If you’ve ever taken a ballet class, then I can wager that you’ve heard this correction at least once:
“Tuck your pelvis under!”
You’ve probably also heard:
“Pull-up!”, and its evil play-friends, “Engage your core!”, “Suck in your gut!”, “Get your ribs in!”, and then to top it off (as I was always told), “Don’t look so weird!”.
HAHAHA really? You want me to suck it my gut, tuck my butt under, push in my ribs and NOT look like I’m constipated? Right…
These cues are generally given to help us find “neutral” alignment and dance better.
At best, this verbiage can convey the wrong feeling and cause extra tension, and at worst can cause life-long movement habits that can cause pain in and of themselves, long after you’ve stopped dancing.
I currently am working with a former dancer in her 30s. She’s had a few kids and now works as a chiropodist (yay feet).
We quickly discovered that it is VERY difficult for her to access anterior tilt in basic body-weight movements, such as a rockback. Her pelvis will begin to tuck under almost immediately- She doesn’t know how to hip hinge.
Something clicked for her instantly: All the years in dance, for as long as she could remember, teachers had been telling her to tuck her pelvis under. Not only did this become a habit in her dancing, but became her “thing” years after she stopped performing.
And if you’re unfamiliar with the terms anterior and posterior tilt, see the picture below:
Anterior tilt= Booty out
Posterior tilt= Tucked-under
Let’s continue with the story.
My client began to notice all the different moments in her life that she would habitually posteriorally tilt (tuck under) her pelvis rather than hinge from her hips.
When she bent down to pick up her kids. While sitting. And as a response to stress. Tucking under had become her pattern, and she began to realize that this was probably why her back was always sore, too.
She asked me to teach her the proper way to bend down to pick up her kids, to which I replied, “So you want to learn to deadlift, eh?” (a deadlift is just a loaded hip hinge, and a kid is for sure a load to lift).
Her pain quickly decreased by improving her awareness and by working to mobilize her pelvis and improving her ability to anteriorally tilt.
And her husband reports her butt has firmed up a bit too. #science at it’s best- if you can’t load your hips, you can’t work dat booty.
So if you teach dancers, please be aware that the cues you give them may stay with them long after they’ve stopped dancing. Your words carry more power than you think.
Also it is important to recognize that every dancer is different. We all learn in different ways, so please be ready to adapt what you say to match the individual. This is a skill that takes time and experience working with many bodies.
WHAT’S THE “BEST” PELVIC ALIGNMENT?
A dance teacher recently asked this question in a group that I follow on Facebook. Her question (paraphrased): “What’s the best position for the dancer’s pelvis? Neutral, anterior tilt, or posterior tilt?”.
Of course it seems like a no-brainer. Neutral, obviously.
Or is it?
This question makes it seem like only one position can be the best, and the other two are the devil- Positions to avoid because they are bad, bad, bad.
If you think that she’s right about this, then sorry to burst your bubble but posterior and anterior tilt are good!
Your body was designed to do these movements. They are necessary and without them you wouldn’t be able to walk properly.
Why demonize positions that are completely natural and healthy for the body? Especially for an activity like dance, the movement vocabulary of which is infinitely vast! Why limit yourself to just “neutral”?
IS NEUTRAL SOMETHING TO AIM FOR?
Yes and no.
Yes you should be able to get to neutral with any joint- Spine, pelvis, hips, shoulder, feet, etc.
And yes, you should also be able to posteriorally tilt, anteriorally tilt, and do all the other fun movements each joints of your body is built to perform .
You can have it all. Good news, I hope, if you’ve been beating yourself up because you can’t stay perfectly “neutral” while you dance.
That said, if you can’t get to neutral ever, that’s a problem.
I have a pretty crazy degree of anterior pelvic tilt at rest (as I wrote about HERE), and this wouldn’t necessarily be considered problematic except for the fact that I can’t tuck my pelvis under enough to even get to neutral.
Think of neutral as a particular range of motion that just happens to be mid-point on the spectrum.
Mid-point is a range of motion you definitely don’t want to lose. Just like posterior tilt or anterior tilt. Just like kicking yourself in the head. Or sitting on your head…
I repeat: Every movement your body is capable of performing is perfectly healthy and good and you should not avoid any of them.
We sometimes subconsciously learn to avoid positions that our brains perceive to be a threat because of injury, emotional reasons, or inappropriate cueing from teachers.
So we learn to work around these points in our of range of motion to avoid feeling distressed. And good thing we do, because it’s a really clever way to avoid pain (physical or psychic) in the short-term.
Long-term however, avoiding and then losing a range of motion isn’t so healthy.
All that to say that the question should not be “which is the best position“, but rather “HOW can I help my students access the appropriate ranges of motion at the appropriate times?”
To be confined to neutral while dancing, yes, even in ballet, is like dancing constipated and scared.
That’s probably why I always looked so weird and got injured a lot…
NEUTRAL SPINE/PELVIS REVISITED
I’d like to quote Michael Mullin (ATC, PTA, PRC) as he originally wrote on his Facebook page:
There is a difference between trying to keep someone neutral during activity & trying to facilitate muscles to reduce the pull of a pattern. Neutrality might be achieved, but the bigger goal during training in particular is to not allow a stronger bias to create significant torque onto the system.
Neutrality is awesome, but learning to establish balanced muscle work with movement patterns is end-game….
Read that again.
For most of us, to keep an absolutely perfectly neutral alignment of pelvis and spine is not going to happen. “Neutral” is also a position that is slightly different for everyone, and on any given day.
To force uniformity on a position that is highly variable and constantly in flux is madness.
What’s more important than staying neutral, which by the way I don’t think is possible, is the ability to, as Michael states, “reduce the pull of a pattern” that could create excess torque on a joint or system of joints.
What this means is that how the movement feels for the dancer is more important that how it looks to the outside eye.
Aesthetics are an important part of dance, but no two people can move the same way, and trying to force a dancer to look a particular way, i.e. stay perfectly neutral, will only add strain to their system causing that “weirdness” I couldn’t avoid (because I was trying to be perfect and move like someone I wasn’t).
If the movement feels good for the dancer, there is an absence of extra strain, and it meets the criteria of the aesthetic they’re aiming for (the choreography for example), who cares if it’s not perfectly neutral?
As a colleague of mine pointed out (after I asked him if the corrective exercise I was doing looked “right”), he said, “How does it feel? Are you feeling ___ happen? If you’re feeling it in the right places that’s all that matters. Proprioception is everything“.
Unfortunately for those of you who want solid “yes”, or “no” answers, everything is shades of grey. But this is also a beautiful and liberating thing.
WHEN IS NEUTRAL GOOD?
When a joint is neutral, or centrated (sitting centered relative to it’s maximum extremes of possible range of motion), it is at a mechanical advantage. Sort of.
Actually, a muscle has the highest force producing capabilities when it is stretched out and ready to recoil, like a stretched slingshot. So when you get stuck in one range, there is a constant tug-of-war going on- The muscle wants to recoil, but your brain ain’t letting it.
This is why things can start to feel tight, like you hamstrings and groin.
Anyway, yes, a neutral pelvis is good to aim for as it will allow you to access optimal turnout, hip flexion and extension and minimize stress on the spine and other joints.
This is one mindset… Want another one? Sure you do.
If mindset A is “to achieve maximum range of motion, one must start from center”, then consider mindset B, “To achieve neutral, one must be able to feel both other extremes of that joint’s range of motion”.
This could turn into a huge chicken-or-the-egg discussion, or we could just all agree and say it’s never great to lose ANY range of motion, neutral included.
I guess the biggest thing I want you to consider is that neutral is not a position, it’s just a point on the movement spectrum and you shouldn’t get stuck there.
After all, is the body ever capable of being completely still? I dare you to try (hint- it’s not).
So if neutral is but a range of motion we move through, impossible to hold, and getting stuck in one range of motion at the expense of others can be unsafe and tension-creating, why are we treating it like the holy grail of dance?
WHAT’S A BETTER CUE THAN “NEUTRAL”?
I realize I may have made things even less clear for you. Good! I hope you’re thinking.
What then do you say to a dance student who clearly needs some help sorting out their pelvis/spine/joints you feel need to be more “neutrally” aligned?
While I said that all ranges of motion are good, being sloppy or stiff at the wrong times needs to be corrected before becoming habits that cause pain.
I’m not a dance teacher, so this is not my area of expertise. I’m good with the supplemental work to help dancers bring new awareness and movement possibilities to their art, but when it comes to teaching dance, there are so many people who can do it better than me.
A few things I’d like to say though, from my perspective.
1. Avoid using cues like “tuck-under” and “suck it in” that are positional and can pack emotional baggage.
Give cues that are meant to create a change in movement rather than encourages the dancer to maintain a position while trying to move.
“Tuck-under” and “suck it in” can also make dancers feel like they have a butt that’s too big, or they are fat, and it really sucks to have to dance around in a bodysuit and tights thinking that your dance teacher sees you that way, judging your body.
2. When cueing and corrections alone don’t work, screen dancers, if you can, and recommend some supplementary training to help them.
Sometimes coaching won’t work because the student isn’t ready for it, psychologically or physically- Something beyond their consciousness is holding them back. Supplementary training can help bring these limitations to their awareness and help them to make change.
Check out THIS RESOURCE that showed the benefits of helping dancers with supplemental work outside the class, and this improved their alignment.
Dancers were given separate “tutoring” sessions to supplement technique classes in hopes it would transfer into class.
“The major focus of the tutoring sessions was increasing
awareness and motor control, and developing good alignment habits to promote lasting improvements. The results
of the study indicate that following intervention each of the
dancers decreased their degree of anterior pelvic tilt by an
average of 3.5 degrees. Through a simple tutoring program
these dancers were able to improve their pelvic alignment
and gain a greater understanding of what was necessary for
maintaining this alignment.”
Addressing the pelvic needs of a dancer will eliminate the need to tell them to “tuck under” in class, as they’ll be in a more optimal alignment reflexively.
3. Consider giving them a regressed exercises.
Allow dancers to prioritize proper movement quality over leg height, or excessive range of motion beyond their control. Better to take a few steps back and master the basics.
4. Treat each dancer as an individual.
Remember that what worked for you may not work for every dancer. And please try not to project your own fears and movement biases upon your students.
For example, if you were told to tuck under, you may see this as the ultimate correction, and whenever you see a bum out of place you urge them to tuck it in.
This might not be their specific issue.
And if you had knee pain, then you might cue movement a particular way that worked for you to avoid knee pain. You might do this subconsciously.
If your students don’t have knee pain, they don’t need to avoid it! Just be aware of whether the cue is for you or for your student.
Yes, this makes your job as a teacher pretty difficult. I hope you enjoy the challenge and reward that informed, individualized cueing can bring. Your students will certainly benefit, and you’ll learn a ton.
5. Consider a subtle shift in the language used to communicate alignment.
If you check out THIS article, it seems like it made a huge difference to change from using the word “tuck” to “tilt”.
Mention of the word tilt seemed to suggest the possibility of a different action… Janice Chapman speaks of “slightly tilting” the pelvis without clenching the buttocks, which, in her words, “helps to engage the lower abdominal and pelvic floor muscles in a posturally advantageous setting.”
So I highly recommend varying the verbiage you use to cue your students. What might be a harmless and effective cue for one student could be highly distressing for another depending on their unique history.
- All movements are good. Posterior and anterior tilt are no better or worse than neutral.
- Trying to stay perfectly 100% in neutral spine or pelvis can cause excess strain on your system. Minimizing strain and getting dancers to feel the movement correctly is more important than them looking perfect (because as you know, dancers can make almost any movement look good…).
- Take the time to learn to cue each dancer in your class as an individual and avoid projecting your past experiences upon them.
- Sometimes supplemental exercise is necessary for a dancer to overcome a limitation that they can’t be coached out of.
If you’re interested in seeing what I mean by “supplemental exercise”, you’ll want to check out Dance Stronger- A book, 4 week training program, and amazing supportive community. I created Dance Stronger to help you overcome limitations that could be causing excess strain and frustration in your quest for “neutral” and better, stronger dancing.
Click here to see what Dance Stronger is about!
Dance Stronger is available 100% by donation, because I know you’re a starving artist with priorities. Like coffee, And that shit’s expensive!
I hope to see you in the DS community, and please leave a comment below if you have thoughts, questions, or want to crush my soul (please don’t do that though).
I’m not here to hate on dance conditioning classes. Much.
In fact I’m not totally qualified to hate on dance conditioning classes because I don’t have very much first hand experience participating in them. Because sadly many dance studios I went to didn’t have that option.
Even Ryerson didn’t have one, though I know many university dance programs do.
Indeed many a dance studio, and many a dance program offer a conditioning class of some sort. This is a good thing.
What I find concerning is that most dance conditioning classes are about as safe and effective as Gumby’s attempt to max out on the bench.
Don’t get me wrong, I am stoked that so many dance schools recognize the need for supplementary conditioning. I’m happy we all agree that the physical stimulus in a typical dance class isn’t enough to elicit improvements in fitness and strength beyond a certain point. I am sad, however, to observe how these classes can often exacerbate some of the issues dancers are already dealing with, rather than make them stronger and less prone to said issues.
Like, your spine hates you from back-bends and then your conditioning class makes you do planks. But they look like this:
And you hold THAT for 3 minutes. And then your back hurts more. But it can’t be because of the planks because those are good for you. Your teacher compliments your sweet pants, but shouldn’t she (or he) be correcting your position?
How dance conditioning classes drop the ball
- Inappropriate exercise selection.
- Inappropriate timing in the schedule.
- Too much volume/intensity.
- Under-qualified, inexperienced teachers.
- No emphasis on educating dancers on how exercises should feel, or that pain isn’t good.
Let me illustrate with a few examples from the real world (although here’s one from this fake internet world, too. This website hurts my soul little).
The inappropriately designed conditioning class by an under-qualified instructor.
I recently met with a client to speak about a project she was working on for her thesis project, and we got on the topic of a very prestigious summer training program that she had participated in last year.
This program happened to include a conditioning class (yay) but according to her- and I consider her to be educated on what is and is NOT an acceptable form of dance cross-training- they did tons of variation of crunches, and exercises that made her hip flexors strain (boo). It got so bad that she decided to express this to the instructor, who responded by saying, “then what should we do instead?”.
First, someone who has been hired to instruct dancers on how to get stronger, presumably with the goal of dancing better, should understand that crunches are not the best choice of exercise for dancers.
And second, if a dancer tells you she is feeling something wrong during an exercise and asks for an alternative, you should be able to give her one. Because you have 5 up your sleeve for this very reason.
To me, this screams unprofessional and under-qualified, and considering the injury rate in dancers is about 80% (but lets be honest, more like 100%), dance schools should do their research before hiring a teacher who is more “boot-camp” than dance cross-training. Someone who will build them up, not break them down.
This class was also poorly scheduled, sandwiched between morning classes and afternoon rehearsals.
When is the best time? I’m not totally sure. I’d like to ask Matthew Wyon that question.
The dance school that offers Zumba as their fitness class.
Ok so I do recognize that for people who don’t do much of anything, much less dance, Zumba can be an intense workout that is probably a totally acceptable thing for them to be doing.
My issue is when dance studios decide to forgo offering a legit conditioning class for dancers because they already have Zumba as an option. They’ve confused “dance fitness” with “fitness for dancers”. It’s not the same thing.
I wouldn’t be caught dead teaching a Zumba class to dancers. No offense, Zumba. I know you’ve changed people’s lives and that’s cool. I just wouldn’t do you. We can still be friends, though.
Many times that I’ve reached out to dance schools in Toronto to talk about the need for dance conditioning classes I’ve been disregarded because they already have their own version of dance fitness, which often is some kind of boot-camp, aerobics, Prancersise-type program that makes me want to cry a little.
And Zumba isn’t dance training either. Want to learn some sweet moves you can use in the real world (whatever that is)? Take an actual dance class. Or do this.
The conditioning class that does the right exercises the wrong way
I had the pleasure of training a lovely young lady who’s dance studio had a conditioning class. They did exercises that I consider good, like push-ups. However, when she told me one day that she did 100 push-ups in said class I was suspicious. In sessions with me, she has difficulty doing a controlled negative.
“Are you sure you were doing push-ups?” I asked. “Well, not like the way we do in our sessions. We have to do he them to the beat of the music ”.
Understandably, when forced to go to the beat of the music her form gets a bit sloppy.
I know you like being on the beat (I do, too) but that does not mean you should have to do push-ups to the beat of a song that is way too fast. Especially if you can’t do one proper push-up. This is another another case where the instructor should know better, allow them to do push-ups at their own pace, and provide appropriate regressions when necessary. Which in the beginning is almost always.
Teaching a group of dancers how to move well, get strong, and get them excited about injury prevention isn’t easy. Often you’ll be met with a group of egos with a no pain no gain mindset. It’s much easier to pander to their wants than to educate them.
They may ask for a stretch class. Teach them neutral spine and how to breathe instead. Make them earn the right to stretch.
I think what’s lacking from many conditioning classes is a measurable goal. How else can you tell your students are making progress? Unless the goal is to move around a bunch, sweat, and feel the burn.
The actual goals of a dance conditioning class
- Educate dancers on proper movement quality and it’s importance.
- Get the dancers stronger to improve their work and recovery capacity.
- Help the dancers build body awareness.
- Balance patterns of overuse to prevent injuries.
- Serve as a mock “screen” to get a sense of whether a dancer is over-trained, injured, or recovering poorly.
Now I’m not saying that I am the most brilliant instructor ever when it comes to dance conditioning and strength training. I’m just saying that I have certain teaching standards, systems and philosophies that I feel actually make for effective strength development and reduce the risk of injury rather than increase it.
Some strategies to ensure your dance conditioning classes don’t suck
Music is for improving energy, not a beat to work out to. Not every dancer can do exercises at the same tempo. It is cruel and inappropriate to assume all dancers can do push-ups to the beat of Latch. Featuring Sam Smith. Possibly the best song ever.
Be constantly assessing the dancers. Treat every exercise as an assessment. Watch for signs of poor recovery. Ask if they find an exercise painful, where they feel it, how challenging it feels. Don’t just stand there and count the reps out.
Do an appropriate warm up. This should include some work on breathing, core activation, and mobility work/dynamic stretching if needed.
Provide a few alternatives (progressions, regressions, lateralizations) for each exercise. No two dancers are the same and they should not be treated as such.
Include these 3 components: Corrective exercise for movement quality, strength development, and metabolic work. Your ratio of exercises from each category may vary depending on the class. Some classes seem to miss the first 2 and do only the metabolic conditioning (circuits, inervals, etc).
Explain why you’re getting them to do the selected exercises and how it will help their dancing. Dancers are much more likely to want to do exercises if they see how it will translate to their performance or help them overcome and prevent injuries. “This will help your turns”, is a better motivator than “feel the burn”.
Spend minimal time stretching. I don’t want to go into this rant right now, but stretching is not the most effective use of time if you only have one hour per week to help your dancers. Dancers need help controlling the flexibility they already have, not getting more bendy and unstable.
Don’t kill the dancers with high volume and intensity. Especially if it’s the end of the day, or the middle of the day. Or the start of their day… Just help them work at an intensity that is reasonable but still challenging.
I struggled for a while teaching classes not knowing how to structure them properly, how to ensure dancers were performing exercises appropriately, and get them in the right mindset. Maybe you don’t agree with everything I’m saying, and if you don’t, I really hope you have a better way, and that you’ll tell me about it so I can do better, too.
I’ll leave you with these final points. Remember:
Zumba is not conditioning for dancers.
Exercises shouldn’t absolutely be done to the beat of the music.
And please don’t treat your dancers like they’re in a boot-camp. They deserve better. They deserve to be built up, not shattered.
Sorry I’ve been so quiet lately, but if you happen to receive emails from me then you already know that I’M IN THAILAND, and not putting a priority on writing blog posts. But after a week of travelling I feel a bit in writing withdrawal, so I want to take a few moments to review the Healthy Dancer Canada annual conference that I spoke at last Sunday in beautiful Vancouver.
For those of you who inquired whether I could get a video/audio recording of my presentation, I regret to inform you that although I did get part of it recorded (camera ran out of film), the audio quality is terrible, just west of useless. If I figure out how, I will attempt to present it online, webinar style or something, though my knowledge of how to do so is limited. And that’s putting it nicely…
So anyway, this post is brought to you from Bangkok, Thailand, where the weather is hot, the streets are smelly, and the ever-present Tuk Tuk drivers will rip you off and take you to buy clothes at the Armani factory, when all you really wanted was to go see the Grand Palace… Ohhh, Bangkok.
So back to the conference. What a great day of talking mad dancer wellness with people who truly care about the future and health of dancers. Because many of you probably weren’t able to make it to Vancouver, please enjoy this brief recap of what you missed:
Do We Wear Dance as a Noun or a Verb? Mental Health Implications of Dancers’ Creative Identies- Chantale Lussier
This was one of my favourite presentations of the day, and was a synopsis of Chantale’s PHD research (for which she also won the HDC research award. GO Chantale).
Chantale, of Elysian Insight– a mental performance consulting company based in Ottawa- spoke about the potential danger of getting too attached to the “I am a dancer” identity. We all love to flaunt the fact that we’re dancers. We walk with our feet pointed out, take every opportunity to show off our flexibility, and wear our buns with pride. This was both a psychological and philosophical discussion of what it means to call yourself a dancer, and why that should matter to you.
Some important points Chantale brought up presentation:
- “If I don’t dance on Sundays, am I still a dancer that day?”,
- “If I become injured and can’t dance, who am I?”
- The difference between saying “I am a dancer” and the French way, “Je danse” (I dance). What does it mean to describe yourself using a noun versus a verb, and which is healthier in the long run?
- The fluid nature of identity and the need for dancers to embrace this for optimal wellness and longevity
Interview With Ballet BC Artist in Residence Dario Dinuzzi- A Dancer’s Perspective on Health and Wellness
It was a nice change to hear things from a dancer’s perspective, which was something we didn’t get at last year’s conference. It’s great and all to hear what the health pros have to say, but it’s arguably more meaningful to hear recanted the first hand experiences in a dancer’s own words. By listening carefully to what dancers are saying, we are better able to help improve their quality of life and help them do what they do best.
Dario told us about his experiences dealing with injuries, building relationships with choreographers, and what to do when they ask you to perform physical stunts that you know deep down to be unsafe.
I took a video of a portion of his interview, and again, the volume is unfortunately low so if you can open it in another player like VLC to boost the sound maybe you’ll get more out of it. Dario is a really entertaining guy to hear talk, which I’m sure is partly due to his Italian heritage.
The Missing Link in the Foundations of Dance Training: Movement Workshop- Mariah-Jane Thies
This was a fascinating presentation. I had never heard of Brain Gym prior to Mariah-Janes Thies’ movement workshop. The concepts she presented are one’s that I definitely dig learning more about, and I can see how they would benefit dancers of all levels, especially young ones or dancers who have reached plateaus and need help at the brain level to push through it.
Mariah-Jane spoke about the importance of using a neuro-developmental model to enhance the brain’s function, to make movements more reflexive, rather than have to use a high-threshold, high stress, bracing technique to achieve them. A huge part, she explained, is the ability of the right and left brains to communicate, or bridge, effectively.
An interesting dance-specific idea she brought up was that foot sickling is something that brain gym can help with, as she believes this inability to control rolling over the outside of the foot is a result of the left and right brains not bridging, which can be traced back to a human developmental phase and then corrected through Brain Gym techniques. As a dancer who has trouble with sickling, I want to know more. Very interesting stuff, indeed.
Scoliosis In Ballet- Susie Higgins, Erika Mayall, Astrid Sherman
Guess what: If you have scoliosis and you dance, you don’t need to feel like you’re at a disadvantage. Susie, Erika and Astrid work with dancers with scoliosis and help them to learn how to work with their bodies and dance to the best of their abilities.
These three ladies run what sounds like the most integrated ballet school I have ever heard of. It combines high quality ballet instruction with physical therapy and cross training, with outstanding communication and compassion.
The biggest take-aways from this presentations that you should know:
- Quite a few professional ballet dancers have scoliosis (something I didn’t know)
- Scoliosis IS manageable with exercise intervention, and it is important for dancers to understand how to take ownership of their homework exercises and understand their bodies to avoid plateau-ing and becoming injured.
- Curvature of the lumbar spine is often more manageable for dancers that in the thoracic spine.
- It’s important for the dance teacher to understand ways to tweak technique, such as arabesque line, to allow the dancer to work WITH their curve and not fight against it. You lines don’t need to look the same as everyone else’s, and this should be embraced.
Integrating Long-Term Athletic Development into Dance- ME
While I really don’t feel like getting into the details of my presentation (because remember, I’m hoping to post the slideshow somehow), I will offer an oversimplified synopsis:
- Dancers are athletes (a point upon which the entire basis of my presentation rests).
- Dancers should have some form of long term athletic development model to give them a system that helps them achieve success and longevity. Like nearly every other athlete does.
- We should pay attention to the developmental stages children and adolescents progress through and not push dancers into competition too soon, before they’re ready.
- We should realize that dance is an early specializing activity (or sport, if you’d rather) and, because of this and the highly complex nature of dance, we must emphasize movement literacy, screening, and maintenance to support it.
- To create and implement an LTAD for dancers, we need to be able to communicate effectively- teachers, dancers, parents, dance educators, health care providers- because together we have so much more to offer than working alone (much like the three lovely ladies from the scoliosis presentation demonstrate).
Addressing Dancers’ Glute Medius Weakness and Fear of Hip Internal Rotation with In Class Exercise- Marla Eist
Funny story. Marla Eist teaches dance at Simon Fraser University, and actually taught one of my dance teachers while she was once a student at SFU back in the day. Crazy small world sometimes.
But anywho, Marla’s presentation addressed some exercises dance teachers can use in class to help their students to own the use of parallel (requiring them to use internal rotation at the hip- yes, blasphemous, I know), and optimize glute med function for improved hip stability, injury prevention, and all that fun sexy stuff.
The exercises she showed were great because they mimicked some common dance moves, but in a way that will help balance muscle development, and help dancers realize that working in parallel is actually a good thing sometimes.Maybe it’s as simple as making sure to include parallel glissades as well as turned out… For any dance teachers who want to learn more about this, you might want to contact Marla directly.
And that’s a wrap, I think. Overall, it was an excellent day spent learning with people much smarter than me. As said once by Julien Smith, “Aim to be the dumbest person in the room every once in a while”, and while I didn’t necessarily feel dumb, nothing inspires one to learn more and become better quite like being surrounded by folks much smarter than you.
If you have any questions about my presentation, the conference, or if you just want to say hello, also please feel free to email me anytime. Cheers from Thailand.
For the past few years I consider myself fortunate to have worked almost exclusively with dancers as training clients. As an example, throughout this summer I’ve worked with 13 dancers and only 5 non-dancers. That ratio changes a bit during the fall when dancers are in-season and don’t need to cross-train as much, but I generally don’t ever see my ratio of dancer clientele drop below the 50% mark.
So yeah, you could say I see a lot of dancers in a day compared to the average person.
Not only that, but I get to see how good these dancers are at not-dancing. Out of their element. Just being humans. This last point is my mission: Get dancers to feel like well-functioning, strong human-beings outside the dance class.
You’d think that from working so frequently with this unique population I’d be able to slap together a dance-specific training program and have a breeze with it, making progress in an awesome linear way. In reality, this is far from the case.
I have tried my best to make such a program (for dancers who want to develop full-body strength to support their dance practice) in hopes that there are people out there who will actually get something out of it. Dance Stronger is a 4 week program that you can sign up for HERE for free. Look, it actually helped this person:
I came across your web site and blog in November, after a disappointing performance in which my legs felt shaky. I hit the gym, inspired by your site and the results have been awesome. I feel strong, powerful, and alive, and even after taking a month-long break from dance training and only going to the gym, returned to the studio with a strength and vigor I hadn’t known in recent history.
I love your straight-forward, courageous, no-nonsense assault on the damaging myths of the dance world. And the particular exercises you write about work, and are efficient—I love the psoas activating stuff, and the work on the glutes.
Rock on! I can at least feel semi-justified (and relieved) that some people have the ability to take a non-individualized program and get some initial benefits from it.
But that’s not enough for me. My German heritage demands utmost efficiency.
I used to try to logically create a program template for my new dance clients to follow, knowing that I would probably need to adjust the exercises- progressions and regressions- here and there. I still kind of do that.
What was so frustrating for me, though, was that despite knowing of the common patterns of muscle imbalances, injuries, training needs, etc, every single one of my dance clients are SO different. My “logical starting template” never worked. Sure I would get to the planned exercises eventually, but in a roundabout way that I could never predict. I didn’t like that.
It got to the point where I felt like I had no idea what I was doing- I would have this sensible-looking program in front of me to take the client through, but I would look at the dancer, and look back to the program, then back to the dancer, sigh and put the program down and do something completely different.
If my program said that in this session we were going to work on a plank variation, and my client can’t even focus enough to lie on her back and show me good breathing technique, we’re sure as hell not following the plan that day.
And maybe on another such occasion my handy plan states it’s time to work on lunges, but this dancer is so stiff through the hips that the lunge start position wasn’t possible, you bet we spent that day trying to get her range of motion back instead of lunging.
And this was happening every day despite my best efforts to plan. I felt that I was missing something huge.
I realize now that it wasn’t that I had made a “bad” program, but that the dancer wasn’t at a stage where they were ready for it, and I had failed to notice because I hadn’t properly screened for it. I feel that many dance-specific training methods have this same issue and are unaware that this is why so many dancers fail to make progress with their methods.
Have you ever, for example, signed up for a pilates class, attended religiously, and still not made progress? Not noticed a difference in strength, control or an improvement in your dancing? Strong chance it’s because you aren’t ready for that type of training yet. There’s something even more fundamental and preparatory you are missing.
I can see now why I felt like I was floundering with some of my dancers, and was because I wasn’t taking into consideration that, for example, while one dancer might look like they’re doing a plank properly, they aren’t making progress anywhere else because something even more fundamental needed addressing first.
What’s more fundamental than a plank? Breathing…
I had skipped too many steps. I had assumed that all dancers have body awareness. That all dancers can learn movement quickly. And that all dancers will understand the importance of not cheating their way through an exercise and ignoring pain during movement. These things will elusively hold back their progress unless you screen for it.
I see now that there are a few types of dancer, each with varying degrees of readiness for exercise. Some are ready for hard work, some can’t even focus for 5 seconds on what I’m asking them to do.
It wasn’t that I was giving them a “bad” exercise plan, it just wasn’t the right type of plan. I hadn’t made sure they were actually ready for it. Maybe there was something even more fundamental that needed addressing, like a lack of mobility at a particular joint, a lack of awareness of a particular element, or a even a change necessary in their state of mind.
I have identified (I think…) 3 types of dancer, and while I’m sure there are more than just 3 understanding what type you are, or you are trying to train in whatever method you work with (pilates, yoga, rehab, weight training, etc.), will help you to better determine what type of exercise or technique any individual dancer might need to progress most efficiently.
But this post is long enough for now so stay tuned for all that stuff tomorrow ;).
Those of us who are well-versed in dance culture, and even many who have never danced, would probably agree that for dancers, movement quality trumps movement quantity. Unless you’re a competition dancer and then it’s all about how many turns and flips you can do. Kidding….
Although tricks are fun and can definitely improve your chances of getting hired and impressing people at parties, the number of turns you can do is relatively insignificant compared to the overall quality and expression behind your movement.
A good friend of mine, who is a singer/musician, once told me that singing was 80% expression (the other 20% being related to technique, tone, pitch etc.). I think this holds true for the art of dance as well.
What makes a dancer really stand out isn’t quantifiable: the number of turns, leg height, jump height. These technical proficiencies can be easily measured, but are not necessarily what makes a dancer great. They get you bonus points, but are in themselves empty qualities.
To become a better dancer, technically and artistically, wouldn’t it be nice to have an objective measure of movement quality to guide you?
Objective measure is paramount to improving just about anything. If you can measure it, you bet you can improve it more quickly. This poses a difficulty in dance because “objective art” is a contradiction. There does exist, however, a small objective aspect of dance that we can measurably improve.
This objective, measurable quality of dance is fundamental movement: Crawling, rolling, walking, squatting, lunging, twisting. Basic function clean of compensation.
This isn’t anything new, and is not something specific for dancers either. Performing basic movement well is important for everyone, especially athletes, but it might be a new concept for dancers.
Very rarely in my dance training was I treated as a person first and a dancer second. My basic human movement was never held at the same standard as my ability to perform dance movement. Was that a mistake?
I will argue that the best dancers can’t always be quantified by technical skill but are superior for their quality of movement. This is easy to agree on, I think. Where we could potentially disagree is on which level are we qualifying the movement? How do we measure movement quality in dancers? How should we do it? What will it accomplish?
When we judge movement quality in dancers, are we looking at the quality of dance specific movement-Their ability to express through movement and technique? I don’t see this as the best way to objectively measure because I don’t think we can quantify artistry, and the movement we’re trying to measure is at a deeper level, not just their technique. It’s something even more fundamental and unique.
Fundamental movement is what the best in the rehab, athletic, and fitness world are already measuring in their clients and patients.
Gray Cook has already spoken so much about this in his book, Movement. His popular and effective inventions, the Functional Movement Screen (FMS), and the Specfic Functional Movement Assessments (SFMA) are systems that we in the dance world can learn from. Their goals are important ones: Evaluate fundamental movements, motor control within movement patterns, and competence of basic movements uncomplicated by specific skill.
When a dancer hits a plateau, the answer isn’t always to add more hours of training, but perhaps to see if there is a fundamental movement dysfunction preventing them from excelling in dance. Movement quality before quantity.
If a dancer moves well fundamentally, will they move better as a dancer? My guess is that yes, probably they will, not considering subjective qualities such as performance experience or artistic maturity of the dancer.
At the very least, maintaining a good quality of fundamental movement will ensure that the dancer, who maybe isn’t quite there yet artistically or technically, will survive the often physically, mentally and emotionally grueling training, to eventually find their place in the industry. Because not all of us are so genetically blessed.
I believe that even if indirectly, learning to move well fundamentally without compensation can help the dancer excel. It is a mistake to only look at specific skill quality without ever looking at a dancer’s fundamental movement quality.
Movement patterns can atrophy if they aren’t used. Even the ones most basic to our human existence.
The point of all this is that I think we’re missing something huge if we don’t objectively screen dancers for fundamental movement quality. I’m not certified in the FMS or SFMA, but I agree with the philosophy on which they were created, and that it is unsafe and to train dancers in complex, extreme, technical skill without teaching them first what it feels like to move well fundamentally.
Do you do the FMS of SFMA with dancers? I’d love to hear about that. Tell me everything you know…
If I had a goal when I started writing this blog, it would have been to raise the awareness of the need for dancers to be stronger and move better fundamentally in order for them to prevent injuries and excel artistically. But I wasn’t thinking that far ahead…
Despite poor long-term planning, it seems this message has spread to some very important individuals who have the power to facilitate change: Dance teachers and studio owners. They have the most influence on a dancer’s development from a young (or older) age and so their understanding of how to train a well-rounded dancer, artist and athlete, is so, so very important.
A month or so ago I got an email from the owner of a dance school in Calgary. In her email, which I will share with you below, she says that she has recently taken it upon herself to learn about strength training for her dancers, and is taking action by implementing a training program.
Check this out for yourself, and feel the warm fuzzies:
I have come across your articles due to research I have been doing on strength training for dancers. I have a dance school in Calgary and started a pilot program this year with 15 of my senior dancers. Once a week these dancers work with a trainer on weight lifting, track and plyos. We are seeing marked improvements in these dancers however I would like tweak the program to be more specific for dancers. The trainer we are working with has become passionate about ballet and he has even started taking privates to better understand our art form and training needs. Can you advise us on the best way to introduce dancers to the gym and weight lifting in particular? How young can students begin this training? Is there anything we should avoid?
First of all, I’m so excited for these 15 dancers! I hope they know how lucky they are to have a teacher that cares about their well-roundedness and career longevity, not just thinking about the next show (or making money).
Second, I am so happy to connect with dance teachers and studio owners who are keeping up to date with trends and research. Science has shown that dance alone is not enough to keep dancers performing optimally, and that strength training reduces injury rates, so it’s not even debatable anymore. It’s science.
Third, and with the last point in mind, I think that something every dance teacher or studio owner should ask themselves is: What can I do to help my dancers begin strength training?
And it’s a loaded question that can be answered in a number of ways that depend on your time, budget, knowledge, facility, equipment, support, and more…
- Do you want add a separate strength training class to your studios repertoire?
- Do you want to simply incorporate more strengthening exercises into existing class time?
- Do you have a budget to purchase equipment?
- What kind of equipment are you prepared to buy?
- Do you want to refer your students to a trainer you trust at a separate gym?
- Will they be training privately or in small groups?
- Maybe you want to upgrade your studio to have a training facility (which would be AMAZING, and a friend/studio owner of mine in Toronto is doing just that).
- Are you as the dance teacher qualified to train the dancers, or will you need to find a trainer to bring in for them?
But remember that by just saying the initial “yes” to resistance training you are making an incredibly positive choice, even if your students and their parents resist, believing foolishly in the dogma that dancers don’t need to do anything but dance.
And lastly, because there are so many variables that affect how, where, and when to get your dancers stronger, here are some guidelines that I think dance teachers, studio owners, trainers of dancers, and dancers themselves should pay attention to as they transition into the fun world of strength training.
Top 5 guidelines for dancers beginning a strength training program:
Assuming you’ve begun with a good assessment, no injuries or symptoms of over-training are present: Cleared to begin strengthersize.
1) Master neutral spine, pelvis, neck, and every joint, really.
Teach you students to neutralize. This is so fundamental. Neutral isn’t sexy, but neither is hip replacement surgery when you’re 30 because you never cared enough about where you put your femoral head (snug in the acetabulum, where it belongs, I hope).
Many dancers want more flexibility, but what they really need is stability first. They need more muscle activation so that they can actually get to a neutral position, because their ligaments sure aren’t holding things in place anymore. THEN they can start to consider if they really need that extra flexibility.
Start with the saggital plane. Once that has been mastered you can move into the frontal and transverse planes of movement. Using the lumbo-pelvic area as an example, first work on getting out of lumbar extension and anterior pelvic tilt (saggital plane), make sure their the adductors and abductors are balanced and functional (frontal), and then work on hip internal and external rotation (transverse).
But maybe you’re thinking, “But dance isn’t neutral- Why should I train that way? Won’t that screw up my ability to dance?” Nope. That’s the exact reason you need more neutrality. You won’t ever get it in a dance class.
Finding neutral for a hypermobile person is like getting the splits for a stiff person. It takes daily work to get that range of motion.
2) Emphasize postural education, not just exercises and stretches.
Educate dancers on awareness of their current posture, and teach them what “good posture” feels like. From foot to head. Many dancers don’t even consider that they have bad posture. And even scarier is that many dancers take pride in their poor postural tendencies, like walking with their feet pointing out, even if it’s causing them pain. That posture is part of what makes them feel like a dancer.
The worse their posture is, the more they’ll compensate to make them appear to have taller posture. But compensation is hard work. Don’t spend your energy on compensating for bad posture. Take the time and energy required to assess your alignment, fix it, and enjoy the ease that follows.
Postural education is even more important that the training sessions you’ll do. Even though you do good, important work for a few hours (if you’re lucky) per week, there are so many other hours in the week to undo it. Moment to moment postural education is so important for injury prevention, and to continue to progressively develop strength and improve alignment in dance class, too.
And give ’em a smack upside the head if you seem them slouched over their precious iPads. And do they really need all the stuff they have in that backpack?
Just kidding. Please, no violence.
3) Common muscle imbalances to keep in mind:
Here’s a short list of muscles that I often see are weak and need to spend some time “waking up” initially:
- Quadratus lumborum
- Rectus abominis/ TVA
- Mid and lower trapezius
- Glute max
- Hip internal rotators (TFL, glute med/min)
Keep in mind that depending on the individual, this will vary. But I am shocked when I meet a dancer for the first time who can activate their glutes and core on command (which includes QL and psoas, in my books).
And on the flip side, many dancers will have compensations in which muscles are up-regulated and need to be released first (via some form of soft tissue work, stretching, etc). Here are some common ones:
- Calves (gastrocnemius, soleus, and some others too, depending on the person)
- Spinal erectors
- Neck extensors
- Pec minor.
And again, those are the common ones. Obviously there are exceptions to the rule and other things to consider. But it wouldn’t hurt for your piriformis to spend some time quality with a lacrosse ball, I bet.
4) Train like any other athlete.
If the dancer is structurally ready and has no weird pain or injuries that need addressing, train hard!
Dancers are no different from other athletes in the respect that they still should train with full body compound exercises in a well rounded program that is complimentary to the competitive/performance season they are in. Use full body movements like squats, lunges, deadlifts, rows, push-ups, etc- the usual staples. Use perfect technique, with the ever-awareness of the compensation-masters that dancers are.
In fact, science (again) has demonstrated that push-ups and vertical jump height are correlated to improved dancing in several studies. The staggeringly high injury rate in dancers should not deter you from resistance training, because it’s the absence of said training is that is correlated to the injury rate.
5) Monitor their recovery carefully.
Many dancers become over-trained due to the stress that dance, and the industry as a whole, places on the mind and body. Though strength training will help dancers improve their capacity for work, and make dancing itself less of a strain on the body, it too can be overdone at times. Pay attention to the warning signs of overtraining. You can read more on that specifically here: Managing Overtraining in Dancers.
To avoid burnout, you should also pay attention to which training season you’re in. Your training goals should be different in the on vs. off-season: You need to treat your body differently in the competition season compared to the summer when you’re likely not to be taking regular technique classes. I firmly believe that dancing should be optional in the summer off-season. It should be a time for increased focus on strength and cross-training. This helps the dancer recover from the physical and mental duress of competitions, rehearsals, and intense technique classes, so they can come back fresh in the fall, ready to push past training plateaus.
So those are my top 5 to keep in mind, but like I said earlier, simply making the decision to educate your dancers that they need to do more than just dance is a beautiful thing, and will keep them dancing stronger, for longer.