This is a post for the lovers (or love/haters) of Martha Graham’s famous contraction, and Graham technique in general.
It would be a great understatement to say Martha Graham was a smart lady. Among other things, she recognized the importance of treating the spine with kindness (in an art form that tends to abuse the back’s “happy” range of motion), and using breath to initiate movement- A fundamental basis for her entire dance technique. As a dancer, choreographer and teacher she was brilliant, and said brilliant career lasted about 70 years. Talk about career longevity. Graham has just about everyone beat.
Makes you think she must have been doing something right…
There are many ways that Martha Graham and I differ. Her dance career was successful and long career, versus my painfully short one, is just one example. But what I think is really important is that she must have innately “got” what it was to be a dancer, and not simply what it felt like to dance. It’s the difference between being and doing. And trust me, I was doing most of it wrong. I think Graham must have had some kind of instinctual sense of how dancers should use their bodies both to keep them healthy while also creating beautiful, expressive movements.
Case in point: The infamous contraction.
Consider these three common characteristics you’ll see in many dancers, particularly wannabe ballet dancers (not hatin’ or anything, just not everyBODY was made to excel at ballet):
- Exaggerated lumbar hyperextension
- Upflared rib cage
- Breath holder-ism
And what do you know- These three things are the exact opposite of the Graham contraction: lumbar flexion+ ribcage depression+ exhalation.
Those three pieces of the Graham contraction are typically what a dancer with back pain needs: Getting out of lumbar hyper-extension, lowering the ribcage a bit, and to stop holding their breath.
And somehow Graham knew. Though perhaps she couldn’t dissect it in functional terms like I am here (me being more of a technician than an artist), she felt it, and had a highly successful career because of it. And I have mad respect.
Unfortunately, the Graham contraction (which I shall henceforth refer to simply as the “contraction”), is super easy to do wrong. I wasn’t doing Graham contractions, I was doing a Volkmar contraction, which not only looked screwy, but also screwed a lot of stuff up and made dancing way harder than it needed to be.
The contraction is a movement pattern that involves simultaneously flexing the lumbar spine, posteriorally tilting the pelvis, and exhaling (which causes the diaphragm to relax, fyi). Like any movement pattern, the contraction can be cheated. It will still resemble very much the contraction, but without any the above individual movements actually being done.
And yet the body finds a way. Dancers happen to be genius cheaters. Give us a movement pattern, and if we can’t do it, you can be sure we’ll find a way to cheat it. And we’ll hold our breath while we do it. And somehow make it look pretty graceful, too. That’s just the beginning of the extent of our mad skillz.
When we continuously cheat fundamental movements like the contraction daily, and for years on end, our bodies will recognize this as the “normal” pattern to work in. In this comfy, familiar pattern you can probably imagine that some muscles might become unnecessarily hyperactive (or facilitated), and some others that we should be be using, become underactive (or inhibited).
A Graham contraction, as I stated above, should involve this pattern: rounding the lower back, tucking the pelvis, dropping the ribcage, and exhaling simultaneously. The movement, initiated from the lumbo-pelvic area, causes the upper body to react naturally, and curve. As a reaction. Not as the initiation.
And here’s how you do a “Volkmar contraction”: Make the curve originate from the upper body. Round from the chest rather than lower back. Protract the shoulder blades. Do a fake, shallow exhalation (or no exhalation at all).
How to do a contraction wrong:
- Round the upper back instead of rounding the lower back.
- Non-diaphragmatic exhalation.
- Tension in the shoulders, chest, and neck rather than in the abdominals.
Based on the above compensated movement patterns, I am going to go out on a limb and suggest the following muscle compensation patterns, which can become so engrained in your motor control center(your brain) that you need a team of experts to get you out of it (seriously…):
Pec minor working instead of your abdominals
Neck muscles (scalenes and friends) working, to breathe, instead of your diaphragm.
Diaphragm working instead of your psoas.
In the picture below look at how the pecs and rectus abdominis are connected fascially:
And how the diaphragm and psoas are connected:
And how the diaphragm (on the inside of the rib cage there) connects to both the psoas and the neck muscles in a kinetic chain:
If you have been doing your contractions with those common movement compensations for some time, then you might have actually lost the ability to get into the contraction position. Yet… You have some work to do, grasshopper.
Your work will involve down-regulating some muscles (via massage, stretching, foam rolling, etc), combined with the up-regulation of others (think strengthening and activation exercises). And then you must repeat that and make a promise to yourself not to go back to your old habits of movement. Don’t ever do the Volkmar contraction again. It did not look pretty. And it felt bad. So very bad.
Change is difficult process. And it’s not always enjoyable. And sometimes it even hurts (ever had pec minor or diaphragm released? owwww). But it’s worth it.
So where’s your contraction really coming from, eh?
“Never confuse movement for action” ~Ernest Hemingway.
Today I say, never confuse stillness for movement.
Stillness is powerful. In dance, and in life too, it’s rare that we ever come to a full stop. We are in constant motion. An important part of dance is the creation of motion, but the most powerful moments in dance are those of absolute stillness. These moments are often what captures an audience. Constant motion can get boring.
Much like a moment of silence in a song that seems to suspend time, stillness in dance makes us hold our breath. It keeps our attention, making us wonder what’s going to happen next.
But stillness doesn’t exist. Stillness is an illusion. Stillness is not just the absence of motion, but is a series of precise and powerful movements that creates the illusion of motionlessness. Only movement is constant. Stillness does not exist.
As a dancer it is important to be able to create this illusion of the complete absence of motion.
This concept of movement for stillness can help you excel artistically, but also with understanding a term you probably hear thrown around a lot… Neutral spine. Which leads me to what I want to explain in more detail today.
Maintaining the Elusive Neutral Spine
As it relates to neutral spine– movement is often necessary for stillness.
We know neutral spine is important for strength, aesthetics, technical execution, preventing injuries blah blah etc. and so I recommend you seek the guidance of someone qualified who can help you find what neutral feels like.
Assuming you’ve already done that, today’s post is going to give you an exercise to help drill this concept of movement for stillness as it relates to finding and maintaining neutral spine. It’s one thing to find it, and another entirely to hold on to while you’re moving around. For many people (dancers and non-dancers alike), to maintain neutral spine during the simplest of exercises, they must move to create stillness. The illusion of core stiffness.
Allow me to introduce you to…
The Bartenieff Thigh Lift
This exercise is your new best friend.
Bartenieff Fundamentals is a movement technique that expands on Laban Movement Analysis. Note that I haven’t been trained in this particular style of movement study, but I’m happy to say that my bastardized use of the thigh lift exercise has helped many of my clients to understand their alignment, improve their mind-muscle connectivity, and improve their strength.
This exercise separates the men from the boys, and as you’ll soon see, the psoas from the quads. I’m so funny!
Why do the thigh lift? The purpose of the thigh lift is to establish mind-muscle control: flex the hip in the most efficient way possible, using the psoas without superficial muscles, while maintaining neutral spine and pelvis.
In the video below you’ll get an introduction to the fundamentals of Bartenieff, including the thigh-lift.
Essentially in the thigh lift, you are lying on your back and lifting your foot off the floor, like this:
Looks easy right? It’s harder than you think!
Here’s what’s going on during the thigh lift (in the bastard way that I teach it):
- Lie on your back, knees bent, and find neutral spine/pelvis (which should have a subtle amount of anterior pelvic tilt; have someone monitor your position if you need to).
- Put your hands on your thighs, close to the hip, where the rectus femoris attaches to the pelvis.
- Your hands are there to feel whether or not your rec. fem. is activating to lift your leg. If it is, you will feel a very distinct thigh-twitch as you lift your foot off the floor.
- The goal is to lift the leg, while maintaining neutral alignment, without activating the quad. NO thigh twitch as the leg raises.
- Breathing pattern up for discussion, but I like to cue an inhalation with the lift, and exhalation with the lowering. I think we can all agree though, that any breathing pattern is ok so long as there is no breath holding.
So a thigh-lift-win comprises two things:
1) You can lift your leg without leaving a neutral alignment.
2) No quad twitch.
And here’s all the good stuff you get out of a properly executed thigh lift, and why I like it so much:
- Emphasis on maintaining neutral spine, pelvis and neck teaches abdominal bracing
- Teaches proper pelvic-femoral rhythm
- Emphasis on breathing; coordinating diaphragm and psoas together to lift leg with abdominals bracing.
- Teaches neuromuscular control by training the body to coordinate the superficial and deep hip flexors
- Teaches proper rib positioning (a shortened psoas can alter the position of the ribcage, flaring it up)
- Activates and strengthens a weak psoas
As stated on Body-In-Motion:
Thigh lift is the most important sequence for alleviating sacroiliac pain and restoring pelvic-femoral rhythm in the shortest possible time.
I like the sounds of that efficiency.
I treat a thigh-lift-win like a milestone moment- When you can do a full set of thigh lifts (8 or so on each side) that aren’t “quaddy”, you can graduate to other more fun exercises.
So maybe at this point you’re already on the floor attempting to thigh-lift. Maybe you’re feeling some quad-twitch action and need help troubleshooting. Here’s what typically will go wrong and make for a “quaddy” lift (quaddy is totally a verb…).
- Loss of neutral alignment*
- Straightening the knee to lift the leg
- Pushing feet too hard into floor
- Ribcage flare with leg lift
- Faulty breathing
- Loss of neutral neck position with leg lift
Notice the “*”? What I want to bring this article back to is the importance of being able to maintain neutral alignment, or a “quiet pelvis”. Most often, if you feel your quad twitch as you lift your foot, it’s because you’ve failed to maintain the necessary stillness in your body- You’ve changed your position, putting your quads in a position to easily do work. Remember the concept of movement for stillness? This will come in handy here…
Shall we get all geeky and such? Ok, you asked for it.
If you are a dancer, you are probably stuck in a predictably patterned position which I will call “dancer extension”- stuck in an extended posture accomplished through all sorts of cheats. The picture below is a dancer I assessed who is a good example of this posture.
Typical dancer cheats used to attain the illusion of a desirable alignment: leaning forward on toes, sitting passively at end range of knee extension (or hyperextension, if any), anteriorally tilted pelvis, lumbar spine hyperextension, and an upflared ribcage.
Do you think that this dancer, if asked to perform a thigh lift, would be able to do so while still stuck in her current posture? Absolutely not. Just getting into neutral to start the thigh-lift would be a challenge for her.
Why? Her start position (an anterior pelvic tilt with lumbar extension and ribcage flare) puts her quads in an advantageous position to fire automatically.
Try to follow along with me here… The rectus femoris can flex the hip above 90 degrees, but if your pelvis is already tilted, such as is the dancer’s above, then the hip is already partially flexed at rest. If the hip is already flexed, then to flex the hip more like in the thigh-lift, the rec fem. is in the ideal position to activate, bypassing the psoas, which is already stuck in a short and weak position due to the perpetually flexed position of the hip.
If your start position is anterior tilt, then you might already be at 45 degrees of hip flexion. No wonder your hips feel "tight"
If that explanation didn’t jive with you, just know this: If your alignment isn’t optimal, your muscle firing patterns won’t be optimal. Wrong muscles will work and become overused. This is why you probably have a ballet teacher who harps on you for having over-developped quads. Dance makes it kind of impossible not to overuse your quads.
So, back to the thigh-lift. If the dancer above, with her current extended resting posture, wanted to get a solid, non-quaddy thigh-lift rep, she would have to first move to get out of her extended posture. And then each time she lifts her leg, she will have to exaggerate this movement to maintain the illusion of stillness. The reason many people claim they “don’t get” the thigh lift, is often because they don’t understand just how much work (movement) it takes just to get into the correct start position. It’s. Freakin’. Hard.
It’s not simply a matter of trying to keep the rest of the body still while lifting your leg. It’s moving out of extension, and on each leg raise, intensifying this movement to create the desired stillness, and maintain neutral, not slip back into a familiar, comfortable position.
An analogy I like to use is that trying to change your resting alignment is like wearing braces- To try to correctly align your teeth in one day would be bad. So very bad. But overtime, your teeth are able to move into a new, more pleasing position. Same goes with your body’s bones: Overtime, small changes, like use of the thigh-lift, amount to dramatic results. And with daily practice, it really doesn’t take long.
I encourage you to give this one a try today, and if you can, seek out a Bartenieff pro who can teach you more. I’d love to hear from anyone out there who is already familiar with Bartenieff Fundamentals, and how it’s helped them or their clients.