach them how to care and advocate for themselves, it will be impossible for them to learn unless through injury.

Case in point: My life. And the reason this blog exists.

KEY CONCEPT #7: Self-efficacy, self-care, and self-advocacy are skills dancers should be able to learn with the proper educational paradigm, before injury, which is often too late. 

So I guess to wrap this up, please, if you are voting age, let’s support dancers and their needs, and arts education in general, by electing a government that funds the arts, and the sciences that support the arts.

We can start by doing something about this guy:



Dance Like a Human (part 2): Do You Even Shift?

Dance Like a Human (part 2): Do You Even Shift?

 Reclaiming the Frontal Plane for Dummies (for Dancers)

I’d first like to take the time to congratulate myself on actually following through on writing part two, because no one’s going to give me a high five for that but me. Go me! #SelfAccountability.

To recap part one (<– read it now before you continue if you haven’t already! I can wait…):

Dancers rarely work on fundamental movement quality in their training, and tend to develop a movement vocabulary that, while rich in technical skill, has major cracks in its foundation, denying them several important ranges of natural human motion.

To restate what I said in part one:

[Dancers] 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.

Being flexible has nothing to do with it. You can’t stretch movement quality into your system, and as we will discuss today, stretching can sometimes make things even messier.

Today, part two, we are going to explore one specific part of this “dance like a human” thing that gets a bit messy. Ready?

Warning: This post is long, but I tried to make it easier to read by including lots of fun images and subtitles in the formatting. Grab some coffee, ’cause we’re going deep. 

Whether You Like it or Not, SHIFT Happens

Courtesy of Gary Ward. Whether you like it or not… Shift. Happens.

I’d like to introduce you to pelvis shift. A little appreciated movement essential for dance, gait, and, if you want to get philosophical (maybe another time), for life.

Shift refers to moving laterally through space, like a Krispy Kreme donut going smoothly down a flat conveyer belt. Imagine your pelvis is that Krispy Kreme, sliding along, not a care in the world.

Each time you take a step, at the same moment you heel strike, your pelvis must make this smooth shift from one foot to the other (as pictured in Gary Ward’s lovely sketch—>).

Gary, in his Anatomy in Motion course calls this the “leap of faith” because it’s the only time in the gait cycle that your center of mass must breach your base of support, and you have to trust that your swinging leg will be there to catch you on heel strike so that you don’t fall on your face.

This side to side shift of the pelvis is an extremely important movement in the frontal plane that gets really effed up a little lost for most dancers. Shift is an important part of many aspects of dance technique (as we’ll discuss a little further down), but ironically, dance technique and training can mess up our ability to shift.

Alas, whether you like it or not, shift happens.

If it didn’t, you wouldn’t be able to walk, let alone dance. So when you lose the ability to perform pelvis shift, your amazing body finds other ways to make it happen. Is it going to be the most ideal, most effortless, safest way? Nope.

Regardless, #ShiftHappens.

Some people call this “compensation”. I call it being a “skilled movement strategist”. Many of us dancers are a little too skilled in this domain…

Let’s first get clear on what frontal plane movement is and where pelvis shift fits in.

Frontal Plane Movement 101

Our bodies move in 3 main planes:

Sagittal plane: Front and back movement. The plane of motion for a somersault.

Frontal plane: Side to side movement. Plane of movement for a cartwheel.

Transverse plane: Rotational movement. Plane of movement for a pirouette.

Our bodies are always moving in all three planes at once. Some muscles have different roles in all three planes in one motion. One muscle might be shortening in the frontal plane, but lengthening in the transverse plane during the same movement.

Our bodies are cool like that.

When we lose the ability to perform a movement in one plane, we can make up for it by moving more in a different plane, or by moving a different joint more in the same plane(we’ll go through a dance specific example of this a little further down).

Just for today, let’s keep this simple and stick to the hips and pelvis, although it’s good to know that nearly every joint and muscle in your body, but not all, has a role in frontal plane movement (the knee, for example, does not do much in the frontal plane, because that would suck).

Your turn to think

Stand up and try to figure this one out:

What are the possible movements for the pelvis and hips in the frontal plane?

Go ahead, take your time, stand up and play around with side to side movement. What do you feel happening? I’m looking for 4 main movements. Here’s a nice picture to look at while you think and move:

Well? What did you come up with?

Hopefully you got to these 4 main movements (one of which we already named):

  • Pelvis shift
  • Pelvis hike
  • Hip adduction
  • Hip abduction

If you had trouble naming or feeling these, either you need an anatomy lesson, or your body doesn’t do them well. When we have trouble accessing joint actions, we often will also struggle to describe them with words and conceptualize them. That’s because all thought is embodied. But that’s a tangent I won’t go down today.

These are motions your body must be able to do in frontal plane. In life. In dance. And if one is messy, they all get messy.

frontal plane hip movement

This lady is in a position of right pelvis shift, right hip hike, right hip abduction, and left hip adduction.

Why do dancers easily lose frontal plane competency?

  • Over stretching, and the need to be very flexible (often to the point of pathology)
  • Rushing technique progression, or poor instruction on proper technique
  • Aerobic fatigue causing sloppiness and compensation
  • Technical demands of the specific dance style: Turn-out, need for excessive amounts of hip abduction or hiking and spinal extension.
  • High resting muscle tonus (sympathetic nervous system dominance)
  • Poor breathing mechanics (contributing to above sympathetic dominance)
  • Arabesque. I won’t get into it today, but arabesque is like an open chain, patho-shift. If you want me to explain that one, shoot me an email and we’ll talk.

The above aren’t bad, they are a reality of dance training. It is important to understand that they will likely develop into”creative movement strategies” that may not be ideal long term, and it would be wise to have supplemental strategies to keep these challenges in check.

Do you even shift?

Do you shift, bro?

From a human motion perspective, we can assess shiftability a few different ways. Let’s look at some of my faves:

1) Standing closed chain pelvis range of motion exploration, AiM style.

This is your chance to experience triplanar movement at your hips and pelvis. Can you shift? What else is limited? And what are you good at? Take a few minutes to go through this with me. Makes for useful outcome measures.

Note, you can also take this idea and explore any joint or structure in your body, because shift isn’t only a pelvic event.

2) Adduction drop test, PRI style.

This is important: If you can’t adduct your hip passively, it is doubtful you can do it standing up. Get a PRI trained person to check you out. If you are lucky, you live close to Michael Mullin or Sarah Petrich, who work with dancers and are PRI level badass.

3) Manual muscle pattern testing, NKT style

While I’m sure there are some muscle testing haters reading this, I argue that NKT done well looks for patterns, not muscle strength, and is not yo mama’s MMT.

Some common patterns in non-shifters with NKT testing are:

  • Adductor compensating for opposite adductor and/or QL
  • Adductor compensating for opposite side external oblique, or same side internal oblique
  • Diaphragm compensating for TVA (breath holding pattern keeping them in spinal extension)
  • Crazy pelvis ligament stuff inhibiting hamstrings, adductors, hip flexors, quads, etc.
  • Jaw compensating for anything in the lateral sub-system (QL, adductors, TFL, glute med).
  • Neck compensating for obliques

Lots of ways to get the job done.  It’s cool to see these patterns show up in muscle testing and movement screening, and then re-integrated into better quality movement through training.

4) Gait observation, ninja style.

Gait observation is highly subjective, and it’s something that I am working on getting better at least somewhat decent at. Give me 10 years and ask me how it’s going…

That said, if you take a look at this lovely dancer lady walking, what you should notice is whether or not her pelvis is going from left to right at the appropriate time: As her back heel starts to lift off the floor. Is it??

Not so much…

How Many Ways Can You Cheat Frontal Plane?

So if you can’t shift well, how are you even walking? 

As a self-proclaimed expert at butchering frontal plane hip and pelvis movement, you can trust that this info is direct from the source: Chief Creative Movement Strategist Volkmar (CCMS). Esquire.

Just making an abomination of the frontal plane. But I make it look good!

CCMS Volkmar: Just making an abomination of the frontal plane. But at least I’m respecting my ligaments. Mostly.

Remember, when a joint can’t move in one plane, something else will try to do it in another.

Shift. Happens.

Here’s an example that may resonate with you. Let’s say you can’t shift your pelvis to the right very well, but you need to get on your right leg (right shift) to tendu side with your left leg. What are your options?

The most common strategy will often be to hike the hip on left side, which the lady in the image above is doing (hike and shift both being frontal plane hip movements). In pure shift, the hips stay level.

You could also get the job done in two other planes of movement: Extend your spine (sagittal) and rotate your pelvis to the right (transverse), which helps you accomplish the same weight transfer, but with more expended energy and torque.

Or maybe you choose to shift excessively from joints other than your pelvis. For example maybe shift your ribs or your skull to the right more excessively to accomplish a similar weight transfer.

Sneaky. And then you wonder why you can’t get rid of that upper body tension. Maybe if your skull wasn’t busy trying to be a pelvis…

One final note on frontal plane strategies

This blog post is primarily geared towards ballet and contemporary technique, but I also used to salsa dance, and have worked with a few salsa dancers.

What’s interesting about this dance style is that they do what I call a “reverse shift”: When they take a step, the pelvis shifts the opposite way. Not to mention it’s an anterior tilt dominant dance style. Latin dancers don’t shift well, but they hike like champions (same-plane shift strategy).

Where does shift show up in dance technique?

“But Monika, what does this have to do with helping me dance better?”.

I’m getting to that. Keep in mind that losing the ability to perform any range of motion is never ideal. Maybe you need to read part 1 again?

The ability to shift is actually a majorly huge deal in dance. It wasn’t until after I learned how to shift that magic really started happening in ballet class, I could stop clenching my neck and jaw, my turnout became easier to access, and I could balance in adage like a boss.

Dance is pure shift.

Chassé pas de bourré is shift.

Start thinking less in terms of “pelvic stability”, words which, while important, don’t frame the concept properly. While stability implies non-movement, shift implies allowing lateral movement.

Were does shift show up in dance? Everywhere.  If you need to be on one leg or change directions, you need shift. What doesn’t require shift? is a better question.

Unadulterated pelvis shift is what allows dancers to change directions and transfer their weight quickly and smoothly without tensing anything in their upper bodies, holding their breath, or creating excess torque (at the lower back, hips, neck, or jaw, for example).

If you can’t shift, you can’t have single leg stability because it’s impossible to get your body’s mass over one leg without first shifting your pelvis. Try it.

Non-shifters are barre-grippers.

Even keeping a “neutral” pelvis requires shift, because if you can’t let your pelvis shift, you’ll have to cheat it in another plane or from another joint (as we already discussed). In reality, a pelvis that shifts right and left well is a pelvis that can be neutral when it needs to, and leave neutral when it needs to.

Neutral only being a phase that lasts for an instant between 0.6-0.8 seconds.

Neutrality = having movement options.

A pelvis that shifts has options.

A pelvis that shifts lets you reduce tension and torque from other parts of your body and makes dance more effortless.

What muscles help you shift?

Short answer: Don’t worry about it. 

A lot of dancers screw themselves over by becoming so focused on what muscles should be working that they tense up, get in their heads too much, and forget to feel what’s happening. 

Instead of asking, “Am I doin’ it right?”, ask “Am I feelin’ it right?”. Daft Punk knows what’s up.

“And everybody will be dancing…”

Let’s think in terms of two of Gary Ward’s rules of movement:

Joints act, muscles react: Shift happens, and muscles react to it. Muscles don’t make you shift, you shift.

Muscles must lengthen before they contract: In order to shift, something has to lengthen as a reaction to your pelvis’ lateral movement in order to decelerate it (slow it down), and then contract to get you back to center, like a sling shot first pulling back to shoot a stone.

So what is reacting to the pelvis shifting? What has to lengthen and load eccentrically in order to allow the pelvis to move laterally and return back to center?

Wait for it.

It’s your dance teacher’s favourite muscle to tell you to strengthen…


Ah, yes… your friends the adductors.

But also the other members of the lateral sub-system that react to lateral movement:

Glute med and the adductors have a larger role in shift, as we are discussing it today.

But let’s be clear about one thing: Inner thigh leg raises will do nothing for you if you can’t eccentrically load your adductors, or passively adduct your hip joints, which allow shift to happen in your body.

Clams are also somewhat of a waste of time.

Why are my adductors so tight?

Dancers’ adductors are often locked long (from overstretching), so they lose the ability to eccentrically load, or, because they are already on load all the time, they tighten up to protect themselves from strain. And you wonder why stretching your adductors doesn’t relieve the tightness…

Get up on your feet and shift your pelvis over to the right. you should be aware that your left adductor is lengthening, hence, decelerating (eccentric loading) the journey the pelvis makes from left leg to right leg. This happens with every step you take.

Shift is less about clenching the same side inner thigh to pull you over, or pushing with the opposite hip abductors, and more about allowing joint action through decelerative muscle reaction.

Sounds like less work, doesn’t it? You bet.

And now you can see how it can be problematic for dancers who have overstretched their adductors and pelvis ligaments to the point of pathology. You can’t shoot a stone very far with a stretched out elastic band.

Reclaiming shift: Monika’s Story

I know what you’re thinking, “Not another story, Monika. Get to the dang point!”. But this one is good, I promise. And relevant, too.

So, let me tell you about my journey reclaiming shift (still a work in progress, by the way), and I’ll try to keep it concise. You can also read THIS.

I was first introduced to shift by Dr. Brock Easter, my go-to body healing dude in Toronto.

I remember him telling me once, “When I start working with a dancer, I go straight to assessing the adductors, and it’s almost always the primary dysfunction.”

Words of wisdom from Dr. Brock: If its a dancer, go for the groin. Did I get that right? 😉

Anyway, I went to see Brock specifically to learn about Anatomy in Motion. He assessed me and put me in shift phase. In this AiM movement, the key points are that the pelvis should shift across the midline, and you should feel the adductors loading eccentrically (kind of a stretchy/worky feeling) on the leg you’re shifting away from as it abducts and externally rotates.

I didn’t feel shi(f)t.

And I continued to feel nothing for almost a year, though I practiced diligently every day. My body felt better for sure (back pain, hamstring pain, being things I was working forward from), but still no adductor function.

And then I had a pelvic floor intervention.

Not like that….

It was February 2015 at Neurokinetic Therapy level 2 in Toronto, and I was the demo body for pelvic floor testing and correction. And a good one, at that.

Dr. Kathy Dooley found that my anterior pelvic floor was facilitated bilaterally. Probably because I was a breath holder, and used to be a chronic pee-holder for many years. I was good at it. Like, really good. Too good.

Dooley did an NKT correction, showed me how to anti-kegel (kegels aren’t the answer to all life’s problems, guys), and I felt my abs work in crazy new ways. I felt pretty good afterwards.

Then, because it had become a habit whenever I was standing around doing nothing to practice shift phase, I got up and tried it out, and HOLY CRAP. Hello adductors.

Why did this happen?

This might not be the complete picture, but to the best of my limited understanding, to be able to access pelvis shift in frontal plane, the pelvis needs to be in a posterior tilt in the sagittal plane, and the pelvic floor needs to be able to stretch to allow the lateral movement. In February 2015, I couldn’t posterior tilt if I used max effort, and I couldn’t let go of my pelvic floor. Getting my pelvic floor to chill out allowed me to access abdominals and finally get into a post tilt. Boom. Shift happened (#).

Too, the obturator nerve is responsible for motor innervation of the adductor muscles, and can become entrapped in the obturator canal, for which the obturator internus facscia creates a medial wall.

Why does that matter?

As Dooley explained to me later:

You stretch pelvic floor, you allow shift with a stretch of OI fascia, taking tension off obturator nerve so it can innervate adductors.

Obturator nerve entrapment is also known to be related to adductor strain. Hey, I’ve had a few of those!

All that to say, just because my adductors weren’t working the way I would have liked, don’t go blaming my adductors! Concentric adductor exercise wasn’t the solution I needed.

Remember, joints act, muscles react. When I finally was able to get my body in a decent position, and maintain it as I shifted, I felt adductors come alive in a meaningful way for the gait cycle.

So on that note, I want to leave you with some ideas for how to optimize your ability to let shift happen by getting joints to move into positions that allow muscles to react in more useful ways.

Let’s get shifty

To accomplish a proper pelvis shift, you need these three big things:

1) Ability to exhale fully and depress ribcage (ZOA)

2) Posterior pelvic tilt

3) Lumbar flexion

If you can achieve these movements but still struggle to accomplish shift, there’s something else going on. Or you might need some guidance/therapy/time, like I did.

This past January and February I did free movement screens with some Ryerson dancers, and not one of them could posterior tilt past neutral. Posterior pelvic tilt should not be a max effort event.

You can get all three of the above movements at the same time with these two exercises (which you have seen in many, many blog posts before because they are #DTPfaves).

1) Cogs (emphasis on flexion/exhalation phase)

2) 90/90 Hip Lift

Do these two activities, and go back to check your pelvis range of motion. Is anything different? Can you shift more easily? Tuck more easily? Hike more easily?

If you’ve achieved requisite range of motion into flexion/posterior tilt/ZOA, you may now have opened a window of opportunity to reclaim some frontal plane shift. So let’s do that now.

The moment you’ve all been waiting for.






Worth noting that every joint in the body plays a role in shift. You can’t see my feet in this video, but they are kind of a big deal. Also, should have mentioned in this video that your back knee needs to stay straight.

As mentioned in the video, for a successful shift, you should feel adductors on back leg loading. If you don’t, it’s not shift. It’s a CCMS Volkmar special.

Please note that this movement is best learned from someone who’s been trained in AiM, and you can find such a person HERE. 

This next exercise allows you to apply shift to a dance-specific situation in it’s most fundamental form: Transferring from first position to coupé and into tendus front and side.

This one kills me. And I like it.

I stole this exercise from my favourite ballet teacher, Christine Wright (who you can find teaching at the National Ballet School in Toronto, Monday-Friday from 10am-12pm. Another #DTPfave).

If you are doing this one well, your hips should stay level (not hike) as you shift onto one leg. If you are able to do this, you may feel some burny/stretchy/eccentric load feels at the front of the hip you’re standing on, indicating that you’re “on your leg”, or, not compressing the hip or going into an anterior tilt/hike on that side.

Remember the wise words of Daft Punk: You’re doin’ it right if you’re feelin’ it right. 

The other side of your butt should not leave the wall as you shift (that’s a transverse plane violation), and you should be able to maintain 3 points of contact with the back of your body on the wall: Back of skull, ribcage, and pelvis.

Breathe, 2, 3, 4.  It ain’t easy.

Dancer&#39;s ClockAlright. That was a lot… Just imagine how I felt editing this monstrous thing.

I hope you’ll experiment with shift, reclaiming it back, and maintaining it as a regular strategy to unwind from the duress of dance training and enhance your performance abilities.

In part 3 of Dance Like a Human, we will be discussing another key human motion to reclaim for better performance… But I’m not saying what it is! Stay tuned.