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 🙂
Are you ready for a good, old fashioned, 2000+ word blog post, just like I used to do? Yeah you are!
Will this be my last rant of 2016?
Probably. But less of a rant, more of an expansion on a frustration.
This blog post is meant to serve as a follow up to a response I wrote on Facebook to Lisa Howell’s recent blog post on The Ballet Blog, on why dancers should reconsider using a theraband to strengthen their feet. Lisa’s primary issue with pointing into a theraband: Because dancers are likely to scrunch their toes, overwork flexor hallucis longus and other muscles of the calf, and do the exercise wrong. Banded foot-pointery could do more harm than good, so safer not to do it at all.
Oh wait, I lied! There was a time when I used therabands. At the very least I can console myself in the fact that I was trying to help this dancer with her ankle dorsiflexion, not pointing into the band. But still…
In my commentary on my Facebook page (join me!), I agreed that I don’t often (ever, to this point) use a theraband for foot exercises with training clients, but for slightly different reasons than “they’ll probably do it wrong”. I received some comments on asking for a little more info, disagreeing, or sharing their faith in the band to do good.
It’s about time someone questioned my writing:
“using the band save my feet from injury and allow me to strength them in a pretty optimal way so I do not agree. I do when you say that it must be used properly but it’s indeed a really useful tool…”
…band work is a great way to reduce load on the joint, muscles, or tendons during rehab, for example. If a dancer is injured and can’t perform closed chain actions, why wouldn’t you offer band work as an option? A simple solution to the problem of curling the toes is to place the band at the ball of the foot, rather than around the toes. Cue the dancer to keep toes relaxed and point the “foot”, not the toes.”
“Can you comment on restoring ideal movement mechanics?”
I hope to reply to some of those questions/comments now.
My blog post today relates to four primary themes on theraband use:
1) Most peoples’ goals are vague to non-existent when they pick up a resistance band. They don’t know why they’re doing what they’re doing.
2) The open chain nature of banded foot exercises are likely not to contribute to ideal joint mechanics when the foot is on the ground, and area in which dancers need a lot of help.
3) What if the foot isn’t the root of the problem, just a symptom?
4) Will the banded foot-pointery not actually drive dancers deeper into their dance-specific adaptations rather than help them with what they specifically hoped it would? Which brings us right back to point one…
Just what is the goal, exactly?
And don’t say, “to strengthen my arch”, “ankle stability”, or “injury prevention”. That isn’t enough information. Most dancers (and dare I say, some teachers!) doing these exercises aren’t clear on their why.
Fitting that I just finished reading (audiobooking, rather) Start With Why, by Simon Sinek. SInek says, if you have your “why”, the what and how will follow, but without a why, the what means nothing. And while he is speaking primarily of business, this is true on all other levels of life, including your body.
But also, dance IS your business. Your body is one of your most valuable assets, and maybe it’s time to start treating it as such. What if you tried not just doing shit because so and so does it, or it looks cool, or because someone told you to. Make decisions congruent with your best interest in mind.
Unfortunately, I get the sense that many dancers don’t know what “best interests” means. Or they do, but choose to ignore it.
Let’s start with the “why” in the case of these banded foot pointing exercises- The foot’s equivalent of the sit-up. No one’s saying sit-ups are bad (well, some people are…), but you should know why you’re doing them and understand if it’s a choice that matches your goal.
What’s the goal?
Injury rehabilitation? To strengthen your ankles? More “stability”? To improve the arch of your foot? We need to be more specific, and to do that, we need to know more about you, the individual, and where you are right now.
Let’s say, for example, you landed a jump kind of hard and awkwardly and have some shooting pains in your ankle. Or maybe you changed directions quickly in class, slipped, and sprained your ankle. Is this a job for the band? Surely pointing your foot into a band for five minutes before class will help make your ankle more stable, which is what you need, right?
Let’s consider that the most common injuries in dance are to the foot and ankle. Sprains, shin splints, stress fractures, and broken bones etc.
What do these all have in common? Normally, these types of injuries happen while the foot is on the floor. Do we ever see foot and ankle injuries while the foot is in the air? Maybe through impact and direct trauma, but rarely, if not ever, does someone break their foot or sprain an ankle while it is in the air.
These injuries happen due to the way the foot and ankle react (or don’t react…) on the floor, in coordination with the rest of the body.
So if the way the foot interacts with the floor is the issue, for example, why the heck is a common solution to strengthen the foot with a band in an open chain? It just doesn’t make much sense.
Let’s go to town.
Open vs. closed chain
Open chain refers to the foot being off the floor, closed chain refers to the foot being in contact with the floor. The supporting leg in an arabesque is closed chain, the “up” leg, is open chain.
In gym-world, a squat is a closed chain exercise, and a seated leg extension is open chain.
Here’s the important bit: The foot and ankle do completely different things in open vs. closed chain.
Gait (walking) is predominantly closed chain (save for early and late swing). The implication is that the majority of what our brains recognize to be “natural” and useful movements for our bodies are in closed chain, walking being what our bodies were primarily set up to do. Working with how the body is designed to move through gait allows us to make incredible changes to how our bodies move, feel, and perform. This means, more often than not, working in closed chain.
In closed chain, the forefoot and rearfoot should move in opposition to each other due to the foot’s need to be in contact with the floor. If this opposition didn’t take place, the foot would act more as one big chunk rather than 33 articulating joints.
In a closed chain, the foot pronates and supinates.
In open chain, without the floor to provide sensory information, the foot does not oppose like it does when we walk. In open chain, the foot everts and inverts.
An important distinction to make here is between pronation and eversion, and supination and inversion. Pronation and supination are tri-planar movements involving opposing inversion and eversion the rearfoot, foorefoot, and toes.
Because the 1st met is off the ground, the left foot in this image is not supinated, its inverted.
Neither of these movements are good or bad. It simply is important to know the difference in order to make choices that support your goal.
Unfortunately, when it comes to supplementary training, the most popular forms of training for dancers are open chain, lying on the floor. This is fine, but it should not be the only form of exercise they do if we want to prepare them for the demands of dance when they stand up.
Let’s continue with the landing a jump example.
How is it possible for such graceful creatures as dancers to land jumps like a ton of bricks? I’ve been sitting on the exam panel at the dance school I work at this week, and it has honestly been painful to watch the students jump.
If we look at the foot as the first point of contact with the floor upon landing, much is left to be desired.
Upon landing a jump, the foot must quickly pronate (but not too much or too quickly) which will load the tissues on the bottom of the foot, and, like a spring, automatically resupinate the foot as the muscles catch and react to the force of the movement, propelling off the landing leg.
If we have trained dancers not to pronate (misinterpreting when and why pronation is useful) they will be landing a jump with a rigid foot and ankle, which feels pretty terrible. If we only recommend the use of bands to strengthen ankles and feet, we are never allowing them to access a hugely important component of landing a jump- Letting the bones of the foot spread to absorb force, aka, pronation.
I will speak primarily for ballet and contemporary dance in which the aesthetic of the art often interferes with the “ideal” mechanic for landing a jump. I was taught not to let my feet pronate, to push my knees out past my pinky toes, and keep my butt tucked under while I jumped, keeping “neutral” through my pelvis and spine. This aesthetic makes it nearly impossible to absorb shock, which is why the dance studio turns into a herd of elephants when it’s time to jump. I’m sure you know what I mean…
In fact, I already wrote about this HERE. But no one said much about it or seemed to care either way. It’s cool.
I also gave a talk/workshop on this last year at York University.
Wow, my hair was short!
Let’s talk a bit more about pronation
Pronation is a tri-planar movement:
- In the sagittal plane the forefoot dorsiflexes and the rearfoot plantarflexes.
- In the frontal plane the forefoot inverts and the rearfoot everts.
- In the transverse plane the forefoot abducts (or externally rotates) and the rearfoot internally rotates.
The exact reverse is true for supination.
Recall that in gait, the foot, as a unit, should not invert and evert while on the ground (and even continues to oppose in swing to a degree), because this does not allow for a tripod to be in contact with the ground, or, we end up with a very reduced tripod.
Pronation is precious.
In the gait cycle pronation happens just once per step we take.
It is the only time in which the bones on the bottom and medial side of the foot spread open, and the muscles on the bottom of your foot and some of the back of the ankle (achilles tendon, calf), lengthen. This is the way your brain recognizes these muscles lengthening to be safe and useful in order to walk- It’s the way the muscles were set up to decelerate (lengthen under tension) your bones most efficiently as your foot hits the ground.
Sagittally speaking, with each step you take, your plantar fascia, and all the muscles that connect under your foot- tibialis posterior, flexor hallucis longus, flexor digitorum longus and brevis, and all the others under there that support the foot’s arches, will lengthen, and, in response to this lengthening, receive the input required to contract and pull the foot into supination.
As per Gary Ward’s rules of movement from his book What the Foot: A muscle must lengthen before it can contract. We cannot just eliminate one end of the spectrum and expect there not to be consequences.
If, as you walk, dance, and live, you avoid pronation, the muscles of supination will never get a chance to lengthen. Sure you can roll them out with a ball, but that doesn’t change the fact that your foot doesn’t ever use these muscles in movement through their full lengthening-shortening spectrum, they become stuck.
If you are to only train your feet with a band, to contract concentrically, you will have a very hard using muscles to absorb shock as you land a jump, as well as trouble using these muscles to point your foot.
But what about winging? Shouldn’t I use a band to train my ankles not to sickle?
Winging the foot is a weird movement, but by classical standards it looks pretty, so it’s here to stay.
The things we do for winged feet…
Winging, as in the back foot in an arabesque line, is an open chain movement involving:
- Rearfoot, forefoot, and toe plantarflexion.
- Rearfoot and forefoot eversion.
- Whole foot in external rotation.
Not the most natural feeling thing to do…
Maybe your teacher has told you not to sickle your feet, so it’s off to the band to strengthen your feet into a winged position.
But before you set your peroneals on fire with the theraband, or do something silly with the Ballet Footstretcher, consider how this might affect how your feet perform when they are on the floor.
Knowing what you do now about foot opposition when it is on the ground, and the importance of this for shock absorption, and allowing muscles to lengthen and contract (which will actually improve your arch not make it worse), how useful do you think using the band will be for you?
Yes, it will be great for practicing what your foot does when your leg is off the ground, but what if that’s all you do to cross train? What happens when it’s time to jump? Have you prepared your body effectively to cope with that kind of stress?
I’m not saying don’t use the band, but before you do, consider these two things:
- Does using a band match your goal? Do you really need to strengthen your foot muscles, or would it be more useful to give your feet an experience in closed chain, allowing the bottom of your foot to open, lengthening and contracting the tissues through their full range as they were intended to as you move.
- If you are using a band specifically to reinforce an adaptation for dance, such as winging and pointing your feet, just make sure you have a strategy to unwind that so that your feet also understand what to do when they are on the floor. It might be interesting to check first, before practicing a specific skill to death, whether enhancing natural movement mechanics will get the job done on its own.
In the end, there are no right or wrong ways to train your body, but you must know why you are doing what you are doing.
One person’s “wrong” might be your “right”. There may be a time and a place to use a band, just make sure you know what that is for you.
In Dance Stronger, we go into more detail, and a few exercises that integrate pronation and supination in full body movements. If you are interested in going deeper into what I’m talking about in this blog post, you might be interested in checking the resource out.
Questions? Comments? Observations? Abuse? Let me know what’s going on in your head.
If you have found my blog, and continue to read it regularly, then it is likely that you are on a journey similar to mine.
But this is only an assumption.
I can only tell you what my journey has been, and continues to be, and consider it highly probable that if my words resonate with you, you’re pursuing a similar path.
My path is one of understanding my body (not just the body) in motion.
Learning to move “well” again. What does that mean? To move well…
Creating an internal system in which all movements (or as many as possible) are available and safe to perform. A physical system that is supportive no matter what activity you choose to participate in. To have confidence that no matter what you get yourself into, your body’s got your back, because it has its own intelligence and intuition.
A system with options to move in 3D.
A system that you are in clear, open, communication with. A system you respect when you are aware of reaching its limits, and you are appreciative of for all that it can do for you.
How to measure “moving well”
Many people have attempted to measure and quantify the criterion for “moving well”.
The FMS and SFMA likely being the most common systems for assessing movement quality. But is a pass, fail, or score from 0 to 3 sufficient? Numbers are nice for measuring with, but can we quantify moving well?
The FMS and SFMA certainly have attempted to put a number on movement quality, and so have THIS, THIS, and THIS (and many others…)
What I find curious about all this is that many of the people I work with tend not to be interested in the numbers. They just want to feel better. Feel like they’re making progress. And not once have they asked me for numbers to quantify it (but maybe that’s because I rarely bring it up…)
This is what I hear:
“I don’t know how to listen to my body. I need help learning it’s limits.”
“I want to change and re-pattern the way I move to generally feel good and reduce some pain/discomfort.”
“I’d like to be able to find more strength and power in my dancing without having to feel like I have to push myself to my limit and injure myself.”
“I want to get back to dance safely. I feel very disconnected and unfamiliar with my body.”
“I want to maintain the health of my lower back, improve my movement quality, I want to make all my movements more efficient and more rounded and filled out.”
Replace the word “dance” with any other activity or sport.
I want to get back to LIFE safely.
I want to improve my LIFE quality.
I’d like to find more strength and power in my LIFE.
We can’t really put a number on this. That’s not something I can can tell you you’re moving towards, only an experience you can tell me about, and together we can have a discussion around what that means.
We can put a number on your deep overhead squat, and count the number of push-ups you can do, but we can’t put a number on your ability to communicate with yourself, your self-respect, and your comfort in your own body.
Things we can measure with numbers certainly help us. But they can be misleading, too.
Like the gentleman I worked with who’s numbers were “improving”, yet in his body, things felt the same. He was getting more flexible (numbers up), muscles testing stronger (numbers up), but there were some other details, some mechanics that we’re timing quite right, some movements still being avoided. Numbers were improving but he was improving around the issue, not changing the issue.
Maybe people have created these quantifying systems because there is something deeper. Maybe they know this “thing” they are after can’t be measured, but using numbers helps to communicate, and for many people, is easier than listening to their own bodies.
And these numbers point to that “thing”, but they aren’t that thing themselves.
As the saying goes, a number is “like a finger pointing to the moon, but it is not the moon.”
What is it we’re after? What makes these numbers meaningful? The numbers indicate understanding. Safety. Options. Our own, limitless potential.
I think even the individuals who have created these systems of numbers know that they aren’t the whole picture. They remain insufficient, and so we keep trying to improve the systems, debate the systems, practice them and do research on their efficacy and publish studies about them.
Number of pirouettes.
We’re all chasing numbers.
At the heart of it is, “I want to get better”.
But the person who wants to “get better” needs more than numbers. He/she needs understanding.
Someone asked me, “What things do I look out for to make sure I’m moving correctly as I work my way up? I’m not entirely sure where I would expect my old movement patterns to show up in form errors.”
It’s an excellent question. How do I understand my body? How do I trust my body? What do I look out for?
There are really only one of two possibilities…
Look out for anything that feels the same, because that indicates no change, and look out of anything that feels different because that indicates change. Move into the space of “different” and changing.
Look out for anything that feels unsafe, because that is useful information to explore with care, and look out for anything that feels safe, because that will be lovely to explore in more depth.
Recognizing these things: Different vs. same, safe vs. unsafe, is the foundation of your exploration.
Play and explore primarily within the “different and safe” space. Move past your usual comfort zone.
When exploring the different and unsafe stuff, be careful, respectful, and use awareness, but also understand that these movements need to be charted, not avoided. Maybe not right now, but eventually.
Is there one particular, best method for doing this? Nope. Every method, every exercise, even the ones that don’t “work” are part of the journey.
But it does help to have guidance and support. It helps to have people you can talk with about your experience and gain inspiration from. It helps to educate yourself. It helps to trust and follow-through with a thought process. And it helps to make it a priority. A REAL priority. Not just a , “Oh it would be nice to…”.
What are the confirmatory signs?
How can you tell that things are changing in your system, moving you forwards? Use numbers. They can definitely help, but they can’t tell you everything you need.
So let’s try something now, if you’re up for it. Grab a pen and paper and write this down.
Pick three words to describe:
- Your body in motion
- Your body at rest
- Your relationship with your body
Pick more than one word for each, if you like.
Maybe in motion you feel blocky, choppy, sluggish, fluid ,or smooth.
Maybe at rest you feel disconnected, uncomfortable, restless, apprehensive, certain, calm, ready, or solid.
Your relationship might be described as nurturing, appreciative, trusting, dishonest, uncertain, disrespectful, having poor communication.
Don’t pick words the words you would like to hear, choose the words that are the truth right now.
These words are describing the quality of your experience in your body. When these words change, you begin to describe your body’s experience differently, that is a sign. And when these words make you smile, that’s great, but don’t stop the exploration there.
If you can’t find any words, or you think this is stupid, that’s a sign, too.
Write your words down today. Then, forget all about the words you wrote down. Set a reminder in your phone to check in with them again in a few weeks, months, or whatever.
Now do the work.
Do the exploring. Establish a daily practice. Get the guidance and support you need. Get the education you need. Do something different than you’re doing now.
When you check in again with the words you selected, has anything changed?
Are things the same or different?
Do things feel more or less safe?
I’d love to hear how it goes.
Last weekend I was at the IADMS conference in Hong Kong to learn from and present to some of the smart people in the dance medicine and science world.
In the picture you’re looking at myself in the middle, along with Lauren Warnecke from Chicago, of Art Intercepts, and Christina D’amico, from Utica New York, of Enhance4Dance (a strength training program for dancers based out of her gym). The studios at the Hong Kong Center for Performing Arts were absolutely beautiful.
As you may have read HERE, one of my movement sessions was cancelled due to typhoon. The typhoon itself turned out to be quite underwhelming, and more annoying that terrifying (not complaining about being safe, though!).
Lauren, Christina, and I collaborated to hold a movement session on strength training applications for dancers (it’s just a shame so few dancers can actually afford to attend the conference!).
Our session should really have been titled, “Here’s how to actually perform the exercises that the research says are beneficial for dancers to do in a way that your body will thank you for”. But that doesn’t roll of the tongue as nice.
I EVEN LEARNED A THING OR TWO…
Always learning a thing or two.
As Julien Smith said, and words I live by, whether deliberately or not, “Aim to be the stupidest one in the room.” That way I’m always learning.
For me, a key take-away from IADMS this year was the realization that the need to cater to the individual needs of dancers, not to generalize that dancers, as a group, should do x, y, and z, is generally lacking recognition in research land, or is simply slow to. After all, this is only the 26th year of IADMS.
We see the big picture quite well now, but the application requires us to zoom in and focus on reaching individuals and communities.
This is already something that I think we all know intuitively, but to see some presentations addressing this made me realize that maybe it isn’t as appreciated as I thought. Too, to see some presentations NOT discuss individual variance in how we should treat and train dancers brought it’s importance even more to the forefront in my mind.
What the heck am I trying to say?
Individual dance genres have their own unique needs. Let’s be wary of saying dance is THIS or THAT. Dancers should do this and that. There is so much variation between each dance style.
Individual individuals have their needs. Based on their injury history, lifestyle, and other factors that make me and you unique from Cindy Lou.
And individual species have their needs (us humans). As a species, we all have (ideally) the same biomechanics and anatomy, regardless of what we do with it. Dancers aren’t some special species…
To the end of every research presentation supporting strength or cross training for dancers, the addendum, “if done in a way that serves each dancer’s individual needs as a member of the human race”, would have been a nice touch.
Though our mechanics and anatomy are essentially the same, I do not move like Cindy because I am not Cindy. I have different set of challenges than Cindy, and this needs to be understood and respected in a training program or treatment strategy. Cindy and I should not be treated like the same person.
Common sense, right?
And then someone said something that pissed some people off
In a generally inspiring way.
There was this one particular presentation that ended by “concluding” that strength training was not good for dancers and other athletes, and that this presenter’s particular way of training only motor control to address individual asymmetries was far superior, and conventional strength training is the cause of many injuries. Therefore, dancers should not strength train (because apparently strength and motor control are two things that can’t be trained concurrently… But that’s a rant for another day).
It was very interesting to observe my own reaction to this statement. I could feel my heart beating a little faster. I looked over to my left and saw Lauren’s eyes widen.
On one hand, my ego and my biases were outraged. What he is saying goes against what I built my career upon. This must be what it feels like to be a podiatrist on an Anatomy in Motion course realizing that he could help people get out of pain without selling orthotics.
But on the other hand, I could completely agree with him. It is true that strength training, if not done in a way that addresses an individual’s needs, and not done in a way that prioritizes quality movement over quantity movement, can be deleterious.
But so can any activity. There’s a rather large “IF” missing.
The use of one word in his conclusion changed everything: “Is”, as in, “strength training IS bad for dancers and athletes”, I think is what ruffled my feathers, and those of my fellow strength coaches in the audience. The use of absolute terms, “strength training causes injuries” pissed a lot of us off. Not only that, they are dangerous to use because not everyone has the sense to think a little deeper about the use of absolute statements and their truth.
But at the same time, his “conclusion” also challenged our thinking. What if he has a point? And I think he does. Not that strength training is bad, but what if this presentation was a wake-up call for some folks in the audience that the way that we’re training dancers to gain strength isn’t serving them?
Are we paying close enough attention to the details?
Do we have enough trainers and coaches in our field that can observe and assess movement and guide dancers safely and effectively through whatever style of cross-training and strength training they decide to do?
On both of the above counts, I don’t think we do. And I’m not saying that I am awesome, either. I’m still learning, and the more I learn the more I realize that I know very, very little about movement and strength training.
I think our favourite presenter’s core message is significant: Dancers and athletes should be treated as individuals, not as a group, and should be assessed and given exercises that are specific to their needs.
This is something that I firmly believe. No, it’s not just a belief. It is the truth as far as I can tell. And it is why I feel lately that writing this blog as a “do this exercise to get this result and be awesome” doesn’t sit right with me ethically, because what might be extraordinarily useful for one individual at one particular moment in time could be exactly what another person should not do.
And this core message- address the individual and don’t clump dancers together as one group with only one set of needs, is one reason why Lauren, Christina and I felt strongly that our movement session had value.
Here’s what we did: We simply broke down three important fundamental movements: Hip hinge (aka deadlift), squat, and push-up. We went through the technique. We troubleshooted. We demoed what to do and what not to do. We hoped it was useful… (and later we learned that it was!).
It wasn’t rocket surgery, but it was info that we hoped dancers, dance sceintists, and dance teachers could appreciate and use.
“Here are the exercises the research tells us dancers can use to their benefit, but most importantly, this is an opportunity to explore them in your body, ask questions about what you’re experiencing so that you can feel confident doing them on your own, and know how to respect your body’s limits while doing them.”
That important experiential stuff that many sciency, medical folks might not have the time for or appreciate as often as we’d like.
In fact, as I encouraged one such sciency-guy to “experience the movement in your own body” before bombarding me with questions on the supporting “evidence” for what I was presenting, he told me I was being too philosophical, too spiritual, too “yoga” (whatever that means). Well, what if what’s missing from dance medicine and science IS a little bit of philosophy, a little bit of experiencing, a little bit of spirit, and a little less intellectualizing and over-analyzing?
But THAT is the difference between strength training that hurts, and strength training that serves a useful purpose for performance.
More often than not, it’s not the what, but the how. It’s understanding the experience you’re having with it. And that is not something easily taught, or easily proven with evidence.
I don’t think we can measure someone’s experience of their understanding of their body in motion- An important skill required for dancing, strength training, yoga-ing, and thriving as a human, whatever you decide to do. And yes, it is a skill, meaning that you can learn and practice to do this better.
And it’s a shame that information can be interpreted in the way that the presenter who thought strength training was bad had done.
Let’s finish that sentence.
Strength training CAN be bad IF…
And even if it does hurt someone, is that not a learning experience? Is that not why this blog I write even exists?
Everything serves, even when it temporarily hurts…
Thank you IADMS 2016 for challenging my thinking, and for your tremendous support of the two movement sessions I actually was able to present. Until next year… Hoping for no typhoons in Houston.
“I don’t have time in my schedule to include cross-training and self-care.”
Is this something you find yourself saying?
Do you prioritize getting ahead in your dance training over taking care of yourself?
Are these two things mutually exclusive? Or are they two sides of the same coin?
This was the conversation I found myself having on the highest peak in Hong Kong. Yeah, we’re here in HK for the IADMS- International Association for Dance Medicine and Science annual conference
Today, I am writing this from our Airbnb as there is a level 8 (out of 10) typhoon warning in effect and the conference has been cancelled for today. Right now the weather is not crazy, but who knows what will happen in the next few hours. We dared to venture out for breakfast (spam and hotdogs on instant ramen noodles with instant coffee- What I can only imagine is a traditional HK style breakfast).
What if you placed the same value on self-care and taking care of your body’s needs as you did on excelling as a dancer- technique training, performing, auditions, rehearsing, etc.
One could argue that if you placed the same priority on self-care, then you would be limiting yourself as a dancer. Afterall, to be a successful dancer it seems that you need to make sacrifices. You can’t skip an audition. Can’t say no to a contract. Can’t risk saying no to a choreographer’s wishes. If you say no, someone could swoop in and take the opportunity from you, and this is a competitive field in which it is difficult to be successful.
Just today I saw a former client of mine, who we’ll call Kayla, post something on her Facebook page bragging about how busy her schedule was with dance contracts, yet how her body was falling apart, glorifying the sacrifices she was making to “succeed” in as a professional dancer.
This is tradition at play. This is her education, and you can’t blame her for doing what she’s been taught to do. Being conditioned to think that to be a dancer is to be in pain. That this is how it should be. But it made me sad inside to see that other people “liked” and even “loved” this status. Encouraging her to push her body past it’s limits for the sake of “making it” as a dancer.
But is this what success as a dancer is?
Every dancer’s definition of success will be different. For the dancer above, it is to perform at all costs. To get contracts and make a living doing what she loves, but at the expense of her body. If she were to take time off to rehabilitate and nurture her body, she would have had to say no to some opportunities to perform. She would have had to work more hours at her “Joe job”. She would be making choices that are not moving closer to her definition of success.
But for how long can she sustain this?
It seems the way she is going, that if she does not make the choice to take care of herself, the choice will be made for her, as it was for me years ago. It is much less fun this way.
Saying no to a dance gig is so hard. I get this.
So is success for her a “right now” matter? One of instant gratification, living from day to day? A means to distract herself from the truth of what is really going on in her body, and the future of her career?
Would she make different choices if her idea of success also considered the long term? Would she still consider herself successful if she had to say no to a few gigs now in order to prolong her career to dance later in life? Could she accept that new definition of success?
This is a discussion on priorities and finding a meaningful definition of success as a dancer, one that takes into consideration both the short and the long term.
I’d like to tell the story of another dancer- a professional contemporary dancer, who we’ll call Molly, with a very different story. Molly came to see me to find a solution to “save” her dance career having been performing through chronic lower back and SI joint pain for three years.
She had come to realize that she needed to retrain how her body moved. She recognized that the current way her body was organizing itself to move was no longer serving her and was exacerbating her symptoms. She was out of options, could no longer dance, and needed help to unravel these patterns and rebuild.
Because she had been dancing through pain for over three years, she had found many strategies for moving around her pain which were now causing more trouble for her body.
In a much different place than Kayla, and perhaps having danced through pain for a few years longer, Molly made the difficult decision to stop dancing and performing to take the time to get to the root of what was causing her troubles.
Her definition of success was long-term. “I want to keep dancing and I willing to do what is necessary for that to be a thing.”
She told me, from such a beautiful space of honesty, that, this was to date one of the hardest things she had to do, but she recognized that if she didn’t stop dancing now, out of her free will, then she would be forced to stop. This is the thing: It IS hard inner work that none of us ever wants to face. So we postpone it. Deny it. But for how long can this be kept this up? How long can the Kaylas of the world dance this way?
This decision required that Molly drop her identity as a dancer momentarily to work with her body as a human, trusting that even though she wasn’t dancing, she was still a dancer, and the work we were doing was to help her get back to dancing again. It wasn’t taking anything away from her dance career, but serving her long-term success as a dancer.
It meant tuning in with how her body felt, not dissociating from and moving around pain. And it meant that some exercises and new movements we worked on fatigued her in just three repetitions. While this could have been discouraging for a dancer like her- known for her powerful, strong movement and used to pushing to and often past her limits, she understood it was a necessary part of the process to honestly appreciate that three reps was all she could do well and that three reps was enough.
She eventually built up work capacity while maintaining the same quality, and within several months was back to dance classes with a better understanding of her body, her limits, and what to do when she felt her symptoms resurface.
Her attitude towards pain has completely changed. She sees it as information and does her best not to judge it. With this new information, she also understands that she could not dance the same way that she used to, but this did not mean she would not dance as well, and in fact, she could find dancing more fulfilling and meaningful with her new appreciation of her body and ability to move more honestly.
She sees her injuries as a gift that gave her the opportunity to get back in touch with her body, and is grateful for the time off dancing that she used to practice honest movement and build strength. Working at her neural edge, moving honestly, and getting out of her comfort zone are what allowed Molly to make the changes she did and return to dancing. Not only that, she committed to practicing daily, fully trusted the process, and made it her priority.
The truth is, if we take our dancing seriously, it is likely we will move through this spectrum: From Kayla to Molly. Or, from Kayla to naught.
But there is another option: To consider these options early in one’s career. To prioritize self-care and cross-training from day one. To start as a Molly. There are very few opportunities for dancers to be brought up in this way. Let us hope that this will change.
This may mean saying no to some things to preserve your body. This may mean making some hard decisions.
In our mountain-top talk, my friend made the point: But in a dancer’s schedule, there isn’t the time to make self-care an equal priority.
But I’m not talking about time. I’m talking about a moment to moment understanding of what is happening in your body right now. Making choices based on this understanding. Making it a 10/10 priority to have this understanding, take 5 minutes before class to breathe, and check in, to make the choice to actually do a warm-up, to make the time for cross-training, and to take time off if you need to.
Making it an equal priority doesn’t have to mean the time commitment needs to be the same as the number of hours you dance in a week, but every choice made needs to be made with awareness of what is in your best interest according to your idea of what success is for you.
So, what does “success” mean for you? What does prioritizing your body’s best interests look like for you? And do you feel like these two things are conflicting, or rely on each other, like two sides of a coin?
This idea fascinates me. I’d love to hear your thoughts.