Tales From the Dance Academy (part 3)

Tales From the Dance Academy (part 3)

Click here to read part 1.

Click here to read part 2.

Things are getting a little chaotic at the dance school. Students are in full on rehearsal mode for an upcoming show at the end of February and their schedule is getting intense.

In teaching this class, one of my aims is for the students to consider not doing the things I did when I was their age.

Dance Stronger

Self-portrait, Monika age 22

Here are some quick notes from this week’s class.

How deep is your practice?

As I mentioned last week, I wanted to hold a discussion with the dancers on what it means to practice deeply, having noticed that, week by week, their ability to focus has been waning.

Sometimes I read books. I like books about the mind. I particularly like books on the psychology and neuroscience of skill acquisition and mental performance.

This January I read Deep Work (Cal Newport) and Outliers (Malcolm Gladwell). I also read Flow (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi), and The Talent Code (Daniel Coyle) last year, and as a result, for the past year or so I’ve been contemplating the meaning of the concepts deep practice and flow state, and my own relationship with them,

Image result for deep workDeep Work focuses on the benefits of working and thinking in a deep, focused way in a world in which it is easier than ever to become distracted by our technology, and why we should be doing more deep work. Working deeply saves time, delivers superior quality results, and at higher rate of productivity. Newport remarks, however, that our ability to focus deeply is limited, and, on average, it seems that we can only realistically reach about 4 hours per day, in chunks of about 90 minutes at a time (which in itself takes some training to accomplish).

Image result for outliersOutliers focuses on factors, sometimes random factors like date of birth, that enabled the most successful people to accumulate the 10 000 hours of deep practice he argues are necessary for people to master a skill (although, in his book, he left out the important word “deep”, neglecting to explain that these 10 000 hours of practiced need to be of a specific quality).


Flow describes what it means and how it feels to be in the state of deep practice, “flow state”. Image result for flow mihalyCsikszentmihalyi explains that in a state of flow we are completely immersed in the present moment with no distractions, have a clear goal in mind, are aware of mistakes as we make them, and receive immediate feedback moment to moment in order to adjust based on these mistakes. Time begins to distort so that it flies by (an hour seeming to go by in half as much), or even time slowing down as we are fully present in every second that passes.

Image result for the talent codeThe Talent Code explores the role of deep, deliberate practice in skill acquisition through the lens of neuroscience- We are not born inherently with our talents, but those who have mastered a given skill have become that way due to the many hours of deep practice they participated in. He goes on to describe the qualities of deep practice that creates changes in how our brain is wired, which, interestingly, requires that we fail and make mistakes.

Sounds like useful stuff to know about for a group of young dancers trying to make it in a hard world where only the top few succeed (whatever that means).

I started the discussion by asking them, “What does deep practice mean to you?”. Some of the answers I received:

“Being completely in the moment”

“Having no distractions”

“Doing it right”

This last one is interesting. Does deep practice mean, “doing it right”?

When I asked him to explain what he meant he elaborated with the example of doing a tendu. If you practice doing a tendu but you’re “doing it wrong”, with your leg turning in when it should be turning out (if you’re doing ballet), then its not deep practice, because the technique is wrong.

This is interesting because as we know from Coyle’s work, we need to make mistakes to learn and change. Too, from Csikszentmihalyi’s work, we know that part of flow state is noticing mistakes in real time and making adjustments. So, being “wrong” is a necessary part of deep practice.

Deep practice is a neutral state. There is no right or wrong, there is simply awareness of what is.

Practicing things without technical precision, not caring, not noticing, and thinking about lunch, for example, is not deep practice. However, practicing things with poor technical precision, but noticing, actively trying to change and adapt based on these mistakes, and paying attention to the feedback in your body from moment to moment is deep practice.

Also, it is possible to deeply practice something the wrong way, in which case, you will not have mastered what you set out to master. This is why it is important to have an end goal in mind when participating in a deep practice.

I understand what he meant by “doing it right”. If you practice a skill ineffectively, you will master just that. You get what you practice.

Next, I asked the class to make a list of all their classes in a given week (which was about 15 different non-academic, physical classes), and asked them to reflect on how deeply they practiced in each of these classes, rating it on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being very shallow, and 10 being extremely deep).

Overall, the dancers found that in ballet and in partnering classes they worked most deeply, and, overwhelmingly, they found that they were practicing the least deeply in pilates. Why?

In partnering, one dancer explained that there was more at stake if you’re not invested in the moment. If you aren’t in the moment, and your partner is relying on you to be there for them, things are not going to go well. I agreed, you wouldn’t want to be paired up with someone who didn’t have a depth to their practice in a partnering class. You would not trust the person with the track record for having a short attention span.

Other dancers explained that they enjoyed ballet the most, and so found it easier to practice more deeply. Makes sense.

As for pilates, the dancers said several things to explain their lack of depth in practice:

“The repetitive actions and rhythm makes it easy to just get it into my muscle memory and then I zone out mentally”

“Lying on the floor makes me tired”

“There’s no music… Wait, maybe that would make me even less focused”.

Interesting feedback.

At the very least, I hoped to get them stoked to focus for my class. I wonder how they rated their focus in my class… I’ll admit, I was afraid to ask (but at least I beat pilates on the depth score!).

Fun with diaphragmatic breathing

Image result for diaphragmatic breathingA few weeks ago I guided the dancers through a check-in of how well they could breathe with their diaphragm. I think I explained that in a bit more detail in part one, so maybe you’d like to go back and (re-)read that now.

Essentially, dancers were to use their hands to feel for 360 fill: Coordinated sternum/belly breathing, posteriolateral (back and side) ribcage expansion, lower abdomen/pelvis fill (just below the ASIS). They chose the one that was challenging to do, but that they were able to change if they put their attention there. Their next task was to simply walk around the room for a few minutes with their focus on breathing air into where they had chosen to use their hands to monitor airflow.

For example, students who found it a challenge to feel their lower abdomen/pelvis fill with inhalation were to put their hands there and walk at a pace at which they could still manage to create air flow into their hands. If they lost the ability to fill, they were to slow down their pace or stop, and were encouraged to speed up when they thought they could handle more challenge.

Its one thing to stand still, or lie down, and breathe with an ideal diaphragmatic pattern, but to notice and adjust it in motion is the challenge, and generally we lose awareness of this when we start dancing or moving with more complexity. An ideal breathing pattern has to become unconscious so that we can carry it into dancing, and other activities, without the extra energy spent micromanaging it.

As Karel Lewit said,

If breathing is not normalised no other movement pattern can be”

Let’s pronate and supinate the crap out of our feet!

And we did.

We went through suspension again, to review our introduction to pronation mechanics last week.

I couldn’t believe how easily this class embraced pronation. Feeling is believing, I suppose. This class reported that pronation actually felt nice to do. After practicing suspension, they reported that their hips felt looser, and their feet felt more grounded. I said to them, “Isn’t it funny? Most of us have been told that pronation is bad to do, but here you are pronating your feet, and saying that it feels nice.”

Very awesome.

This week we moved into new territory: Supination.

To experience this, we went through a movement called transition from Anatomy in Motion, which replicates the phase of gait in which the foot moves from pronation into supination, with the foot tripod on the floor, as we would see in mid-stance.

This day was reminiscent of last winter when I held a jump landing workshop at York University, and all we did was pronate and supinate the crap out of everyone’s feet.

(this workshop footage is available in full for members of Dance Stronger, FYI. It’s in the member zone, under “Support Resources”).

In transition, what we want to feel is, by virtue of rotating the pelvis, that the femur, tibia, and sub-talar joint (ankle) also rotate and pull the foot up into a supinated position (arch with tripod on ground). Its not the just foot we’re looking to move, but to move it in context of what the rest of the body does when the foot begins to resupinate. We could say that what we are trying to do is supinate the body, as a global movement.

Image result for supination

Only one dancer in the class “didn’t get it”. It’s a tough thing to coach a group setting, ensuring that everyone can get a sense of what the movement should feel like in their bodies. This one dancer did not seem to be able to keep a tripod on the floor, rolling all the way to the outsides of her feet, and so losing the supination and going into inversion, aka, ankle sprain city. This is pretty common for people who have had a lot of ankle sprains, and the outside of their ankle becomes lax. Next week, she’s gonna get wedged.

Orthorics vs. "floorthotics": Creative AiM foot wedging strategies with one of my clients

Welcome to wedge city, population, dat inverted foot!

(Transition is a movement we cover in Dance Stronger in more detail).

A story I forgot to tell last week

Two weeks ago, actually.

There is a dancer in my class with a massive amount of rib flare at rest, and a lumbar spine that does not flex (round). It is very noticeable when she dances, and she says that she is constantly getting the correction from her teachers to not stick her ribs out.

Two weeks ago we introduced some breathing check-ins, and we played around with breathing diaphragmatically by reducing rib flare on an exhalation to get to a zone of apposition, and working on using a 360 inhalation without losing their ZOA. This one dancer told me after class that while she was doing this- Not flaring her ribs on inhalation, she got crazy cramping pains in her ribcage. She was wondering what the heck was going on.

While I can’t know exactly what’s going on in her body, I did my best to piece it together, logically.

My best explanation:

In your current position, ribs flaring up, and unable to move down, your most important breathing muscle, diaphragm, is stuck in a shortened, contracted position. So, when you exhale and get your ribs to move down and in, your diaphragm gets a chance to lengthen and relax. This, however, is not currently  within your comfort zone to do, and when you inhale again, you are contracting a muscle from a longer position than it is used to, which could potentially create some cramping.

Think about how it feels to go into a lunge or as I recently experienced, a one leg squat more deeply than you normally go, and try to get out. With the muscles in a longer state than they are used to going into, it requires more force to contract back to center, and you’ll feel the muscle contracting harder than usual, and possibly cramping.

Of course, this is a strange and unpleasant sensation to have going on inside your ribcage. Not pleasant, but good information to work with in a safe way. Work gently, not forcefully with the breath.

I hope that this also makes some sense of why it is so hard to change this pattern of rib flare just by telling dancers in class to get their ribs down- They don’t know how to breathe like that, and when they do, it hurts!

Other thoughts

Focus was indeed better this week. I didn’t ask them to focus more. I didn’t tell them their their focus was poor and they needed to get their acts together. We had a nice discussion on deep practice, and, as it often does, in simply becoming aware of something, that thing started to change. I hope they will consider this idea in their other classes as well (especially pilates!).

That’s all for today’s notes. Thanks for reading this far.



Breathing and Bracing- Dance Edition

Breathing and Bracing- Dance Edition

I have a moderately German background. Hence my intense last name, Volkmar. I say “moderately German” because whenever I ask about my heritage I get vague answers like, “Well, your grandmother was a German Mennonite who lived in Russia (or vice versa?) and was also probably of Belgian ancestry, and your other grandmother was Swedish, but your Grandfather was born in Canada……..”, and so now I just say I’m Canadian. Very, very, Canadian.

The German in me likes efficiency. My definition of efficiency borders on synonymous to sheer laziness- Doing as little as absolutely necessary to get the best possible result.

I think when it comes to breathing, efficiency means breathing as much as you possibly can. Oxygen is the ultimate performance enhancing, mood enhancing drug. Take in as much as you can, baby. It’s legal! And free (for now…).

Deep, mindful breathing is scientifically proven (yay science!) to have so many health benefits and practical uses. If keeping your body alive isn’t a good enough incentive for you, here’s some more reasons to breathe better:

  • Dampens the body’s production of stress hormones (2)
  • Improved posture (the diaphragm is an important postural stabilizer, but more on that later) (1)
  • Eases various musculoskeletal aches and pains (more on that later, too) (3)
  • You get stronger (through activation of the deep trunk muscles, and use of the Valsalva maneuvre- which dancers don’t really need to do that often).
  • Individuals who suffer from asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and heart issues can see benefits from breathing exercises (2)
  • Changes in gene expression (through the alteration of the body’s stress response) (2)

Is it any wonder that according to traditional yogic philosophy, proper breathing (pranayama) is one of the 5 important points (along with proper exercise, diet, relaxation and positive thinking).

Dance and yoga seem like similar activities, but they are really the polar opposite. Especially as it relates to breathing. Chief reason being that while yoga is alllll about breathing, dancers don’t breathe at all, and aren’t really taught how.

I remember being in The Nutcracker back in the day, and performing The Waltz of the Flowers. It was a long piece with multiple exits and entrances, and each time I would exit the stage I’d have to gasp for breath and cough up a lung because I had essentially performed high intensity exercise for 2+ minutes straight without breathing.

As a quick side note, I think it’s worth noting that high level dance perfomance is NOT aerobic activity. Telling a dancer to jog or bike at a steady state is not sufficient cross-training to prepare them for the rigours of a performance. Go read this, by Joel Minden (dancer, CSCS, Ph. D). He says smart things.

But anyway, the reasons dancers don’t breathe efficiently are numerous:

  • High anxiety levels (being a dancer is stressful, and performing is acutely so)
  •  Being told to “hold in your stomach!“, and “shoulders back!“, “kind of makes breathing… challenging.
  •  The high technical complexity of the art makes it easy to forget to breathe
  • Not being taught/lack of awareness. And no, “remember to breathe!” is not a sufficient cue for a teacher to give.
  • Tight accessory muscles, like the abdominals, chest, and neck restricting the diaphragm from doing it’s work (what’s a diaphragm?)
  • High stability demand (aka being on one leg and spinning) compromises diaphragmatic breathing (more on that in a bit).

In dance you actually need to  breathe a lot. It affects every aspect of your performance. In most cases you need to be in an extended position through your trunk, while bracing (or hollowing or whatever you wanna call it) the abdominals. Think arabesque. And then you need to breathe. And remember the choreography. And not fall on your face. And not look weird, awkward or scared. What’s a diaphragm??

There’s your diaphragm!

Enter, breathing and bracing. A concept that very few dancers (and people in general) understand. I myself haven’t mastered it (yet), but I theorize that learning this technique could improve nearly every element of your dance technique from balance, weight transfers, jumps, leaps, and just looking more aesthetically pleasing in general.

What is breathing and bracing? In a nut-shell, using your diaphragm and abdominals independently. Holding the core strong while still taking deep, diaphragmatic breaths.

As I alluded to, your diaphragm isn’t just for breathing– it plays huge role in postural stability. If you’re not using your diaphragm properly, you’re missing out on a whole world of fun stability challenges and choreographic possibilites! (and it makes sense that dancers who have good balance look more calm- Remember the anti-anxiety benefit associated with breathing?)

Dr. Jeff Cubos (who knows more about this whole “breathing and bracing” thing than I do) says:

It has been shown that in the presence of increased stability demand, the diaphragm contracts concentrically while specific abdominal musculature contract eccentrically during inhalation. During expiration, the roles of these muscles are reversed…As a result, faulty breathing patterns and inefficient core stability may lead to clinical conditions such as low back and pelvic dysfunction”. (3)

Sound familiar? Diaphragm doesn’t work properly, so the diaphragm’s buddies (ze spinal stabilizers) start working harder- the ilioposas, QL, spine erectors, and abdominals. So you get things like hip and low back dysfunction, and you get winded after petit allegro because you can’t get enough oxygen.

Maximal postural and respiratory efficiency is achieved (efficiency = minimal accessory muscle activity, or E = MA squared). (3)

Good ol’ efficiency. That’s a way better definition than mine.

THIS HERE is an excellent article by the Postural Restoration Institute, if you want to learn more about breathing and how, when dysfunctional and non-diaphragmatic, it can literally affect e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g. that becomes the bane of your dancer existence. Like,

  • increases use of accessory muscles of inspiration
  • poor neuromuscular control of core muscles
  • increased lumbar lordosis
  • low back pain
  • increased lumbar-pelvic instability
  • thoracic outlet syndrome
  • athsma
  • MORE (seriously, read the article)

And this here is an exercise from Dr. Cubos that I am currently trying to master. It’s way harder than it looks, but I’ll be breathing like a champ in no time flat.

You’re basically trying not to asphyxiate yourself- Makes the learning curve pretty quick I’d say.

Alright, that’s all I have to say about that for now. More about breathing another time. For now, just try to be aware of it (and whether or not you actually breathe while you dance).



(1) http://posturalrestoration.com/media/pdfs/The_Value_of_Blowing_up_a_Balloon_3.pdf

(2) http://www.npr.org/2010/12/06/131734718/just-breathe-body-has-a-built-in-stress-reliever

(3) http://www.jeffcubos.com/2011/03/27/the-balloon-your-new-clinical-tool/