In case you didn’t see part 1, GO HERE to read that blog post.
A brief background for this blog post: I made a decision last week that it would be useful for me to write notes and observations from the classes I am teaching at the dance academy I work with. Maybe even useful for you…
This blog started in 2012 as a way to to teach myself stuff. Along the way, I lost that a little bit, and got caught up in trying to sound smart. Screw that. It’s time to go back to what this blog used to about. ME!!!!!
Anyway, these are the class notes from week four.
As I mentioned last week, I’ve been curious how the work from our class has been (or not been) transferring into their dancing, in particular, the ballet class they have directly following mine.
I also have noted, over the years, and in my own experience as a dance student, that we are not often given the opportunity to share what we’re experiencing in our bodies, either for fear of being “wrong”, or because we don’t know what our inner experience is. We don’t get to practice sharing our inner experiences, and so there is this reluctance to speak up. That’s what I think, anyway.
So I asked the class, “How do you you feel in ballet class, after this class, compared to other classes of the week?”.
Two things they reported, as a general concensus:
- Where they felt the pressures in their feet when we check in at the beginning of class tends to be the same as in ballet class, and this was not something they noticed before. For example, if they notice their weight was primarily on their right heel during our check in, they will most likely notice that that is also where they tend to have their weight in other classes. This is good information, and a good awareness to have.
- They feel more “aware of their core” in the ballet class after doing the work from our class.
That was about it.
Getting these answers was like pulling teeth. I get the general sense that they have been conditioned not to speak their minds or share their internal experience. After all, dance is about how thing look, right? (that was sarcasm, FYI).
Ideally, I would love for them to have more observations that this, positive or negative, I want to know. If the work we’re doing in class isn’t helping them to notice anything useful carrying over into the next dance class, I want to know about it so that we can change up the class. Their lack of awareness, inability to find words, and reluctance to share experiences worries me a bit.
There are a few possibilities I can think of for why this may be:
- Students don’t understand the exercises I am showing in class but are not asking questions to deepen their understanding.
- I am not sufficiently explaining how the exercises and movements should feel in their bodies, and so their execution is not ideal.
- I am not selecting appropriate exercises for them.
- Students do not immediately see the value in the exercises and so their execution lacks the requisite depth and focus to create a change in their system.
- I am not sufficiently emphasizing the need for quality movement over “just doing” the movement, which creates lack of depth and awareness in their movement execution.
- 60 (but more like 50) minutes per week is not enough to elicit a change in their bodies when compared to the many other hours per week they spend dancing.
- Students may need more hands on cuing to help them move differently, and I am only one person with two arms, unable to help everyone in every class.
- Students require additional practice at home on their own to provide enough stimulus to create a change in their system.
I imagine it is a combination of many of these factors, and I will do my best to cover them in the future.
Foot mechanics day. Yay!
Today was the day we covered a topic that, historically, has been met in dance studios with at least a mild amount confusion, resistance, and fear, and typically takes a good chunk of time to cover for those reasons.
I’m talking about introduction to foot mechanics day. Seeing as dancers rely on their feet like Rocket relies on Groot, I feel it is important to provide the experience for dancers to understand how their feet move and function in as simple terms as possible.
I was impressed at how well this group sailed through the lesson without much objection. Only a few confused, frowny faces, but everything was ok in the end.
Foot loading patterns
Before learning “ideal” foot mechanics I had the dancers first check in with their foot loading patterns without telling them what “should” be happening, or what was “right” or “wrong” to feel. We want to first know what is happening now.
As Feldenkrais has wisely said,
“You can’t do what you won’t until you know what you’re doing”.
Foot loading pattern refers to the area of your foot that receives your body weight (loads) at a particular moment in a particular movement. The center of pressure on your foot at a given point in time. I wanted to them to get a sense of whether or not their feet could pronate and supinate well.
Here’s what we checked in with:
- Active windlass. This checks for supination mechanics as they would appear in an open chain when the big toe is actively lifting up, such as in the heel strike phase of gait.To do: Stand with your feet side by side and lift your toes off the floor as high as you can.What we are checking for: Does the foot supinate? (arch lifts, weight moves more to the outside of the foot, with tripod on the floor- 1st met, 5th met, and heel). We also want to see sufficient movement of the big toe (about 40 degrees extension), but that’s not the topic for today. If, as you lift your toes up, your foot pressures do not change, the weight stays centered or on the inside of your feet (a more everted foot), or if you can’t get toes up to 40 degrees, this shows a lack of supination mechanics with this movement.The class was fairly divided between who could feel their feet supinating, and who stay everted.
- Passive windlass. This checks for supination mechanics in a closed chain while the big toe, first and fifth metatarsals are on the floor, with the heel lifted. The big toe is extending passively due to the movement of the rest of the foot, as we would see in the propulsion phase of gait.To do: Stand with your feet side by side, and press up to a parallel releve (demi-pointe).What we are checking for: Does the foot supinate? Does all the weight stays on the inside edge of the foot, on the big toe/1st metatarsal (everting) or all the way to the 5th met (inverting, or, as we say in dance, sickling). Again, we want to see the foot supinating here, not just rising up on an everted or inverted structure.
Far left: Active windlass Far right: Passive windlass
3. Foot pressures felt in heel in pronation: Posterior to anterior shift. This was to get the dancers to feel where their weight moves in their heel as they move into full weight bearing on one leg in a forward lunging movement.
Something like this…
To do: Start in a split stance, bend the front knee, and as you move your weight onto your front leg in a lunging-type motion tune in to where you feel the pressure in your heel moving from and towards.
What we are looking for: Can you feel the pressure in your heel moving from the back to the front of their heel (6 o’clock to 12 o’clock)? Many of the dancers, in fact, completely bypassed their heels and moved directly onto their toes, gripping on for dear life. We did not move onto the second part of this check-in until the whole class could feel the weight in their heels moving from the back (6 o’clock) to front (12 o’clock). No one gets left behind! It took a few minutes…
4. Foot pressures felt in heel in pronation: Posterior-lateral to anterior-medial shift. All those words means is that we are checking to see whether or not the weight in their heel moves from the outside-back bit of the heel to the inside-front bit, in a diagonal line. This is how we would like the pressures to move through our foot as we go from heel strike into suspension (foot flat) in gait to absorb shock.
To do: Same as above, but this time check in with where you feel the weight moving in the side to side plane of motion.What we are looking for: Weight in their heel moving from the outside-back (posterior lateral) part of the heel to the inside-front (anterior medial) part (for your right foot, that would be from a 4 or 5 o’clock to a 10 or 11 o’clock direction). Many of the dancers felt the opposite happening: Weight going from medial to lateral, or just staying stuck on the inside of their foot the whole time. This check in is a great indicator of how well a foot can pronate.
Last semester when I went through this segment of the class with the first year dancers, there was resistance.
“But isn’t pronation bad?”
I wrote a few things about this already, so I will refer you HERE, and HERE, and also HERE and HERE to read more about the necessity of possessing and using pronation in life, and even in dance.
This class dove right in and just accepted that what I was saying was true. Not going to lie, I would have liked a little bit of resistance and questioning from them. At least then I would know these guys don’t just believe shit without asking questions or thinking critically. I am somewhat worried…
To experience pronation in the context of its role in the shock absorption phase of gait, we went through suspension, a movement from Anatomy in Motion in which we couple pronation of the foot with what the rest of the body is doing at this moment in the gait cycle (an exercise you’ll recognize if you are a member of Dance Stronger).
Then I had to pull more teeth out to get feedback on how it felt after doing something many of them had been told was not “right”- pronating their feet!
One dancer expressed how her feet now felt more pronated. I asked her what that felt like, and she replied that it no longer felt like she was standing on the outside of her feet (as is her habitual pattern), and that it felt “good”. Who woulda thunk it?
And another dancer said that she felt more stuff around her hips and butt were activated (In fact, as Gary Ward has written in What The Foot, extension of the hip- activity in the glutes and posterior chain, requires pronation of the foot due to the fact that at the same time as the foot pronates, the glutes and hamstrings eccentrically load).
Two dancers agreed that their weight now felt more back in their heels, and less on their toes than before. This is interesting, because in the gait cycle, when the foot pronates, the center of mass is actually travelling forward towards the toes. Perhaps their experience is due to pronation enabling the posterior chain to load, as I described above, making it possible to allow their center of mass to shift backwards. Or something…).
Not bad for our first go at it! As I mentioned, only minimal frowny confusion. Looking forward to see how we can build on this initial experience in coming weeks.
The rest of class…
We spent reviewing stuff from last week. Nothing exciting to report here.
A few other notes
As the dancers get to know me, they are becoming more relaxed, but less focused. Maybe it’s time to activate Monika-means-business-mode…
Monika-means-business-mode. JK. No guns in class 😉
I am reading the book Deep Work, by Cal Newport, right now, and so, I have on my mind right now the importance of being able to work for long chunks of time without distraction on one’s productivity and ability to learn. Many of the dancers in class are losing this ability to focus and I feel that if it continues to be a thing, their progress will stall.
I am making a mental note for next week to take five minutes to discuss the importance of maintaining their attention in class, treating it as a skill to be cultivated, and, in general, the ability to be able to practice deeply as a highly useful skill, not only for this class, but for dancing, and other levels of their lives. It also is important as it relates to rule #2: honest movement. Difficult to move honestly without the capacity to maintain a level of deep focus.
As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote in his book Flow, The Psychology of Optimal Experience:
“Attention is like energy in that without it no work can be done, and in doing work is dissipated. We create ourselves by how we use this energy. Memories, thoughts and feelings are all shaped by how use it. And it is an energy under control, to do with as we please; hence attention is our most important tool in the task of improving the quality of experience.”
Well that’s all I have to say for this week. I hope you enjoyed and maybe even got something valuable out of reading. I know writing this has been useful for me.
Would love to hear your thoughts, comments, love, and abuse. Leave a comment below if you feel moved to, but I also encourage you to get away from your computer and do something not related to the internet.
We are the third week into the semester at the dance academy I work at here in beautiful Torono.
I am super stoked. Why am I so stoked? I’ve never had the opportunity to work with one dance class progressively for the course of a semester. I’ve done drop in classes with rather irregular attendance, but nothing enhances one’s progress like making it mandatory to show up for class in order to graduate.
I thought it might be nice to share the progress of the class and my observations. And, as always, when I write, I learn. So it will be a nice practice for me to retrieve details deep from my brain. Maybe some of you will even enjoy reading this. And maybe, so will I…
Last semester I did in fact work with the 1st year class at the academy, however, last semester I was not a great teacher. I was gone for a lot of the semester.
First, I was away for a total of 5 weeks to present some things at a conference in Hong Kong, then to study Thai massage in Thailand, and studying Anatomy in Motion in Melbourne.
Then, after a series of unfortunate events involving my own idiocy, a few missed flights, and overstaying my visa in China and nearly needing to pay my way out (a place I had not intended to be in the first place, let alone get stuck in for more than 24 hours), and then contracting the plague after arriving back in Canada three days later than scheduled. So I ended up missing 7 classes that semester. My bad.
This semester, things will be different.
THE FIRST CLASS…
I wanted this class to place an importance on both education- the understanding of why we’re doing what we’re doing, as well performing the physical work to enhance their movement quality and general strength (as is the theme of the class).
I had lofty ideals for this class. I had planned out how I wanted to assess the students at the beginning of the semester, how I would re-assess at mid-terms, how the class would progress, etc. Well, none of that happened. Welcome to reality.
The time-limit factor.
I have 60 minutes per week with them. This ends up being more like 50 minutes per week since they are consistently 10 minutes late for class, and then have to rush off to ballet class immediately after we are done.
Side note: I am super curious to get their feedback on how ballet class feels after having done my class first. More data needs to be collected…
Side note two: The entire class is injured in some way.
So, realizing that 50 minutes per week would not allow me to execute my grandiose vision, I complied with reality, and reduced the amount of “stuff” we’d tackle in a session.
In any case, it is more beneficial to focus on less stuff more deeply, than to do more stuff, superficially. I’d rather the class get through 3 exercises in a deep way, with understanding, feeling what they are doing in a way they can replicate on their own, than 12 exercises just going through the motions in a disconnected way.
I planned for the first class to be entirely a movement exploration. No “strength” training. Not even any real “movement practice”. Just exploring and finding out where they are now. Unfortunately, the heat was off in the studio that day and it happened to be about -20 outside, and so my poor students we freezing to death on the one day we weren’t moving enough to break a sweat. #SorryNotSorry.
What was the assessment? Call it more of a check-in. We don’t have the means/budget to do any objective testing that would require reliable equipment (like a vertical jump test) nor do we have the time to do a lot of assessing. So what can we do to ensure they are still progressing class to class? The dancers can learn the fine art of checking in (as per rule #7). And truly, it is an art and a skill. One that, as we practice, we can hone to move from more subjective to more objective.
For example, if I were to ask you to stand quietly and try to feel your foot pressures on the floor, you may feel that we are standing with equal pressure on both feet, not rolled to the inside or outsides, or weighted more to the front or back of your feet. Maybe you feel pretty dang centered. In reality, what the outside observer might see is that you could be standing with your pelvis shifted to the right, yet feeling centered. In this case, what you’re feeling is likely not to be an accurate read of your foot pressures. Your subjective experience is not matching with reality.
Arguing with reality is a waste of energy. I personally don’t recommend it.
Over time, the ability to improve your objective perception of your body can be trained, much like any other skill. As you learn to feel your body in stillness, and learn how it reacts to various movements, tuning in to what changes, along with someone observing and giving you some feedback from their point of view, you can start to put together a more honest picture of what your body is doing.
One dancer I once had in class told me her feet felt even. The way she was standing told me this could not be the case. “Are you sure that’s true?” I asked her. “I don’t know….” was her reply. At the end of the class, she remarked, “I can feel my arches!”. So, I asked, what did that mean? “At the beginning of class you didn’t know what was happening with your feet, now you have arches. What happened?” Was she standing more on the insides of her feet before, and now she was more centered on her feet? Less everted? Again, she didn’t know. Not yet.
This is the beginning of the process and speaks to the importance of the check-in before and after a movement session. The more information we can gather and correlate with before and after experiences, the better sense we can get of where our bodies are really at.
The check in.
So we checked-in. Foot pressures. Pelvis, ribcage, and skull motion in 3D (a la Anatomy in Motion). And natural spinal motion in sagittal plane. Basic stuff.
- The majority of these dancers don’t know their pelvis from their ribcage. This is a bit of an issue as, in gait and many other activities, for efficiency of movement we need the pelvis and ribcage to oppose each other in all planes of movement. If you rotate your ribs to the right, your pelvis should be able to stay where it is, or, rotate left. This rules is true for shifting, hiking, side-bending, and anterior/posterior tilting, too. The result of this opposition is that we create space between our ribs and pelvis, joints get to open and close, abdominal tissues get to load and contract in response to motion, blood and other fluids gets to go where there was previously no motion, and we can access the lateral and spiraling motions so common in dance more effortlessly.
- Breathing in an “ideal” pattern is not a thing for these guys. This exists on a spectrum in this class- Some dancers couldn’t close their mouths, sit still, or get the breath out of their chests, and others got right into the zone (of apposition…). Interestingly, having seen these dancers perform in their dance exams, it was evident that, for the most part, the dancers who demonstrated a more ideal pattern of breathing (diaphragmatic, 360 expansion, ZOA with exhalation, etc), or were able to change their pattern of breathing with gentle cueing, were the ones that stood out to be as being more interesting to watch dance. Perhaps there is some sort of study someone in the dance science world could do…
- Spinal motion needs a lot of work. Meaning, their quality of spine flexion (rounding), and extension (arching) lacked the freedom and range of motion that would make their lives a lot easier. Many of them have only a few points they hinge off of, so the load sharing through their spines is not kind to them. Too, the natural opposition that should occur between the lumbar and thoracic spine, and the cervical spine, is not yet natural for many of them. Below is a quick recap of what that means:
Then, I asked them how many joints their spines had. Long pause… One dancer finally guessed, “seven?”. “Well, maybe that’s how many YOU have”, I joked.
Our spine has 33 joints. It is my aim for them to be able to feel that and use that mobility in their dancing. And seeing as nearly all the dancers in this class complain of back pain, what better place to start than with their spines.
So, after the check in, we did a little 10 minute exploration of that, and checked in again. Some dancers reported changes in their foot pressures, feeling more centered. Some did not. Either way, it was useful information for all of us.
Onward we go.
THE GENERAL CLASS STRUCTURE
Unfortunately, the 50ish minutes per week we have together is not sufficient to get through the amount of stuff that ideally we’d have time to do. Some equipment would be nice, too. Maybe some kettlebells and some resistance bands would be cool. Maybe at least some mats to make kneeling on the floor comfortable.
Fortunately, I like and am used to minimalism, so the equipment we have to work with is their bodies, the floor, and the air they breathe. I think it will be sufficient.
With the limited time it was a task prioritization challenge to design the curriculum. In an ideal world, we’d have two sessions per week together as a minimum. One class we might spend more time working on movement quality and some more subtle stuff, and the other session more time might be spent on strength development.
In any case, this world ain’t ideal. Here is roughly how each class flows right now:
- Check in. At the beginning of each class we check in consistently with 2 or 3 simple measures.
- Movement preparation/warming up. In this phase we work on things like breathing, spinal mobility, differentiating body parts (remember, your pelvis is not your ribcage!), accessing tri-planar movements, foot mechanics (accessing pronation/supination), dynamic “stretches”, and lower threshold core stability work, getting them warm and primed to move in a more efficient way.
- Actual strength building stuff. Right now, this portion of the class is much shorter, maybe ⅓ of the class time. There is a learning curve for the preparatory/movement quality portion of the class, and each dancer is at a different place. Rather than rush forward, leaving people behind, we go slower and in that way we’ll all make more progress in the long-term. So far we have been learning single leg deadlifts, crawling, and push-ups.Side note: I was super impressed that everyone in this class could do one push-up. That almost never happens.
- Check-in/cool-down. We check back in with the measures from the beginning of class. What has changed, and what hasn’t? We might revisit some breath-work to calm their systems down, and prepare them for the next 90 minutes they will spend looking at themselves in a mirror wearing a bodysuit and pink tights, holding their breath, wishing they had more hip rotation, more flexibility, pointier feet, longer legs, and generally, wishing they were better than they are now: Ballet…
So far, I’m really enjoying this class structure. The difficult bit is making time for everything that is a priority. With more experience, I suppose this will become easier and more intuitive, and it will also depend on the individuals in the class.
Ideally, I’d love the class to be driven by what the dancers want to accomplish and are curious about. I recall several classes last semester in which we sometimes took 10 minutes to discuss ideas that were foreign to them, but important for their progress. Like how lifting your leg up in front of your was not an action performed by the hamstrings, and that “quads” is not a bad word. Getting dancers to learn how to squat seems to go hand in hand with the quads-are-not-bad conversation. Good times.
THEIR PROGRESS SO FAR.
The injured dancers aren’t improving much, which it does not please me to report… I don’t know much about the kind of therapy they are receiving, if any, and they have a strenuous schedule. Too, there is still the fear of taking time off to recover from injuries for being left behind the rest of the pack.
I witnessed a 1st year student, in last semester’s dance exams, dance every single one on a sprained ankle. By then end of the exam week, it was very clear that she should not be dancing, but when you have to make the call between saying you can’t dance, and risking your grades, and taking time off… Well, I’ve been there. It’s a tough call to make that inevitably ends with you not making a choice- Your body says “nope”, and you stop.
- Overall, the rest of the dancers are doing quite well. I have observed that many of them are developing more movement into spinal flexion each week. (Every single dancer in this class has a flat board for a lumbar spine that does not want to budge. But slowly, this is changing.)
- Their focus is improving. At first, it seemed as if they had trouble keeping their mind on the movements we were performing. Some of them seemed to need to stop, and look around the room for a bit before getting back into the movement practice. Each week they seem to be developing more “mental endurance”, and are able to spend more time practicing the movements, and less time getting distracted and re-connecting. As we know, more time spent in deep work/deliberate practice/flow (whatever term you prefer)= better results.
- Breathing and bracing, and creating intra-abdominal pressure is now a concept they embrace and can demonstrate while lying on their backs. This is awesome. One or two dancers are lagging behind here, but overall the group is kicking butt and getting stronger each week and ready to increase the challenge.
SOME OTHER CHALLENGES
As you would expect from a group of collegiate level dancers with goals to perform professionally, these guys are quick adapters with pretty good body awareness. They are mature 18-20 year olds who want to perform their best and are motivated.
The challenge is, they are stuck “on”, and “on” is their comfort zone.
There is a level of arousal that is optimal for performance, and the sense I get is that these dancers are wayyy shifted to the right (aroused) side of this scale. Too much arousal, too much sympathetic nervous system activity, means they will not perform at their best.
I feel ethically not great about giving them a class that is also “ON” (such as a high intensity class) while they are unable to leave their “on” state, as many of them seem to be at this point. I would rather, and feel it is more beneficial at this time, give them the tools to turn themselves down to “medium”, maybe even to “low”, so that they can experience this end of the spectrum, and go back to on, full-force, when it’s required of them.
You can’t turn on unless you can turn off first, and no one gets stronger without allowing themselves a sufficient amount of recovery. This is why we focus for the first part of the class on tuning in, quality of movement, and noticing their breath. Intensity is modulated (challenge/level of exertion) as they can handle it.
Dancers are not athletes that typically receive much guidance on recovery, guidelines for strength training effectively, nutrition, etc. In 50 minutes, I can’t convey everything I would like to, but I can start, and chip away at it every week. It’s been inspiring so far, and a lot of fun.
We’re only three weeks in… Let’s see what these dancers can do.
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 love single leg deadlifts.
I love airplaning and all it’s variations. I can never remember exactly which warrior variation this is in yoga (is it 3?) but I think it is great, ass-burny fun.
Let’s talk a bit more about ankle and foot mechanics during the single leg deadlift/airplane/warrior 3/whatever the heck you call it.
Decided to make some detailed, scientific graphics to illustrate today’s concept. Behold, the airplane.
Recently, I received this question in an email about how to perform the airplane exercise:
Q: “…I’m sure I read somewhere in Dance Stronger you keep your supporting leg bent? Or did I totally imagine that?”
M: There are two trains of thought, and both are proper, as long as your choice is deliberate and done with awareness 😉 You can do it with a slightly unlocked knee, OR with a straight, but not hyperextended knee. If you are going to do it with an unlocked knee you foot should move into a slightly pronated position, while still maintaining a tripod, and if you do with a straight knee, your foot should be supinated (or at least attempting supinate away from pronation), with an arch, definitely not pronated. Try both and see how they feel.
A few hours later, the reply:
Q: Is it just a question of what feels better in your body or is there a reason why you would do one version over another?
M: It’s more like a question of how the foot and ankle coordinates with the knee dynamically in gait. In a single leg deadlift, as you go down, the foot and ankle should naturally pronate, and as you come up, should resupinate. So, bending the knee couples with pronation, and straightening the knee couples with supination. You want to respect that as much as possible in your training. So if you’re holding the airplane position with a straight leg, then you’ll want a supinated foot. If you’re holding the airplane with a slightly bent knee, you’ll want a slightly pronated foot, and if you’re realllyy bending your knee, you’ll want an even deeper pronation. If you’re doing the movement dynamically you should be able to move in and out of pronation and supination as your knee bends and straightens, respectively.
These were not the instructions I included in Dance Stronger, but hey, if people want details, I’m into that. I’m really into that. I’m stoked this question came up- seeing as lower foot and ankle issues are a huge deal in dance, the more we can do to integrate their healthy movement into weight bearing exercises, the better.
Did you know visual art was my lowest grade in high school? I don’t know why…
Trying to do a single leg deadlift with this focus on ankle and foot movement makes it feel INSANE. Bring this into your yoga practice and it will rock your world. Notice what your feet are doing during plies and you just might push a bit deeper down into a demi if you stop trying to control your arches from dropping.
By holding a pronated foot I don’t mean rolling completely to the inside letting the outer edge come off the floor- this would actually be an everted foot, I mean a “relatively pronated tripod”. And the same goes for supination. To supinate does not mean to roll all the way to the outside edge of the foot letting the ball of the big toe come off (that would be an inverted foot). We want an adaptable tripod, not a chunk.
This is why it’s useful to see people move without shoes on. At the gym/clinic I train at, nearly all of the clients I get as referrals from physio have orthotics. Orthotics for high arches, orthotics to support flat arches. What if you started treating your foot like the rest of your body and trained it to move better? Imagine if we all walked around with powerlifting belts on because we needed more “core support”- an ab orthotic. Just do the dang work, and if you still need the orthotic for your feet, or your abs, or whatever it is you are trying to control, it’ll be there for you.
My two cents for today. Tune into your feet on your single leg deadlifting/airplaning, and other activities, and see how an adaptive foot changes things for you.
Welcome to a new series of posts that I sincerely hope I can stick to: Dance Like a Human.
About a year ago, I started a series called “Stretches You Need to Stop Doing“. But I abandoned it because I felt bad about telling people what they should or should not do. And the title “May I Make a Suggestion About Your Stretching Practice That I Respectfully Ask You to Reconsider?” just wouldn’t have the same effect.
Anyway, the goal of this series is to explore a topic close to my heart, that is, helping dancers reclaim and maintain a requisite level of movement quality for better performance (the sexy), faster recovery (the less sexy), and injury prevention (the holy grail).
In proper Volkmarian fashion, part one of this series will simply be a long-winded introduction to the topic of movement quality and it’s importance as it relates to dancers. I predict approximately 7 of you will read through this blog post in it’s entirety.
But I’m cool with that, ’cause my mom always reads my blog, and she thinks I’m cool.
Word, Milhouse. I understand you.
Ready to begin? Hell yeah you are!
Why Movement Quality and General Physical Preparation Matter
Dancers face a unique challenge as athletic artists (see what I did there, Khyle Eccles??). They are trained to move in beautiful, yet unnatural ways, often dependent on pathology to succeed, but without a base of fitness, fundamental movement, and general physical preparedness to support them.
The result? Movement quality deteriorates rather rapidly, as there is no quality to support the quantity of training dancers often do, and we can observe this in the high injury rate.
Why is this a thing? Don’t we know better? Well…
1. Early specialization (is it necessary?)
2. No established long term athlete development plan (the topic of my talk at the HDC conference in Vancouver, 2014). If skaters and gymnasts have an LTAD, why can’t dancers?
3. Insufficient appraisal of fundamental movement quality as part of many dancers’ training and rehab (low or asymmetrical FMS scores, for example, although some people will argue with that, and there are other methods of evaluating movement quality).
4. Not enough rest and recovery, both in-season between classes, rehearsals and performances, and off-season as a whole (although whether dancers even get an off-season is a topic of scrutiny. And how I scrutinize).
5. Self-limiting, and otherwise imposed negative mindsets.
6. Insufficient strategies to unwind from dance: Most dancers don’t have a movement practice or participate in supplemental cross-training that is not a specific skill related to dance. Floor barre doesn’t count. Barre fitness classes don’t count. And Zumba… Does. Not. Count. Dance fitness is NOT fitness for dancers.
More skilled movement doesn’t equal better movement quality.
The above sentence summarizes the exact conversation I had with my very smart friend David Wu (aka, male-Asian-Monika) last week: You can excel at specific skills and create the illusion of having good movement quality, but the tricky thing with “skilled” movers, is that they can mask their lack of fundamental movement quality with their impressive skills.
That’s exactly what dancers do. So tricky!
And this is why many dancers may have poor experiences with rehabilitation, or may hurt themselves when they start strength training. An uninformed physio or trainer can really mess a dancer up if they don’t look for some sense of fundamental movement quality hidden beneath all that movement skill.
To an untrained eye, I can make most movements look good. Most dancers can, too because that’s their job.
Not all dancers are “good movers” as human beings. The humanity! In a movement form in which virtuosity and pathology are a package deal, we often sacrifice our quality of human movement for our art. Does it have to be this way? Maybe…
But if you choose to become informed (by reading this awesome blog, for example) you can create new options. Form new habits around your dance training that will allow you to delay an inevitable degree of damage, learn to manage pain effectively, and reclaim some (but perhaps not all) fundamental movement.
Ready to go down this rabbit hole with me? Yeah you are.
Let’s talk about natural human motion, neuroplasticity, and movement variability.
I Move Therefore I am (Human)…
Would have been a more accurate statement for Descartes to make. You can’t think without a body, after all, you need a body to live, and you can’t be alive without movement: Air flow, circulation, neurons doing their thang, etc.
So what is natural human motion?
Because dancers are obviously humans (or are they…), we need to have this discussion of what is actually meant by human motion (otherwise known as functional movement, fundamental movement patterns, blah, blah, blah).
Chris Sritharan said it best:
“Human movement is trained, human motion is not… If you’re going to engage in a sport that is not natural human motion, just make sure you have a strategy to unwind it”
For the purpose of this blog post, here’s a working definition:
Natural human motion: Refers to joint motions that naturally occur in the human gait cycle and in fundamental movement patterns.
We must understand that all motions the human body is capable of performing serve an important purpose in movement and need not be feared or avoided.
To consider there is no human motion that can be labelled as “bad” allows us to move with a complete map of our bodies which dancers must be able to do for optimal performance and recovery. Spinal extension isn’t bad (neither is flexion, and you probably need more of it). Pronation isn’t bad. Knee valgus isn’t bad. Joint compression isn’t bad.
Dance-specific movements are specifically trained, meaning we didn’t learn naturally them in our early development. Natural human movements are what we develop as young human beings as we first learn to centrate our joints and put our feet in our mouth, roll over, creep, crawl, and eventually stand up, fall down a bunch, and then walk. This was all a reflexive process. No one had to train us on how to do it.
Human motion is hardwired. Dance… Not so much.
I feel you, girl.
And another problem arises.
Learned disuse: You Just Forgot How to Move Like a Human!
Or rather, when you were 3 years old and your parents decided that you would specialize in dance while you were still developing a base of fundamental movement (or not), your brain decided to optimize some circuitry that preferred dance-specific movement over human motion.
That’s why ballet schools like to get ’em young. Little kids brains adapt quickly. And they are more bendy, too. That’s just one of the reasons why I wasn’t accepted into the National Ballet school when I was 15, having started ballet at the ripe old age of 12. Catching up on knowledge gaps is the story of my life.
Neuroplasticity: The brain is capable of changing itself based on what we use or don’t use it for, and this happens until we die, for the better or worse.
Our preferred movement patterns are the result of neural circuits that have become optimized based on specific inputs (dance, for example), how often the input is received, and how well-liked it is. Synaptic connections are continuously being modified and re-organized in response to these demands, repetition, and emotional connection to them. These cortical plastic changes occur both when learning a new skill, and after injury through disuse or avoidance of movement patterns.
Learned disuse, for dancers, can refer to the optimization of dance-specific skills, at the expense of “forgetting” how to perform some important movements, like big toe extension at the expense of toe flexion (both being required to walk like a proper human).
What happens when you work solely on pointing your toes, extending your back, and stretching your adductors so you can kick yourself in the head, but you never make time for the complimentary pattern?
This leads to the next point(e)…
Movement variability: You can have your cake and eat it too.
It doesn’t need to be and either/or choice: Only dance, or, only strength training, or whatever sport or activity you ascribe to. One big problem is that some teachers and dancers don’t understand this, and believe that supplemental training that is not dance will undo all the hard hours of dance training. This is untrue.
Variability makes you better. It gives you more movement options. And it unloads repetitive patterns of potential overuse.
You can do it all in whatever ratios allow you to best manage your desired proficiency at dance technique, pain symptoms, movement quality, and strength, ie- You can follow a training program that creates the most appropriate options for you, as a mover. You just need to be smart about it and know what you need in what quantities.
It will depend on how much dance you’re doing and how seriously you take it, what season you’re in, and whether you’re injured and/or over-trained.
Ask yourself: as a dancer, what do you value most? What are your needs, what does your schedule allow, and how can you create opportunities to develop movement variability within this reality?
For example, if you are uninjured, in an off-season, and struggling to get past a technical training plateau, that sounds like an awesome opportunity to jump on movement/strength development.
If you’re injured, in-season, and classes make you sore, then you probably don’t need to add extra hours of training, but take more time to recover, work on movement quality, and regress your technique a bit to work on fundamentals.
Variability keeps you honest by keeping you out of a pattern. Constantly appraising your needs and adjusting your training inputs accordingly will prevent you from getting stuck in only one way of moving that could be your undoing.
Which Pill Will You Take?
It’s your choice.
You can continue to live blindly, blissfully, and not worry about this learned disuse and movement variability stuff, or, you can explore the #truth.
Hate to break it to you, but you’re not invincible just because you’re really good at ignoring reality. Just because you’re perfectly comfortable doing fouette turns to the right, standing on your left leg, doesn’t mean it’s not a pattern that needs a complimentary strategy to manage.
Next up in this series we shall discuss some super sexy examples of the human motions we sacrifice for dance-specific movement patterns that require supplemental strategies to unwind
In writing this blog post today I am procrastinating the completion of a massive piece of editing. I’ve created a monster. I’ve been assigned the rewarding task of creating a resource paper for Healthy Dancer Canada. “Write two pages”, they said. Naturally, that exploded into 10 (concision isn’t a strong suit of mine…).
My brain’s going a little dead, so, to avoid making silly editing decisions, I’m giving the paper some space so I can remember why I’m writing it in the first place.
When you lose sight of the purpose, just sit with it. The solution often comes when you take a step back, zoom out, remember the bigger picture.
Anyway, let’s talk about me: I’m in a weird place with my training right now, and I’m pretty sure some of you will be able to relate.
I haven’t deadlifted since November 2015.
I know… Who am I??
I love lifting. I love feeling strong. I especially love doing what I do best- Sagittal plane extension-based movement. But I’ve lost sight of a greater “why”.
Honestly, taking Anatomy in Motion was the catalyst. AiM forced me to reflect on this idea of movement vs. exercise. This course explores natural human motion, and participants get to bring to life, in their own bodies, what this means at every joint, in every plane of movement (and I’m excited to be re-taking this course in May in New York).
After AiM, I realized that I no longer had the desire to “exercise” for the sake of exercising. It needed to mean something more, and I needed to re-evaluate the relationship I had with it.
So I dropped anything that felt like “exercise”. My training is now quite minimalistic.
I was trying to explain this to my room-mate.
“What?? You’ve stopped deadlifing? The king of all lifts?” Incredulous.
I told him that the distinction between “what is movement and what is exercise” had become muddy. I needed to step back from it and sit with this idea for a while until I had clarity.
The look he gave me.
“So what are the distinctions?” He asked me.
“I don’t know… I’m still figuring it out. And until then, I don’t do anything that feels like exercise”.
This also puts me in a very weird position in my field of work.
As a trainer/strength coach/movement coach/massage therapist/detective, people expect me to help them exercise and get strong, often in the presence of chronic pain. I’m happy with that expectation, but I also feel that expectations are limiting. How lovely would it be if every client came in with zero expectations? Imagine how much they would grow, being totally open, completely trusting the process?
Most people come see me, or are referred to me generally because they want to work on their “fitness” and learn “exercises”, or get a program to “do”. But not everyone cares about their relationship with exercise.
I do my best not to bring my personal biases into my work with clients because they might not serve my clients’ goals. This happens a lot in the fitness industry: Trainers imposing what is important to them on their clients, but not considering what their clients really value or need.
I won’t force my ideas on my clients, but I really want them to take the time to think about this exercise vs. movement thing. I feel that it is important, especially if you’ve been recommended to train with me because you want to move forward from pain.
Even dancers rarely take the time to consider this idea.
I’ve asked dancers: “Why do you dance?”, and many of them say that they enjoy the physical exertion. They like getting exercise in a way that isn’t boring, like working out at the gym or jogging.
If this is you, I encourage you to dig a bit deeper. If you’re dancing because it’s the most enjoyable, least boring form of exercise you can find, consider whether your relationship with dance is one of exercise or movement. What does that mean to you?
I used to be an exerciser. Physical activity was a huge value of mine and my family, and I think this is a great thing. But while I loved the “exercise” component of dance, it wasn’t just about the physical exertion. It was escape, exploration, and self-expression above all- things that are facilitated through movement.
And then that changed. Somehow, the focus became burning calories, strengthening muscles, getting “toned”, and my relationship changed from “movement form” to “exercise form”.
The same thing happened with my training. Work-outs were exercise. There was no goal but to work hard, sweat, and burn calories because I felt it was necessary for no particular reason. That changed a bit when I started focusing on strength, but it was still a need to exercise.
Where I am at now, I don’t want to workout because I feel like I need to exercise. Exercise is important. I recognize this. But our relationship with exercise matters more.
These are a few distinctions and ideas that have come up as I rethink movement vs. exercise:
1. Movement training embodies Wu Wei: Effortlessness. Action through non-action.
A Taoist philosophy. This is the feeling of being mobilized to act, not forcing oneself to train out of a sense of need or guilt. Rather, movement training implies the want to explore motion, with an intrinsic momentum pushing you forward, curiously.
It should feel effortless. Not effortless in the sense that you’re not working hard while training, but effortless in your summoning of will to do it and desire to work hard at it. Exercise is often difficult to bring ourselves to do. We put it off, skip it, and are relieved when it’s done. Just a tick on our daily check-list.
2. Movement quality vs. exercise quantity: How much do I really need to lift be “strong”?
I used to train in a power-lifting style. I got pretty strong in a relative sense, and I guess I still am. But my body didn’t feel great after a solid stint of Wendler 531.
With dancers, too, I feel there is a point of diminishing returns where it is no longer useful to become strongER in an absolute, or even relative sense. Strength is only one component of fitness that dancers require. Too much “exercise” interferes with movement quality.
Ironically I feel stronger in this non-exercise phase. How do you explain that? I think it is because moving well as a human is requisite for being strong: Movement quality is potential to tap. Or because I’m always well-recovered?
The more I experience this “strength without strength training”, the less I want to exercise, and the more curious I am to explore how movement quality improves physical resilience.
3. Exercise requires movement, but movement does not always imply exercise.
I love a fallacy. Which should we be prioritizing?
4. Movement helps us enter flow state.
Because there is a goal in mind beyond working hard and sweating, which is generally what comes to mind when we hear the word “exercise”.
5. Movement teaches us about ourselves and the world.
Helping people explore this idea is one of the aims of CAPE, the movement workshops I co-teach with Wensy Wong.
As in movement, so too in life. When we feel challenges come up in our body’s ability to perform, we can almost always see this same challenge present at a different level in our lives: Why can’t I do this? What’s holding me back? What options am I creating for myself? Why am I stuck in this pattern? Am I being honest?
It is always amazes me how revealing movement is of who we are. Exercise tends only to help us tune out and distract us (which isn’t bad, just different).
Sounds like I’m anti exercise, doesn’t it? I’m not. Just for right now. I’m trying on a different perspective. I felt lost for a while, through November and December when I stopped exercising, but I’m comfortable now with the fact that whenever I feel like it, I can come back to exercise because it will always be there.
Movement, on the other hand, won’t unless we take the time to explore it and own it. Movement quality deteriorates with non-use, but we can always exercise without movement quality (well, maybe not always…).
This distinction will be different for everyone. I still train, but I choose not to do exercises that feel like exercise.
I encourage everyone to have a think about this exercise vs. movement thing.
As dancers, it also serves us to take a step away from dance momentarily to consider why we’re doing it. Know that the things you’ve attached a particular meaning to will always be there for you, even after you’ve dropped the attachment, you can always come back.
When you lose sight of the purpose, just sit with it. The solution often comes when you take a step back, zoom out, and remember the bigger picture.