Reclaiming the Frontal Plane for Dummies (for Dancers)
I’d first like to take the time to congratulate myself on actually following through on writing part two, because no one’s going to give me a high five for that but me. Go me! #SelfAccountability.
To recap part one (<– read it now before you continue if you haven’t already! I can wait…):
Dancers rarely work on fundamental movement quality in their training, and tend to develop a movement vocabulary that, while rich in technical skill, has major cracks in its foundation, denying them several important ranges of natural human motion.
To restate what I said in part one:
[Dancers] 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.
Being flexible has nothing to do with it. You can’t stretch movement quality into your system, and as we will discuss today, stretching can sometimes make things even messier.
Today, part two, we are going to explore one specific part of this “dance like a human” thing that gets a bit messy. Ready?
Warning: This post is long, but I tried to make it easier to read by including lots of fun images and subtitles in the formatting. Grab some coffee, ’cause we’re going deep.
Whether You Like it or Not, SHIFT Happens
I’d like to introduce you to pelvis shift. A little appreciated movement essential for dance, gait, and, if you want to get philosophical (maybe another time), for life.
Shift refers to moving laterally through space, like a Krispy Kreme donut going smoothly down a flat conveyer belt. Imagine your pelvis is that Krispy Kreme, sliding along, not a care in the world.
Each time you take a step, at the same moment you heel strike, your pelvis must make this smooth shift from one foot to the other (as pictured in Gary Ward’s lovely sketch—>).
Gary, in his Anatomy in Motion course calls this the “leap of faith” because it’s the only time in the gait cycle that your center of mass must breach your base of support, and you have to trust that your swinging leg will be there to catch you on heel strike so that you don’t fall on your face.
This side to side shift of the pelvis is an extremely important movement in the frontal plane that gets
really effed up a little lost for most dancers. Shift is an important part of many aspects of dance technique (as we’ll discuss a little further down), but ironically, dance technique and training can mess up our ability to shift.
Alas, whether you like it or not, shift happens.
If it didn’t, you wouldn’t be able to walk, let alone dance. So when you lose the ability to perform pelvis shift, your amazing body finds other ways to make it happen. Is it going to be the most ideal, most effortless, safest way? Nope.
Some people call this “compensation”. I call it being a “skilled movement strategist”. Many of us dancers are a little too skilled in this domain…
Let’s first get clear on what frontal plane movement is and where pelvis shift fits in.
Frontal Plane Movement 101
Our bodies move in 3 main planes:
Sagittal plane: Front and back movement. The plane of motion for a somersault.
Frontal plane: Side to side movement. Plane of movement for a cartwheel.
Transverse plane: Rotational movement. Plane of movement for a pirouette.
Our bodies are always moving in all three planes at once. Some muscles have different roles in all three planes in one motion. One muscle might be shortening in the frontal plane, but lengthening in the transverse plane during the same movement.
Our bodies are cool like that.
When we lose the ability to perform a movement in one plane, we can make up for it by moving more in a different plane, or by moving a different joint more in the same plane(we’ll go through a dance specific example of this a little further down).
Just for today, let’s keep this simple and stick to the hips and pelvis, although it’s good to know that nearly every joint and muscle in your body, but not all, has a role in frontal plane movement (the knee, for example, does not do much in the frontal plane, because that would suck).
Your turn to think
Stand up and try to figure this one out:
What are the possible movements for the pelvis and hips in the frontal plane?
Go ahead, take your time, stand up and play around with side to side movement. What do you feel happening? I’m looking for 4 main movements. Here’s a nice picture to look at while you think and move:
Well? What did you come up with?
Hopefully you got to these 4 main movements (one of which we already named):
- Pelvis shift
- Pelvis hike
- Hip adduction
- Hip abduction
If you had trouble naming or feeling these, either you need an anatomy lesson, or your body doesn’t do them well. When we have trouble accessing joint actions, we often will also struggle to describe them with words and conceptualize them. That’s because all thought is embodied. But that’s a tangent I won’t go down today.
These are motions your body must be able to do in frontal plane. In life. In dance. And if one is messy, they all get messy.
Why do dancers easily lose frontal plane competency?
- Over stretching, and the need to be very flexible (often to the point of pathology)
- Rushing technique progression, or poor instruction on proper technique
- Aerobic fatigue causing sloppiness and compensation
- Technical demands of the specific dance style: Turn-out, need for excessive amounts of hip abduction or hiking and spinal extension.
- High resting muscle tonus (sympathetic nervous system dominance)
- Poor breathing mechanics (contributing to above sympathetic dominance)
- Arabesque. I won’t get into it today, but arabesque is like an open chain, patho-shift. If you want me to explain that one, shoot me an email and we’ll talk.
The above aren’t bad, they are a reality of dance training. It is important to understand that they will likely develop into”creative movement strategies” that may not be ideal long term, and it would be wise to have supplemental strategies to keep these challenges in check.
Do you even shift?
Do you shift, bro?
From a human motion perspective, we can assess shiftability a few different ways. Let’s look at some of my faves:
1) Standing closed chain pelvis range of motion exploration, AiM style.
This is your chance to experience triplanar movement at your hips and pelvis. Can you shift? What else is limited? And what are you good at? Take a few minutes to go through this with me. Makes for useful outcome measures.
Note, you can also take this idea and explore any joint or structure in your body, because shift isn’t only a pelvic event.
2) Adduction drop test, PRI style.
This is important: If you can’t adduct your hip passively, it is doubtful you can do it standing up. Get a PRI trained person to check you out. If you are lucky, you live close to Michael Mullin or Sarah Petrich, who work with dancers and are PRI level badass.
muscle pattern testing, NKT style
While I’m sure there are some muscle testing haters reading this, I argue that NKT done well looks for patterns, not muscle strength, and is not yo mama’s MMT.
Some common patterns in non-shifters with NKT testing are:
- Adductor compensating for opposite adductor and/or QL
- Adductor compensating for opposite side external oblique, or same side internal oblique
- Diaphragm compensating for TVA (breath holding pattern keeping them in spinal extension)
- Crazy pelvis ligament stuff inhibiting hamstrings, adductors, hip flexors, quads, etc.
- Jaw compensating for anything in the lateral sub-system (QL, adductors, TFL, glute med).
- Neck compensating for obliques
Lots of ways to get the job done. It’s cool to see these patterns show up in muscle testing and movement screening, and then re-integrated into better quality movement through training.
4) Gait observation, ninja style.
Gait observation is highly subjective, and it’s something that I am working on getting
better at least somewhat decent at. Give me 10 years and ask me how it’s going…
That said, if you take a look at this lovely dancer lady walking, what you should notice is whether or not her pelvis is going from left to right at the appropriate time: As her back heel starts to lift off the floor. Is it??
Not so much…
How Many Ways Can You Cheat Frontal Plane?
So if you can’t shift well, how are you even walking?
As a self-proclaimed expert at butchering frontal plane hip and pelvis movement, you can trust that this info is direct from the source: Chief Creative Movement Strategist Volkmar (CCMS). Esquire.
Remember, when a joint can’t move in one plane, something else will try to do it in another.
Here’s an example that may resonate with you. Let’s say you can’t shift your pelvis to the right very well, but you need to get on your right leg (right shift) to tendu side with your left leg. What are your options?
The most common strategy will often be to hike the hip on left side, which the lady in the image above is doing (hike and shift both being frontal plane hip movements). In pure shift, the hips stay level.
You could also get the job done in two other planes of movement: Extend your spine (sagittal) and rotate your pelvis to the right (transverse), which helps you accomplish the same weight transfer, but with more expended energy and torque.
Or maybe you choose to shift excessively from joints other than your pelvis. For example maybe shift your ribs or your skull to the right more excessively to accomplish a similar weight transfer.
Sneaky. And then you wonder why you can’t get rid of that upper body tension. Maybe if your skull wasn’t busy trying to be a pelvis…
One final note on frontal plane strategies
This blog post is primarily geared towards ballet and contemporary technique, but I also used to salsa dance, and have worked with a few salsa dancers.
What’s interesting about this dance style is that they do what I call a “reverse shift”: When they take a step, the pelvis shifts the opposite way. Not to mention it’s an anterior tilt dominant dance style. Latin dancers don’t shift well, but they hike like champions (same-plane shift strategy).
Where does shift show up in dance technique?
“But Monika, what does this have to do with helping me dance better?”.
I’m getting to that. Keep in mind that losing the ability to perform any range of motion is never ideal. Maybe you need to read part 1 again?
The ability to shift is actually a majorly huge deal in dance. It wasn’t until after I learned how to shift that magic really started happening in ballet class, I could stop clenching my neck and jaw, my turnout became easier to access, and I could balance in adage like a boss.
Dance is pure shift.
Chassé pas de bourré is shift.
Start thinking less in terms of “pelvic stability”, words which, while important, don’t frame the concept properly. While stability implies non-movement, shift implies allowing lateral movement.
Were does shift show up in dance? Everywhere. If you need to be on one leg or change directions, you need shift. What doesn’t require shift? is a better question.
Unadulterated pelvis shift is what allows dancers to change directions and transfer their weight quickly and smoothly without tensing anything in their upper bodies, holding their breath, or creating excess torque (at the lower back, hips, neck, or jaw, for example).
If you can’t shift, you can’t have single leg stability because it’s impossible to get your body’s mass over one leg without first shifting your pelvis. Try it.
Non-shifters are barre-grippers.
Even keeping a “neutral” pelvis requires shift, because if you can’t let your pelvis shift, you’ll have to cheat it in another plane or from another joint (as we already discussed). In reality, a pelvis that shifts right and left well is a pelvis that can be neutral when it needs to, and leave neutral when it needs to.
Neutral only being a phase that lasts for an instant between 0.6-0.8 seconds.
Neutrality = having movement options.
A pelvis that shifts has options.
A pelvis that shifts lets you reduce tension and torque from other parts of your body and makes dance more effortless.
What muscles help you shift?
Short answer: Don’t worry about it.
A lot of dancers screw themselves over by becoming so focused on what muscles should be working that they tense up, get in their heads too much, and forget to feel what’s happening.
Instead of asking, “Am I doin’ it right?”, ask “Am I feelin’ it right?”. Daft Punk knows what’s up.
“And everybody will be dancing…”
Let’s think in terms of two of Gary Ward’s rules of movement:
Joints act, muscles react: Shift happens, and muscles react to it. Muscles don’t make you shift, you shift.
Muscles must lengthen before they contract: In order to shift, something has to lengthen as a reaction to your pelvis’ lateral movement in order to decelerate it (slow it down), and then contract to get you back to center, like a sling shot first pulling back to shoot a stone.
So what is reacting to the pelvis shifting? What has to lengthen and load eccentrically in order to allow the pelvis to move laterally and return back to center?
Wait for it.
It’s your dance teacher’s favourite muscle to tell you to strengthen…
Ah, yes… your friends the adductors.
But also the other members of the lateral sub-system that react to lateral movement:
Glute med and the adductors have a larger role in shift, as we are discussing it today.
But let’s be clear about one thing: Inner thigh leg raises will do nothing for you if you can’t eccentrically load your adductors, or passively adduct your hip joints, which allow shift to happen in your body.
Clams are also somewhat of a waste of time.
Why are my adductors so tight?
Dancers’ adductors are often locked long (from overstretching), so they lose the ability to eccentrically load, or, because they are already on load all the time, they tighten up to protect themselves from strain. And you wonder why stretching your adductors doesn’t relieve the tightness…
Get up on your feet and shift your pelvis over to the right. you should be aware that your left adductor is lengthening, hence, decelerating (eccentric loading) the journey the pelvis makes from left leg to right leg. This happens with every step you take.
Shift is less about clenching the same side inner thigh to pull you over, or pushing with the opposite hip abductors, and more about allowing joint action through decelerative muscle reaction.
Sounds like less work, doesn’t it? You bet.
And now you can see how it can be problematic for dancers who have overstretched their adductors and pelvis ligaments to the point of pathology. You can’t shoot a stone very far with a stretched out elastic band.
Reclaiming shift: Monika’s Story
I know what you’re thinking, “Not another story, Monika. Get to the dang point!”. But this one is good, I promise. And relevant, too.
So, let me tell you about my journey reclaiming shift (still a work in progress, by the way), and I’ll try to keep it concise. You can also read THIS.
I was first introduced to shift by Dr. Brock Easter, my go-to body healing dude in Toronto.
I remember him telling me once, “When I start working with a dancer, I go straight to assessing the adductors, and it’s almost always the primary dysfunction.”
Words of wisdom from Dr. Brock: If its a dancer, go for the groin. Did I get that right? 😉
Anyway, I went to see Brock specifically to learn about Anatomy in Motion. He assessed me and put me in shift phase. In this AiM movement, the key points are that the pelvis should shift across the midline, and you should feel the adductors loading eccentrically (kind of a stretchy/worky feeling) on the leg you’re shifting away from as it abducts and externally rotates.
I didn’t feel shi(f)t.
And I continued to feel nothing for almost a year, though I practiced diligently every day. My body felt better for sure (back pain, hamstring pain, being things I was working forward from), but still no adductor function.
And then I had a pelvic floor intervention.
Not like that….
It was February 2015 at Neurokinetic Therapy level 2 in Toronto, and I was the demo body for pelvic floor testing and correction. And a good one, at that.
Dr. Kathy Dooley found that my anterior pelvic floor was facilitated bilaterally. Probably because I was a breath holder, and used to be a chronic pee-holder for many years. I was good at it. Like, really good. Too good.
Dooley did an NKT correction, showed me how to anti-kegel (kegels aren’t the answer to all life’s problems, guys), and I felt my abs work in crazy new ways. I felt pretty good afterwards.
Then, because it had become a habit whenever I was standing around doing nothing to practice shift phase, I got up and tried it out, and HOLY CRAP. Hello adductors.
Why did this happen?
This might not be the complete picture, but to the best of my limited understanding, to be able to access pelvis shift in frontal plane, the pelvis needs to be in a posterior tilt in the sagittal plane, and the pelvic floor needs to be able to stretch to allow the lateral movement. In February 2015, I couldn’t posterior tilt if I used max effort, and I couldn’t let go of my pelvic floor. Getting my pelvic floor to chill out allowed me to access abdominals and finally get into a post tilt. Boom. Shift happened (#).
Too, the obturator nerve is responsible for motor innervation of the adductor muscles, and can become entrapped in the obturator canal, for which the obturator internus facscia creates a medial wall.
Why does that matter?
As Dooley explained to me later:
You stretch pelvic floor, you allow shift with a stretch of OI fascia, taking tension off obturator nerve so it can innervate adductors.
Obturator nerve entrapment is also known to be related to adductor strain. Hey, I’ve had a few of those!
All that to say, just because my adductors weren’t working the way I would have liked, don’t go blaming my adductors! Concentric adductor exercise wasn’t the solution I needed.
Remember, joints act, muscles react. When I finally was able to get my body in a decent position, and maintain it as I shifted, I felt adductors come alive in a meaningful way for the gait cycle.
So on that note, I want to leave you with some ideas for how to optimize your ability to let shift happen by getting joints to move into positions that allow muscles to react in more useful ways.
Let’s get shifty
To accomplish a proper pelvis shift, you need these three big things:
1) Ability to exhale fully and depress ribcage (ZOA)
2) Posterior pelvic tilt
3) Lumbar flexion
If you can achieve these movements but still struggle to accomplish shift, there’s something else going on. Or you might need some guidance/therapy/time, like I did.
This past January and February I did free movement screens with some Ryerson dancers, and not one of them could posterior tilt past neutral. Posterior pelvic tilt should not be a max effort event.
You can get all three of the above movements at the same time with these two exercises (which you have seen in many, many blog posts before because they are #DTPfaves).
1) Cogs (emphasis on flexion/exhalation phase)
2) 90/90 Hip Lift
Do these two activities, and go back to check your pelvis range of motion. Is anything different? Can you shift more easily? Tuck more easily? Hike more easily?
If you’ve achieved requisite range of motion into flexion/posterior tilt/ZOA, you may now have opened a window of opportunity to reclaim some frontal plane shift. So let’s do that now.
The moment you’ve all been waiting for.
Worth noting that every joint in the body plays a role in shift. You can’t see my feet in this video, but they are kind of a big deal. Also, should have mentioned in this video that your back knee needs to stay straight.
As mentioned in the video, for a successful shift, you should feel adductors on back leg loading. If you don’t, it’s not shift. It’s a CCMS Volkmar special.
Please note that this movement is best learned from someone who’s been trained in AiM, and you can find such a person HERE.
This next exercise allows you to apply shift to a dance-specific situation in it’s most fundamental form: Transferring from first position to coupé and into tendus front and side.
This one kills me. And I like it.
I stole this exercise from my favourite ballet teacher, Christine Wright (who you can find teaching at the National Ballet School in Toronto, Monday-Friday from 10am-12pm. Another #DTPfave).
If you are doing this one well, your hips should stay level (not hike) as you shift onto one leg. If you are able to do this, you may feel some burny/stretchy/eccentric load feels at the front of the hip you’re standing on, indicating that you’re “on your leg”, or, not compressing the hip or going into an anterior tilt/hike on that side.
Remember the wise words of Daft Punk: You’re doin’ it right if you’re feelin’ it right.
The other side of your butt should not leave the wall as you shift (that’s a transverse plane violation), and you should be able to maintain 3 points of contact with the back of your body on the wall: Back of skull, ribcage, and pelvis.
Breathe, 2, 3, 4. It ain’t easy.
Alright. That was a lot… Just imagine how I felt editing this monstrous thing.
I hope you’ll experiment with shift, reclaiming it back, and maintaining it as a regular strategy to unwind from the duress of dance training and enhance your performance abilities.
In part 3 of Dance Like a Human, we will be discussing another key human motion to reclaim for better performance… But I’m not saying what it is! Stay tuned.