I don’t get out to see live dance performances as often as I should, but when I do,
I can’t help but analyze what makes me want to watch one dancer over another. I believe that the “better” dancers possess, or can learn, specific postural habits which help them stand out over other dancers.
Unlike sports that judge “who is superior” on tangible things, like point-counting, crossing a line first, or knocking another person unconscious, dance is a bit tricky. It’s not so easy to pinpoint a specific, tangible thing in a dancer that makes them stand out. Why do I tend to watch one dancer, and not another? What makes dancer A better than dancer B?
In THIS article, I talk about how I find that dancers who know how to use their back musculature are more enjoyable to watch, or dare I say, are “better dancers”.
I know I might get some flack for saying that, because much of what makes a dancer “superior” to another is their ability to express and emote as part of their artistic performance- Intangible qualities that maybe we aren’t even supposed to try to define. That’s what makes it art, right?
HOWEVER, I think you also have to look at how the two (biomechanics and artistry) influence each other:
1) Biomechanics affecting ability to express. Bad biomechanics- things like muscle imbalances, unresolved injuries, and poor neural firing patterns (synergistic dominances, compensatory patterns, etc)- will affect the vehicle of expression (your body). There’s no way a body with alignment issues will be able to express as clearly and as easily, in the manner in which the choreographer requests, as consistently, as a body with none of the same issues.
You must be able to identify a situation in which correcting something physical will affect something intangible to improve the dancer’s performance.
Or as Sonia Rafferty puts more eloquently than I have,
To ignore the physiological needs in the training of today’s dancers is to deny development of the art form.
2) Ability to express affecting biomechanics. If you lack confidence, tend to be shy, anxious, and stressed easily, then this resting tension could be causing so many compensatory patterns, etc, due to the inability to relax anything. Dancing is about being able to relax, contract, relax, contract, over and over, with feeling. If you’re unable to get into “relax”, then contract can’t exist. You come across as monotonous, and lacking expression. You never take risks, and so your technical and skill development can easily reach a plateau. Excess tension also makes it much easier to become injured. It also makes dancing much less fun.
This is why you must also recognize a situation where addressing a mental issue will affect something physical and result in improved performance.
Obviously both factors are in play, but each to varying degrees. Generally you could say that in any given person, one is dominant. It’s good to know which one affects you most so you can balance it and dance better.
So anyway, that was kind of a long winded intro to what I originally intended to write about. Today I’m going to talk about an overlooked muscle group of great importance:
The neck flexors
Last week I went to see one of my dancers, along with other Ryerson and Toronto Dance Theatre students, performing Sacra Conversazione, choreographed by David Earle. It was excellent.
Here’s what stood out: the dancers I gravitated more towards watching were the ones with better neck posture.
The dancers who moved without excessive hyperextension of the cervicals (throwing the head back), had that je-ne-sais-quoi. In real life, you’ll usually see neck hyperextension as peoples’ default position. Which is not great. Your head is heavy. Your neck will hate you if you make it hold your head way out in front of your body.
Cervical lordosis (to get fancy) usually happens in combination with a more hunched upper back, forward head, and rounded forward shoulders. Looks kind of like the girl on the far right.
Picture came from an article called “Text Neck”, which I’m sure is a condition that Darwin’s law will eventually select for, the money being in the computer and technology industry these days. Evolution is taking us to a very interesting place, posturally. Let’s put the phones down and our chins in.
Anyway, cervical lordosis, a term more commonly applied to the lumbar spine (sway back), isn’t as strong, doesn’t look as good, and leaves the neck more susceptible to chronic strain and injury.
A correction that I was often given by a dance prof at Ryerson was to lower my chin slightly, and now I finally understand why (and why it was so difficult to do that).
My neck flexors, were too weak, and my neck extensors, were stretched out and overactive, and often sore. As a result of this imbalance, my default position was to poke my chin up, exacerbating this imbalance. I think it’s also worth mentioning that I had quite a few neck and lower back injuries. Not fun.
In retrospect, I would have benefited from working on neck alignment in a non-dance setting. In dance class there are just too many other things to think about, and not enough time for the teacher to focus on each individual dancer’s specific alignment issues.
But that’s why you’ve got people like me!
I’m working with a dancer now who I gave this same correction to- asked him to drop his chin slightly rather than poke it out during a side tilt. His reasoning was that sticking his chin out was to not look like he has a double chin. I guess that’s what happens when your sport has an aesthetic component- You end up with weird compensation strategies because they “look better”.
Actually, in this case, most dance lines look better with a slight drop of the chin and lengthening of the back of the neck. I call it a “long tall double chin”.
Optimizing neck alignment in a nutshell
- Find optimal neck alignment
- Stretch/release neck extensors
- Strengthen neck flexors
- Re-learn full body movements with integrated neck alignment (alignment in motion)
Step1: Assess your starting point. Some people are naturally in a more optimal alignment. You people suck.
Many people with more lumbar lordosis (sway back) also tend to be comfier hanging out in cervical lordosis (head forward, chin poking up posture). This isn’t always the case, but often I see this. And I am this person. So is Thomas. Here’s a postural picture from our initial assessment. Just a bit of text-neck cervical lordosis. Not too shabby, but not optimal posture to be dancing in.
Step 2: Assess your ability to extend your thoracic spine. Your T spine is the part of your spine covered by your rib-cage, so it doesn’t have as much mobility, and can get pretty stiff. If you want to stop hyper-extending your neck, you’re going to have to start extending from somewhere else, and that place is your T-spine. Try to keep your tall double chin posture while doing exercises like this:
Take a deep breath in the most extended position and try not to move your lower back.
In case you can’t see it, I’m also taking a deep inhalation at the top of this exercise. Breathing, good.
Step 3: Stretch neck extensors. The back of your neck is locked long in forward-head-text-neck. Stretch the back of your neck by trying to touch your forehead to your chest and gently pressing down on your head with your hands. That’s just one stretch I like, there are tons more. I won’t list them all here and now.
You may also need a little soft tissue work to ease up the neck extensors, upper traps, and other notoriously tight things up around your neck, in addition to daily stretching.
Step 4: Strengthen neck flexors. The front of your neck is locked short and weak. I like to use this exercise to activate the neck flexors again:
Haven’t filmed myself doing this one, so thats a nice demo from Chicago Primal. You can also do this exercise against a wall or from a quadrupedal position (hands and knees).
Step 5: Awareness and integration. Be aware of how you stand in all activities- dance, walking around, washing dishes, on the computer, etc. When you’re training in the gym, or doing other cross-training (which you might want to consider if you don’t already), use this neck position to solidify it in your system.
So that’s about it. Again, this is just my opinion of what I think makes some dancers stand out over others. Obviously there are a ton of other factors, but I think improving neck alignment goes a long way in reducing risk of neck and back injuries, improving technical execution, and just standing out over your peers.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments below (that rhymed!).