Where is Your (Graham) Contraction Coming From?

Where is Your (Graham) Contraction Coming From?

This is a post for the lovers (or love/haters) of Martha Graham’s famous contraction, and Graham technique in general.

It would be a great understatement to say Martha Graham was a smart lady. Among other things, she recognized the importance of treating the spine with kindness (in an art form that tends to abuse the back’s “happy” range of motion), and using breath to initiate movement- A fundamental basis for her entire dance technique. As a dancer, choreographer and teacher she was brilliant, and said brilliant career lasted about 70 years. Talk about career longevity. Graham has just about everyone beat.

Makes you think she must have been doing something right…

There are many ways that Martha Graham and I differ. Her dance career was successful and long career, versus my painfully short one, is just one example. But what I think is really important is that she must have innately “got” what it was to be a dancer, and not simply what it felt like to dance. It’s the difference between being and doing. And trust me, I was doing most of it wrong. I think Graham must have had some kind of instinctual sense of how dancers should use their bodies both to keep them healthy while also creating beautiful, expressive movements.

Case in point: The infamous contraction.

Consider these three common characteristics you’ll see in many dancers, particularly wannabe ballet dancers (not hatin’ or anything, just not everyBODY was made to excel at ballet):

  • Exaggerated lumbar hyperextension
  • Upflared rib cage
  • Breath holder-ism

And what do you know- These three things are the exact opposite of  the Graham contraction: lumbar flexion+ ribcage depression+ exhalation.

Those three pieces of the Graham contraction are typically what a dancer with back pain  needs: Getting out of lumbar hyper-extension, lowering the ribcage a bit, and to stop holding their breath.

And somehow Graham knew. Though perhaps she couldn’t dissect it in functional terms like I am here (me being more of a technician than an artist), she felt it, and had a highly successful career because of it. And I have mad respect. 

Unfortunately, the Graham contraction (which I shall henceforth refer to simply as the “contraction”), is super easy to do wrong. I wasn’t doing Graham contractions, I was doing a Volkmar contraction, which not only looked screwy, but also screwed a lot of stuff up and made dancing way harder than it needed to be.

The contraction is a movement pattern that involves simultaneously flexing the lumbar spine, posteriorally tilting the pelvis, and exhaling (which causes the diaphragm to relax,  fyi). Like any movement pattern, the contraction can be cheated. It will still resemble very much the contraction, but without any the above individual movements actually being done.

And yet the body finds a way. Dancers happen to be genius cheaters. Give us a movement pattern, and if we can’t do it, you can be sure we’ll find a way to cheat it. And we’ll hold our breath while we do it. And somehow make it look pretty graceful, too. That’s just the beginning of the extent of our mad skillz.

When we continuously cheat fundamental movements like the contraction daily, and for years on end, our bodies will recognize this as the “normal” pattern to work in. In this comfy, familiar pattern you can probably imagine that some muscles might become unnecessarily hyperactive (or facilitated), and some others that we should be be using, become underactive (or inhibited).

A Graham contraction, as I stated above, should involve this pattern: rounding the lower back, tucking the pelvis, dropping the ribcage, and exhaling simultaneously. The movement, initiated from the lumbo-pelvic area, causes the upper body to react naturally, and curve. As a reaction. Not as the initiation.

And here’s how you do a “Volkmar contraction”: Make the curve originate from the upper body. Round from the chest rather than lower back. Protract the shoulder blades. Do a fake, shallow exhalation (or no exhalation at all).

How to do a contraction wrong:

  • Round the upper back  instead of rounding the lower back.
  • Non-diaphragmatic exhalation.
  • Tension in the shoulders, chest, and neck rather than in the abdominals.

Based on the above compensated movement patterns, I am going to go out on a limb and suggest the following muscle compensation patterns, which can become so engrained in your motor control center(your brain) that you need a team of experts to get you out of it (seriously…):

Pec minor working instead of your abdominals

Neck muscles (scalenes and friends) working, to breathe, instead of your diaphragm.

Diaphragm working instead of your psoas.

In the picture below look at how the pecs and rectus abdominis are connected fascially:

And how the diaphragm and psoas are connected:

And how the diaphragm (on the inside of the rib cage there) connects to both the psoas and the neck muscles in a kinetic chain:

If you have been doing your contractions with those common movement compensations for some time, then you might have actually lost the ability to get into the contraction position. Yet… You have some work to do, grasshopper.

Your work will involve down-regulating some muscles (via massage, stretching, foam rolling, etc), combined with the up-regulation of others (think strengthening and activation exercises). And then you must repeat that and make a promise to yourself not to go back to your old habits of movement. Don’t ever do the Volkmar contraction again. It did not look pretty. And it felt bad. So very bad.

Change is difficult process. And it’s not always enjoyable. And sometimes it even hurts (ever had pec minor or diaphragm released? owwww). But it’s worth it.

So where’s your contraction really coming from, eh?