If you have found my blog, and continue to read it regularly, then it is likely that you are on a journey similar to mine.
But this is only an assumption.
I can only tell you what my journey has been, and continues to be, and consider it highly probable that if my words resonate with you, you’re pursuing a similar path.
My path is one of understanding my body (not just the body) in motion.
Learning to move “well” again. What does that mean? To move well…
Creating an internal system in which all movements (or as many as possible) are available and safe to perform. A physical system that is supportive no matter what activity you choose to participate in. To have confidence that no matter what you get yourself into, your body’s got your back, because it has its own intelligence and intuition.
A system with options to move in 3D.
A system that you are in clear, open, communication with. A system you respect when you are aware of reaching its limits, and you are appreciative of for all that it can do for you.
How to measure “moving well”
Many people have attempted to measure and quantify the criterion for “moving well”.
The FMS and SFMA likely being the most common systems for assessing movement quality. But is a pass, fail, or score from 0 to 3 sufficient? Numbers are nice for measuring with, but can we quantify moving well? The FMS and SFMA certainly have attempted to put a number on movement quality, and so have THIS, THIS, and THIS(and many others…)
What I find curious about all this is that many of the people I work with tend not to be interested in the numbers. They just want to feel better. Feel like they’re making progress. And not once have they asked me for numbers to quantify it (but maybe that’s because I rarely bring it up…)
This is what I hear:
“I don’t know how to listen to my body. I need help learning it’s limits.”
“I want to change and re-pattern the way I move to generally feel good and reduce some pain/discomfort.”
“I’d like to be able to find more strength and power in my dancing without having to feel like I have to push myself to my limit and injure myself.”
“I want to get back to dance safely. I feel very disconnected and unfamiliar with my body.”
“I want to maintain the health of my lower back, improve my movement quality, I want to make all my movements more efficient and more rounded and filled out.”
Replace the word “dance” with any other activity or sport.
I want to get back to LIFE safely.
I want to improve my LIFE quality.
I’d like to find more strength and power in my LIFE.
We can’t really put a number on this. That’s not something I can can tell you you’re moving towards, only an experience you can tell me about, and together we can have a discussion around what that means.
We can put a number on your deep overhead squat, and count the number of push-ups you can do, but we can’t put a number on your ability to communicate with yourself, your self-respect, and your comfort in your own body.
Things we can measure with numbers certainly help us. But they can be misleading, too.
Like the gentleman I worked with who’s numbers were “improving”, yet in his body, things felt the same. He was getting more flexible (numbers up), muscles testing stronger (numbers up), but there were some other details, some mechanics that we’re timing quite right, some movements still being avoided. Numbers were improving but he was improving around the issue, not changing the issue.
Maybe people have created these quantifying systems because there is something deeper. Maybe they know this “thing” they are after can’t be measured, but using numbers helps to communicate, and for many people, is easier than listening to their own bodies.
And these numbers point to that “thing”, but they aren’t that thing themselves.
As the saying goes, a number is “like a finger pointing to the moon, but it is not the moon.”
What is it we’re after? What makes these numbers meaningful? The numbers indicate understanding. Safety. Options. Our own, limitless potential.
I think even the individuals who have created these systems of numbers know that they aren’t the whole picture. They remain insufficient, and so we keep trying to improve the systems, debate the systems, practice them and do research on their efficacy and publish studies about them.
Number of pirouettes.
We’re all chasing numbers.
At the heart of it is, “I want to get better”.
But the person who wants to “get better” needs more than numbers. He/she needs understanding.
Someone asked me, “What things do I look out for to make sure I’m moving correctly as I work my way up? I’m not entirely sure where I would expect my old movement patterns to show up in form errors.”
It’s an excellent question. How do I understand my body? How do I trust my body? What do I look out for?
There are really only one of two possibilities…
Look out for anything that feels the same, because that indicates no change, and look out of anything that feels different because that indicates change. Move into the space of “different” and changing.
Look out for anything that feels unsafe, because that is useful information to explore with care, and look out for anything that feels safe, because that will be lovely to explore in more depth.
Recognizing these things: Different vs. same, safe vs. unsafe, is the foundation of your exploration.
Play and explore primarily within the “different and safe” space. Move past your usual comfort zone.
When exploring the different and unsafe stuff, be careful, respectful, and use awareness, but also understand that these movements need to be charted, not avoided. Maybe not right now, but eventually.
Is there one particular, best method for doing this? Nope. Every method, every exercise, even the ones that don’t “work” are part of the journey.
But it does help to have guidance and support. It helps to have people you can talk with about your experience and gain inspiration from. It helps to educate yourself. It helps to trust and follow-through with a thought process. And it helps to make it a priority. A REAL priority. Not just a , “Oh it would be nice to…”.
What are the confirmatory signs?
How can you tell that things are changing in your system, moving you forwards? Use numbers. They can definitely help, but they can’t tell you everything you need.
So let’s try something now, if you’re up for it. Grab a pen and paper and write this down.
Pick three words to describe:
Your body in motion
Your body at rest
Your relationship with your body
Pick more than one word for each, if you like.
Maybe in motion you feel blocky, choppy, sluggish, fluid ,or smooth.
Maybe at rest you feel disconnected, uncomfortable, restless, apprehensive, certain, calm, ready, or solid.
Your relationship might be described as nurturing, appreciative, trusting, dishonest, uncertain, disrespectful, having poor communication.
Don’t pick words the words you would like to hear, choose the words that are the truth right now.
These words are describing the quality of your experience in your body. When these words change, you begin to describe your body’s experience differently, that is a sign. And when these words make you smile, that’s great, but don’t stop the exploration there.
If you can’t find any words, or you think this is stupid, that’s a sign, too.
Write your words down today. Then, forget all about the words you wrote down. Set a reminder in your phone to check in with them again in a few weeks, months, or whatever.
Now do the work.
Do the exploring. Establish a daily practice. Get the guidance and support you need. Get the education you need. Do something different than you’re doing now.
When you check in again with the words you selected, has anything changed?
“I can’t believe I’ve never even thought about this before… But it makes so much sense!”
The response of one dance-parent in a conversation we had following my “injury prevention” seminar at the Canadian Dance Expo this week.
Yes, I had the honour of speaking on the sexiest topic in dance training: How to not get hurt. That thing we try not to think about.
Well, except for you. You’re different. Keep it up.
Needless to say, I didn’t get a crowded room, and to be fair, there were some pretty awesome choreographers holding workshops at the same time. Why talk about injuries when you could dance?? A sentiment I completely understand. That said, I had a great group of dancers, teachers, and parents, and really enjoyed the discussions we had.
But to call it an injury prevention seminar isn’t quite accurate. We didn’t talk straight up about injury prevention in the conceptual, literal sense, and to be honest, I don’t really like those two words strung together and the frame they conjure up. What comes to mind first, what images, situations, and places, when you hear the words “injury prevention”?
Exactly. It ain’t no dance party.
I propose a re-framing of this injury prevention thing.
And so, partway through the workshop I found myself telling a story about pick-pocketing, inquiring into values, and opening a discussion into how people change their habits. Who knows… Maybe they’ll even invite me back to speak next year.
My issue with the way injury prevention is traditionally taught is that it is simply information. We’re trying too hard to educate, re-hashing statistics, scare-mongering, and hoping for the best that something will be retained, and dare I say, maybe even applied. But the injury rates in dance aren’t going down. This information only approach simply doesn’t work. That’s why I can’t remember anything from grade 9 chemistry.
We can’t change the rate and severity of injuries, and the time off dance due to injuries until we can change the value dancers perceive they will get from proactive injury prevention.
Or to quote Gary Ward: “We can’t change the way you move until we can change the value you get from it”
Would you go out of your way to do something if you didn’t see value in it? Hell no. That’s why I can’t remember anything from grade 12 physics.
I think we’re asking the wrong question. We can do better than “how can we lower the dance injury rate?”. Find better questions, get better answers.
The following are some of the questions I asked at the seminar (the ideas that, as the aforementioned dance-mom stated, “we don’t think about”). And honestly, I don’t have all the answers, so I appreciate your feedback and input as to how we can better address these, as well as your ideas on what other questions we could be asking.
What if we could re-frame injury prevention as performance enhancement?
A no-brainer to improve buy-in, right?
Instead of harping on dancers about the risks of injuries, what if we made a painless shift to, “Do you think that if you could dance without pain and worry of injury, you could take more risks, excel technically and artistically, and dance for longer?”
What would happen if you placed just as much value on your self-care, cross-training, and recovery practices as you did on your dancing?
I asked them, out of 10, how important is it for you, your students, or your children to be able to dance at the best of their abilities, reach their potential, and keep dancing for as long as they want. One dance teacher raised her hand and said “20/10!!”
Imagine if dancers also put a 20/10 importance on their self-care? Game. Changing. Awesomeness.
What would it take to make you care about injury prevention?
Kind of sad, but this is the only answer we could come up with. The issue is that after an injury is sometimes too late. So how do we appeal to this shift in priorities before an injury happens? A question that remains unanswered for now, perhaps…
What makes people change their behaviour and want to form new habits?
If we were to treat injury prevention not as a concept, but as behavior modification- a habit, it could be a game changer.
Less: “Do this, do that, get stronger to prevent injuries! You’re gonna hurt yourself if you keep doing that”. Who cares. I don’t want to hear that. When people tell me what to do, naturally, I want to do the opposite, especially if I don’t understand why or have any emotional investment in it.
Remember, we can’t change the state of dance injuries until we change the value dancers perceive of our injury prevention strategies.
What if we asked things like, “Do you value your body? Would you like to enjoy movement more? How long do you see yourself dancing for?”
In The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg, the way in which people are described to change their habits is through the structure of trigger, habit, reward.
Trigger: Sit in front of the TV. Habit: Eat a tub of Tiger Tiger ice-cream (mmmm, my favourite) Reward: Temporary satisfaction of relaxing and unwinding via the tasty tasty ice-cream flavor
But we can interrupt this pattern by keeping the trigger and reward, but changing the habit.
Trigger: Sit in front of the TV. NEW Habit: Knitting. Reward: Satisfaction of relaxing and unwinding born from a sense of mental focus, presence in the moment, and flowing creative juices
In the case of dancers preventing injuries, we can use the example of the typical shitty warm-up (or lack thereof…):
Trigger: Time for dance class! Habit: Sit in the splits and stretch passively to “warm up” Reward: Temporary feeling of improved flexibility, and sense of confidence and preparedness from having gone through a meaningful ritual.
But we know this might not be the most sustainable long term. So what if, instead:
Trigger: Time for dance class! NEW Habit: Treat warm-up as a deep practice of movement, requiring complete presence and awareness, respecting the body’s limits and needs, while preparing it for the demands of dance class. Reward: Lasting sense of improved connection to the body, range of motion, and a sense of preparedness and confidence that can only come from being totally present in your body.
Same trigger, a more useful habit, and similar (yet superior) reward.
But still the question remains, how do we make the habit change seem valuable in the first place? They have to feel the reward! Just one exposure to something different with a perceived value to it. That’s all it takes. And ideally, this should happen before an injury.
If we consider the performance pyramid hierarchy, at which tier does a dancer’s training generally begin?
If you’re not familiar with this pyramid. That’s it to the right —>
As an early specializing sport, there aren’t many opportunities for dancers to experience to reward of good quality fundamental movement from a young age, and how empowering strength training can be.
We start right out the gate at the top of the pyramid- specific skill, with plies and back-bends without having learned to hip hinge or lunge… Some dance teachers, though I beleive they are a fading generation, still encourage dancers not to participate in any other sport or activity other than dance, limiting their movement options and general physical preparedness.
What if we could include fundamental movement as an important component of a dancers early education?
Does being highly proficient technically automatically infer a strong base of fundamental movement and physical performance?
Nooope. Just ask my mom. I bet she could do more push-ups than I could when I was in the self-proclaimed “best” dancing shape of my life at age 15.
We shouldn’t assume that just because a dancer is strong technically, they are good movers in a fundamental sense, or have a requisite base of strength to perform their best, because they might have unlearned some important human motions in favour of fancy tricks and to fulfill a specific aesthetic and neglected any other forms of cross-training.
Feeling the reward: The simple power of breathing and natural spinal movement
Providing dancers an opportunity to experience the beginnings of a new habit and a superior reward isn’t rocket surgery. It can be as simple as taking some time to breathe, and explore movements they might not have the opportunity to in classes.
So to close the seminar, we explored some movement.
Some cool stuff happened. One younger dancer’s face lit up. I asked her what she had experienced and, with a smile and tone of wonder to her voice, she told us that all the pain she usually had in her back was gone, and her weight felt even on her feet.
Another gentleman, a parent of one of the dancers who was totally awesome and uninhibited and participated in the movement session, reported something similar.
And by the way, I think it’s so great to get the parents involved in this re-framing process. As parents, one of the most helpful things we can do is to model a behavior and mindset we’d like our children to adopt (but that’s coming from me, a non-parent, what do I know? I know that we can’t fix or change people, that power lies only in the individual, and kids are no different).
If you’d like to learn more about stuff like this, my colleague Bizz Varty and I are currently planning a teacher training workshop based on the concepts and exercises from Dance Stronger, which is tentatively being held in London Ontario on October 3 2016. Just shoot me an email if you’d like to be kept in the loop. This will be our pilot workshop, and hopefully the beginnings of a full length training program for dance teachers. Very stoked.
PS for anyone interested in public speaking, I discovered a cool “trick” that really helped- Nose breathe. Only. No inhaling though your mouth while talking. I found I was able to retain my mental energy and was not drained after presenting. When you practice nose breathing while talking your throat doesn’t get dry, you create natural pauses between sentences to keep the audience engaged and better choose your words. You’re forced to slow down. You become aware of yourself, and fully present in the moment. Game changer, for sure.
I attribute this tip to Steve Donald, who taught a Buteyko breathing method seminar in Toronto a few weeks ago. Among the many benefits of nose breathing over mouth breathing, he brought up the fascinating correlation between effective communication and nose breathing. Not just for performance enhancement and health, nose breathing helps us build better relationships by improving our communication.
PPS If you want learn more about what I mean by breathing and cogging, it’s covered in the 30 Day Challenge, something I created with just this intention of changing our habits and the value we get from movement. Sign up for free and check it out.
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.
In writing this blog post today I am procrastinating the completion of a massive piece of editing. I’ve created a monster. I’ve been assigned the rewarding task of creating a resource paper for Healthy Dancer Canada. “Write two pages”, they said. Naturally, that exploded into 10 (concision isn’t a strong suit of mine…).
My brain’s going a little dead, so, to avoid making silly editing decisions, I’m giving the paper some space so I can remember why I’m writing it in the first place.
When you lose sight of the purpose, just sit with it. The solution often comes when you take a step back, zoom out, remember the bigger picture.
Anyway, let’s talk about me: I’m in a weird place with my training right now, and I’m pretty sure some of you will be able to relate.
I haven’t deadlifted since November 2015.
I know… Who am I??
I love lifting. I love feeling strong. I especially love doing what I do best- Sagittal plane extension-based movement. But I’ve lost sight of a greater “why”.
Honestly, taking Anatomy in Motion was the catalyst. AiM forced me to reflect on this idea of movement vs. exercise. This course explores natural human motion, and participants get to bring to life, in their own bodies, what this means at every joint, in every plane of movement (and I’m excited to be re-taking this course in May in New York).
After AiM, I realized that I no longer had the desire to “exercise” for the sake of exercising. It needed to mean something more, and I needed to re-evaluate the relationship I had with it.
So I dropped anything that felt like “exercise”. My training is now quite minimalistic.
I was trying to explain this to my room-mate.
“What?? You’ve stopped deadlifing? The king of all lifts?” Incredulous.
I told him that the distinction between “what is movement and what is exercise” had become muddy. I needed to step back from it and sit with this idea for a while until I had clarity.
The look he gave me.
“So what are the distinctions?” He asked me.
“I don’t know… I’m still figuring it out. And until then, I don’t do anything that feels like exercise”.
This also puts me in a very weird position in my field of work.
As a trainer/strength coach/movement coach/massage therapist/detective, people expect me to help them exercise and get strong, often in the presence of chronic pain. I’m happy with that expectation, but I also feel that expectations are limiting. How lovely would it be if every client came in with zero expectations? Imagine how much they would grow, being totally open, completely trusting the process?
Most people come see me, or are referred to me generally because they want to work on their “fitness” and learn “exercises”, or get a program to “do”. But not everyone cares about their relationship with exercise.
I do my best not to bring my personal biases into my work with clients because they might not serve my clients’ goals. This happens a lot in the fitness industry: Trainers imposing what is important to them on their clients, but not considering what their clients really value or need.
I won’t force my ideas on my clients, but I really want them to take the time to think about this exercise vs. movement thing. I feel that it is important, especially if you’ve been recommended to train with me because you want to move forward from pain.
Even dancers rarely take the time to consider this idea.
I’ve asked dancers: “Why do you dance?”, and many of them say that they enjoy the physical exertion. They like getting exercise in a way that isn’t boring, like working out at the gym or jogging.
If this is you, I encourage you to dig a bit deeper. If you’re dancing because it’s the most enjoyable, least boring form of exercise you can find, consider whether your relationship with dance is one of exercise or movement. What does that mean to you?
I used to be an exerciser. Physical activity was a huge value of mine and my family, and I think this is a great thing. But while I loved the “exercise” component of dance, it wasn’t just about the physical exertion. It was escape, exploration, and self-expression above all- things that are facilitated through movement.
And then that changed. Somehow, the focus became burning calories, strengthening muscles, getting “toned”, and my relationship changed from “movement form” to “exercise form”.
The same thing happened with my training. Work-outs were exercise. There was no goal but to work hard, sweat, and burn calories because I felt it was necessary for no particular reason. That changed a bit when I started focusing on strength, but it was still a need to exercise.
Where I am at now, I don’t want to workout because I feel like I need to exercise. Exercise is important. I recognize this. But our relationship with exercise matters more.
These are a few distinctions and ideas that have come up as I rethink movement vs. exercise:
1. Movement training embodies Wu Wei: Effortlessness. Action through non-action.
A Taoist philosophy. This is the feeling of being mobilized to act, not forcing oneself to train out of a sense of need or guilt. Rather, movement training implies the want to explore motion, with an intrinsic momentum pushing you forward, curiously.
It should feel effortless. Not effortless in the sense that you’re not working hard while training, but effortless in your summoning of will to do it and desire to work hard at it. Exercise is often difficult to bring ourselves to do. We put it off, skip it, and are relieved when it’s done. Just a tick on our daily check-list.
2. Movement quality vs. exercise quantity: How much do I really need to lift be “strong”?
I used to train in a power-lifting style. I got pretty strong in a relative sense, and I guess I still am. But my body didn’t feel great after a solid stint of Wendler 531.
With dancers, too, I feel there is a point of diminishing returns where it is no longer useful to become strongER in an absolute, or even relative sense. Strength is only one component of fitness that dancers require. Too much “exercise” interferes with movement quality.
Ironically I feel stronger in this non-exercise phase. How do you explain that? I think it is because moving well as a human is requisite for being strong: Movement quality is potential to tap. Or because I’m always well-recovered?
The more I experience this “strength without strength training”, the less I want to exercise, and the more curious I am to explore how movement quality improves physical resilience.
3. Exercise requires movement, but movement does not always imply exercise.
I love a fallacy. Which should we be prioritizing?
4. Movement helps us enter flow state.
Because there is a goal in mind beyond working hard and sweating, which is generally what comes to mind when we hear the word “exercise”.
5. Movement teaches us about ourselves and the world.
As in movement, so too in life. When we feel challenges come up in our body’s ability to perform, we can almost always see this same challenge present at a different level in our lives: Why can’t I do this? What’s holding me back? What options am I creating for myself? Why am I stuck in this pattern? Am I being honest?
It is always amazes me how revealing movement is of who we are. Exercise tends only to help us tune out and distract us (which isn’t bad, just different).
Sounds like I’m anti exercise, doesn’t it? I’m not. Just for right now. I’m trying on a different perspective. I felt lost for a while, through November and December when I stopped exercising, but I’m comfortable now with the fact that whenever I feel like it, I can come back to exercise because it will always be there.
Movement, on the other hand, won’t unless we take the time to explore it and own it. Movement quality deteriorates with non-use, but we can always exercise without movement quality (well, maybe not always…).
This distinction will be different for everyone. I still train, but I choose not to do exercises that feel like exercise.
I encourage everyone to have a think about this exercise vs. movement thing.
As dancers, it also serves us to take a step away from dance momentarily to consider why we’re doing it. Know that the things you’ve attached a particular meaning to will always be there for you, even after you’ve dropped the attachment, you can always come back.
When you lose sight of the purpose, just sit with it. The solution often comes when you take a step back, zoom out, and remember the bigger picture.
Those of us who are well-versed in dance culture, and even many who have never danced, would probably agree that for dancers, movement quality trumps movement quantity. Unless you’re a competition dancer and then it’s all about how many turns and flips you can do. Kidding….
Although tricks are fun and can definitely improve your chances of getting hired and impressing people at parties, the number of turns you can do is relatively insignificant compared to the overall quality and expression behind your movement.
A good friend of mine, who is a singer/musician, once told me that singing was 80% expression (the other 20% being related to technique, tone, pitch etc.). I think this holds true for the art of dance as well.
What makes a dancer really stand out isn’t quantifiable: the number of turns, leg height, jump height. These technical proficiencies can be easily measured, but are not necessarily what makes a dancer great. They get you bonus points, but are in themselves empty qualities.
To become a better dancer, technically and artistically, wouldn’t it be nice to have an objective measure of movement quality to guide you?
Objective measure is paramount to improving just about anything. If you can measure it, you bet you can improve it more quickly. This poses a difficulty in dance because “objective art” is a contradiction. There does exist, however, a small objective aspect of dance that we can measurably improve.
This objective, measurable quality of dance is fundamental movement: Crawling, rolling, walking, squatting, lunging, twisting. Basic function clean of compensation.
This isn’t anything new, and is not something specific for dancers either. Performing basic movement well is important for everyone, especially athletes, but it might be a new concept for dancers.
Very rarely in my dance training was I treated as a person first and a dancer second. My basic human movement was never held at the same standard as my ability to perform dance movement. Was that a mistake?
I will argue that the best dancers can’t always be quantified by technical skill but are superior for theirquality of movement. This is easy to agree on, I think. Where we could potentially disagree is on which level are we qualifying the movement? How do we measure movement quality in dancers? How should we do it? What will it accomplish?
When we judge movement quality in dancers, are we looking at the quality of dance specific movement-Their ability to express through movement and technique? I don’t see this as the best way to objectively measure because I don’t think we can quantify artistry, and the movement we’re trying to measure is at a deeper level, not just their technique. It’s something even more fundamental and unique.
Fundamental movement is what the best in the rehab, athletic, and fitness world are already measuring in their clients and patients.
Gray Cook has already spoken so much about this in his book, Movement. His popular and effective inventions, the Functional Movement Screen (FMS), and the Specfic Functional Movement Assessments (SFMA) are systems that we in the dance world can learn from. Their goals are important ones: Evaluate fundamental movements, motor control within movement patterns, and competence of basic movements uncomplicated by specific skill.
When a dancer hits a plateau, the answer isn’t always to add more hours of training, but perhaps to see if there is a fundamental movement dysfunction preventing them from excelling in dance. Movement quality before quantity.
If a dancer moves well fundamentally, will they move better as a dancer? My guess is that yes, probably they will, not considering subjective qualities such as performance experience or artistic maturity of the dancer.
At the very least, maintaining a good quality of fundamental movement will ensure that the dancer, who maybe isn’t quite there yet artistically or technically, will survive the often physically, mentally and emotionally grueling training, to eventually find their place in the industry. Because not all of us are so genetically blessed.
I believe that even if indirectly, learning to move well fundamentally without compensation can help the dancer excel. It is a mistake to only look at specific skill quality without ever looking at a dancer’s fundamental movement quality.
Movement patterns can atrophy if they aren’t used. Even the ones most basic to our human existence.
The point of all this is that I think we’re missing something huge if we don’t objectively screen dancers for fundamental movement quality. I’m not certified in the FMS or SFMA, but I agree with the philosophy on which they were created, and that it is unsafe and to train dancers in complex, extreme, technical skill without teaching them first what it feels like to move well fundamentally.
Do you do the FMS of SFMA with dancers? I’d love to hear about that. Tell me everything you know…