Once a week I get to work with the dancers of a post-secondary dance academy here in Toronto. The official class name is “conditioning”, but only because I didn’t come up with a name for the class fast enough when they asked me for one. If I had been on the ball, I would have called it something like “fundamentals of movement and strength”, but I guess I’m stuck with conditioning for now, as inaccurate as it is.
Yesterday was my first class of the new semester. Sadly, I only get to spend one hour per week with these talented guys and gals, which is not really sufficient. I can only hope that they see enough value in the class material that they choose to use on it on days when they don’t see me. Otherwise, that one hour, once per week, out of the full 5+days per week they spend in the studio is not sufficient to make changes in the way they move and perform.
Because it was the first day and this is a group of students I haven’t worked with yet, I got to give my spiel which, I hope, was at least somewhat inspiring and useful. There is no formal exam or assessment for my class, but I did give them the “class rules” (and made them write them down, fully taking advantage of my title as “faculty” muwhaha. Sometimes I use my powers for the greater good).
These rules, as I reflect on them now, are likely to be useful for anyone who exercises or plays a sport, wants to become great at their athletic endeavor, or simply wants to enjoy movement to the fullest without unnecessary, preventable injuries and discomforts.
Rules for humans, not only dancers. So I’d like to share them with you now.
These are not the only “rules”, but they are good start and cover a lot of bases.
7 RULES FOR A HIGHLY EFFECTIVE MOVEMENT PRACTICE (for dancers)
1. You are a human being before you are a dancer.
Or an “x”, “y”, or fill in the blank with your activity.
I can remember the first time I heard this line. Yeah, I stole it from a girl in my class in university, and, to this day, I greatly admire her maturity and clarity in coming to this conclusion years before I would understand its significance myself. But it stuck with me, and, while she is now establishing herself as a talented dancer/choreographer, I can now appreciate how these words, and the persistent congruence her actions had with these words (placing value in her human self above all else, even her dancing), is, somewhat paradoxically, what is likely to be a major contributing factor to her success.
You can’t dance if you don’t have a healthy body to dance with. Respect the body. Respect the body’s structure and how this structure has evolved to move over thousands of years. Dance, especially dance as it is now, has not existed nearly as long as the human body has been around for.
It is crucial to have these priorities straight. When faced with any decision in you life, it will be useful to consider, “Will this choice benefit my attachment to being a dancer, or will it benefit my human body, it’s longevity and health, and thus my dancing as a result?”
The real distinction here is, are you choosing to reinforce your identity as a dancer in the short term, say, by using a foot stretcher, doing tons of passive stretches, or trying to lose weight by skipping meals? Or are you choosing something that will benefit you, including your body, and all your various identities (dancer, human, sister, brother, friend, athlete, etc).
Take care of the human you, the rest will fall into place.
2. Fundamentals are not of lowest level, but of highest importance.
In the world of athlete development there is this thing called the performance pyramid which we can use as a guide for how the flow of an athlete’s training life would ideally look like. Life, however, isn’t ideal, and this is especially true in dance.
Here is some excellent art by me:
As you can see, on the bottom of the pyramid, the foundation, we have “fundamental movement quality”. Notice that it is a lot bigger than the other tiers of the pyramid. This is ideally what any athlete, and all people, should get to experience before they decide to specialize in a sport.
For a kid, it doesn’t need to be a formal teaching, just being given the opportunity to move all your joints in various ways- climbing, crawling, running, jumping, and playing a lot of different sports, can provide a lot of options for movement and contribute to their movement variability. However, as time goes on and you learn the meaning of stress, you play specific sports for many hours, you learn trained “unnatural” ways of moving, or choose to do things that can distort your posture at rest, many of us will lose our grasp on the fundamentals of movement thanks to our amazingly plastic brains and their ability to adapt to the things we do.
What are these fundamentals? Stuff like possessing your full spectrum of movement potential at all joints. Being able to breathe with an effective pattern that gets you an appropriate amount of oxygen for the demands of what you are doing at that moment. Being able to unconsciously create stability dynamically, for example, being able to move your hips while maintaining an appropriate degree of stiffness through your spine. And being able to differentiate body parts and move them independently. Basic stuff like that.
Unfortunately, a dancer’s training will typically (meaning, almost always 99% of the time) start from the top of the pyramid, tendus and foot pointing from day one, and this doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon, especially in the RAD syllabus (just kidding, I love RAD and even did a few levels back in the day).
Dancers never had a chance to work on the fundamentals, nor athletic development (strength, power, endurance, etc) and its not their fault. Knowing this, however, now it IS your fault if you choose not to do anything about it. To know but not to act is not real knowing…
3. Move honestly.
Honesty… On all levels of life, it is something I am trying to understand. What is truth? Is honesty the same as truth? What is “truth” when it comes to our bodies in motion, and how does it serve us?
Truth, simply put, is not a lie. Honesty gets us to truth, but honesty is not truth itself. Honesty is our perception of truth, the subjective experience of calling ourselves out on lying to ourselves and others.
However, simply because you are being honest does not immediately mean you have found the objective truth (whatever that is, if it is even possible), just that you are no longer lying to yourself or believing things without inquiry. “What is truth?” is wayyyy beyond the scope of this blog post and I honestly (see what I did there?) don’t know how to define it beyond “truth is”. In any case, we can all understand at some level what it means to be honest and appreciate it’s role in seeking truth.
Why is this important? Because only good can come from honesty, and that goes for movement, too.
So honesty in movement, what does that mean?
Moving honestly first requires you have enough awareness of how you are moving to recognize that you can move dishonestly, so that you can call yourself out on it.
It requires being aware of what is actually moving. Is it your pelvis shifting to the right, or are you in reality just leaning your body to the left, creating the illusion of your pelvis moving to the right? Are you moving your neck, or are you moving it by moving everything else, while your neck, in fact, stays still? Sneaky body…
Honest movement requires that you become aware of the feelings of safety and danger with motion and inquiring into this information further, not ignoring it, avoiding it out of fear, or staying only in the habitual, comfortable movements.
It requires an awareness of what underlying feeling is driving your movement. Are you moving from a place that is apologetic, fearful, safe, uncertain, unclear, or hesitant? Or are you bold, risk-taking, assertive, shameless, and clear in how you move? There is a place for all, but you must know what is happening and when.
Moving honestly requires being aware of the quality as well as the quantity of movement. So, you can kick yourself in the side of the head, but how does that feel for your body to do? What’s your body telling you about that?
It requires being able to find descriptive words for the quality of your movement beyond, “it feels good”, “it feels tight”, or “it hurts”. What feels good about it exactly? What is the context of “tight”? (is a muscle stuck long or short? Joint locked open or closed? Tight doesn’t tell us enough). And what kind of information is that pain feeling trying to give you? Inquire a bit further into the “truth” of the state of your body.
And honest movement requires that you move authentically like yourself. Not in an attempt to copy your teacher or your classmates, but like you, with the understanding of what this feels like. Do you know what it feels like to move like You? I can’t tell you, and no mirrors can teach you how it feels to move your body.
Honest movement not moving perfectly, for honesty often reveals imperfections. It doesn’t mean to move in a way that looks aesthetically pleasing because honesty isn’t always attractive. It is moving from an authentic place where you understand exactly what’s going on so that you can make moment to moment adjustments that respect what is most appropriate for your body at that time, honoring its abilities and limitations.
And after all, at the heart of dance, the reason why most of us started dancing because we love the feeling of our bodies in motion. When we were young, we didn’t care what we looked like, we just moved because it felt good. One reader referred to her love of dance saying that she longed to “feel the freedom of music flowing unrestricted through my body.” You can’t do that if you’re worried about what you look like.
4. If you cannot breathe during the movement, you do not own the movement.
Breath is an incredible built-in indicator of what your body is experiencing (making it an excellent tool for moving honestly). Your emotional state and physical health can be interpreted via the quality of your breath, as well as you ability to load and use core musculature to provide dynamic stability and decelerate spinal motion.
In motion, if you can demonstrate a diaphragmatic breathing pattern, you are in charge. Good work.
If you can’t- you pull in air with a lot of upper chest movement, with excessive use of secondary breathing muscles (your neck), with your mouth wide open, or your find you hold your breath, it is more likely your survival instincts are in charge, and you don’t want to be dancing and breathing from your amygdala (a part of your brain involved in limbic system functions, such as memory, emotion, and survival instincts). This is excellent information. Now you can start to do something about it (the Explore Phase of Dance Stronger is all about this).
In dance, there will be times when, in order to accomplish a challenging movement, you will breathe in a way that is not highly effective. To prevent this from becoming habitual, recognize this (there’s that honesty thing again…) and do something about it by practicing breathing effectively while performing physically challenging positions and movements outside of class.
5. Slower is better at first- You can’t do it fast until you master it slow.
Until it becomes an unconscious process, movements often need to be practiced very slowly in order gain competence.
The more slowly you move, the more awareness, the more control, and the more honesty you’ll have in the motion.
The slower you go, the more time there is to practice what you are doing. Slow things down, and the more time you spend under tension, building strength. T
The more you slow things down, the more you challenge and develop your ability to focus on the task at hand.
The slower you go, the more accurate you can be with your motion and feel errors as they come, adjusting as they do (crucial for learning and mastering skills).
However, you can’t stay slow forever, unless you plan to only dance adagio and do yin yoga your whole life (don’t plan for it). Progressively increase the speed providing that the same quality can be maintained.
One dancer once remarked to me that, while she had felt that she was making excellent progress in being able to feel stabilizing muscles working when she was doing exercises on the floor, the moment the speed and intensity ramped up in class, as in moving across the floor, she lost it. Not knowing the specific context or the exercises she was doing, I will assume that perhaps one factor was that she was not shown how to progress the exercises to effectively prepare her for the speed of the dance class, and all was lost.
Learn to do it slow first. If you can’t do it slowly, good luck doing it fast.
6. Get out of your comfort zone, don’t be afraid to make mistakes and fail.
Unfortunately for your sense of pride, failure is how we learn and there’s no way around it.
Growth takes place within the perfect balance of support and challenge. You must be challenged enough to make mistakes, but with enough support to be able to learn from these failures and move forwards.
As you can see in my excellent diagram below, you want to find the sweet spot.
If you can walk, you have already experience this sweet spot of comfort and challenge. Your ability to stand on your own two feet is the result of many, many failures. How many times did you fall over as a small child learning to walk? Did you intellectualize the process, thinking, “oh, I fell over, better not try again and risk embarrassing myself”. You intuitively knew that you needed to go into the dark zones where falling was imminent. The baby’s lack of intellectual development is certainly an advantage here.
Be like baby-you. Be fearless, try stuff that makes you fall over sometimes, and risk doing it “wrong”.
As Daniel Coyle writes in his fantastic book, The Talent Code:
“The people inside the talent hotbeds are engaged in an activity that seems, on the face of it, strange and surprising. They are seeking out the slippery hills. They are purposely operating at the edges of their ability, so they will screw up. And somehow screwing up is making them better.”
Trying to be perfect is not the way to perfect movement.
7. Check-in before and after your practice.
Back in the day, before dance classes I had this ritual “ab routine”. I don’t recall ever feeling better or different for having done it, save for the peace of mind of having gone through my ritual and the approval of my teacher. In fact, the routine itself was probably reinforcing all the many strategies I had found over the years to move around pain and injuries.
Put bluntly, it was a waste of time. But I didn’t know better.
How can you know for yourself whether or not the exercises you are using to strength train or improve your technique are actually working unless you are actually checking in with some measure? You can’t. You’ll be guessing.
Take the guess-work away. Before you practice, check in with your body. Get an honest appraisal of what your body is currently doing. Check in again after you practice, or even after one exercise of your practice. Has anything changed? Has that exercise had a positive impact? No? Good to know, now you can stop doing that. Yes? Congratulations you’ve found something useful to work on. Either way you get information.
There are many ways of doing this. In Dance Stronger, I have provided a framework for checking in, but it’s not rocket surgery. It starts as a matter of making the time.
By making checking in a regular thing, you’ll prevent yourself from getting stuck in the trap of doing things because they look cool, because someone told you to, or because it’s what you’ve always done. Get to the truth of it by measuring as objectively as you can.
I’m fairly confident that these rules make sense.
But as always, rules are meant to be challenged and broken. I can’t tell you what to do, but I can share what I’ve learned.
Its great to learn from others through their mistakes, but nothing provides for a better learning experience than making a mess of things yourself. So get out there and screw some shit up (kidding mostly… please don’t blame me if you screw things up in a devastating way).
Was this useful? Does it resonate? Agree or disagree? Love or hate what I have to say? Would love to hear so please leave a comment below to let me know 🙂