Welcome to a new series of posts that I sincerely hope I can stick to: Dance Like a Human. 

About a year ago, I started a series called “Stretches You Need to Stop Doing“. But I abandoned it because I felt bad about telling people what they should or should not do. And the title “May I Make a Suggestion About Your Stretching Practice That I Respectfully Ask You to Reconsider?” just wouldn’t have the same effect.

Anyway, the goal of this series is to explore a topic close to my heart, that is, helping dancers reclaim and maintain a requisite level of movement quality for better performance  (the sexy), faster recovery (the less sexy), and injury prevention (the holy grail).

In proper Volkmarian fashion, part one of this series will simply be a long-winded introduction to the topic of movement quality and it’s importance as it relates to dancers. I predict approximately 7 of you will read through this blog post in it’s entirety.

But I’m cool with that, ’cause my mom always reads my blog, and she thinks I’m cool.

Word, Milhouse. I understand you.

Ready to begin? Hell yeah you are!

Why Movement Quality and General Physical Preparation Matter

Dancers face a unique challenge as athletic artists (see what I did there, Khyle Eccles??). They are trained to move in beautiful, yet unnatural ways, often dependent on pathology to succeed, but without a base of fitness, fundamental movement, and general physical preparedness to support them.

The result? Movement quality deteriorates rather rapidly, as there is no quality to support the quantity of training dancers often do, and we can observe this in the high injury rate.

Why is this a thing? Don’t we know better? Well…

1. Early specialization (is it necessary?)

2. No established long term athlete development plan (the topic of my talk at the HDC conference in Vancouver, 2014). If skaters and gymnasts have an LTAD, why can’t dancers?

3. Insufficient appraisal of fundamental movement quality as part of many dancers’ training and rehab (low or asymmetrical FMS scores, for example, although some people will argue with that, and there are other methods of evaluating movement quality).

4. Not enough rest and recovery, both in-season between classes, rehearsals and performances, and off-season as a whole (although whether dancers even get an off-season is a topic of scrutiny. And how I scrutinize).

5. Self-limiting, and otherwise imposed negative mindsets.

6. Insufficient strategies to unwind from dance: Most dancers don’t have a movement practice or participate in supplemental cross-training that is not a specific skill related to dance. Floor barre doesn’t count. Barre fitness classes don’t count. And Zumba… Does. Not. Count. Dance fitness is NOT fitness for dancers.

More skilled movement doesn’t equal better movement quality.

The above sentence summarizes the exact conversation I had with my very smart friend David Wu (aka, male-Asian-Monika) last week: You can excel at specific skills and create the illusion of having good movement quality, but the tricky thing with “skilled” movers, is that they can mask their lack of fundamental movement quality with their impressive skills.

That’s exactly what dancers do. So tricky!

And this is why many dancers may have poor experiences with rehabilitation, or may hurt themselves when they start strength training. An uninformed physio or trainer can really mess a dancer up if they don’t look for some sense of fundamental movement quality hidden beneath all that movement skill.

To an untrained eye, I can make most movements look good. Most dancers can, too because that’s their job.

Not all dancers are “good movers” as human beings. The humanity! In a movement form in which virtuosity and pathology are a package deal, we often sacrifice our quality of human movement for our art. Does it have to be this way? Maybe…

But if you choose to become informed  (by reading this awesome blog, for example) you can create new options. Form new habits around your dance training that will allow you to delay an inevitable degree of damage, learn to manage pain effectively, and reclaim some (but perhaps not all) fundamental movement.

Ready to go down this rabbit hole with me? Yeah you are.

Let’s talk about natural human motionneuroplasticity, and movement variability.

I Move Therefore I am (Human)…

Would have been a more accurate statement for Descartes to make. You can’t think without a body, after all, you need a body to live, and you can’t be alive without movement: Air flow, circulation, neurons doing their thang, etc.

So what is natural human motion?

Because dancers are obviously humans (or are they…), we need to have this discussion of what is actually meant by human motion (otherwise known as functional movement, fundamental movement patterns, blah, blah, blah).

Chris Sritharan said it best:

 “Human movement is trained, human motion is not… If you’re going to engage in a sport that is not natural human motion, just make sure you have a strategy to unwind it” 

Boom.

For the purpose of this blog post, here’s a working definition:

Natural human motion: Refers to joint motions that naturally occur in the human gait cycle and in fundamental movement patterns.

We must understand that all motions the human body is capable of performing serve an important purpose in movement and need not be feared or avoided.

To consider there is no human motion that can be labelled as “bad” allows us to move with a complete map of our bodies which dancers must be able to do for optimal performance and recovery. Spinal extension isn’t bad (neither is flexion, and you probably need more of it). Pronation isn’t bad. Knee valgus isn’t bad. Joint compression isn’t bad.

Dance-specific movements are specifically trained, meaning we didn’t learn naturally them in our early development. Natural human movements are what we develop as young human beings as we first learn to centrate our joints and put our feet in our mouth, roll over, creep, crawl, and eventually stand up, fall down a bunch, and then walk. This was all a reflexive process. No one had to train us on how to do it.

Human motion is hardwired. Dance… Not so much.

I feel you, girl.

And another problem arises.

Learned disuse: You Just Forgot How to Move Like a Human!

Or rather, when you were 3 years old and your parents decided that you would specialize in dance while you were still developing a base of fundamental movement (or not), your brain decided to optimize some circuitry that preferred dance-specific movement over human motion.

That’s why ballet schools like to get ’em young. Little kids brains adapt quickly. And they are more bendy, too. That’s just one of the reasons why I wasn’t accepted into the National Ballet school when I was 15, having started ballet at the ripe old age of 12. Catching up on knowledge gaps is the story of my life.

Neuroplasticity: The brain is capable of changing itself based on what we use or don’t use it for, and this happens until we die, for the better or worse.

Our preferred movement patterns are the result of neural circuits that have become optimized based on specific inputs (dance, for example), how often the input is received, and how well-liked it is. Synaptic connections are continuously being modified and re-organized in response to these demands, repetition, and emotional connection to them. These cortical plastic changes occur both when learning a new skill, and after injury through disuse or avoidance of movement patterns.

Learned disuse, for dancers, can refer to the optimization of dance-specific skills, at the expense of “forgetting” how to perform some important movements, like big toe extension at the expense of toe flexion (both being required to walk like a proper human).

What happens when you work solely on pointing your toes, extending your back, and stretching your adductors so you can kick yourself in the head, but you never make time for the complimentary pattern?

This leads to the next point(e)…

Movement variability: You can have your cake and eat it too.

It doesn’t need to be and either/or choice: Only dance, or, only strength training, or whatever sport or activity you ascribe to. One big problem is that some teachers and dancers don’t understand this, and believe that supplemental training that is not dance will undo all the hard hours of dance training. This is untrue. 

Variability makes you better. It gives you more movement options. And it unloads repetitive patterns of potential overuse.

You can do it all in whatever ratios allow you to best manage your desired proficiency at dance technique, pain symptoms, movement quality, and strength, ie- You can follow a training program that creates the most appropriate options for you, as a mover. You just need to be smart about it and know what you need in what quantities.

It will depend on how much dance you’re doing and how seriously you take it, what season you’re in, and whether you’re injured and/or over-trained.

Ask yourself: as a dancer, what do you value most? What are your needs, what does your schedule allow, and how can you create opportunities to develop movement variability within this reality?  

For example, if you are uninjured, in an off-season, and struggling to get past a technical training plateau, that sounds like an awesome opportunity to jump on movement/strength development.

If you’re injured, in-season, and classes make you sore, then you probably don’t need to add extra hours of training, but take more time to recover, work on movement quality, and regress your technique a bit to work on fundamentals.

Variability keeps you honest by keeping you out of a pattern. Constantly appraising your needs and adjusting your training inputs accordingly will prevent you from getting stuck in only one way of moving that could be your undoing.

Which Pill Will You Take?

It’s your choice.

You can continue to live blindly, blissfully, and not worry about this learned disuse and movement variability stuff, or, you can explore the #truth.

Hate to break it to you, but you’re not invincible just because you’re really good at ignoring reality. Just because you’re perfectly comfortable doing fouette turns to the right, standing on your left leg, doesn’t mean it’s not a pattern that needs a complimentary strategy to manage.

Next up in this series we shall discuss some super sexy examples of  the human motions we sacrifice for dance-specific movement patterns that require supplemental strategies to unwind