Read THIS BLOG POST if you want a bit more background on what Anatomy in Motion is, and my experience with the course the first time around.
Yep, I did it again.
I got #shiftphased for a second time. In other words, I spent last week studying the human body in motion with Gary Ward and Chris Sritharan of Anatomy in Motion at the beautiful Integrated Exercise Therapy facility in Bridgehampton New York.
Although this is actually suspension phase…
Why did I do it again?
Some things in life are so good you have to repeat them. In fact, I plan on taking it again.
AiM is not a model for fixing people’s pain or movement. Through the Flow Motion Model we are not learning how to heal people, but how to help facilitate their own process of “letting go”; providing the body experiences to reclaim what it is currently missing- What it can’t do or won’t do, and trusting that it will be able to heal itself if given the option.
Inevitably, by immersing ourselves in a process of exploring new ways to interact with ourselves and others, our class let go of a lot of shit in New York last week.
People’s bodies changed as they experienced movements their systems were being denied. Other’s made decisions to completely change the way they practice with clients. It was an honour to witness these transformations.
I observed as one class-mate experienced his frontal plane for the first time in who knows how long.
I saw my friend fully extend her knees post double ACL surgeries for the first time in 15 years, and effortlessly bend down to touch her toes, something she hadn’t been able to do since before her injuries.
And I saw another class-mate left speechless, with a huge grin on his face, as he reclaimed sagittal plane spinal motion.
In six days, bodies changed, paradigms shifted, life paths altered. These are things I can’t describe with words. But I’ll try.
What is Anatomy in Motion?
To get a full appreciation of the philosophy AiM is built upon, I’d recommend reading Gary’s book, What the Foot.
Here’s my “Spark Notes” version, for what it’s worth:
AiM is a model for looking at human motion as it occurs in the gait cycle (the Flow Motion Model).
Gait is walking, and walking is hopefully what you spend most of your time as a human being doing. Or not doing…
Which each full cycle through your right and left side in gait, each joint in your body has the opportunity to perform all of it’s potential movement in three dimensions, which takes between just 0.6 to 0.8 seconds. Doesn’t that blow your mind a little? That you can take two steps and every one of your joints will have moved in all planes of motion that it possess.
What does this mean for you? That one second is a precious bit of time. Just one rep can be an opportunity to heal, or not.
Less than a second can be used to experience optimal movement variance- Tappable potential. With each step you can heal, or you can feed a repetitive pattern that could lead to sub-optimal system adaptability and a skewed ratio of the two “p” words we love: Pain and performance.
Optimal joint motion through the human gait cycle lets you “walk it off”, and walk things in.
Sub-optimal movement, missing movement, and even missing entire planes of movement, makes performing well challenging, and pain common.
This is the beauty of AiM: It teaches us how to heal through the simplicity of the most fundamental thing we do as humans beings. Walking!
I’d like to use today’s blog post to share some takeaways from my second time through AiM’s six day “finding center” immersion course- The course that makes me feel OK about not having a formal education in biomechanics stuff, because it only means is I have less noise to unlearn (a serious challenge for many clinicians learning this material).
No headaches this time!
I don’t generally get headaches, but when I do it’s because I’ve been thinking too much. The night I launched Dance Stronger in September 2015, for example, I had a massive headache.
Last November when i took the course in Toronto for the first time I developed a headache by the end of day 2 which persisted throughout the 4 subsequent days.
A note to future attendees: It helps very much to start the course being able to name the bones of the foot. Other bones in the body, too, but the foot in particular was my sticking point, a body part we don’t spend enough time learning about in school.
As a fine-arts major with minimal formal education in anatomy, bio-mechanics, or anything “sciency”, anything related to fitness, training, (read anything I’m currently doing with my life), I am not ashamed to say that I have major gaps in my knowledge base. I often find myself in situations where I am the underdog, the least intelligent person in the room, and with no choice but to rise to the challenge (hopefully…).
A note for the dancers: For dancers transitioning into new careers, your lack of formal education need not stop you from diving into something new. Skills and character traits you acquire as a dancer are absolutely transferable to any career path in huge ways.
My first time through AiM I didn’t know what the talus bone was. To be honest, I didn’t know what any of the foot bones were.
This meant I was simultaneously learning the 26 moving bones, 2 non-moving bones, and 33 joints interactions of the foot, while being asked to appreciate the 3 dimensional movement potential of the rear foot, forefoot, and toes through each phase of the gait cycle as it relates to the rest of the body.
“What does the rear foot do in relation to the pelvis in the frontal plane during the shock absorption phase of gait?” Wait… What’s the rear-foot? What’s the frontal plane??
Enter headache city. Somehow I made it out alive, and even wanting more.
But enough about my educational short-comings.
While the AiM course material is badass and can help people change the way they move and feel in insanely short periods of time, the number one reason to take this course is simply to learn from Gary and Chris in person- Two of the most patient, generous, intelligent, and honest individuals I’ve met. Being in the same room as them guarantees you level up in one way or another through osmosis (unless you’re a podiatrist… Just kidding. Mostly).
I want to share some of the most beautiful, wise, and hilarious things that Gary and Chris conveyed, and while these were communicated in the context of teaching a room of clinicians, trainers, and bodyworkers, they apply to anyone who takes a vested interest in how to optimize the way their bodies (and lives) perform.
ON MOVEMENT AND BEHAVIOUR
AiM doesn’t just teach anatomy, it teaches a metaphor applicable on every level of our lives. We can’t look at how someone moves or holds themselves without wondering what behaviours brought them into being. Any trouble that appears in our body will also show itself at some other level in our lives. The same laws of motion we apply to anatomy and biomechanics also can apply to our relationships, experiences, and interactions in nearly every domain.
The big (complicated) questions: Why do things hurt? Why do we adapt a particular posture or way of moving, even if it is less desirous long term? Why do we adopt “dysfunctional” patterns?
The big (simple) answer: Because they are serving us.
Pain serves simply as information we can use to help us change and create new opportunities. Inefficient movement presents in our bodies as a result of us bravely coping with an internal or external stressor, sometimes expressed as pain. This is a beautiful way of thinking!
May we be grateful for the signals and strategies our bodies lend us that allow us to cope and keep on keeping-on despite our duress. But may we also be wise enough to notice them and adjust accordingly.
To paraphrase and blend the verbiage of Gary and Chris:
Why do people move or hold themselves the way they do? Because it serves them! It’s not something to get down about. They are using their most “balanced”, available point.
Other good stuff they said:
“We can’t change the way you move until we can change the value you get from it” ~GW (as mentioned above, we do things with our bodies because they serve us, but that doesn’t mean this is the most efficient way of doing things in the long term. We need a “pattern interrupt” and a superior reward from a new, more sustainable habit)
“You ground your own bones, you striated your own muscles” ~CS (on taking self-ownership and acknowledging our formative behaviours)
“Are you working with it or working on it? If you’re working on it, the CNS will whoop your ass every time”. ~CS (on meeting your body where it’s at, choosing new words for your experience, and practicing non-attachment)
“We can move anything without moving IT, by moving everything else” ~GW (on the illusory strategies we use to keep us in motion. For example, to keep my head level on the horizon, I don’t need to move it, but everything else in my body can move around it to create the illusion of neck movement)
ON THE SUBJECTIVE SIDE OF THINGS…
A huge part of the course is appreciating the art of the self-check-in, which we did everyday as a class.
Subjective, yes, but often all that really matters to the people we are trying to help is their subjective experience.
Objective measures can and should change if they are causing trouble, but if our clients and patients don’t feel different in their own bodies, objective results aren’t meaningful enough. In AiM we are taught to appreciate both: The subjective check-in, and the observation and re-testing of “objective” movement (if assessing movement quality can even be objective… I don’t think it can be, not 100%, given the body’s ability to disguise movement and non-movement as each-other).
In checking in, we were encouraged to change the words we used to describe our experiences. “It hurts” and “it feels tight” were not good enough. Why? They don’t tell us anything useful to work with!
Gary gave me further context later:
The word “pain” gives us nothing. No info. No size of area. Duration of time. Good pain. Bad pain. A stretch pain. A compressive pain. The term is insufficient for understanding what’s going on.
From this we can see the importance of digging a bit deeper into our clients’ experience of their own movement quality. Subjective, but hugely important, for them to learn about themselves and also for us to guide them through their process.
Some more good stuff on the insufficiencies of “pain” and “tightness”:
“Pain is an external description of ‘how I am’” ~GW (’nuff said)
“Pain is (a) bullshit (word)” ~GW (on empowering people to find better ways to describe how movements feel. This is not to invalidate someone’s experience of pain, but to understand that pain can be present for many reasons. There are many more useful words that we could use and encourage our clients to use to describe the experience of movement. “it hurts” on it’s own does not give us enough information. Don’t kill me for this, Gary…)
“Tight is bullshit” ~CS (in response to students who only could find the word “tight” to describe movement. It is an insufficient term, like “it hurts”, because “tight” is an ambiguous feeling, not a quality of movement. It’s an easy answer. Find another word, another quality, and you’ll open up new ways of experiencing your body’s truth in a non-limiting way).
Still going strong on my #Simpsonschallenge. I hope at least 3 of you appreciate this…
Gary and Chris are incredible teachers who inspire me to become better at communicating with my own clients.
They are impeccable with their choice of words. They make sure no one is left behind. They meet each group of students where they’re currently at, and so each course is slightly different in delivery. They don’t try to “blow minds” (although it happens anyway) but wish for us to simply understand.
Their teaching style is to create an experience for the class to discover the material in themselves, knowing that you can’t teach people things, they have to learn it for themselves, when they’re ready. This is rare and refreshing.
Here’s what I mean:
“We don’t want to feed you information you haven’t experienced” ~CS (on why it’s important for us to feel the model in our own bodies as part of the learning process. Or, to quote Gary from the September 2015 course in Toronto “Let’s not just BELIEVE shit, that’s why the world’s a f&@!cking mess.”)
“Movement is in spheres. No axis of rotation. But we have to break it down in three planes to teach it”. ~CS (on discussing the limitations of talking about triplanar movement- It’s something to be felt, witnessed, and understood, not just talked about)
“The noise is in the words, not the action” ~GW (following from above, words make things complicated. Wars are waged over choice of words)
For an anatomy course,very little time was dedicated to actually talking about muscle function. In gait, muscles react to joint action (one of Gary’s rules of movement: Joints act, muscles react). Rather than look at muscles and what they “do” concentrically to move our bodies, we looked first at joint actions to appreciate which muscles must decelerate them to allow them to safely occur, and most importantly, we felt it in our own bodies.
For example, if you put your arms overhead and bend backwards, the abdominal muscles should load up eccentrically (lengthen) to slow the movement into spinal extension before your spine bumps into itself, and you should experience stretch across your abs. Compressive pain with backbending can be related to abs not being able to lengthen under load to safely allow this joint action. Flips the core training paradigm upside down to think this way (and I encourage you to do so!).
To paraphrase Gary:
It’s important to know muscles really, really well so that you can stop thinking in terms of what they do, and start looking at how the body moves.
A few other things that was said about muscles:
“Muscles aren’t designed to pronate the foot” ~GW (They are designed to decelerate pronation. Due to the shape of the calcaneous, gravity pronates our feet for us and getting out from pronation becomes the common challenge).
“Muscles are managers” ~GW (on the role muscles play in the moving body as managers of our center of mass. Muscles essentially manage freedom of movement in the joints, allowing joints to approach their end range before safely returning back to a restful center. Restricted or hypermobile joints will influence how it will be managed by the muscles.)
Gary knows his feet. Just don’t call him the “foot guy” or he’ll flip his shit.
“Fashion will always fuck us up” ~GW (on the foot’s function as a mobile adapter in flip flops, high-heels, and even pointe shoes. He is suggesting fashion will always limit us unless we learn to override and counter the imbalance it inflicts upon us. We can, however, organize ourselves better to enjoy fashion, because life is too short not to!)
“Supporting forefoot varus versus encouraging ‘neutral” ~GW (on what orthotics generally are built to do, versus what movement and wedging can do).
“Create an experience inside the foot.” ~GW (on the purpose of foot mobilizations)
Orthorics vs. “floorthotics”: Creative AiM foot wedging strategies with one of my clients
AiM is a course centered around the motion of every joint in the body in every plane of movement as it should ideally happen at each moment in the gait cycle. So yeah, we talked a bit about gait.
Here are the most memorable gait-related quotes:
“Every condition presents in the gait cycle because they are either stuck in it or can’t get into it” ~GW (on “diagnosis” of forefoot varus, scoliosis, and other “syndromes”. Yes, there is a scoliotic moment in gait, and it’s normal!).
“Everyone is stuck in a moment in time” ~GW (same idea as above, you can get stuck in a particular moment of the gait cycle and it can become problematic. I just like how romantic this sounds)
“Assessing gait will not show you what’s wrong, it will show you what’s missing” ~CS (“what’s missing”… Rather than looking for what IS happening- dysfunction, pain, sloppy movement- we need to be seeing what’s not there so we can give them back that experience)
“In gait, muscles never shorten first” ~GW (as per his second big rule of movement: Muscles must lengthen before they contract)
“If you can’t straighten and internally rotate your knee, you’ll have no ability to supinate.” GW (on the knee’s role in creating a rigid lever in the supinating phases of gait, which sadly, many of us never experience. If you can’t internally rotate the knee, you can’t extend it. Full knee internal rotattion, which looks like a femur rotating externally beyond the external rotation of the tibia. If you can’t IR and extend the knee, you can’t create a rigid lever through toe off, extend the hip, load the hip flexors, and go about running and jumping effortlessly, pain and strain-free. Bridgehampton 2016 was deemed the “knee course” because it seemed like everyone in the room had a knee extension/rotation issue).
ON ASSESSING PEOPLE IN MOVEMENT
AiM provides some useful ideas for assessing our clients and patients, but something I respect about their approach is that they don’t tell us exactly how we should do it (which would infuriate other folks who need to be told what to do, rely on protocol, algorithms, and evidence to take action). The most important part of assessing is to be able to see what’s missing from their bodies and extrapolate how providing a safe experience to give it back could create a desirous change in their system.
What is beautiful is that the tools we already have to assess fit nicely with AiM philosophy if we can see what’s missing from a person’s system. AiM shows us a simple and useful movement exploration to take our people through, but I’ve also used NKT and PRI testing to guide and integrate AiM movements (and improve re-test outcome). Every movement is an assessment. You can use a simple half-kneeling drill, look for “what’s missing”, and re-integrated it with an AiM movement.
Unfortunately, if you’re looking to be told exactly how to do something step by step, and become paralyzed without a strict formula, this might not be the course for you. But if you’re creative and like tinkering with options, I think you’ll appreciate the freedom AiM brings you.
Some ideas to ponder:
“It’s not ‘what’s wrong with them?’, it’s ‘how are they managing their mass?’” ~CS (as per Gary’s rule of movement: Everything revolves around center, and their function will be dictated by how they manage their center of mass around their perceived center).
“It’s important to be able to assess things in isolation, but contextualizing it is what we need to do better” ~CS (on looking at structures of the body in relationship with the rest of it. Sure, we need to know what the hips are doing, but to get the complete picture, it needs to be put into context of what the hips are doing relative to the ribcage, skull, scaps, and the rest of it. If someone comes to see you for help with their hips, for example, the hip assessment can’t be focused only on the hips, but the relationship their hips have with the rest of their bodies. This resonated with me in a huge way, as it is something I am currently struggling with).
“If something appears neutral, but nothing else is, the neutral thing could be the problem!” ~GW (all or nothing: Either everything is neutral, or nothing is)
“You can’t be hypermobile everywhere” ~GW (same thought as above: Everything has to balance out. Even congenitally hypermobile folks have non-moving bits that are the glue holding them together despite the illusion of them being bendy everywhere)
“A fused joint is a new ‘optimal center'” ~GW (as an answer to a question about how joint fusions affect the gait cycle and their implication for training and rehab. A fused joint isn’t “bad”, it just creates a new perceived center for them to work with. Unfortunately, we label fusions and other limiting conditions as just that: Limitations! A simple change in language- “limiting” to “optimal”, can change the relationship people have with fusions, and both patient and practitioner see how to work with their new center, not on it, fight it, or resent it. Getting comfortable with the ‘new normal’ and managing the inevitable compensations).
“If things don’t go right, go left” ~CS (on what to do if your strategy isn’t working. It always comes down to one of two choices. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?)
The actual view from the coffee shop I’m writing this blog post in 🙂
If asked for one single take-away, I don’t think I could find the words (that’s why this blog post is over 3000 words long).
I feel fortunate to have this blog as a medium to share the AiM philosophy, and am looking forward to seeing what come out as I work to revise and create new chapters for Dance Stronger. AiM was hugely influential in the creation of this resource the first time through, and it will certainly become a larger part of it moving forwards.
(PS Dance Stronger is 100% available by donation, so no excuses not to check it out and see what I’m talking about).
Reclaiming the Frontal Plane for Dummies (for Dancers)
I’d first like to take the time to congratulate myself on actually following through on writing part two, because no one’s going to give me a high five for that but me. Go me! #SelfAccountability.
To recap part one (<– read it now before you continue if you haven’t already! I can wait…):
Dancers rarely work on fundamental movement quality in their training, and tend to develop a movement vocabulary that, while rich in technical skill, has major cracks in its foundation, denying them several important ranges of natural human motion.
To restate what I said in part one:
[Dancers] 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.
Being flexible has nothing to do with it. You can’t stretch movement quality into your system, and as we will discuss today, stretching can sometimes make things even messier.
Today, part two, we are going to explore one specific part of this “dance like a human” thing that gets a bit messy. Ready?
Warning: This post is long, but I tried to make it easier to read by including lots of fun images and subtitles in the formatting. Grab some coffee, ’cause we’re going deep.
Whether You Like it or Not, SHIFT Happens
Courtesy of Gary Ward. Whether you like it or not… Shift. Happens.
I’d like to introduce you to pelvis shift. A little appreciated movement essential for dance, gait, and, if you want to get philosophical (maybe another time), for life.
Shift refers to moving laterally through space, like a Krispy Kreme donut going smoothly down a flat conveyer belt. Imagine your pelvis is that Krispy Kreme, sliding along, not a care in the world.
Each time you take a step, at the same moment you heel strike, your pelvis must make this smooth shift from one foot to the other (as pictured in Gary Ward’s lovely sketch—>).
Gary, in his Anatomy in Motion course calls this the “leap of faith” because it’s the only time in the gait cycle that your center of mass must breach your base of support, and you have to trust that your swinging leg will be there to catch you on heel strike so that you don’t fall on your face.
This side to side shift of the pelvis is an extremely important movement in the frontal plane that gets
really effed up a little lost for most dancers. Shift is an important part of many aspects of dance technique (as we’ll discuss a little further down), but ironically, dance technique and training can mess up our ability to shift.
Alas, whether you like it or not, shift happens.
If it didn’t, you wouldn’t be able to walk, let alone dance. So when you lose the ability to perform pelvis shift, your amazing body finds other ways to make it happen. Is it going to be the most ideal, most effortless, safest way? Nope.
Some people call this “compensation”. I call it being a “skilled movement strategist”. Many of us dancers are a little too skilled in this domain…
Let’s first get clear on what frontal plane movement is and where pelvis shift fits in.
Frontal Plane Movement 101
Our bodies move in 3 main planes:
Sagittal plane: Front and back movement. The plane of motion for a somersault.
Frontal plane: Side to side movement. Plane of movement for a cartwheel.
Transverse plane: Rotational movement. Plane of movement for a pirouette.
Our bodies are always moving in all three planes at once. Some muscles have different roles in all three planes in one motion. One muscle might be shortening in the frontal plane, but lengthening in the transverse plane during the same movement.
Our bodies are cool like that.
When we lose the ability to perform a movement in one plane, we can make up for it by moving more in a different plane, or by moving a different joint more in the same plane(we’ll go through a dance specific example of this a little further down).
Just for today, let’s keep this simple and stick to the hips and pelvis, although it’s good to know that nearly every joint and muscle in your body, but not all, has a role in frontal plane movement (the knee, for example, does not do much in the frontal plane, because that would suck).
Your turn to think
Stand up and try to figure this one out:
What are the possible movements for the pelvis and hips in the frontal plane?
Go ahead, take your time, stand up and play around with side to side movement. What do you feel happening? I’m looking for 4 main movements. Here’s a nice picture to look at while you think and move:
Well? What did you come up with?
Hopefully you got to these 4 main movements (one of which we already named):
- Pelvis shift
- Pelvis hike
- Hip adduction
- Hip abduction
If you had trouble naming or feeling these, either you need an anatomy lesson, or your body doesn’t do them well. When we have trouble accessing joint actions, we often will also struggle to describe them with words and conceptualize them. That’s because all thought is embodied. But that’s a tangent I won’t go down today.
These are motions your body must be able to do in frontal plane. In life. In dance. And if one is messy, they all get messy.
This lady is in a position of right pelvis shift, right hip hike, right hip abduction, and left hip adduction.
Why do dancers easily lose frontal plane competency?
- Over stretching, and the need to be very flexible (often to the point of pathology)
- Rushing technique progression, or poor instruction on proper technique
- Aerobic fatigue causing sloppiness and compensation
- Technical demands of the specific dance style: Turn-out, need for excessive amounts of hip abduction or hiking and spinal extension.
- High resting muscle tonus (sympathetic nervous system dominance)
- Poor breathing mechanics (contributing to above sympathetic dominance)
- Arabesque. I won’t get into it today, but arabesque is like an open chain, patho-shift. If you want me to explain that one, shoot me an email and we’ll talk.
The above aren’t bad, they are a reality of dance training. It is important to understand that they will likely develop into”creative movement strategies” that may not be ideal long term, and it would be wise to have supplemental strategies to keep these challenges in check.
Do you even shift?
Do you shift, bro?
From a human motion perspective, we can assess shiftability a few different ways. Let’s look at some of my faves:
1) Standing closed chain pelvis range of motion exploration, AiM style.
This is your chance to experience triplanar movement at your hips and pelvis. Can you shift? What else is limited? And what are you good at? Take a few minutes to go through this with me. Makes for useful outcome measures.
Note, you can also take this idea and explore any joint or structure in your body, because shift isn’t only a pelvic event.
2) Adduction drop test, PRI style.
This is important: If you can’t adduct your hip passively, it is doubtful you can do it standing up. Get a PRI trained person to check you out. If you are lucky, you live close to Michael Mullin or Sarah Petrich, who work with dancers and are PRI level badass.
muscle pattern testing, NKT style
While I’m sure there are some muscle testing haters reading this, I argue that NKT done well looks for patterns, not muscle strength, and is not yo mama’s MMT.
Some common patterns in non-shifters with NKT testing are:
- Adductor compensating for opposite adductor and/or QL
- Adductor compensating for opposite side external oblique, or same side internal oblique
- Diaphragm compensating for TVA (breath holding pattern keeping them in spinal extension)
- Crazy pelvis ligament stuff inhibiting hamstrings, adductors, hip flexors, quads, etc.
- Jaw compensating for anything in the lateral sub-system (QL, adductors, TFL, glute med).
- Neck compensating for obliques
Lots of ways to get the job done. It’s cool to see these patterns show up in muscle testing and movement screening, and then re-integrated into better quality movement through training.
4) Gait observation, ninja style.
Gait observation is highly subjective, and it’s something that I am working on getting
better at least somewhat decent at. Give me 10 years and ask me how it’s going…
That said, if you take a look at this lovely dancer lady walking, what you should notice is whether or not her pelvis is going from left to right at the appropriate time: As her back heel starts to lift off the floor. Is it??
Not so much…
How Many Ways Can You Cheat Frontal Plane?
So if you can’t shift well, how are you even walking?
As a self-proclaimed expert at butchering frontal plane hip and pelvis movement, you can trust that this info is direct from the source: Chief Creative Movement Strategist Volkmar (CCMS). Esquire.
CCMS Volkmar: Just making an abomination of the frontal plane. But at least I’m respecting my ligaments. Mostly.
Remember, when a joint can’t move in one plane, something else will try to do it in another.
Here’s an example that may resonate with you. Let’s say you can’t shift your pelvis to the right very well, but you need to get on your right leg (right shift) to tendu side with your left leg. What are your options?
The most common strategy will often be to hike the hip on left side, which the lady in the image above is doing (hike and shift both being frontal plane hip movements). In pure shift, the hips stay level.
You could also get the job done in two other planes of movement: Extend your spine (sagittal) and rotate your pelvis to the right (transverse), which helps you accomplish the same weight transfer, but with more expended energy and torque.
Or maybe you choose to shift excessively from joints other than your pelvis. For example maybe shift your ribs or your skull to the right more excessively to accomplish a similar weight transfer.
Sneaky. And then you wonder why you can’t get rid of that upper body tension. Maybe if your skull wasn’t busy trying to be a pelvis…
One final note on frontal plane strategies
This blog post is primarily geared towards ballet and contemporary technique, but I also used to salsa dance, and have worked with a few salsa dancers.
What’s interesting about this dance style is that they do what I call a “reverse shift”: When they take a step, the pelvis shifts the opposite way. Not to mention it’s an anterior tilt dominant dance style. Latin dancers don’t shift well, but they hike like champions (same-plane shift strategy).
Where does shift show up in dance technique?
“But Monika, what does this have to do with helping me dance better?”.
I’m getting to that. Keep in mind that losing the ability to perform any range of motion is never ideal. Maybe you need to read part 1 again?
The ability to shift is actually a majorly huge deal in dance. It wasn’t until after I learned how to shift that magic really started happening in ballet class, I could stop clenching my neck and jaw, my turnout became easier to access, and I could balance in adage like a boss.
Dance is pure shift.
Chassé pas de bourré is shift.
Start thinking less in terms of “pelvic stability”, words which, while important, don’t frame the concept properly. While stability implies non-movement, shift implies allowing lateral movement.
Were does shift show up in dance? Everywhere. If you need to be on one leg or change directions, you need shift. What doesn’t require shift? is a better question.
Unadulterated pelvis shift is what allows dancers to change directions and transfer their weight quickly and smoothly without tensing anything in their upper bodies, holding their breath, or creating excess torque (at the lower back, hips, neck, or jaw, for example).
If you can’t shift, you can’t have single leg stability because it’s impossible to get your body’s mass over one leg without first shifting your pelvis. Try it.
Non-shifters are barre-grippers.
Even keeping a “neutral” pelvis requires shift, because if you can’t let your pelvis shift, you’ll have to cheat it in another plane or from another joint (as we already discussed). In reality, a pelvis that shifts right and left well is a pelvis that can be neutral when it needs to, and leave neutral when it needs to.
Neutral only being a phase that lasts for an instant between 0.6-0.8 seconds.
Neutrality = having movement options.
A pelvis that shifts has options.
A pelvis that shifts lets you reduce tension and torque from other parts of your body and makes dance more effortless.
What muscles help you shift?
Short answer: Don’t worry about it.
A lot of dancers screw themselves over by becoming so focused on what muscles should be working that they tense up, get in their heads too much, and forget to feel what’s happening.
Instead of asking, “Am I doin’ it right?”, ask “Am I feelin’ it right?”. Daft Punk knows what’s up.
“And everybody will be dancing…”
Let’s think in terms of two of Gary Ward’s rules of movement:
Joints act, muscles react: Shift happens, and muscles react to it. Muscles don’t make you shift, you shift.
Muscles must lengthen before they contract: In order to shift, something has to lengthen as a reaction to your pelvis’ lateral movement in order to decelerate it (slow it down), and then contract to get you back to center, like a sling shot first pulling back to shoot a stone.
So what is reacting to the pelvis shifting? What has to lengthen and load eccentrically in order to allow the pelvis to move laterally and return back to center?
Wait for it.
It’s your dance teacher’s favourite muscle to tell you to strengthen…
Ah, yes… your friends the adductors.
But also the other members of the lateral sub-system that react to lateral movement:
Glute med and the adductors have a larger role in shift, as we are discussing it today.
But let’s be clear about one thing: Inner thigh leg raises will do nothing for you if you can’t eccentrically load your adductors, or passively adduct your hip joints, which allow shift to happen in your body.
Clams are also somewhat of a waste of time.
Why are my adductors so tight?
Dancers’ adductors are often locked long (from overstretching), so they lose the ability to eccentrically load, or, because they are already on load all the time, they tighten up to protect themselves from strain. And you wonder why stretching your adductors doesn’t relieve the tightness…
Get up on your feet and shift your pelvis over to the right. you should be aware that your left adductor is lengthening, hence, decelerating (eccentric loading) the journey the pelvis makes from left leg to right leg. This happens with every step you take.
Shift is less about clenching the same side inner thigh to pull you over, or pushing with the opposite hip abductors, and more about allowing joint action through decelerative muscle reaction.
Sounds like less work, doesn’t it? You bet.
And now you can see how it can be problematic for dancers who have overstretched their adductors and pelvis ligaments to the point of pathology. You can’t shoot a stone very far with a stretched out elastic band.
Reclaiming shift: Monika’s Story
I know what you’re thinking, “Not another story, Monika. Get to the dang point!”. But this one is good, I promise. And relevant, too.
So, let me tell you about my journey reclaiming shift (still a work in progress, by the way), and I’ll try to keep it concise. You can also read THIS.
I was first introduced to shift by Dr. Brock Easter, my go-to body healing dude in Toronto.
I remember him telling me once, “When I start working with a dancer, I go straight to assessing the adductors, and it’s almost always the primary dysfunction.”
Words of wisdom from Dr. Brock: If its a dancer, go for the groin. Did I get that right? 😉
Anyway, I went to see Brock specifically to learn about Anatomy in Motion. He assessed me and put me in shift phase. In this AiM movement, the key points are that the pelvis should shift across the midline, and you should feel the adductors loading eccentrically (kind of a stretchy/worky feeling) on the leg you’re shifting away from as it abducts and externally rotates.
I didn’t feel shi(f)t.
And I continued to feel nothing for almost a year, though I practiced diligently every day. My body felt better for sure (back pain, hamstring pain, being things I was working forward from), but still no adductor function.
And then I had a pelvic floor intervention.
Not like that….
It was February 2015 at Neurokinetic Therapy level 2 in Toronto, and I was the demo body for pelvic floor testing and correction. And a good one, at that.
Dr. Kathy Dooley found that my anterior pelvic floor was facilitated bilaterally. Probably because I was a breath holder, and used to be a chronic pee-holder for many years. I was good at it. Like, really good. Too good.
Dooley did an NKT correction, showed me how to anti-kegel (kegels aren’t the answer to all life’s problems, guys), and I felt my abs work in crazy new ways. I felt pretty good afterwards.
Then, because it had become a habit whenever I was standing around doing nothing to practice shift phase, I got up and tried it out, and HOLY CRAP. Hello adductors.
Why did this happen?
This might not be the complete picture, but to the best of my limited understanding, to be able to access pelvis shift in frontal plane, the pelvis needs to be in a posterior tilt in the sagittal plane, and the pelvic floor needs to be able to stretch to allow the lateral movement. In February 2015, I couldn’t posterior tilt if I used max effort, and I couldn’t let go of my pelvic floor. Getting my pelvic floor to chill out allowed me to access abdominals and finally get into a post tilt. Boom. Shift happened (#).
Too, the obturator nerve is responsible for motor innervation of the adductor muscles, and can become entrapped in the obturator canal, for which the obturator internus facscia creates a medial wall.
Why does that matter?
As Dooley explained to me later:
You stretch pelvic floor, you allow shift with a stretch of OI fascia, taking tension off obturator nerve so it can innervate adductors.
Obturator nerve entrapment is also known to be related to adductor strain. Hey, I’ve had a few of those!
All that to say, just because my adductors weren’t working the way I would have liked, don’t go blaming my adductors! Concentric adductor exercise wasn’t the solution I needed.
Remember, joints act, muscles react. When I finally was able to get my body in a decent position, and maintain it as I shifted, I felt adductors come alive in a meaningful way for the gait cycle.
So on that note, I want to leave you with some ideas for how to optimize your ability to let shift happen by getting joints to move into positions that allow muscles to react in more useful ways.
Let’s get shifty
To accomplish a proper pelvis shift, you need these three big things:
1) Ability to exhale fully and depress ribcage (ZOA)
2) Posterior pelvic tilt
3) Lumbar flexion
If you can achieve these movements but still struggle to accomplish shift, there’s something else going on. Or you might need some guidance/therapy/time, like I did.
This past January and February I did free movement screens with some Ryerson dancers, and not one of them could posterior tilt past neutral. Posterior pelvic tilt should not be a max effort event.
You can get all three of the above movements at the same time with these two exercises (which you have seen in many, many blog posts before because they are #DTPfaves).
1) Cogs (emphasis on flexion/exhalation phase)
2) 90/90 Hip Lift
Do these two activities, and go back to check your pelvis range of motion. Is anything different? Can you shift more easily? Tuck more easily? Hike more easily?
If you’ve achieved requisite range of motion into flexion/posterior tilt/ZOA, you may now have opened a window of opportunity to reclaim some frontal plane shift. So let’s do that now.
The moment you’ve all been waiting for.
Worth noting that every joint in the body plays a role in shift. You can’t see my feet in this video, but they are kind of a big deal. Also, should have mentioned in this video that your back knee needs to stay straight.
As mentioned in the video, for a successful shift, you should feel adductors on back leg loading. If you don’t, it’s not shift. It’s a CCMS Volkmar special.
Please note that this movement is best learned from someone who’s been trained in AiM, and you can find such a person HERE.
This next exercise allows you to apply shift to a dance-specific situation in it’s most fundamental form: Transferring from first position to coupé and into tendus front and side.
This one kills me. And I like it.
I stole this exercise from my favourite ballet teacher, Christine Wright (who you can find teaching at the National Ballet School in Toronto, Monday-Friday from 10am-12pm. Another #DTPfave).
If you are doing this one well, your hips should stay level (not hike) as you shift onto one leg. If you are able to do this, you may feel some burny/stretchy/eccentric load feels at the front of the hip you’re standing on, indicating that you’re “on your leg”, or, not compressing the hip or going into an anterior tilt/hike on that side.
Remember the wise words of Daft Punk: You’re doin’ it right if you’re feelin’ it right.
The other side of your butt should not leave the wall as you shift (that’s a transverse plane violation), and you should be able to maintain 3 points of contact with the back of your body on the wall: Back of skull, ribcage, and pelvis.
Breathe, 2, 3, 4. It ain’t easy.
Alright. That was a lot… Just imagine how I felt editing this monstrous thing.
I hope you’ll experiment with shift, reclaiming it back, and maintaining it as a regular strategy to unwind from the duress of dance training and enhance your performance abilities.
In part 3 of Dance Like a Human, we will be discussing another key human motion to reclaim for better performance… But I’m not saying what it is! Stay tuned.
Moving Into Stillness, by Erich Schiffmann, is the book I came across when I was 18 that I attribute as the catalyst that sent me on this journey of exploring of human movement.
And it’s an interesting idea:
Moving into stillness…
But to find stillness, surely we need to be in control, don’t we?
Take a moment to think about what that word means.
For dancers, control is something we feel we need. Something we’re told we need. Encouraged to have more of.
I want to go to a ballet class and count the number of times I hear the teacher use the word “control”. (but I don’t do much ballet these days, so maybe you can do that for me and let me know what number you get…)
Indirectly, we hear that we need control when we are corrected to stand up straight, hold our core tight, keep our shoulders down, etc.
We try to control our appearance: Make our face look calm, not strained, try to keep a slim body by dieting, and appear graceful and fluid as we perform unnatural movements.
Dance is the epitome of being in control.
Any wonder it attracts so many type-A personalities?
But what if what we’re hearing when we are told to be in control, and doing as we strive to be in control, is different than the kind of control we truly need?
What is control?
“STAY IN CONTROL! CONTROL the movement”!
When our dance teachers shout this out it can send us into a sympathetic response.
“Oh shit! I’m not IN CONTROL. Better clench everything. Activate all my stress tone to stay on my feet, get my leg up and not fall on my face!”
Consider this: Do you want to “be in control”, or to have “control of”?
To purely “be in control” implies a rigidity. Every move controlled, stiff, thought out carefully. Everything bound by rules. Nothing free flowing. No balance. Always try, try, harder. Activate, clench, push!
Have “control OF” implies a constantly shifting specificity. That some part of you is taking charge, providing support, as another part of you fluidly follows the lead, but nothing ever static.
Control OF implies you are selectively choosing, no, ALLOWING something to take the reigns. Allowing something to control more, so that something else can ease up.
That fine balance of Yin and Yang. Control and ease. Hardness and softness. Stillness and movement.
Control OF implies a dynamic state, rather that a static state. “Of” is a transient term.
Control of what? At what time? For how long? In what way?
What you want to have control OF can change at any given moment, different for every movement, and every movement of every movement.
Allow, at any given moment in time in a movement, for some parts to have more “control”, and others to have more “ease”.
Center of mass constantly changing, and your body reacting to catch it.
In a grand battement, for example: On the way up, the supporting leg is more controlled. It’s planted, rooted, firmly into the ground, moving LESS (but still moving), and the active leg is barreling through space.
It’s the control of the supporting leg that allows the ease and flow in the swinging leg, and the unbounded movement in the battement leg that allows energy to be diverted into the supporting leg.
But nothing is still…
Control is a spectrum.
There’s rigid control, and there’s flowing, dynamic control.
Having control OF is dynamic.
You CHOOSE what you dedicate energy towards controlling, and what you allow more freely just to happen.
Dynamic control takes awareness. Focus. Conscious choice.
Dynamic control takes less effort, energetically, but is more difficult to achieve due to the hours deep, focused practice it requires. And it you’re stuck in a “be in control” mindest, dynamic control is nearly impossible and depleting of your energy.
Being in control prevents deep practice. Control OF allows it.
But the more you choose dynamic, the more natural it becomes and, suddenly, you find that you don’t have to think about it anymore. Your body chooses for you. You begin to feel that to let go of control, in absolute terms, feels better, and to selectively control the minimal number of of parts feels better.
More efficient. Less strenuous. FEELS better in your body to perform.
This is when dance starts to feel really, really good to do.
You have to let go of CONTROLLING, and find CONTROL OF, even when your teachers are screaming at you to control your body.
Rigid control is how we react when we are told to stay “tight” and hold positions. When we’re unsure what to do. At least we feel that we’re in control!
Dynamic control, which flows, is not about being tight and positional. It’s about movement.
Control OF is reflex that you don’t need to think about. Your body recognizes what it needs to do to not fall over, and it does it.
It’s an instinct.
Instincts are developed through experience, listening inward, and learning. And if your experience has been to control through rigidity, breath holding, and clenching, it is quite difficult to experience that beautiful sensation of your body catching you, being there for you, as you daringly move away from (and hopefully back towards) center.
IS A MOMENT OF STILLNESS TRULY “STILL”?
In dance, a moment of stillness is one of the most powerful things. As an audience member, you feel a sense of anticipation, not knowing what will come next. A beautiful moment suspended in time.
In reality, however, you are never still. Your body is constantly in motion, as the Earth is constantly in motion. As the seasons are constantly in motion. As are the oceans around us and the circulating fluids and energies within us.
Maybe it’s just that because everything is moving so fast around us, we can’t feel it at all. And when we move into a place where all movement, for a moment in time, is synced, we feel MOVED. Yes, we FEEL it when we see someone come into “stillness”.
When we perceive stillness, what we’re really feeling is the movement of everything else.
Your body is in perpetual motion. Reacting to the movement before it, anticipating the movement that will come next. It’s a cycle that never stops, that started before you were conceptualized.
This is natural. Why would you try to stop it? To control it?
Plank. Clench. Hold. Position. Tighten. This is the wrong vocabulary to apply to your movement.
Try these out: Flow, react, catch, allow, give, drift…
But sometimes, either from a learned movement behavior, trauma, chronic injuries and pain, we lose our flow. Lose our dynamic control. Our only option becomes to tighten up to keep things safe. To protect.
You do not want to be practicing movement, trying to get stronger, or trying to add technique from a place of protection, tightening, and excessive control.
It’s a strange thing to consider, but when you stop trying to hang on for dear life, you become liberated.
Stillness is an illusion.
The feeling of stillness, it only lasts for a moment. And perhaps it’s just one part of your body that is more still, while other parts are moving, but because we’re so used to being always moving, the stillness at one segment stands out.
But to be completely still? Impossible.
Stability exists only relative to what’s moving.
Rather than try to force yourself to be still, completely controlled, accept that this does not happen. Something’s always moving, but something else is always moving less, or moving more slowly, in a more” controlled” way.
But really you’re not controlling, you’re allowing.
Like descending into a squat, we may feel feel that our feet and spine stay rigid, and our knees are held outward in a controlled and stable way, but in reality, they are moving, reacting to the larger movement at our hips and knees as they flex. They have less movement, and move more slowly, but they DO move, and their movement is important for this idea of dynamic control (control “of”).
Try this: Squat down without moving your spine, grip your feet, do not allow your knees to rotate in or out. What does that feel like? How does your depth feel? Restricted? Blocked?
And now try the same squat, but choose to let your knees move in or out slightly on the way down, let your spine arch or round, and let your feet roll in or out. Did you get more depth, feel less restriction, by allowing movement to happen?
This is where it is important to know your body: Know where your body needs more or less movement to create an illusion of stillness and control.
I discovered that, while squatting, if I actively round my back a little, posteriorally tilt my pelvis, allow my knees to roll in, pronate my feet, and shoot my knees forward, I appear to be descending in a “neutral” position, in complete control.
And it FEELS good. It feels like I’m in control. But I’m not “controlling” or stabilizing. I’m moving. A lot. I’m selectively choosing what to move more, what to let go of, what to move less, to create the illusion of a stable structure globally.
Some of you might feel pretty bad squatting the same way I described. Know your body!
It’s ok to let go of control. Stop trying to be so stable. It’s necessary in fact, to let go, and experience what dynamic ability you truly possess, so that you can train your body to use it at the most appropriate time.
Let go of “controlling”, and allow “control of”.
Stillness can only be created through movement.
Movement is life. Stillness is…