Click here to read part 1.
Click here to read part 2.
Things are getting a little chaotic at the dance school. Students are in full on rehearsal mode for an upcoming show at the end of February and their schedule is getting intense.
In teaching this class, one of my aims is for the students to consider not doing the things I did when I was their age.
Self-portrait, Monika age 22
Here are some quick notes from this week’s class.
How deep is your practice?
As I mentioned last week, I wanted to hold a discussion with the dancers on what it means to practice deeply, having noticed that, week by week, their ability to focus has been waning.
Sometimes I read books. I like books about the mind. I particularly like books on the psychology and neuroscience of skill acquisition and mental performance.
This January I read Deep Work (Cal Newport) and Outliers (Malcolm Gladwell). I also read Flow (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi), and The Talent Code (Daniel Coyle) last year, and as a result, for the past year or so I’ve been contemplating the meaning of the concepts deep practice and flow state, and my own relationship with them,
Deep Work focuses on the benefits of working and thinking in a deep, focused way in a world in which it is easier than ever to become distracted by our technology, and why we should be doing more deep work. Working deeply saves time, delivers superior quality results, and at higher rate of productivity. Newport remarks, however, that our ability to focus deeply is limited, and, on average, it seems that we can only realistically reach about 4 hours per day, in chunks of about 90 minutes at a time (which in itself takes some training to accomplish).
Outliers focuses on factors, sometimes random factors like date of birth, that enabled the most successful people to accumulate the 10 000 hours of deep practice he argues are necessary for people to master a skill (although, in his book, he left out the important word “deep”, neglecting to explain that these 10 000 hours of practiced need to be of a specific quality).
Flow describes what it means and how it feels to be in the state of deep practice, “flow state”. Csikszentmihalyi explains that in a state of flow we are completely immersed in the present moment with no distractions, have a clear goal in mind, are aware of mistakes as we make them, and receive immediate feedback moment to moment in order to adjust based on these mistakes. Time begins to distort so that it flies by (an hour seeming to go by in half as much), or even time slowing down as we are fully present in every second that passes.
The Talent Code explores the role of deep, deliberate practice in skill acquisition through the lens of neuroscience- We are not born inherently with our talents, but those who have mastered a given skill have become that way due to the many hours of deep practice they participated in. He goes on to describe the qualities of deep practice that creates changes in how our brain is wired, which, interestingly, requires that we fail and make mistakes.
Sounds like useful stuff to know about for a group of young dancers trying to make it in a hard world where only the top few succeed (whatever that means).
I started the discussion by asking them, “What does deep practice mean to you?”. Some of the answers I received:
“Being completely in the moment”
“Having no distractions”
“Doing it right”
This last one is interesting. Does deep practice mean, “doing it right”?
When I asked him to explain what he meant he elaborated with the example of doing a tendu. If you practice doing a tendu but you’re “doing it wrong”, with your leg turning in when it should be turning out (if you’re doing ballet), then its not deep practice, because the technique is wrong.
This is interesting because as we know from Coyle’s work, we need to make mistakes to learn and change. Too, from Csikszentmihalyi’s work, we know that part of flow state is noticing mistakes in real time and making adjustments. So, being “wrong” is a necessary part of deep practice.
Deep practice is a neutral state. There is no right or wrong, there is simply awareness of what is.
Practicing things without technical precision, not caring, not noticing, and thinking about lunch, for example, is not deep practice. However, practicing things with poor technical precision, but noticing, actively trying to change and adapt based on these mistakes, and paying attention to the feedback in your body from moment to moment is deep practice.
Also, it is possible to deeply practice something the wrong way, in which case, you will not have mastered what you set out to master. This is why it is important to have an end goal in mind when participating in a deep practice.
I understand what he meant by “doing it right”. If you practice a skill ineffectively, you will master just that. You get what you practice.
Next, I asked the class to make a list of all their classes in a given week (which was about 15 different non-academic, physical classes), and asked them to reflect on how deeply they practiced in each of these classes, rating it on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being very shallow, and 10 being extremely deep).
Overall, the dancers found that in ballet and in partnering classes they worked most deeply, and, overwhelmingly, they found that they were practicing the least deeply in pilates. Why?
In partnering, one dancer explained that there was more at stake if you’re not invested in the moment. If you aren’t in the moment, and your partner is relying on you to be there for them, things are not going to go well. I agreed, you wouldn’t want to be paired up with someone who didn’t have a depth to their practice in a partnering class. You would not trust the person with the track record for having a short attention span.
Other dancers explained that they enjoyed ballet the most, and so found it easier to practice more deeply. Makes sense.
As for pilates, the dancers said several things to explain their lack of depth in practice:
“The repetitive actions and rhythm makes it easy to just get it into my muscle memory and then I zone out mentally”
“Lying on the floor makes me tired”
“There’s no music… Wait, maybe that would make me even less focused”.
At the very least, I hoped to get them stoked to focus for my class. I wonder how they rated their focus in my class… I’ll admit, I was afraid to ask (but at least I beat pilates on the depth score!).
Fun with diaphragmatic breathing
A few weeks ago I guided the dancers through a check-in of how well they could breathe with their diaphragm. I think I explained that in a bit more detail in part one, so maybe you’d like to go back and (re-)read that now.
Essentially, dancers were to use their hands to feel for 360 fill: Coordinated sternum/belly breathing, posteriolateral (back and side) ribcage expansion, lower abdomen/pelvis fill (just below the ASIS). They chose the one that was challenging to do, but that they were able to change if they put their attention there. Their next task was to simply walk around the room for a few minutes with their focus on breathing air into where they had chosen to use their hands to monitor airflow.
For example, students who found it a challenge to feel their lower abdomen/pelvis fill with inhalation were to put their hands there and walk at a pace at which they could still manage to create air flow into their hands. If they lost the ability to fill, they were to slow down their pace or stop, and were encouraged to speed up when they thought they could handle more challenge.
Its one thing to stand still, or lie down, and breathe with an ideal diaphragmatic pattern, but to notice and adjust it in motion is the challenge, and generally we lose awareness of this when we start dancing or moving with more complexity. An ideal breathing pattern has to become unconscious so that we can carry it into dancing, and other activities, without the extra energy spent micromanaging it.
As Karel Lewit said,
“If breathing is not normalised no other movement pattern can be”
Let’s pronate and supinate the crap out of our feet!
And we did.
We went through suspension again, to review our introduction to pronation mechanics last week.
I couldn’t believe how easily this class embraced pronation. Feeling is believing, I suppose. This class reported that pronation actually felt nice to do. After practicing suspension, they reported that their hips felt looser, and their feet felt more grounded. I said to them, “Isn’t it funny? Most of us have been told that pronation is bad to do, but here you are pronating your feet, and saying that it feels nice.”
This week we moved into new territory: Supination.
To experience this, we went through a movement called transition from Anatomy in Motion, which replicates the phase of gait in which the foot moves from pronation into supination, with the foot tripod on the floor, as we would see in mid-stance.
This day was reminiscent of last winter when I held a jump landing workshop at York University, and all we did was pronate and supinate the crap out of everyone’s feet.
(this workshop footage is available in full for members of Dance Stronger, FYI. It’s in the member zone, under “Support Resources”).
In transition, what we want to feel is, by virtue of rotating the pelvis, that the femur, tibia, and sub-talar joint (ankle) also rotate and pull the foot up into a supinated position (arch with tripod on ground). Its not the just foot we’re looking to move, but to move it in context of what the rest of the body does when the foot begins to resupinate. We could say that what we are trying to do is supinate the body, as a global movement.
Only one dancer in the class “didn’t get it”. It’s a tough thing to coach a group setting, ensuring that everyone can get a sense of what the movement should feel like in their bodies. This one dancer did not seem to be able to keep a tripod on the floor, rolling all the way to the outsides of her feet, and so losing the supination and going into inversion, aka, ankle sprain city. This is pretty common for people who have had a lot of ankle sprains, and the outside of their ankle becomes lax. Next week, she’s gonna get wedged.
Welcome to wedge city, population, dat inverted foot!
(Transition is a movement we cover in Dance Stronger in more detail).
A story I forgot to tell last week
Two weeks ago, actually.
There is a dancer in my class with a massive amount of rib flare at rest, and a lumbar spine that does not flex (round). It is very noticeable when she dances, and she says that she is constantly getting the correction from her teachers to not stick her ribs out.
Two weeks ago we introduced some breathing check-ins, and we played around with breathing diaphragmatically by reducing rib flare on an exhalation to get to a zone of apposition, and working on using a 360 inhalation without losing their ZOA. This one dancer told me after class that while she was doing this- Not flaring her ribs on inhalation, she got crazy cramping pains in her ribcage. She was wondering what the heck was going on.
While I can’t know exactly what’s going on in her body, I did my best to piece it together, logically.
My best explanation:
In your current position, ribs flaring up, and unable to move down, your most important breathing muscle, diaphragm, is stuck in a shortened, contracted position. So, when you exhale and get your ribs to move down and in, your diaphragm gets a chance to lengthen and relax. This, however, is not currently within your comfort zone to do, and when you inhale again, you are contracting a muscle from a longer position than it is used to, which could potentially create some cramping.
Think about how it feels to go into a lunge or as I recently experienced, a one leg squat more deeply than you normally go, and try to get out. With the muscles in a longer state than they are used to going into, it requires more force to contract back to center, and you’ll feel the muscle contracting harder than usual, and possibly cramping.
Of course, this is a strange and unpleasant sensation to have going on inside your ribcage. Not pleasant, but good information to work with in a safe way. Work gently, not forcefully with the breath.
I hope that this also makes some sense of why it is so hard to change this pattern of rib flare just by telling dancers in class to get their ribs down- They don’t know how to breathe like that, and when they do, it hurts!
Focus was indeed better this week. I didn’t ask them to focus more. I didn’t tell them their their focus was poor and they needed to get their acts together. We had a nice discussion on deep practice, and, as it often does, in simply becoming aware of something, that thing started to change. I hope they will consider this idea in their other classes as well (especially pilates!).
That’s all for today’s notes. Thanks for reading this far.
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.
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 🙂
#Simpsonschallenge. I must use a Simpsons reference in every blog post. Because that is how I was raised.
Read part 1 here.
Read part 2 here.
And welcome to part 3. In my mission to be more concise, let us get right to the point.
Today we’ll be talking about movement variability.
Movement variability means having options. But not too many options—>
Movement variability: An optimal amount of variance within the global movements, due to the infinite changing conditions that occur before and during the movement task.
Here’s what’s on our agenda for today:
- What is movement variability and what is it good for?
- How can we appraise it in our bodies?
- How does higher variability help us as dancers and movers?
- Other random stuff that comes out of my brain.
What is movement variability?
Picture yourself walking down the street. Something shiny catches your eye over the the right. With your eyes in the other direction, you don’t see the uneven patch of concrete and your ankle rolls over to the outside.
Outcome 1: Sprained ankle. OMG! NO!
Outcome 2: You’re totally fine.
What’s the main factor determining your fate? Could be luck. But it’s more likely that in outcome two, your body understood how to get out of the ankle roll because it had been there before in a more favourable, safe condition, which didn’t result in an ankle sprain.
You and your ankle had the OPTION to get out of the inversion moment because that movement was in your body’s present vocabulary and you knew how to use it reactively without thinking.
This is an example of possessing movement variability, and using it in real life.
Having multiple strategies for joint and segment interaction to accomplish the same movement (walk around while gazing dreamily off in space, crappy sidewalks or no).
Having options (to move your ankle into maximum inversion and get out of it safely).
Having tri-planar movement ability when you want it, where you want it, to do whatever you want with it (to avoid inversion sprains).
The spice of life
Plain food sucks.
Unless you agree with the food shape…
I’m very sorry if that was disturbing for you…
Anyway, as in food, so too in movement; a lack of variability is not only bland, but…
…result in systems that are less adaptable to perturbations, such as those associated with unhealthy pathological states or absence of skillfulness.
~Human movement variability, nonlinear dynamics, and pathology: is there a connection? (Human Movement Science, 2011)
Movement variability provides us the ability to handle errors and make real time adjustments that occur with movement. Not enough variability and we become stuck in a pattern with limited options, increasing the potential for acute or chronic overuse injuries.
Variability creates movement options in multiple planes to cope with volatility (and all life is volatility). How well we get on amidst the volatility is a reflection of how safe or unsafe we feel with this perpetual flux, and how well we can find strategies to deal with it.
INTERESTING ASIDE: A lack of coping strategies is one of the top reasons researchers think dancers get hurt, so variability as a coping mechanism is a huge deal:
…ballet dancers tended to distinguish poorly between pain that is customary in dance performance and pain associated with injury. Pain is typically seen by dancers as an accompanying facet of dance practice, and dancers are prone to “dance through” pain, even when doing so may be detrimental.
…researchers determined that ballet dancers who are taught general psychological coping skills experienced fewer injuries and less time injured.
~Preventing dance injuries: current perspectives (pen Access Journal of Sports Medicine, 2013)
We can also potentially link optimal movement variability with a healthy variability and function of our autonomic nervous system: The ability to relax when we need to (parasympthetic), and to mobilize ourselves into action when necessary (sympathetic). We need to be able to do both to dance.
Evidence also shows us how higher movement variability reduces risk of injury, or, at the very least, is correlated with non-injured states.
You can see that movement variability is a pretty huge deal:
- More movement options
- More freedom in movement
- Ability to reproduce movements reliably in variable environemnts, like, on stage under bright lights and high stress
- Less injuries
- Better neuroregulation
Sounds great, eh?
What’s interesting is that optimal variability in movement appears “chaotic”, which makes it easy to interpret as “noisy” and not useful. This is incorrect.
One thing I’ve come to appreciate about human movement in the gait cycle, is how freaking chaotic the map of every joint motion seems. But chaotic doesn’t mean unhealthy.
First it is important to distinguish between two different kinds of variability: “End point” and “coordinative variability”.
End point variability: Refers to the product of movement, for example, stride-length, jump height, pirouette, etc. Ideally, this should be low. It’s nice to be able to reliably perform tasks in a similar way each time we do them. Each step, each turn, minimal surprises.
Coordinative variability: Refers to the variability of the interaction between segments or joints. This should be high, or, within an optimal window that is neither too low nor too high. It’s nice when individuals can use multiple strategies in their bodies to safely achieve the same outcome.
When we look at literature relating movement variability with over-use injuries, the traditional view is that low variability in movement is good, because we want to be able to have a reliable experience when we go and try to use our bodies. Makes sense, BUT this is only true if we are working with “end-point variability” which refers to the PRODUCT of movement.
When we zoom in, we see that variability in how joints can safely and easily interact should be high.
When we zoom out we can see how variability in the product of the joint and segment interactions should be low.
Having multiple safe and effective routes to drive to the grocery store is more useful than one “perfect” route, and can save you time and stress when 3 of those routes have massive construction.
To put it another way (as stated HERE):
The path to frailty or injury is identified in this emerging perspective by a loss of variability in fundamental variables reflecting biological function
A loss of freedom. A loss of optionality. Injuries. Disease. Awkward dancing.
Movement variability vs. being skilled at making movement look good
But aren’t dancers already exposed to all kinds of movement? Doesn’t being a dancer imply high movement variability?
Just because you can make all kinds of movements look good, doesn’t mean you possess the variability to perform the safely, efficiently, without extra compensation, and that you can keep doing them that way for as long as you wish.
Too, many dancers, particularly those who are hypermobile, have so much variability and don’t know how to use it. Too many options is just as troublesome as not having enough options.
This is why as educators, trainers, and health-care practitioners we need to understand how to look at fundamental movement quality.
Dancers need to prepared for infinite movement options, because you just don’t know what the choreographer is going to throw at you.
Ohh Marie Chouinard…
An example is a professional ballet company hiring a contemporary choreogpraher who may ask the ballet dancers to move in ways they are not used to. This often can increase the instance of injuries, despite the technical prowess these dancers possess: They just aren’t prepared for the new physical demand!
The fallacy: Strong technical skill does not equal adaptability, fundamental movement quality, or general strength, although adaptability, movement variability, and physical strength DO create the potential for stronger technical skill.
So even though we could infer that dancers have high movement variability, this is sometimes an illusion due to skilled, but patterned movement.
As we know, being stuck in one pattern, even one you can do really well, does not create the multitude of options your body craves to perform safely and effectively in a variety of unpredictable situations and environments:
- Different floors
- Different lighting
- Different size or shaped stage
- Different style of dance
- External stressor messing up your movement game
- Uncomfortable shoes
Just consider the injury rate in dance. That should be enough to question: If a non-injured state is correlated with higher movement variability, and dancers are rarely in a non-injured state, how optimal is their variability, really?
Is it too high, or too low? Where’s the sweet spot?
How did we get this way?
We were all born as bundles of perfect movement potential. Where the heck did things go wrong??
In dance a major factor is that we never mastered the fundamentals. Early specialization plays a role in this.
This is something I discuss all the time in this blog: Never having established, (or lost) a requisite base of fundamental movement. Miguel Aragoncillo wrote something really great on this topic (long term athletic development) a while back, too.
So while many dancers appear to be able to move their bodies in all kinds of ways, they are doing it without a foundation of tri-planar movement to support them, thus desirous coordination and interaction between joints and segments is not happening.
They can make most movement look good (their job as dancers, after all), but when it comes to the fundamentals, they might not be able to demonstrate clean, simple movement.
“Fundamental is not lowest level, but highest importance” ~Source unknown… Probably some Shaolin monk
So maybe you can achieve the range of motion you need, but it comes with an energetic cost, requires some “cheats”, and can cause some problems long term.
How are you doing?
Because I believe that demonstrating the ability to move well in three planes says a lot about you, how you’re doing in life, and the state of your autonomic nervous system. But that’s not really in the scope of my blog, just something I’m observing.
To illustrate the idea of clean, non-compensatory, tri-planar movement, just stand up and give these a try:
- Can you posteriorally tilt your pelvis without bending your knees?
- Can you shift your pelvis to one side without also rotating it?
- Can you rotate your pelvis without also hiking one side?
- Can you lift your ribcage up without having to lift your chin?
- Can you shift your ribcage to one side without also tilting your head?
- Can you tilt your head without shifting your ribcage to one side?
- Can you inhale without needing to flare your ribs?
- Can you exhale without thinking you’re going to die?
In other words: Can you do one thing without having to do another thing if you don’t need to?
How’s your behavioural variability?
As in movement, so too in life…
Can you receive a correction in class without also taking it personally and feeling like a failure for a week?
Can you express yourself and your feelings-be vulnerable, without oversharing unnecessary details. Like that time in Vegas, you know, the incident at the swimming pool, with the peanut butter, and the Elvis impersonator?
Can you eat just one Lay’s chip?
You get the idea. The meta question is, “Do you have the ability to choose?”.
Movement being a behaviour, and behaviour requiring movement, we can see how variability is useful not just for physical performance, but LIFE.
Back to movement though, because this isn’t a behavioural psychology blog.
In an optimally variable system, we should be able to differentiate tri-planar motions, such as in the examples above, meaning, body parts can move in three dimensions independently of others to a certain degree.
Quite often this differentiation is missing: Things get smudged together (technical term). In the motor cortex, areas related to one body part can overlap with others creating this situation in which things HAVE to move at the same time and going through life as a chunk this is not going to feel good for very long.
The “traffic light” variability classification system ©™®;)
Here’s my FMS inspired “red light, yellow light, green light” approach to simplistically classifying potential variability, both for me to observe, and for the individual in question to feel.
I am basing this off results my standard movement screen, part of which uses the Anatomy in Motion model to look at triplanar movement through the pelvis, ribcage, and skull.
I feel that most people can be classified as green, yellow, or red, to varying degrees. Where do you fit in?
- You can differentiate most joints segments and movements with relatively symmetrical ranges right to left, front to back.
- You are not completely missing one plane of movement.
- What you feel happening is an accurate representation of what is actually happening.
- Strategy: Let’s train hard, swing some bell, and kick ass.
- You may have difficulty differentiating some (or many) movements.
- You have some pretty evident asymmetries right to left, and one or more planes of movement may be completely inaccessible
- There is some discrepancy between what is actually happening and what you feel happening with movement.
- Strategy: Let’s train the crap out of what you can do well. Spend some time exploring missing movements in reasonable, safe doses. Keep checking in regularly to see if things are improving.
- Most of the body finds differentiating movements from one another troublesome and foreign as a concept, often bilaterally.
- Very apparent asymmetries side to side and/or multiple planes of movement completely inaccessible.
- Very little ability to distinguish whether movement is happening, in what quantities, and whether the range or quality differs from side to side.
- Presence of acute pain with some movements.
- Strategy: Let’s consider the need for rehab. If they don’t need/want rehab, get them breathing well, build in education on the value of movement quality/differentiation into sessions. Emphasize tuning in to how movements feel. Focus on making movement exploration feel safe with a conservative approach to adding intensity.
As a trainer with manual therapy skills, not a rehab professional, my general role is to help already healthy people get even healthier and perform better, yet due to the nature of the gym I work in (which is also a sports medicine clinic) most of my clients are fresh out of physio, and I tend to see a lot of sensitive, red light folks.
Though they have been “cleared” to begin training for fitness or strength or whatever their goals, just because their treatment is “done” it doesn’t mean Red Light Randy is ready to jump into a training program without first building a movement foundation, and learning to differentiate and appreciate his body in 3 dimension.
Randy: A classic Canadian work of art
I think a good chunk of dancers can be classified as red-lights. Surprising? Not really.
Dancers become really, really good at moving in specific patterns. They take great pride in their patterns, and will hold onto them for dear life. Does this sound like someone who can differentiate movement? Does this sound like someone with variability?
If we think of the biases in dance training and performance (those trained in ballet primarily) there are some “patterns” that can become pretty ingrained, such as preferring to stand and turn on the left leg, turning to the right, and gesturing with the right leg.
But it is useful knowing this lateralization is common, reducing our ability to move in various ways, and points to the importance of providing strategies for dancers to enhance and clean up their ability to differentiate body parts and their movement both right and left, in all dimensions.
Can you move it if you can’t feel it?
We need to back up for a moment and consider that if you can’t feel certain parts of your body at rest, it will be difficult to move them, too.
In your brain there is a physical area called the somatosensory cortex that holds a “map” of your body. In this map, the hands and face have the most representation- more brain tissue devoted to them, compared to the rest of the body, meaning we are more sensitive to touch and sensation in these areas.
What is also pretty cool is that the somatosensory cortex also has a motor function when the motor cortex is impaired. Just shows that the structure in your brain that allows you to sense your body also is important for moving it.
Furthermore, in this monkey study, it was found that overuse of a particular pattern of movement requiring minimal variability, resulted in motor control deterioration and degradation of body part representation in the somatosensory cortex.
To boot, in this study, there as a link found between somatosensory afferent input and motor control in people with neck issues.
How well you feel your body is linked to how well you move your body.
This seems pretty common-sensical, but then you look at the number of people who don’t want to take the time to learn to “re-sense” where their heads are at, literally, and just want quick fix stretches and exercises.
I believe that a piece in this optimal variability puzzle is being able to feel each part of your body and have your brain recognize they exist while NOT moving as well as in motion. To me, this somewhat explains the hypermobile people who have all the movement potential in the world, but without an ability to feel their bodies are unable to fully use them. Would love to hear some thoughts on this.
Can you sit still, close your eyes, and have a conversation, not a monologue, with your body?
“Hey there ribcage, I feel you there, I know you exist, how’s it going today”
“Actually, brain, I’m feeling like you don’t fully appreciate me, but thanks for checking in. Let’s work on this relationship a bit harder”.
This could be the topic of a blog post for another day, but I believe this ability to sense body parts at rest, to distinguish what you can feel clearly and what you cannot is incredibly important for movement.
Maybe I’m talking about meditation, maybe I’m starting to sound esoteric. But what I’m getting at is that differentiated sensory input = differentiated motor output.
How can you expect to get up and perform complex movements when you can’t even feel a body part at rest?
I would love to see more dancers develop an appreciation for the ability to sense themselves and their bodies at rest, and I think adopting this as a daily practice could be a huge asset.
In the ballet class I go to regularly, we begin each class in exactly this way: Lying on the floor, encouraged to explore which parts of our bodies we are able to sense, whatever that means to us. This has had a profound impact on my ability to connect and feel my body in motion and has allowed me to make interesting connections to why some movements are difficult to do, which streamlines my process of making adjustments in training and in life.
I would love if more dance teachers took the first five minutes of class in this way, to help the dancers tune in and appreciate their bodies in stillness before layering on the complexity in which this appreciation can become easily lost.
In martial arts, the “tuning in” part of training is huge. Being able to feel your body. To see yourself doing something in your mind before doing it with your body. Why is it not seen as important in dance? And in other sports?
- Higher movement variability (coordinative variability) is linked to being in a healthy, uninjured state, and provides you with multiple useful and safe strategies to perform the same task. Knowing that the world we live in is highly volatile, our ability to adapt and fine tune movement in real time is a crucial ability to possess.
- Higher movement variability allows us to improve our performance as dancers by improving our ease and freedom in movement, get our joints into the positions we want without strain, and allowing us to easily adapting to new choreographic styles while reducing the risk that we might injure ourselves in the process.
- The role of cross-training in dance is not limited just to strengthening and improving mobility, but to ensuring strength and mobility are built in a way that enhances movement variability. Often, the choice to participate in a strength training program is enough to enhance variability due to the new novel input.
- The ability to differentiate the movement of joints and segments in three planes is a useful way to appraise potential for movement variability, and a great learning experience for the individual.
- “Tuning in” also plays a role in being able to sense our bodies at rest, which can influence how and what we can move when we are up on our feet. This is something that needs to be discussed and valued more highly in dance training.
That’s all for now. I think I wrote enough. Believe it or not, this post was originally much longer… You’re welcome.
Stay tuned for part 4.
This is how the word “politics” makes me feel:
I’ve never been one to follow politics or express my political views publicly. One, because I honestly don’t understand how governments works, and two, because I am completely ignorant of the views any of the political parties in Canada hold (or anywhere for that matter).
Who. Are. These. People…?
Go ahead, judge me. I take full responsibility for my ignorance.
I told my parents about my political ignorance once:
“I just don’t care about politics. I’m sure one day something will happen and politics will become meaningful to me, but right now, I’m perfectly content to be ignorant and let people make the decisions for me.”
They were not impressed, and my father proceeded into a spiel about liberal vs. conservative vs. NDP party views and why I should care. Sorry pop, I zoned most of that out.
All I know right now is that Justin Trudeau can do peacock better than I can, and that makes me proud to be Canadian #Ivotedliberal
This photo makes me so very happy.
The reason I bring up politics today is that “that something” has happened to make politics start to seem meaningful. It’s about dang time, Monika!
I’ve been thinking about the role the government plays in dancers health, longevity, education, and performance.
KEY CONCEPT #1: A dance student’s education should go beyond technique and performance training to include how to take care of their bodies and minds to support their performance and longevity.
In my reflection, I’ve begun to appreciate how interdependent of a system it is that affects a dancer’s education and their potential, whether “success” means to perform professionally, or just enjoy dancing as long as desired without becoming a cripple.
If we are to truly give dancers a well-rounded education (ie one that goes beyond physical and technical training by also addressing their biopsychosocial needs to attain career longevity, even after they stop dancing) we need to more than just preach at them.
Preaching to dancers to take better care of themselves is like the King preaching to a peasant to be less peasanty:
“You need to eat more food so that you can be stronger and toil more efficiently. And why can’t you get better tools so that you can farm more effectively? Figure out how on your own. I don’t have time to help.”
Foolish expectation to have, isn’t it?
I am somewhat guilty of preaching to the peasant and expecting it to work.
“You need to take better care of yourself, and I know you don’t have the resources- time and money- to learn how. You need to change what you’re doing if you want to succeed, but I can’t really help if you don’t have money.”
I’ve been a jerk, and I’m sorry.
KEY CONCEPT #2: Dancers are doing the best with what education they are given. It’s up to us to change their education, not them.
Let me explain where this is coming from.
I was recently asked to write a resource paper for Healthy Dancer Canada, which was meant to be a short, two page document describing some strategies for dancers to unwind from the physical challenges of dance training and performance.
I apparently had a lot to say on the topic, as this document turned into a 13 page monster (which I’m quite happy with, by the way, and I can’t wait to share it with you all should the committee approve of my word-vomitry).
The wonderful thing about being a writer is how the writing itself can take on a life of its own and take you to places you didn’t expect, forcing you to think critically about things you might not have otherwise considered.
And writing this resource for HDC was the thing that finally made me think about starting to care about politics.
My beast of a resource describes a number of ways dancers require support in their training beyond technique classes and artistic development, such as:
- How to cope with and unwind from the physical duress of dance training
- The need for accessible support systems and mentorship
- Why we should address fundamental movement quality before adding more hours of training
- Breathing. Just do it.
- The importance of educating dancers on what proper cross-training is and integrating it into their training.
But then I got to the “how” part- How do we fit this information into the current dance training frame-work so that it actually reaches the dancers. I had trouble writing this part.
Who is responsible for implementing these strategies with dancers?
Of course, it’s the dance teachers, isn’t it? Dance teachers have the most influence on the dancers through direct training, education, and mentorship (for better or for worse).
And their ability to do simple geometry…
But many dance teachers only know dance. And while this may be the norm, I think it’s time for that to change. If we want dancers to have the well-rounded training that helps them become their best, dance teachers need continuing education, which is not standard. Yet.
Many teachers have gaps to fill in their knowledge of functional anatomy, biomechanics, and cross-training principles, and should develop an appreciation of the roles the nervous system and movement quality play in their students’ training.
I’m not saying they need to be experts at everything because that is unrealistic, but having a general appreciation is the minimum. A weekend course, or a few books is a good place to start.
So not only do we need to educate and support dancers, we need to educate dance teachers to support the formation of more successful dancers.
KEY CONCEPT #3: Dance teachers need accessible continuing education on how to provide a more well-rounded experience for their dance students, beyond technique.
To educate dance teachers, we need to make teacher training programs accessible to them that go beyond conveying technique.
Not only that, we need to deliberately make space for this in their lives, because a dance teacher rarely makes enough money to take this type of training, or has the time in their curriculum to fit supplemental training into their already packed rehearsal and class schedule, or is even aware that this type of training will be an asset for their dancers.
They don’t see the value, and they don’t see it as a priority. How do we get dance teachers to value their education? To see that they can make a difference in their students’ lives if they did something different?
And hell if RAD has room in it’s syllabus to include “unwinding strategies” as part of their ballet education. Prove me wrong, RAD. Prove me wrong.
So the teacher him/herself lacks the power to elicit change in the system, because teachers can’t teach what they’ve never experienced. I suppose this will be up to the next generation of teachers. Teachers-to-be reading this blog post…
And while it’s great to put the onus on the dance teachers to teach all the things we want them to teach, they need support as much as the dancers do! And I don’t think it’s just as simple as needing better educated dance teachers, but a team of support staff with the requisite expertise.
Kind of like GJUUM is doing for professional ballet in Europe.
KEY CONCEPT #4: Dance teachers can’t be and know everything for their students. A support staff with multiple expertise, or a trusted network working together, would provide the best experience for a dance school/program.
And I kept thinking like this: Going further and further back to find, if not the dance teachers, who could most influence the current dance training paradigm?
Who do we need to speak with who can help teachers see the value in continuing education, and make it accessible to them so they can provide a better experience for their students?
I thought in terms of a university dance program, because that’s the system I have the most experience with.
Got my bike helmet and my BFA, what more could a girl need?
The hierarchy I came up with went something like this.
- Teaching staff (directly providing education)–> dancers
- Dance program director (scheduling and influencing what is taught)–>Teaching staff
- Faculty of arts chair (makes decisions on what can be included in the curriculum)–> dance program director
- University chair (in charge of budget distribution for all faculties)–> faculty of arts chair
- Government (decides how much funding universities receive)–> University chair
- Voting citizens (decide who will make the decisions on university funding)–> Government
- Advocates for arts education (parents, dancers, dance educators, etc)–>Voting citizens
- Scientists/evidence (who study the importance of support for dancers and arts education) –> advocates for arts education
- Bodies who fund research–> Scientists
And that’s as far as I got, but I’m sure it could go on, and I’m sure I’ve missed some important people in between, like where do the parents fit in?
But we can see that to reach the dancer we must look farther back, to a government level to identify the point at which, in this hierarchy, we can make the most impact on the content of a dancer’s education.
And the government level is where the money is.
Dolla dolla bill y’all
Yes, unfortunately it comes down partially to dat ca$h money…
Question: Why do professional ballet dancers have such a short off-season?
Ballet dancers don’t make mad money, and so they can’t afford to take that much time off working. If the companies were to receive more funding it would allow the dancers take more time off without worrying about losing money while not performing.
For example,The National Ballet in Toronto gets only 5 weeks off per year. They are left to their own devices to cross-train or hire a personal trainer, and the only time of day they have to cross-train is lunch hour. Compare that to other professional athletes who often get 3 or 4 months off and have an integrated training/medical staff working closely with them. Their strength training is considered crucial and is built into their schedules.
Dance may not be a sport, but dancers are athletes who need a similar, integrated system to support them.
KEY CONCEPT #5: Dancers deserve the care, appreciation, and funding other elite professional athletes receive.
Dance science to the rescue.
#1 from the “Dancing test tube” series. A Volkmar original.
I now see much more clearly the role the dance-sciences play in supporting dancers.
I am not an academic. I think research and evidence is great, but I prefer the real-life “doing”. Academics sometimes (not always!) have a poor grasp on how their work fits into real life and, as important as their findings are, they mean little if they can’t be applied.
We all have a role to play, and I’d be remiss not to appreciate that scientific evidence has huge potential to shape the future of how dancers are trained. And it is the government who ultimately decides who gets funding to research what.
How much funding does dance science research get?
My guess is not much. Funding the arts in general is often under appreciated because we don’t see how it helps give us more scientific evidence: The facts and stuff that drive us to make important decisions and “advance” as a species towards enlightenment.
Why did the world decide fat-free food was good? Science told us so (and science was wrong about that).
Science is great and all, but what if I told you that…
…arts education makes the world a better, more compassionate place to live, and helps people innovate better
Read: The arts help people do science better.
This leads me to share my recent fascination with George Lakoff and his teachings in cognitive linguistics and neuroscience. Please watch this video:
Arts education is a big deal:
“Need more innovation? Big ideas come from neural simulation: Reading, thinking, putting things together. Not just doing math and science. These don’t train the imagination in that way. Training people to innovate requires reading and learning about the arts”
What does this mean?
Lakoff explains that to understand why arts education is important, we need to understand how the brain works.
The same part of the brain is used when you imagine something as when you are actually doing it, which can be explained by mirror neurons.
This is called simulation: Engaging mirror neurons to understand and connect with other people and the world and becoming a part of those things. Imagining things that don’t exist in the world but that you could experience through reading poetry, understanding language, seeing a play, visual art, or dance, for example.
Simulation is how we innovate by putting ideas together (ideas being physical circuits in our brain). And innovation is only possible by engaging mirror neurons allowing us to connect with other people and the world around us empathetically, through exposure to the arts.
KEY CONCEPT #6: Exposure to the arts helps us become better at innovation and allows us to connect with other people and world around us- Things we don’t learn from math and science.
Innovation, new ideas, collaboration and getting along with other people, requires exposure to the arts, and it is sad to see things being cut from schools that provide this experience of simulation: Recess, arts, gym class, things that allow us to embody information and empathize with each other.
Politicians need to understand this.
Some schools want to cut recess, because BEARS!
And maybe dance scientists are so badass because they have the killer combination of arts and science together. Dance scientists may be the innovators we need to change the dance educational paradigm.
I wasn’t expecting to come to these conclusions.
Sometimes I surprise myself.
It appears that to make space in a dancer’s training for supplemental strategies to support their well-being, we need to speak with the governing bodies who dictate who can research and provide evidence on these matters.
This information then needs to be distributed to parents, and advocates of dancers and the arts, who need to express themselves effectively to their communities, convincing the government to allot more funds to allow dance schools and programs the space within their budget and schedule to educate and train dance teachers on how to convey these important ideas, who will then be able to reach the dancers.
And the resources can finally reach the peasants.
To support the dancer is a mission requiring the interdependent cooperation of many, all of whom have an important role to play.
I’m caught in a paradox, and I don’t know how to get out.
I believe that dancers must understand how to take care of themselves and be self-efficacious. No one can fix them and care for them but themselves.
I learned this the hard way.
But self-efficacy must be learned, as with any other skill, and unless we create a pathway to get the information to dancers and teach them how to care and advocate for themselves, it will be impossible for them to learn unless through injury.
Case in point: My life. And the reason this blog exists.
KEY CONCEPT #7: Self-efficacy, self-care, and self-advocacy are skills dancers should be able to learn with the proper educational paradigm, before injury, which is often too late.
So I guess to wrap this up, please, if you are voting age, let’s support dancers and their needs, and arts education in general, by electing a government that funds the arts, and the sciences that support the arts.
We can start by doing something about this guy:
I’ll start by stating the obvious: Dancers get injured. A lot.
Studies show us that the injury rate in dance is similar to that of collision sports and, while each study presents a different statistic, the injury rate is often somewhere between 60-100%.
Not to mention that you can’t completely rely on studies that include self-reported data, because many dancers don’t report getting injured.
THIS study, outlined in Science Daily says:
injury rate for ballet dancers over an eight-month period was 61 percent. This is comparable to rates found in other studies for athletes in collision sports such as football and wrestling. The average time lost because of a ballet injury was 10.5 days, with the actual time loss ranging from one to 87 days.
In THIS study, the injury incidence in professional Irish dancers was shown to be 76%.
And in THIS study of young ballet dance students, of the 476 students in being observed, 438 injuries were recorded. The injury incidence rate was 0.8 per 1,000 dance hours.
If you dance, you will get hurt.
Am I scaring you? I’m only doing it to make a point. How does hearing these statistics make you feel? Are you inspired now to go out and take care of your joints? Or are you paralyzed, discouraged, and unsure what to do about it?
That’s my point. Scary stats aren’t enough to inspire action. Telling dancers they need strategies to prevent injuries doesn’t count as guidance. One-off injury prevention workshops don’t give long-term support that dancers need.
THIS study done in the UK looked at dancers’ perspectives towards injuries and pain, and one conclusion was:
Dance injury rates do not appear to be decreasing significantly, despite greater awareness and the promotion of the “healthier dancer” in dance training schools, universities and among professionals in the UK.
The way we’re presenting injury prevention to dancers is not effective enough.
There’s enough research supporting cross-training to make it mainstream, yet even the dancers who cross-train get injured.
And fear mongering, kind of like I’m doing now (it’s only to make a point!), isn’t an effective means of getting dancers interested in preventing injuries, it only makes them focus on their fears.
Is it really helpful to focus on pain? To be told that you will get hurt if you don’t do x-y-z? Has being scared into trying to prevent injuries ever really inspired you?
Michael Mullin’s Facebook page is always full of gems like this one below, which I’ve been making a conscious effort more recently to be aware of in my own practice:
Pain science shows us that focusing on pain only draws our attention to it more, making it more pronounced and threatening in our minds. The more we fear pain, the more we try to stiffen ourselves to prevent feeling it, and the more we alter our movement patterns in compensatory ways that can cause even higher risk of injury.
Please watch this TED talk by Lorimer Mosely, author of Explain Pain, which summarizes nicely why things hurt (and read his book, too):
What if we stopped focusing on pain and injuries?
And what if we stopped putting the onus on the dancer to change they way they do things, and instead, change how WE work with dancers.
It’s a mistake to keep telling our students the same things over and over expecting them to change, while we ourselves refuse to adapt to their situation. We don’t study dance science for our own personal gain after-all, it’s to help the dancers. Isn’t it?
Our language needs to change.
What if, instead of naming programs as “injury prevention screens” we called them “performance optimization screens?” They are the exact same program only with a different name.
What if instead of saying “don’t do this or you will become injured!”, we said, “If you try to do things this way instead, you will be creating better patterns of moving that will help you perform better and stronger”.
Subconsciously we react differently to hearing words like pain, injuries, don’t, not, and bad. Over time, constantly hearing these words can start to change the way we feel about ourselves, and limits our potential.
Take the emphasis off the threat. Let dancers focus on their love of dance.
Does inducing fear help reduce pain in the same way that encouraging dancers to experience gratitude does?
Consider that you’re trying to motivate a dance student, or yourself for that matter, to start a cross-training or therapeutic exercise program. How would you word it to them?
Would you a) Attempt to instill a fear of spraining an ankle if you don’t do it, or b) Express how the exercises will make you stronger and better at dancing.
I think it’s obvious.
Changing your language, both to yourself and to others, is a challenge. It requires that you are completely aware of every word coming out of your mouth. This seems unrealistic but it is possible, and this subtle switch can make a massive difference, and is 100% worth the effort, with zero cost.
I have made this switch myself, and it drove me crazy when I realized how my words could be sending the wrong subconscious message to my clients, and to myself, despite my best intentions.
They say you become what you focus on. I know this to be true.
When I was recovering from an eating disorder, the hardest part was trying to teach myself how to eat again in “normal” portion sizes, without becoming completely obsessive about it. I’m sure if you’ve been through one yourself you can relate to the challenges of acclimating back to being a regular person who eats regularly.
Food was on my mind constantly. When would I eat next? How much would I eat? What would I eat? How many calories? How many carbs? How much protein? Did I deserve to eat that many carbs? Should I go exercise before or after eating? Is that too many calories or not enough? And then how many hours should I wait until I eat my next meal? What should I have for my next meal? Should I just skip eating today altogether??
When I reflect back on the hours wasted and the mental energy spent every day just thinking about food, it’s no wonder I was always exhausted and injured.
It wasn’t until I finally decided to stop thinking about food that I was able to eat like a “regular” person again. Canada is not a third world country. There is ample food here. I had no need to worry for hours each day about where my next meal would come from.
When it comes to injuries, constantly obsessing about them and their prevention is counterproductive in a similar way that my food planning obsession was. It’s a waste of mental energy that can be used more productively.
Don’t get me wrong, we need people to think about injury prevention, but it’s not the dancers who should be worried. It’s us- The scientists, the physiotherapists, the trainers, teachers, parents, and doctors to think about these things, maybe even worry about them a little, but only so that the dancers don’t have to.
Let the dancers worry about dancing, and we, the dance educators can carry the burden of their injuries. Because we’re geeks and we’re into it, and our bodies aren’t the ones on the line.
We, the educators, trainers, and therapists, need to learn all we can about prevention, but not only prevention- We also need to learn how to communicate this information to dancers in a way that doesn’t make them afraid, but empowers them to become stronger. Because the fear and obsession tactics don’t work.
In my first year at Ryerson University I remember that we were asked what our biggest fears were, as dancers. Our response? A unanimous fear of becoming hurt and no longer being able to dance.
What causes this fear of injuries?
You’re afraid of injuries because you don’t know enough about how your body works to be able to heal yourself without an entire team of specialists (which you can’t afford).
Injuries are scary because of the time off you don’t want to take, for which you will have nothing else to fill it with, because dance is all you know.
You’re afraid to become hurt less because of physical pain, and more because you tempt losing a piece of your identity.
You don’t want to think about the fact that you can’t afford rehabilitation fees.
And you’re afraid of injuries because you perceive that teachers will judge you as inferior for becoming hurt (“if your technique was better this wouldn’t have happened to you!”).
So you push these fears to a dark corner in your mind so that you can dance without limits. When you’re not injured you feel invincible, and it feels good to dance like you’re invincible. The best dancers to watch must be the ones who feel invincible because they don’t hold anything back.
You don’t need the constant reminders that you will get hurt, you need goals for performance, a well designed strength training program that is actually fun to do and that helps you feel immediate reward so that you’ll want to keep doing it. You need to be educated on how your body works so you can enjoy using it and, by understanding your limits, you can respect them.
What I feel is lacking for most dancers, unless part of a professional ballet company, is a safety net that has your back when you do get injured. Because injuries will happen. We as educators know that we can help dancers to get injured less often, but it still happens.
By safety net I mean a system that ensures that a dancer doesn’t need to be afraid of becoming injured, because they will have access to the support they need financially, emotionally, physically, and mentally in that situation.
It’s not the dancer that needs to change, it’s you and I. How we educate, train, and make ourselves a part of a dancers’ rehab process. We need to change the system rather than expect the dancers to fit into the one that currently exists, and often fails them.
Anyone who has become injured knows that it doesn’t just hurt the physical body, but it can trigger deep depression and cataclysmic feelings of low self-worth. You feel like you’re losing your identity when you lose your ability, if not only temporarily, to dance.
I am fortunate to live in Canada and that my father works for the government.
Had to insert a Justin Trudeau pic in here somewhere
While I was in school, I was covered under his benefits and could get my physio fees reimbursed through his insurance policy. Physio which, by the way, was not effective because I had no idea how to choose a therapist that would fit my needs.
Despite this accessibility, my rehabilitation experience was not good and, eventually I maxed out my parents’ coverage to the point that I stopped going because I could not afford it anymore. I even paid for treatments out of my own pocket that were ineffective.
I felt bad about myself for not getting better. I felt judged by my teachers and felt the pity of my peers. I felt guilty that I had used all of my parents’ insurance coverage and still could not dance.
It could have been much different if a system was in place to help. If I didn’t have to make decisions alone that I knew nothing about. I was alone and ignorant. Alone, even though I’m sure every dancer in my class had gone through a similar struggle.
At the IADMS conference this past October, I distinctly remember one presentation showing us evidence that insufficient coping skills was one of the top reasons dancers get injured. I can relate.
Most of us don’t have a support system unless we go out and create one for ourselves. We all have the right to a safety net. An incredibly supportive, effective, affordable network.
What if each dance program/school had a network that consisted of a rehabilitation team, a strength and conditioning team, and a therapist.
Welcome to my perfect world where:
1. Each dance school/program has a built in a budget for student rehabilitation. This budgeted amount is established knowing that dancers will get hurt- Not if, but when. This allows dancers to receive a certain minimum amount of treatment for their injuries, and a subsidized rate beyond that amount, so that they can focus on their dancing without fear.
2. Strength and conditioning is a mandatory part of the curriculum. Not a bootcamp, Barre fitness style class, but a sensible, periodized, dance-specific program taught by a competent coach who would have as much a role in education as supervising exercise, empowering dancers to become their best while feeling good about themselves and their abilities.
3. The dance program has it’s own team of rehabilitation specialists. They observe dance classes, communicate with the other teachers and faculty, and, most importantly, aren’t only into making money with fancy treatments and passive therapies. Did you know that some physios can make hundreds of dollars by prescribing an injection that takes them 5 minutes to administer? Makes it pretty tempting to do this than work long-term with a patient to teach them how they came to be injured.
4. Dance teachers are educated on how to speak and interact with their students. They are taught to avoid negative language and help them adopt a growth mindset, set goals, and raise their self-worth rather than make them feel bad about their abilities.
Imagine how reassuring it would be to dance at a school that had this kind of support system. The dancers in this program would thrive knowing that if their worst fears came true, they wouldn’t have to deal with it alone. It would allow them to dance with more confidence, not subjected to inappropriate language and fear mongering with no talk of solutions.
I write this because a dancer I know has been going through some hard times in his last year university and a system like this could have prevented his current situation, as well as that of many dancers.
I “met” Michael via email (probably chatting initially about deadlifts and hamstring injuries, two things we have in common).
Despite his best intentions, desire to learn how to take care of his body, and love of strength training, he became badly injured and has now accumulated thousands of dollars in medical bills he can’t afford to pay, and is still trying to get back on his feet.
Michael’s not an idiot. He’s way smarter than I was at his age.
Michael didn’t do anything wrong. He only wanted to work hard and succeed at something he loves, but he didn’t have the support and education he needed to overcome his injuries.
When his physiotherapy program was not helping him improve adequately, he didn’t know whether he should call it quits and find someone new, because that isn’t taught in school.
When he was cleared to go back to dance, still in pain, he was not educated on how to know when to rest, something we all need an education in.
He loves strength training and knows it’s good for him to do, but like most students, he wan not able to afford supervision and a customized program that would have ensured his cross-training was helping him, not just grinding him into the dirt (unlike other collegiate athletics programs which almost always include strength and conditioning training).
Michael didn’t get adequate recovery because he felt guilty about resting, and felt judged for sitting out. He didn’t have a better plan so he pushed through his injuries to perform in a show which, by the end, found him unable to walk without pain.
While he will probably look back a few years from now and see his situation so clearly, it’s not so easy to make the right choices when your life is ruled by judgement, competition, and pressure to succeed, with little support.
Michael needed a system.
He needed better quality physio that insisted upon adequate recovery, guidance for his cross-training, financial aid, compassion from his teachers, and to be re-assured that he would have a smooth transition back into dance if he followed their advice.
He needed a trustworthy system with this kind of incredible communication between rehab, cross-training, and teaching, with the budget to support him so he didn’t have the financial burden at the forefront of his mind.
Of course there are some challenges this model poses.
The big one: Money. Where does this budget to subsidize rehab, training, and education come from?
Another biggie: Time. Convincing the head of a dance program that it is necessary to make time for screening and strength and conditioning in the already packed curriculum isn’t an easy sell.
This system is my dream. Just give me 10 years and I’ll make it happen ;).
How is Michael now coping with his situation? He’s started a Go Fund Me campaign to help pay for his medical expenses and get back to dancing. It takes courage to put oneself out there and ask for money. I certainly would rather have given up completely than ask for help.
But Michael shouldn’t have to be asking for money. Dance students should not have to reach out to their friends and strangers on the internet because they can’t afford physical therapy. That said, this is Michael’s reality, and if you’d like to help him out, please contribute to his campaign. Better yet, reach out to UC Irvine where he studies and ask them to consider creating a better support system for their dance students.
Michael has been inspired by his situation to start a charity that would support dancers through times of need like his. For now, his Go Fund Me campaign is his charity, and if he meets his fundraising goal, he also hopes to donate to a charity that does something similar to support dancers. Please help him out, and share this post.
And if you are aware or organizations that support dancers, please let me (and Michael) know about them. Many of us are not aware what resources are available to us, so post them in the comments below.
What do you think? Am I too idealistic? (I for sure am, but I’m not changing). Can you relate to Michael’s experience? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
And yes, realize that I used a lot of negative verbiage in this post, but it was mostly to make a point!