You don’t just dance with your body, you dance with your brain.
Let’s look briefly today at dance through the lens of neuroplasticity- The brain’s ability to adapt and change itself.
In our current dance training paradigm, we talk mostly about muscles. Stretch this. Strengthen that. Work the muscle groups we don’t use in dance to create balance. Work the muscle groups we DO use in dance to help us dance stronger. This is all fine and valid. But what’s happening in the brain?
This is what I find to be especially interesting: What can neuroplasticity can tell us about the importance of cross-training to support of dancing, learning dance as an adult, and keeping our bodies moving well to optimize our performance while preventing injuries, to be especially interesting.
First, consider these two questions:
Is dance “natural human motion”?
What is natural human motion?
I often ask these questions if I am working with a new group of dancers in a workshop to frame the session and get them thinking.
To the first question, nearly all dancers laugh and say “no”, dance is definitely not natural human motion. I remember one dancer going into a rant about how Graham technique is the most unnatural thing one could do with their bodies (although we later discovered in the workshop that there are aspects of Graham technique that are very “human” to perform, but become convoluted by other more complex ways of moving).
The answer to the second question- what is natural human motion? is less clear.
For many dancers, the first thing that may come to mind is that natural motion means using parallel rather than turned-out positions. They know that the degree of flexibility they need is not natural, and that the going on pointe is not natural. They know what natural motion is not, but have no clear idea what it is or should feel like.
We can see that there is a problem here. Dancers know intuitively that what they are doing with their bodies needs to be balanced with more fundamental forms of training, but lack the understanding of how to do this and what that should look like.
ARE YOU AVOIDING THE ISSUE?
Rather than confront this problem, dancers find it much easier to avoid it, choosing not to think about what could happen should their bodies fail them, particularly if they have never had serious trouble with their bodies before. In a state of avoidance, it is impossible to see the value in supplementary training. Their training to supremely control their bodies can often create the sense that they can do anything, though any duress, by their passion for dance and the power of their will. This mindset is summarized by these words, I think every dancer can relate to:
“Dancers who have never had a serious injury can fall into the trap of assuming their bodies are indestructible, that they can never become injured.” (~Fitt. S, 1996).
This is the ultimate example of being too attached to our physical identity, and so in a way, cross-training can be the ultimate practice of non-attachment. A way to stop avoiding the issue and face reality, reconnecting with who we are as humans, and seeing clearly the realities we need to confront as dancers.
Indeed, the power of the dancer’s mind is incredible. But sheer will, passion, and avoidance can only take a dancer so far, and takes a tremendous amount of energy to sustain. When a dancer is willing their body perform physical feats it is not ready for, or needs a break from, it can be draining and dangerous. All of our choices have repercussions but dancers, somehow, put this out of their minds to keep doing what they love in the present moment. Yes, being in the now is important, but there is a distinct difference between avoidance and non-attachment.
Deciding not to face the reality of their needs and best practices is not what I mean by living in the moment and not being attached.
What’s missing is the reminder from the beginning of their training that dancers are first humans before they chose to become dancers, and this needs to be respected.
As Gary Ward, creator of Anatomy in Motion, once encouraged us to ask in his seminar, in a discussion on how his work can help athletes perform better,
“Do you need coaching in your skill or to master body mechanics?” ~Gary Ward
In the case of many dancers, adding more training will only go so far if they cannot appreciate the simple beauty and benefit in practicing the fundamentals of human movement stripped of their highly trained movement skills.
Fundamental does not mean lowest level, but highest importance.
NATURAL MOTION AND FUNDAMENTAL MOVEMENT
What do these terms mean?
Natural human motion refers to joint motions that naturally occur in the human gait cycle and in fundamental movement patterns. These are the motions essential for smooth execution of larger movement patterns. Observing human motion is “zooming in”.
For example, the knee bending, the spine extending, and the rear-foot pronating are human motions that are part of the larger squat pattern, as well as the shock absorption phase of gait.
As we discussed earlier, it is important to understand is that all motions the human body is capable of performing serve an important purpose and need not be feared or avoided. There is no human motion that can be labelled “bad” or we would not have been created with the ability to perform it.
Embracing all movement without such judgement allows us to move with a complete map of our bodies. Perhaps foot pronation is the cause of one person’s troubles, but it is not because pronation is “wrong”, only that it is happening at a time, quantity, or duration, that is not serving them within a movement pattern.
Fundamental movement patterns refers to full body patterns of movement, motor control within movement patterns, and competence of basic movements uncomplicated by specific skill. These movements can include squatting, lunging, stepping, bending, rotation, crawling, and rolling.
When we look at patterns of movement we are “zooming out”. These global movements are, as expressed by physical therapist Gray Cook, important to evaluate injury risk, limiting factors in performance, and exercise contraindications. Cook’s book, Movement, explores in great detail the importance of maintaining these movement patterns for optimal performance and health.
“The movement specialty should be the goal, not the starting point” ~Gray Cook
EARLY SPECIALIZATION CAN MESS US UP
One cause of this decline in fundamental movement quality could be early specialization, as is common in other aesthetic athletes like figure skaters and gymnasts.
As young as two years old, dancers (or their parents) may decide they will focus solely on dance. In other athletic populations there is evidence suggesting that starting early is not necessarily linked with long-term success, and may even be correlated to increased risk of injury.
The challenge is that early specialization is appealing and encouraged because dancers want to master their art as early as possible, knowing that their “best” dance years will be while they are still relatively young, but early specialization does not allow the dancer to develop of a foundation of general physical preparedness, or base of functional movement and strength.
Dancers who specialize from a young age are may never learn some fundamental movement patterns, or are unlearning human movement, something first called “learned nonuse” by neuroscientist Edward Taub (who did some pretty cool work helping people regain function post-stroke).
It is important to consider that, when a dancer hits a plateau in training, the answer may not be to add more hours of dance-specific training and rehearsals, but perhaps to evaluate whether or not there is a limitation in general physical preparedness or athleticism preventing them from excelling.
Dancing “harder” isn’t the same as dancing better. No matter how many extra nails you use to hold a house together, if it has no foundation, it won’t stay upright for long. As I fondly remember a favourite ballet teacher of mine, Christine Wright, telling our class one day, “If something isn’t working, don’t do it harder”. Seth Oberst also wrote this great blog post on the topic of making exercises too hard.
When trying harder isn’t helping, additional hours of coaching may not be what’s holding the dancer back. Perhaps they lack a foundation of movement and work capacity that should have been formed before they started dancing. But this doesn’t mean it’s too late.
HUMAN MOTION: USE IT OR LOSE IT
“Use it or lose it” is the simplest way to describe neuroplasticity. When we use our brains in a particular way, we create new neural circuitry, and the more we use these circuits, the better and faster we get at firing them. This also works in reverse: we stop performing movements, skills, or tasks, and their neural circuits become weakened, like a muscle that we stop using.
We can call this neural atrophy learned nonuse. When we “unlearn”, motor maps weaken and atrophy. It is not simply muscles that atrophy when we stop using them, but the brain can unlearn and shrink areas that aren’t being stimulated. We also know from experiments in this field that by simply imagining movements and skills we can strengthen their maps in our brains. Todd Hargrove wrote THIS blog post a few years ago with some examples that are pretty cool. So if we were really smart, we would practice visualization as part of our daily training.
#SimpsonsChallenge. Epitomy of neural atrophy
What we have learned from studies on folks who have gone blind, or lost a limb, is that the part of the brain that usually would be responsible for a particular movement or activity can be reassigned for something else if we’re not using it for that thing. This plastic property of the brain, it’s ability to reorganize itself, can both serve and disserves us.
Neuroplasticity is incredibly useful, as it means we can change our brains and our bodies regardless of how old we are (yes, even if you feel “too old” to learn something new, like dance, or how to heal an old injury, neuroscience proves that you can).
There, however, is a critical period when we are very young during which making changes is effortless, and this is why early specialization is so coveted in the dance world. But we also see dancers who have started at a much older age, like Misty Copeland, who took her first ballet class at 13 years old and began dancing professionally soon thereafter.
The point I wish to make is that if we can unlearn it, we can learn it back; the brain is hardwired to adapt and change based on the inputs we give it. We can reclaim movements that are missing from our system, movements that can help dancers move more effortlessly, build strength safely, and open them up to new options in choreography.
So I suppose what I’d like to you have appreciated through this blog post is the the role the brain plays in supplemental training for dancers, whether it be yoga, lifting weights, pilates, gyrotonics, or mountain unicycling.
We need to stop avoiding the issue and face this need to proactively care for our minds and bodies before it’s too late.
We need to understand that we are not just training muscles, we are training brains- We are creating new neural circuits or denying neural circuitry from being expressed.
It is not simply enough to go through the motions. Real learning requires focused, deliberate practice, or we will simply be strengthening the patterns that already exist in our brains and bodies- further unlearning, staying in our comfort zone.
Speaking of deliberate practice, I’d like to challenge you to 30 days of deliberate practice! Join the 30 Day Core Challenge and practice one exercise deliberately, everyday, for 30 days.
So what do you think? Does looking at cross-training for through the lens of neuroplasticity spark anything for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts and encourage you to leave a comment below to keep the conversation going.
And welcome to part 3. In my mission to be more concise, let us get right to the point.
Today we’ll be talking about movement variability.
Movement variability means having options. But not too many options—>
Movement variability: An optimal amount of variance within the global movements, due to the infinite changing conditions that occur before and during the movement task.
Here’s what’s on our agenda for today:
What is movement variability and what is it good for?
How can we appraise it in our bodies?
How does higher variability help us as dancers and movers?
Other random stuff that comes out of my brain.
What is movement variability?
Picture yourself walking down the street. Something shiny catches your eye over the the right. With your eyes in the other direction, you don’t see the uneven patch of concrete and your ankle rolls over to the outside.
Outcome 1: Sprained ankle. OMG! NO!
Outcome 2: You’re totally fine.
What’s the main factor determining your fate? Could be luck. But it’s more likely that in outcome two, your body understood how to get out of the ankle roll because it had been there before in a more favourable, safe condition, which didn’t result in an ankle sprain.
You and your ankle had the OPTION to get out of the inversion moment because that movement was in your body’s present vocabulary and you knew how to use it reactively without thinking.
This is an example of possessing movement variability, and using it in real life.
Having multiple strategies for joint and segment interaction to accomplish the same movement (walk around while gazing dreamily off in space, crappy sidewalks or no).
Having options (to move your ankle into maximum inversion and get out of it safely).
Having tri-planar movement ability when you want it, where you want it, to do whatever you want with it (to avoid inversion sprains).
The spice of life
Plain food sucks.
Unless you agree with the food shape…
I’m very sorry if that was disturbing for you…
Anyway, as in food, so too in movement; a lack of variability is not only bland, but…
…result in systems that are less adaptable to perturbations, such as those associated with unhealthy pathological states or absence of skillfulness.
Movement variability provides us the ability to handle errors and make real time adjustments that occur with movement. Not enough variability and we become stuck in a pattern with limited options, increasing the potential for acute or chronic overuse injuries.
Variability creates movement options in multiple planes to cope with volatility (and all life is volatility). How well we get on amidst the volatility is a reflection of how safe or unsafe we feel with this perpetual flux, and how well we can find strategies to deal with it.
INTERESTING ASIDE:A lack of coping strategies is one of the top reasons researchers think dancers get hurt, so variability as a coping mechanism is a huge deal:
…ballet dancers tended to distinguish poorly between pain that is customary in dance performance and pain associated with injury. Pain is typically seen by dancers as an accompanying facet of dance practice, and dancers are prone to “dance through” pain, even when doing so may be detrimental.
…researchers determined that ballet dancers who are taught general psychological coping skills experienced fewer injuries and less time injured.
We can also potentially link optimal movement variability with a healthy variability and function of our autonomic nervous system: The ability to relax when we need to (parasympthetic), and to mobilize ourselves into action when necessary (sympathetic). We need to be able to do both to dance.
You can see that movement variability is a pretty huge deal:
More movement options
More freedom in movement
Ability to reproduce movements reliably in variable environemnts, like, on stage under bright lights and high stress
Sounds great, eh?
What’s interesting is that optimal variability in movement appears “chaotic”, which makes it easy to interpret as “noisy” and not useful. This is incorrect.
One thing I’ve come to appreciate about human movement in the gait cycle, is how freaking chaotic the map of every joint motion seems. But chaotic doesn’t mean unhealthy.
First it is important to distinguish between two different kinds of variability: “End point” and “coordinative variability”.
End point variability: Refers to the product of movement, for example, stride-length, jump height, pirouette, etc. Ideally, this should be low. It’s nice to be able to reliably perform tasks in a similar way each time we do them. Each step, each turn, minimal surprises.
Coordinative variability: Refers to the variability of the interaction between segments or joints. This should be high, or, within an optimal window that is neither too low nor too high. It’s nice when individuals can use multiple strategies in their bodies to safely achieve the same outcome.
When we look at literature relating movement variability with over-use injuries, the traditional view is that low variability in movement is good, because we want to be able to have a reliable experience when we go and try to use our bodies. Makes sense, BUT this is only true if we are working with “end-point variability” which refers to the PRODUCT of movement.
When we zoom in, we see that variability in how joints can safely and easily interact should be high.
When we zoom out we can see how variability in the product of the joint and segment interactions should be low.
Having multiple safe and effective routes to drive to the grocery store is more useful than one “perfect” route, and can save you time and stress when 3 of those routes have massive construction.
The path to frailty or injury is identified in this emerging perspective by a loss of variability in fundamental variables reflecting biological function
A loss of freedom. A loss of optionality. Injuries. Disease. Awkward dancing.
Movement variability vs. being skilled at making movement look good
But aren’t dancers already exposed to all kinds of movement? Doesn’t being a dancer imply high movement variability?
Just because you can make all kinds of movements look good, doesn’t mean you possess the variability to perform the safely, efficiently, without extra compensation, and that you can keep doing them that way for as long as you wish.
Too, many dancers, particularly those who are hypermobile, have so much variability and don’t know how to use it. Too many options is just as troublesome as not having enough options.
This is why as educators, trainers, and health-care practitioners we need to understand how to look at fundamental movement quality.
Dancers need to prepared for infinite movement options, because you just don’t know what the choreographer is going to throw at you.
Ohh Marie Chouinard…
An example is a professional ballet company hiring a contemporary choreogpraher who may ask the ballet dancers to move in ways they are not used to. This often can increase the instance of injuries, despite the technical prowess these dancers possess: They just aren’t prepared for the new physical demand!
The fallacy: Strong technical skill does not equal adaptability, fundamental movement quality, or general strength, although adaptability, movement variability, and physical strength DO create the potential for stronger technical skill.
So even though we could infer that dancers have high movement variability, this is sometimes an illusion due to skilled, but patterned movement.
As we know, being stuck in one pattern, even one you can do really well, does not create the multitude of options your body craves to perform safely and effectively in a variety of unpredictable situations and environments:
Different size or shaped stage
Different style of dance
External stressor messing up your movement game
Just consider the injury rate in dance. That should be enough to question: If a non-injured state is correlated with higher movement variability, and dancers are rarely in a non-injured state, how optimal is their variability, really?
Is it too high, or too low? Where’s the sweet spot?
How did we get this way?
We were all born as bundles of perfect movement potential. Where the heck did things go wrong??
In dance a major factor is that we never mastered the fundamentals. Early specialization plays a role in this.
This is something I discuss all the time in this blog: Never having established, (or lost) a requisite base of fundamental movement. Miguel Aragoncillo wrote something really great on this topic (long term athletic development) a while back, too.
So while many dancers appear to be able to move their bodies in all kinds of ways, they are doing it without a foundation of tri-planar movement to support them, thus desirous coordination and interaction between joints and segments is not happening.
They can make most movement look good (their job as dancers, after all), but when it comes to the fundamentals, they might not be able to demonstrate clean, simple movement.
“Fundamental is not lowest level, but highest importance” ~Source unknown… Probably some Shaolin monk
So maybe you can achieve the range of motion you need, but it comes with an energetic cost, requires some “cheats”, and can cause some problems long term.
How are you doing?
Because I believe that demonstrating the ability to move well in three planes says a lot about you, how you’re doing in life, and the state of your autonomic nervous system. But that’s not really in the scope of my blog, just something I’m observing.
To illustrate the idea of clean, non-compensatory, tri-planar movement, just stand up and give these a try:
Can you posteriorally tilt your pelvis without bending your knees?
Can you shift your pelvis to one side without also rotating it?
Can you rotate your pelvis without also hiking one side?
Can you lift your ribcage up without having to lift your chin?
Can you shift your ribcage to one side without also tilting your head?
Can you tilt your head without shifting your ribcage to one side?
Can you inhale without needing to flare your ribs?
Can you exhale without thinking you’re going to die?
In other words: Can you do one thing without having to do another thing if you don’t need to?
How’s your behavioural variability?
As in movement, so too in life…
Can you receive a correction in class without also taking it personally and feeling like a failure for a week?
Can you express yourself and your feelings-be vulnerable, without oversharing unnecessary details. Like that time in Vegas, you know, the incident at the swimming pool, with the peanut butter, and the Elvis impersonator?
Can you eat just one Lay’s chip?
You get the idea. The meta question is, “Do you have the ability to choose?”.
Movement being a behaviour, and behaviour requiring movement, we can see how variability is useful not just for physical performance, but LIFE.
Back to movement though, because this isn’t a behavioural psychology blog.
In an optimally variable system, we should be able to differentiate tri-planar motions, such as in the examples above, meaning, body parts can move in three dimensions independently of others to a certain degree.
Quite often this differentiation is missing: Things get smudged together (technical term). In the motor cortex, areas related to one body part can overlap with others creating this situation in which things HAVE to move at the same time and going through life as a chunk this is not going to feel good for very long.
Here’s my FMS inspired “red light, yellow light, green light” approach to simplistically classifying potential variability, both for me to observe, and for the individual in question to feel.
I am basing this off results my standard movement screen, part of which uses the Anatomy in Motion model to look at triplanar movement through the pelvis, ribcage, and skull.
I feel that most people can be classified as green, yellow, or red, to varying degrees. Where do you fit in?
You can differentiate most joints segments and movements with relatively symmetrical ranges right to left, front to back.
You are not completely missing one plane of movement.
What you feel happening is an accurate representation of what is actually happening.
Strategy: Let’s train hard, swing some bell, and kick ass.
You may have difficulty differentiating some (or many) movements.
You have some pretty evident asymmetries right to left, and one or more planes of movement may be completely inaccessible
There is some discrepancy between what is actually happening and what you feel happening with movement.
Strategy: Let’s train the crap out of what you can do well. Spend some time exploring missing movements in reasonable, safe doses. Keep checking in regularly to see if things are improving.
Most of the body finds differentiating movements from one another troublesome and foreign as a concept, often bilaterally.
Very apparent asymmetries side to side and/or multiple planes of movement completely inaccessible.
Very little ability to distinguish whether movement is happening, in what quantities, and whether the range or quality differs from side to side.
Presence of acute pain with some movements.
Strategy: Let’s consider the need for rehab. If they don’t need/want rehab, get them breathing well, build in education on the value of movement quality/differentiation into sessions. Emphasize tuning in to how movements feel. Focus on making movement exploration feel safe with a conservative approach to adding intensity.
As a trainer with manual therapy skills, not a rehab professional, my general role is to help already healthy people get even healthier and perform better, yet due to the nature of the gym I work in (which is also a sports medicine clinic) most of my clients are fresh out of physio, and I tend to see a lot of sensitive, red light folks.
Though they have been “cleared” to begin training for fitness or strength or whatever their goals, just because their treatment is “done” it doesn’t mean Red Light Randy is ready to jump into a training program without first building a movement foundation, and learning to differentiate and appreciate his body in 3 dimension.
Randy: A classic Canadian work of art
I think a good chunk of dancers can be classified as red-lights. Surprising? Not really.
Dancers become really, really good at moving in specific patterns. They take great pride in their patterns, and will hold onto them for dear life. Does this sound like someone who can differentiate movement? Does this sound like someone with variability?
If we think of the biases in dance training and performance (those trained in ballet primarily) there are some “patterns” that can become pretty ingrained, such as preferring to stand and turn on the left leg, turning to the right, and gesturing with the right leg.
But it is useful knowing this lateralization is common, reducing our ability to move in various ways, and points to the importance of providing strategies for dancers to enhance and clean up their ability to differentiate body parts and their movement both right and left, in all dimensions.
Can you move it if you can’t feel it?
We need to back up for a moment and consider that if you can’t feel certain parts of your body at rest, it will be difficult to move them, too.
In your brain there is a physical area called the somatosensory cortex that holds a “map” of your body. In this map, the hands and face have the most representation- more brain tissue devoted to them, compared to the rest of the body, meaning we are more sensitive to touch and sensation in these areas.
Furthermore, in this monkey study, it was found that overuse of a particular pattern of movement requiring minimal variability, resulted in motor control deterioration and degradation of body part representation in the somatosensory cortex.
To boot, in this study, there as a link found between somatosensory afferent input and motor control in people with neck issues.
How well you feel your body is linked to how well you move your body.
This seems pretty common-sensical, but then you look at the number of people who don’t want to take the time to learn to “re-sense” where their heads are at, literally, and just want quick fix stretches and exercises.
I believe that a piece in this optimal variability puzzle is being able to feel each part of your body and have your brain recognize they exist while NOT moving as well as in motion. To me, this somewhat explains the hypermobile people who have all the movement potential in the world, but without an ability to feel their bodies are unable to fully use them. Would love to hear some thoughts on this.
Can you sit still, close your eyes, and have a conversation, not a monologue, with your body?
“Hey there ribcage, I feel you there, I know you exist, how’s it going today”
“Actually, brain, I’m feeling like you don’t fully appreciate me, but thanks for checking in. Let’s work on this relationship a bit harder”.
This could be the topic of a blog post for another day, but I believe this ability to sense body parts at rest, to distinguish what you can feel clearly and what you cannot is incredibly important for movement.
Maybe I’m talking about meditation, maybe I’m starting to sound esoteric. But what I’m getting at is that differentiated sensory input = differentiated motor output.
How can you expect to get up and perform complex movements when you can’t even feel a body part at rest?
I would love to see more dancers develop an appreciation for the ability to sense themselves and their bodies at rest, and I think adopting this as a daily practice could be a huge asset.
In the ballet class I go to regularly, we begin each class in exactly this way: Lying on the floor, encouraged to explore which parts of our bodies we are able to sense, whatever that means to us. This has had a profound impact on my ability to connect and feel my body in motion and has allowed me to make interesting connections to why some movements are difficult to do, which streamlines my process of making adjustments in training and in life.
I would love if more dance teachers took the first five minutes of class in this way, to help the dancers tune in and appreciate their bodies in stillness before layering on the complexity in which this appreciation can become easily lost.
In martial arts, the “tuning in” part of training is huge. Being able to feel your body. To see yourself doing something in your mind before doing it with your body. Why is it not seen as important in dance? And in other sports?
Higher movement variability (coordinative variability) is linked to being in a healthy, uninjured state, and provides you with multiple useful and safe strategies to perform the same task. Knowing that the world we live in is highly volatile, our ability to adapt and fine tune movement in real time is a crucial ability to possess.
Higher movement variability allows us to improve our performance as dancers by improving our ease and freedom in movement, get our joints into the positions we want without strain, and allowing us to easily adapting to new choreographic styles while reducing the risk that we might injure ourselves in the process.
The role of cross-training in dance is not limited just to strengthening and improving mobility, but to ensuring strength and mobility are built in a way that enhances movement variability. Often, the choice to participate in a strength training program is enough to enhance variability due to the new novel input.
The ability to differentiate the movement of joints and segments in three planes is a useful way to appraise potential for movement variability, and a great learning experience for the individual.
“Tuning in” also plays a role in being able to sense our bodies at rest, which can influence how and what we can move when we are up on our feet. This is something that needs to be discussed and valued more highly in dance training.
That’s all for now. I think I wrote enough. Believe it or not, this post was originally much longer… You’re welcome.
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.
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).
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 motion, neuroplasticity, 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”
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.
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
The desired aesthetic for dancers to point their feet, pull up their arches, and push their knees out as far as possible can create the avoidance of some important joint movements (listed a bit further below) which are necessary for shock absorption upon landing a jump.
I have landed from jumps feeling shooting pain through my ankle, but put on a smile and “danced it off” to keep going. Landing a jump well is pretty important.
Often in working with dancers, our initial instinct is to initiate plyometric training in an attempt to teach the dancer how to land more softly, with better mechanics.
Is this wise as a first measure?
What if reducing foot and ankle injuries was less related to training strength and power, and more to practicing the allowance of joint movements necessary to absorb shock upon landing.
Unfortunately, these movements that are commonly avoided for the sake of aesthetics. (I will refer to these movements cumulatively as “loading the spring”).
When you land a jump, you load your spring.
Consider that paradoxically, to clean up a jump, the landing might need to look a little more “ugly” (by ballet standards, anyway).
Guess what, pronation and valgus are not the evil step-children we’ve been avoiding.
Let’s let go of judging what the movement looks like for a moment, and honestly appraise what movements need to happen in the human body for optimal shock absorption to take place.
“Ugly” joint mechanics for optimal shock absorption (AKA loading the spring):
Looks kind of like this
Rear-foot (calcaneus/talus): Eversion, plantar flexion, internal rotation. Yes, pronation! Which drives… Ankle: dorsiflexion Tibia, femur: internal rotation (not turn-out!?) Knee: flexion, external rotation, valgus Hip: flexion, external rotation, adduction Pelvis: lateral hike, anterior tilt Lumbar/thoracic spine: extension, rotation towards landing leg, side flexion towards landing leg
Wait… Allow pronation, internal rotation, and valgus? Aren’t these “bad”?
In the human body, the above joint actions must occur to eccentrically load the muscles necessary for successfully absorbing shock (plantar fascia, medial quad, glutes, etc). These are not static joint positions, but brief moments (less than a second) that the human body must pass through.
What would happen if we helped dancers to experience these important moments in their bodies, rather than brace and control in conditioned avoidance of “ugly” positions?
The “suspension” movement to train more optimal shock absorption. Notice the joint actions of the front leg? Think this is ugly?
5 ways classical dance training can alter landing position and limit optimal shock absorption:
1. Feet get stiff.
In a closed chain (foot on floor), the rear-foot and fore-foot need to be mobile and move in opposition in each plane, allowing joints to open and close to take the shock of the landing.
In dance, the foot can become very strong and rigid losing mobility and ability to oppose through pronation and supination. Feet can get stuck stiff and inverted or stiff and everted. Neither is ideal.
Add to this that many exercises dancers use to strengthen their feet and ankles are done with a band, open-chain, which does not allow foot opposition and is not specific to how the foot was designed to function on the floor, in gait.
2. Attempting to maintain perfect turnout in foot and leg while landing.
Upon landing, the rear-foot (talus and calcaneus) needs to evert and internally rotate (pronate!) to load the spring of the plantar fascia and windlass mechanism. The rear foot drives the tibia and femur to internally rotate and the knee and hip to open. This is what we want!
Dance often demands that we turn everything out: Foot, ankle, thigh, knee-cap; and by limiting this necessary internal rotation we also limit the ability of the knee and hip to open and absorb shock.
Landing with everything turned-out can limit natural movement and jam up joints rather than “load the spring” to manage impact.
Landing with the foot and leg turned out… Not the type of pronation we want!
Landing with lots of turnout in the foot, tibia, and thigh, limiting shock absorption.
3. Landing in hip ABduction rather than allowing ADduction (again, that turnout!)
To absorb shock optimally, the hip must adduct in the frontal plane, following what the foot is doing below. In dance, however, we are trained to avoid inward knee movement and deny ourselves this important moment of valgus.
Dancers, wanting to always be turned out to the maximum, tend to land with the knee pushed out and hip abducted, preventing that lovely shock absorption from taking place.
4. Trying to keep the pelvis upright, not allowing an anterior tilt to occur to with landing.
Upon landing, the hemi-pelvis on the landing leg side should anterior tilt to “load the spring” (which in this case is the glutes, which load with anterior tilt). Being cued to tuck under, or keep the pelvis perfectly level all the time and avoiding anterior tilt, again, denies the dancer of this important moment.
5. Chronic extension posture preventing dancer from extending further upon landing
Lumbar and thoracic spine extension is another way to “load the spring”, allowing the dancer to eccentrically load and then use the abdominals to enter and rebound out of the landing.
If a dancer is already stuck in an extended position with static lordosis and rib flare at rest (which is quite common…), this spring-like mechanism will not take place, and vertebrae may compress rather than abs taking load.
Do you stand like this at rest? Can’t get out of extension?
Now, you may be thinking…
“But I see so many dancers who land with their knees going in and over-pronating, and that is not a good look.”
“Surely asking a dancer to land with an anterior tilt and extended spine is not safe??”
These movements: Pronation, knee valgus, anterior tilt, and spine extension, are not bad. If you could not perform these movements, I would question how you are able to walk.
These joint movements only become a challenge when a) You get stuck in them, or b) You can’t get into them at all.
Landing WITHOUT permitting a brief moment of pronation will not allow shock absorption.
Landing already IN an anterior tilt and extended spine will not allow shock absorption.
I do not mean that we should coach dancers to land excessively pronated, turned-in, with knee valgus. These are subtle, fleeting moments in a spectrum of movement. Subtle, but important.
If we give dancers activities that allow them to experience naturally moving in and out of these foreign positions safely, they might just choose to store this as a useful pattern and use it in their dancing at the appropriate time without over-coaching and conscious effort.
A good place to start would be the “suspension” movement, which was created by Gary Ward and taught through Anatomy in Motion. Suspension simulates the shock absorption phase of gait following heel-strike. It could be used as a warm-up before class, or as a supplementary exercise as part of a cross-training program.
Notice I’m doing my best to pronate (not easy for me!), internally rotate my leg, and allow my knee to come inside my big toe, while slightly anteriorally tilting my right pelvis and extending my back?
Work in progress…
What you might feel while suspending:
Front leg quad getting burny (this is eccentric loading- the muscle contracting as it lenghtens)
Front leg glute getting burny (eccentric loading)
Front leg plantar fascia stretching and opening
Front leg achilles tendon area/calf stretching and opening
Back leg hip stretching and opening
Back of the neck stretching
Abdominals stretching (rectus/obliques)
Give it a try and see what happens.
Please note, however, that I don’t feel it is wise to TRY to land like this. Don’t attempt to change anything about your landing. Simply give your body this experience outside of class, and trust that you have now shown your body some new landing strategies that it may chose to employ the next time you jump, with little conscious effort. Landing with a few extra degrees of real pronation and ankle dorsiflexion might make a huge difference.
And just for fun…
Exercises from Anatomy in Motion haven’t only been helping me land jumps feeling more safe, but I feel (subjectively, yes) that my developpe height and hip mobility are improved, both on the standing leg, and the gesture leg.
Here’s something I’ve been working on (believe it or not, this is actually easier with a weight over head- Lot’s of great feedback for not falling over):
Transition from side to back in a grand rond de jambe was something I could never do without crazy hip cramping. The other day, after working on some AiM I tried it out, and it felt pretty good! No cramping. Leg comfortably around 90 degrees. Had to take a video (don’t try this at home unless you feel solid about plain old Turkish get-ups).
Don’t think you’ll be seeing me in a ballet class anytime soon, though ;). These days, I’m loving parallel standing leg, and no one can convince me that turnout is prettier. It’s just a different aesthetic. My choice. My knees…
I’m going to rant just a little bit about something that frustrates me. Namely, dance fitness is not the same as “fitness for dancers”.
And it seems like a lot of people just don’t seem to get the F**cking diff.
The photo was taken in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where I was recently studying Thai massage. Gotta love Asia.
I feel that I have permission to rant because I have much more to contribute that I do to complain about. The rule: Ranting is not warranted unless you have something actionable and useful to follow up with.
Do dancers need to be more “fit”?
I’m kind of tired of answering this question, so I’ll let Sonia Rafferty do it:
“Studies have shown that performing dance in itself elicits only limited stimuli for positive fitness adaptations; professional dancers often demonstrate fitness values similar to those obtained from healthy sedentary individuals of comparable age.” (Rafferty, 2010)
“While technique classes focus on neuro-muscular coordination, the length of a traditional class may not be adequate to meet all of the dancer’s conditioning needs. The amount of space available, the numbers of students, and the time required for teaching and correcting also have an impact on work rate… Therefore, conditioning work over and above daily technique class has been recommended.“ (Rafferty, 2010)
What she said.
Unfortunately, some (the majority of, I’d say) dancers just don’t seem to get it because the message doesn’t reach them. As such, dancers end up wasting their time on well-intentioned exercises routines that aren’t serving them, just plain dancing too much and not resting, or, as will be the topic today, using dance-fitness as a means of cross-training.
“Dance for fitness” vs. “dancers getting more fit”
Dance fitness, as defined by Monika-pedia, is an exercise form for the general public who want to “get fit” by “working the same muscles dancers use” while completely separating the art from dancing, reducing it to a means to a vain end. Many people find the idea of using dance-like movements to get fit appealing because they can pretend they aren’t actually exercising while they get sweaty and burn calories, and might even be convinced that they are learning how to dance.
(Monika-pedia does not care about your feelings and is a rather sarcastic source).
The truth is, if you are serious about actually improving your fitness and movement mechanics to excel at dance, “dance fitness” is the last thing you should be doing.
I’m talking about the likes of Zumba, Barre Fitness, and Jazzercise, which are great for people who, if they weren’t at the class, would be sitting on the couch eating Tim Tams.
That said, if you find something that gets you moving, you get desirous results from it, and you love it, then who am I to tell you to do otherwise?
But keep your goals in mind, and make sure your actions are congruent with them.
If you are a dancer and you are spending your precious, limited time participating in dance fitness classes, thinking you’re cross-training, you’re failing at your goal and wasting your time.
If you are a classically trained ballet dancer, and you take barre fitness to work-out… Please tell me you can see what isn’t working about that sentence.
And then there are people who use dance fitness to get a “dancer’s body”. In barre fitness classes, and the Ballet Beautiful program, for example, you don’t learn how to do ballet technique, but you replicate moves that make it look like you’re doing something ballet-like, stripping it of the artistry that actually makes ballet beautiful, hoping it will help you to develop “long lean muscles” that ballet dancers have.
To make a muscle longer requires that the bone also becomes longer, stretching won’t accomplish this.
You’ll have to get Gattaca on your femur if you want longer thigh muscles.
And to make a muscle “leaner” requires wasting of the tissues through disuse and caloric deficit, something a particular style of exercise can’t do, no matter what the claim may be.
To make a muscle “bulky”, aka increase in size, requires intentionally training with high repetitions, high volume, and moderate intensity (like a body-builder would choose), while eating heaps of protein and carbohydrates to create a caloric surplus (more in than out). In dance the stimulus to the muscles is not at all sufficient to create extreme hypertrophy (aka “bulk”), but it is enough to create hypertonicity. If ballet does make ballet dancers bulky, then we would probably see more bulky ballerinas.
Whether a dancer develops larger muscles is influenced strongly by genetics, and other forms of training they have done prior to, or in conjunction with their dancing. Misinforming dancers these truths often does more harm than good and can lead to feelings of shame about their bodies, which, along with other negative emotional experiences, research is correlating with injury risk and inability to cope with injury.
And if you think that having muscle or lifting weights will make you less flexible, just fast forward to 3:30 and check out my friend Renaldo being a badass:
But wait! How can he do the splits with all that bulk? His muscles must be long and lean enough… Actually, Renaldo’s a tall dude, so his muscles ARE pretty long. And he doesn’t have much body fat, does he, so he IS lean. Do you nomesayin’?
What’s the point, Monika?
As a dancer, and if you are serious about becoming the best dancer you can be, you should be informed and choose critically the methods you are using to cross-train. The hours you have available to participate in something other than dancing are limited, use them intelligently. Chances are if you’re using a barre class to keep “in shape”, that hour and a half could be better used recovering with a nap. I’m 100% serious about that.
What should you do to cross train? I can’t tell you exactly what, nor do I want to. Every dancer is a human with unique needs. Get assessed. Identify your individual limiting factors and address them. Too, every dance style has different physical requirements that should be considered and trained outside regular class time.
Please don’t misconstrue fitness for dancers as dance fitness, as the two are completely different.
When is it ok to do dance fitness classes? If you meet the following criteria, it’s probably reasonable to participate in a dance fitness class:
You are you a regular person who doesn’t dance seriously or as a career choice
You just want to move around a bit and work up a sweat
You think the idea of dance is nice, definitely more appealing that jogging
Don’t have any goals in particular, or they are vague, like, you just want to get “in shape” and “tone up”
You don’t care much about getting stronger, developing muscle, being athletic, or dead-lifting mad weight
You aren’t worried about improving your efficiency and quality of movement, because ain’t nobody got time for that, you just want to sweat and feel the burn.
Be my guest and Zumba yourself silly.
As for the rest of you…
Well, I can’t tell you what to do. But I can steer you in the direction of a resource that I created (shameless plug warning). I’ll leave you with my recommendation to check out Dance Stronger, a multi-media resource (ebook + online program) I created with the goal of sharing a philosophy and method for using supplementary training to support your dancing.
For now, it is still available by donation, making it a bargain compared to that over-priced barre class.