We’ve all had that teacher. The one with “superior genetics”, who made it to pro-dancer status, and as such, doesn’t quite understand why you, the genetically less endowed, can’t do the things she’s (or he, though for the rest of this post I’ll use only “she”, not to be feminist or anything, just because it’s easier, and I’m lazy) asking you to do.

The truth is that the majority of professional dancers are naturally gifted with the body type (including bone structure, ligament laxity, joint mobility, muscle fiber type, muscle development paterns, cognitive ability, etc) that allows them to just “get it”. Most likely these plasticine dancers were accepted at a very young age to a professional training school, and were molded into “perfect” ballerinas. Gumby would make a great ballet dancer.

I myself auditioned for many of these professional schools, but wasn’t accepted because of my inferior facility, and because I started relatively late and as such, was too old. I’ve been told that I have a perfect body for any sport other than ballet. It’s a cruel, cruel world.

Anyway, if you have one of these pro-dancers turned teachers, then you probably know what I mean when I say they tend to give cues that are at the best of times confusing, and at the worst of times, soul-crushing.

This is not to say they’re bad teachers, it’s just a communication problem. They know what things should feel like, but don’t know how to convey that feeling to you. The same cues that worked for them, might not work for you.  You’ll never be able to feel things in the exact same way your dance teacher wants you to. It must be frustrating for them, not being able to feel what you feel. And likewise for you too!

That many technical skills came naturally to them is easy for a dance teacher to take for granted. I’m guilty of this too. When performing hip flexor stretching with less flexible folks, I forget that, from years of dancing, I have pretty much zero ligamentous support at the front of my pelvis (specifically, the iliofemoral ligament, which turnout kind of destroys) and hip flexor stretches are, as a result, much easier for me to perform (and ironically, less easy to do effectively). For those who still have full anterior ligament support, hip flexor stretches can be intense.

Turning out and performing the splits repetitively tends to slacken up the iliofemoral ligament permanently

That being said, many dance clients come to me, frustrated, with questions regarding something their hardcore ballet teachers have told them- corrections, imagery, etc- about which they are very confused, not fully understanding what the teacher is trying to get them to do.

Which leads me to the topic of today’s post:

Common dance cues that might be doing more harm than good

Dancers: I hope you can relate, and I hope this helps.

Dance teachers: Be careful with these cues as they do not work for all dancers, especially those who have less of a “ballet body”

Here are my top three dance cues and corrections that get lost in translation, resulting in poor execution of technique, inability to progress technically, poor alignment, and getting really, really, frustrated. Really.

1) “Use your hamstring to lift your leg from underneath, not your quads!”

Oh man. First of all, yes, many dancers tend to overuse their quads. Dance teachers love to harp on those of us who have a more mesomorphic body-type (being able to build muscle easily), that our quads are too big, and it’s because we over use them, causing them to get bulky.

In reality, almost all dancers, bulky quads or no, overuse their quads. It’s the nature of the sport. The difference between those with “bulky thighs” and those with slimmer legs generally comes down to genetics, and other sports you may have participated in growing up, especially before puberty.

Genetically, pro-ballerinas just tend not to build muscle as easily as me or maybe you, so their quads don’t develop that “bulk”. Geez.

They also tend to have superior ability to rotate their leg out in the socket, which causes their muscle development to look different due to the different angle at which they’re capable of working.

Second, I should point out that you kind of HAVE to use your quads to help lift your leg to the front and side (arabesque is a different story). The quadriceps, all 4 of em’, straighten the knee, and rectus femoris also helps to flex the hip, aka lift your leg. To not use your quads is impossible. The hamstrings aid in hip flexion by providing stability but they do not actually flex the hip.

Some of the hip flexors- rectus femoris (green), iliacus (red) and psoas major (blue). Not shown in this diagram, but which also assist in hip flexion include sartorius, TFL, and adductor magnus

So if you’re very confused when teachers tell you to lift your leg from underneath, using the hamstring and not your quads, well that’s just impossible, so don’t worry about it. Just nod your head and smile  obediently.

The reason I believe teachers give this cue is to try to convey to you an imagery that helps you maintain a tall neutral alignment, and to not hike up the hip of the leg that is lifting.

Knowing that, a better cue for me, for example, was to think about lengthening my spine and pushing down into the floor through my supporting leg while doing something like a developpe or grand battement front, rather than trying to contract a muscle that is physically impossible to contract for that specific action.

Not to mention this cue can also be highly negative to hear as it leads the dancer to believe she has chunky legs, and needs to diet. Just one of the many ways language used in dance class can screw us up in the head. But more on that later.

2) “Push into the floor with your feet to keep your supporting leg solid”

This makes perfect sense. In theory.

Again, because dancers have very facilitated quads (meaning they tend to do way too much work, leaving other muscles to chill out in an inhibited, lazy state), this cue can be hit or miss. Sometimes it will help the dancer. For some, and if you’re like me, it can screw you up more often than not. Here’s why.

You can accomplish the feeling of pushing into the floor in a few ways. One, by way of the glutes (medius especially) and other stabilizers of the hips. Or, two, by locking the quads, hyperextending the knee and gripping with your toes into the floor. The first way is far more efficient and effective, but remember how most dancers have over facilitated quads and grossly under-achieving glutes? Due to this imbalance, the knee-locking situation tends to happen more often than not, which is not super effective.

The glute med in particular plays an important role in stability of your supporting leg, and so it’s super important to have functional to keep your dancing on pointe. Ha. Get it? Sometimes I’m funny. I swear!

In the picture above from Mike Reinhold’s site you can see how the dude on the right has poor ability to control his hips due to perhaps a dysfunctional (LAZYYY) glute med. You can also see how this would affect how high the gesture leg will be able to lift, and what other compensations might occur. Not pretty.

3) “Suck in your gut/ Pull-up!”

Who HASN’T been told to “suck it in”, or “pull-up”, or the elusive “engage your abs”? There are a few issues with these cues.

Issue 1: While dancers may seem to have very strong abdominals, they often can’t fire them properly, or lack the neuromuscular control to actually do it while dancing. This can be trained, but it takes time, persistence and patience.

Issue 2: Being told to suck in your gut is a very negative, damaging thing to hear, and the cue itself is not even the most effective in correcting what is really an alignment issue.

Dancers, and gymnasts too, who appear to have a distended belly and lots of lower back arching often have a hard time “pulling-up” because they lack the neuromuscular control to engage their abs. Many dancers, after hearing this comment will turn to dieting or disordered eating habits to control what they understand to be an aesthetic problem.

Rather, it is an alignment issue. The extreme lordosis is actually pushing the contents of the abdominal cavity forward, and though the dancer is thin, she may appear to have a slightly protruding belly.

You can be stick thin and still appear to have a protruding belly! That might be due to the position of your lumbar spine, pushing the contents of your abdomen forward.

 

Instead of saying “suck it in” or something to that effect, a better method is to educate the dancer that she has an alignment issue that can be addressed with supplemental exercises and improving body awareness, which will increase her neuromuscular control to the abdomimals and other core muscles.

From personal experience, hearing that I needed to suck in my gut had very damaging  long term effects, making me feel fat and self conscious and adding extra tension to my dancing. It is only recently that I realized that sucking in my gut (or trying to “hollow my abdomen”) without attempting to resolve the root of the issue (the underlying spine and pelvic alignment issues) was only making the matter worse.

If you are familiar with “lower crossed” syndrome, then you know that this is a postural dysfunction that can be corrected through strengthening, soft tissue work, mobility drills, and postural re-education. Which takes longer than saying “suck it in!”. If you are not prepared to help your students appropriately, refer them to someone with the skills to help.

Janda’s lower crossed syndrome muscle imbalances

Oh well. Live and learn! Please stop telling your dance students to suck in their guts. It is more damaging than helpful.

I guess if I had to choose a moral for this post it would be, “Don’t get too hung up on genetic factors- Your ex-professional ballet teacher is a different kind of human being.” We all have different genetic potential, and your dance teacher’s job is to help you live up to yours, not regurgitate the same corrections they received and hope they stick.

Or as the dude from P90X says, “Do your best and forget the rest!”. If it rhymes, it must be legit.

Got any other good dance cues that make no sense? What cues do you hear from dance teachers that are more confusing than helpful? I’d love to hear so please leave a comment below or post them on the DTP facebook page.