Things are getting a little chaotic at the dance school. Students are in full on rehearsal mode for an upcoming show at the end of February and their schedule is getting intense.
In teaching this class, one of my aims is for the students to consider not doing the things I did when I was their age.
Self-portrait, Monika age 22
Here are some quick notes from this week’s class.
How deep is your practice?
As I mentioned last week, I wanted to hold a discussion with the dancers on what it means to practice deeply, having noticed that, week by week, their ability to focus has been waning.
Sometimes I read books. I like books about the mind. I particularly like books on the psychology and neuroscience of skill acquisition and mental performance.
This January I read Deep Work (Cal Newport) and Outliers (Malcolm Gladwell). I also read Flow (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi), and The Talent Code (Daniel Coyle) last year, and as a result, for the past year or so I’ve been contemplating the meaning of the concepts deep practice and flow state, and my own relationship with them,
Deep Work focuses on the benefits of working and thinking in a deep, focused way in a world in which it is easier than ever to become distracted by our technology, and why we should be doing more deep work. Working deeply saves time, delivers superior quality results, and at higher rate of productivity. Newport remarks, however, that our ability to focus deeply is limited, and, on average, it seems that we can only realistically reach about 4 hours per day, in chunks of about 90 minutes at a time (which in itself takes some training to accomplish).
Outliers focuses on factors, sometimes random factors like date of birth, that enabled the most successful people to accumulate the 10 000 hours of deep practice he argues are necessary for people to master a skill (although, in his book, he left out the important word “deep”, neglecting to explain that these 10 000 hours of practiced need to be of a specific quality).
Flow describes what it means and how it feels to be in the state of deep practice, “flow state”. Csikszentmihalyi explains that in a state of flow we are completely immersed in the present moment with no distractions, have a clear goal in mind, are aware of mistakes as we make them, and receive immediate feedback moment to moment in order to adjust based on these mistakes. Time begins to distort so that it flies by (an hour seeming to go by in half as much), or even time slowing down as we are fully present in every second that passes.
The Talent Code explores the role of deep, deliberate practice in skill acquisition through the lens of neuroscience- We are not born inherently with our talents, but those who have mastered a given skill have become that way due to the many hours of deep practice they participated in. He goes on to describe the qualities of deep practice that creates changes in how our brain is wired, which, interestingly, requires that we fail and make mistakes.
Sounds like useful stuff to know about for a group of young dancers trying to make it in a hard world where only the top few succeed (whatever that means).
I started the discussion by asking them, “What does deep practice mean to you?”. Some of the answers I received:
“Being completely in the moment”
“Having no distractions”
“Doing it right”
This last one is interesting. Does deep practice mean, “doing it right”?
When I asked him to explain what he meant he elaborated with the example of doing a tendu. If you practice doing a tendu but you’re “doing it wrong”, with your leg turning in when it should be turning out (if you’re doing ballet), then its not deep practice, because the technique is wrong.
This is interesting because as we know from Coyle’s work, we need to make mistakes to learn and change. Too, from Csikszentmihalyi’s work, we know that part of flow state is noticing mistakes in real time and making adjustments. So, being “wrong” is a necessary part of deep practice.
Deep practice is a neutral state. There is no right or wrong, there is simply awareness of what is.
Practicing things without technical precision, not caring, not noticing, and thinking about lunch, for example, is not deep practice. However, practicing things with poor technical precision, but noticing, actively trying to change and adapt based on these mistakes, and paying attention to the feedback in your body from moment to moment is deep practice.
Also, it is possible to deeply practice something the wrong way, in which case, you will not have mastered what you set out to master. This is why it is important to have an end goal in mind when participating in a deep practice.
I understand what he meant by “doing it right”. If you practice a skill ineffectively, you will master just that. You get what you practice.
Next, I asked the class to make a list of all their classes in a given week (which was about 15 different non-academic, physical classes), and asked them to reflect on how deeply they practiced in each of these classes, rating it on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being very shallow, and 10 being extremely deep).
Overall, the dancers found that in ballet and in partnering classes they worked most deeply, and, overwhelmingly, they found that they were practicing the least deeply in pilates. Why?
In partnering, one dancer explained that there was more at stake if you’re not invested in the moment. If you aren’t in the moment, and your partner is relying on you to be there for them, things are not going to go well. I agreed, you wouldn’t want to be paired up with someone who didn’t have a depth to their practice in a partnering class. You would not trust the person with the track record for having a short attention span.
Other dancers explained that they enjoyed ballet the most, and so found it easier to practice more deeply. Makes sense.
As for pilates, the dancers said several things to explain their lack of depth in practice:
“The repetitive actions and rhythm makes it easy to just get it into my muscle memory and then I zone out mentally”
“Lying on the floor makes me tired”
“There’s no music… Wait, maybe that would make me even less focused”.
At the very least, I hoped to get them stoked to focus for my class. I wonder how they rated their focus in my class… I’ll admit, I was afraid to ask (but at least I beat pilates on the depth score!).
Fun with diaphragmatic breathing
A few weeks ago I guided the dancers through a check-in of how well they could breathe with their diaphragm. I think I explained that in a bit more detail in part one, so maybe you’d like to go back and (re-)read that now.
Essentially, dancers were to use their hands to feel for 360 fill: Coordinated sternum/belly breathing, posteriolateral (back and side) ribcage expansion, lower abdomen/pelvis fill (just below the ASIS). They chose the one that was challenging to do, but that they were able to change if they put their attention there. Their next task was to simply walk around the room for a few minutes with their focus on breathing air into where they had chosen to use their hands to monitor airflow.
For example, students who found it a challenge to feel their lower abdomen/pelvis fill with inhalation were to put their hands there and walk at a pace at which they could still manage to create air flow into their hands. If they lost the ability to fill, they were to slow down their pace or stop, and were encouraged to speed up when they thought they could handle more challenge.
Its one thing to stand still, or lie down, and breathe with an ideal diaphragmatic pattern, but to notice and adjust it in motion is the challenge, and generally we lose awareness of this when we start dancing or moving with more complexity. An ideal breathing pattern has to become unconscious so that we can carry it into dancing, and other activities, without the extra energy spent micromanaging it.
As Karel Lewit said,
“If breathing is not normalised no other movement pattern can be”
Let’s pronate and supinate the crap out of our feet!
And we did.
We went through suspension again, to review our introduction to pronation mechanics last week.
I couldn’t believe how easily this class embraced pronation. Feeling is believing, I suppose. This class reported that pronation actually felt nice to do. After practicing suspension, they reported that their hips felt looser, and their feet felt more grounded. I said to them, “Isn’t it funny? Most of us have been told that pronation is bad to do, but here you are pronating your feet, and saying that it feels nice.”
This week we moved into new territory: Supination.
To experience this, we went through a movement called transition from Anatomy in Motion, which replicates the phase of gait in which the foot moves from pronation into supination, with the foot tripod on the floor, as we would see in mid-stance.
This day was reminiscent of last winter when I held a jump landing workshopat York University, and all we did was pronate and supinate the crap out of everyone’s feet.
(this workshop footage is available in full for members of Dance Stronger, FYI. It’s in the member zone, under “Support Resources”).
In transition, what we want to feel is, by virtue of rotating the pelvis, that the femur, tibia, and sub-talar joint (ankle) also rotate and pull the foot up into a supinated position (arch with tripod on ground). Its not the just foot we’re looking to move, but to move it in context of what the rest of the body does when the foot begins to resupinate. We could say that what we are trying to do is supinate the body, as a global movement.
Only one dancer in the class “didn’t get it”. It’s a tough thing to coach a group setting, ensuring that everyone can get a sense of what the movement should feel like in their bodies. This one dancer did not seem to be able to keep a tripod on the floor, rolling all the way to the outsides of her feet, and so losing the supination and going into inversion, aka, ankle sprain city. This is pretty common for people who have had a lot of ankle sprains, and the outside of their ankle becomes lax. Next week, she’s gonna get wedged.
Welcome to wedge city, population, dat inverted foot!
(Transition is a movement we cover in Dance Stronger in more detail).
A story I forgot to tell last week
Two weeks ago, actually.
There is a dancer in my class with a massive amount of rib flare at rest, and a lumbar spine that does not flex (round). It is very noticeable when she dances, and she says that she is constantly getting the correction from her teachers to not stick her ribs out.
Two weeks ago we introduced some breathing check-ins, and we played around with breathing diaphragmatically by reducing rib flare on an exhalation to get to a zone of apposition, and working on using a 360 inhalation without losing their ZOA. This one dancer told me after class that while she was doing this- Not flaring her ribs on inhalation, she got crazy cramping pains in her ribcage. She was wondering what the heck was going on.
While I can’t know exactly what’s going on in her body, I did my best to piece it together, logically.
My best explanation:
In your current position, ribs flaring up, and unable to move down, your most important breathing muscle, diaphragm, is stuck in a shortened, contracted position. So, when you exhale and get your ribs to move down and in, your diaphragm gets a chance to lengthen and relax. This, however, is not currently within your comfort zone to do, and when you inhale again, you are contracting a muscle from a longer position than it is used to, which could potentially create some cramping.
Think about how it feels to go into a lunge or as I recently experienced, a one leg squat more deeply than you normally go, and try to get out. With the muscles in a longer state than they are used to going into, it requires more force to contract back to center, and you’ll feel the muscle contracting harder than usual, and possibly cramping.
Of course, this is a strange and unpleasant sensation to have going on inside your ribcage. Not pleasant, but good information to work with in a safe way. Work gently, not forcefully with the breath.
I hope that this also makes some sense of why it is so hard to change this pattern of rib flare just by telling dancers in class to get their ribs down- They don’t know how to breathe like that, and when they do, it hurts!
Focus was indeed better this week. I didn’t ask them to focus more. I didn’t tell them their their focus was poor and they needed to get their acts together. We had a nice discussion on deep practice, and, as it often does, in simply becoming aware of something, that thing started to change. I hope they will consider this idea in their other classes as well (especially pilates!).
That’s all for today’s notes. Thanks for reading this far.
In case you didn’t see part 1, GO HERE to read that blog post.
A brief background for this blog post: I made a decision last week that it would be useful for me to write notes and observations from the classes I am teaching at the dance academy I work with. Maybe even useful for you…
This blog started in 2012 as a way to to teach myself stuff. Along the way, I lost that a little bit, and got caught up in trying to sound smart. Screw that. It’s time to go back to what this blog used to about. ME!!!!!
Anyway, these are the class notes from week four.
As I mentioned last week, I’ve been curious how the work from our class has been (or not been) transferring into their dancing, in particular, the ballet class they have directly following mine.
I also have noted, over the years, and in my own experience as a dance student, that we are not often given the opportunity to share what we’re experiencing in our bodies, either for fear of being “wrong”, or because we don’t know what our inner experience is. We don’t get to practice sharing our inner experiences, and so there is this reluctance to speak up. That’s what I think, anyway.
So I asked the class, “How do you you feel in ballet class, after this class, compared to other classes of the week?”.
Two things they reported, as a general concensus:
Where they felt the pressures in their feet when we check in at the beginning of class tends to be the same as in ballet class, and this was not something they noticed before. For example, if they notice their weight was primarily on their right heel during our check in, they will most likely notice that that is also where they tend to have their weight in other classes. This is good information, and a good awareness to have.
They feel more “aware of their core” in the ballet class after doing the work from our class.
That was about it.
Getting these answers was like pulling teeth. I get the general sense that they have been conditioned not to speak their minds or share their internal experience. After all, dance is about how thing look, right? (that was sarcasm, FYI).
Ideally, I would love for them to have more observations that this, positive or negative, I want to know. If the work we’re doing in class isn’t helping them to notice anything useful carrying over into the next dance class, I want to know about it so that we can change up the class. Their lack of awareness, inability to find words, and reluctance to share experiences worries me a bit.
There are a few possibilities I can think of for why this may be:
Students don’t understand the exercises I am showing in class but are not asking questions to deepen their understanding.
I am not sufficiently explaining how the exercises and movements should feel in their bodies, and so their execution is not ideal.
I am not selecting appropriate exercises for them.
Students do not immediately see the value in the exercises and so their execution lacks the requisite depth and focus to create a change in their system.
I am not sufficiently emphasizing the need for quality movement over “just doing” the movement, which creates lack of depth and awareness in their movement execution.
60 (but more like 50) minutes per week is not enough to elicit a change in their bodies when compared to the many other hours per week they spend dancing.
Students may need more hands on cuing to help them move differently, and I am only one person with two arms, unable to help everyone in every class.
Students require additional practice at home on their own to provide enough stimulus to create a change in their system.
I imagine it is a combination of many of these factors, and I will do my best to cover them in the future.
Foot mechanics day. Yay!
Today was the day we covered a topic that, historically, has been met in dance studios with at least a mild amount confusion, resistance, and fear, and typically takes a good chunk of time to cover for those reasons.
I’m talking about introduction to foot mechanics day. Seeing as dancers rely on their feet like Rocket relies on Groot, I feel it is important to provide the experience for dancers to understand how their feet move and function in as simple terms as possible.
I was impressed at how well this group sailed through the lesson without much objection. Only a few confused, frowny faces, but everything was ok in the end.
Foot loading patterns
Before learning “ideal” foot mechanics I had the dancers first check in with their foot loading patterns without telling them what “should” be happening, or what was “right” or “wrong” to feel. We want to first know what is happening now.
As Feldenkrais has wisely said,
“You can’t do what you won’t until you know what you’re doing”.
Foot loading pattern refers to the area of your foot that receives your body weight (loads) at a particular moment in a particular movement. The center of pressure on your foot at a given point in time. I wanted to them to get a sense of whether or not their feet could pronate and supinate well.
Here’s what we checked in with:
Active windlass. This checks for supination mechanics as they would appear in an open chain when the big toe is actively lifting up, such as in the heel strike phase of gait.To do: Stand with your feet side by side and lift your toes off the floor as high as you can.What we are checking for: Does the foot supinate? (arch lifts, weight moves more to the outside of the foot, with tripod on the floor- 1st met, 5th met, and heel). We also want to see sufficient movement of the big toe (about 40 degrees extension), but that’s not the topic for today. If, as you lift your toes up, your foot pressures do not change, the weight stays centered or on the inside of your feet (a more everted foot), or if you can’t get toes up to 40 degrees, this shows a lack of supination mechanics with this movement.The class was fairly divided between who could feel their feet supinating, and who stay everted.
Passive windlass. This checks for supination mechanics in a closed chain while the big toe, first and fifth metatarsals are on the floor, with the heel lifted. The big toe is extending passively due to the movement of the rest of the foot, as we would see in the propulsion phase of gait.To do: Stand with your feet side by side, and press up to a parallel releve (demi-pointe).What we are checking for: Does the foot supinate? Does all the weight stays on the inside edge of the foot, on the big toe/1st metatarsal (everting) or all the way to the 5th met (inverting, or, as we say in dance, sickling). Again, we want to see the foot supinating here, not just rising up on an everted or inverted structure.
Far left: Active windlass Far right: Passive windlass
3. Foot pressures felt in heel in pronation: Posterior to anterior shift. This was to get the dancers to feel where their weight moves in their heel as they move into full weight bearing on one leg in a forward lunging movement.
Something like this…
To do: Start in a split stance, bend the front knee, and as you move your weight onto your front leg in a lunging-type motion tune in to where you feel the pressure in your heel moving from and towards.
What we are looking for: Can you feel the pressure in your heel moving from the back to the front of their heel (6 o’clock to 12 o’clock)? Many of the dancers, in fact, completely bypassed their heels and moved directly onto their toes, gripping on for dear life. We did not move onto the second part of this check-in until the whole class could feel the weight in their heels moving from the back (6 o’clock) to front (12 o’clock). No one gets left behind! It took a few minutes…
4. Foot pressures felt in heel in pronation: Posterior-lateral to anterior-medial shift. All those words means is that we are checking to see whether or not the weight in their heel moves from the outside-back bit of the heel to the inside-front bit, in a diagonal line. This is how we would like the pressures to move through our foot as we go from heel strike into suspension (foot flat) in gait to absorb shock.
To do: Same as above, but this time check in with where you feel the weight moving in the side to side plane of motion.What we are looking for: Weight in their heel moving from the outside-back (posterior lateral) part of the heel to the inside-front (anterior medial) part (for your right foot, that would be from a 4 or 5 o’clock to a 10 or 11 o’clock direction). Many of the dancers felt the opposite happening: Weight going from medial to lateral, or just staying stuck on the inside of their foot the whole time. This check in is a great indicator of how well a foot can pronate.
Last semester when I went through this segment of the class with the first year dancers, there was resistance.
“But isn’t pronation bad?”
I wrote a few things about this already, so I will refer you HERE, and HERE, and also HERE and HEREto read more about the necessity of possessing and using pronation in life, and even in dance.
This class dove right in and just accepted that what I was saying was true. Not going to lie, I would have liked a little bit of resistance and questioning from them. At least then I would know these guys don’t just believe shit without asking questions or thinking critically. I am somewhat worried…
To experience pronation in the context of its role in the shock absorption phase of gait, we went through suspension, a movement from Anatomy in Motion in which we couple pronation of the foot with what the rest of the body is doing at this moment in the gait cycle (an exercise you’ll recognize if you are a member of Dance Stronger).
Then I had to pull more teeth out to get feedback on how it felt after doing something many of them had been told was not “right”- pronating their feet!
One dancer expressed how her feet now felt more pronated. I asked her what that felt like, and she replied that it no longer felt like she was standing on the outside of her feet (as is her habitual pattern), and that it felt “good”. Who woulda thunk it?
And another dancer said that she felt more stuff around her hips and butt were activated (In fact, as Gary Ward has written in What The Foot, extension of the hip- activity in the glutes and posterior chain, requires pronation of the foot due to the fact that at the same time as the foot pronates, the glutes and hamstrings eccentrically load).
Two dancers agreed that their weight now felt more back in their heels, and less on their toes than before. This is interesting, because in the gait cycle, when the foot pronates, the center of mass is actually travelling forward towards the toes. Perhaps their experience is due to pronation enabling the posterior chain to load, as I described above, making it possible to allow their center of mass to shift backwards. Or something…).
Not bad for our first go at it! As I mentioned, only minimal frowny confusion. Looking forward to see how we can build on this initial experience in coming weeks.
The rest of class…
We spent reviewing stuff from last week. Nothing exciting to report here.
A few other notes
As the dancers get to know me, they are becoming more relaxed, but less focused. Maybe it’s time to activate Monika-means-business-mode…
Monika-means-business-mode. JK. No guns in class 😉
I am reading the book Deep Work, by Cal Newport, right now, and so, I have on my mind right now the importance of being able to work for long chunks of time without distraction on one’s productivity and ability to learn. Many of the dancers in class are losing this ability to focus and I feel that if it continues to be a thing, their progress will stall.
I am making a mental note for next week to take five minutes to discuss the importance of maintaining their attention in class, treating it as a skill to be cultivated, and, in general, the ability to be able to practice deeply as a highly useful skill, not only for this class, but for dancing, and other levels of their lives. It also is important as it relates to rule #2: honest movement. Difficult to move honestly without the capacity to maintain a level of deep focus.
As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote in his book Flow, The Psychology of Optimal Experience:
“Attention is like energy in that without it no work can be done, and in doing work is dissipated. We create ourselves by how we use this energy. Memories, thoughts and feelings are all shaped by how use it. And it is an energy under control, to do with as we please; hence attention is our most important tool in the task of improving the quality of experience.”
Well that’s all I have to say for this week. I hope you enjoyed and maybe even got something valuable out of reading. I know writing this has been useful for me.
Would love to hear your thoughts, comments, love, and abuse. Leave a comment below if you feel moved to, but I also encourage you to get away from your computer and do something not related to the internet.
Are you ready for a good, old fashioned, 2000+ word blog post, just like I used to do? Yeah you are!
Will this be my last rant of 2016?
Probably. But less of a rant, more of an expansion on a frustration.
This blog post is meant to serve as a follow up to a response I wrote on Facebook to Lisa Howell’s recent blog post on The Ballet Blog, on why dancers should reconsider using a theraband to strengthen their feet. Lisa’s primary issue with pointing into a theraband: Because dancers are likely to scrunch their toes, overwork flexor hallucis longus and other muscles of the calf, and do the exercise wrong. Banded foot-pointery could do more harm than good, so safer not to do it at all.
Oh wait, I lied! There was a time when I used therabands. At the very least I can console myself in the fact that I was trying to help this dancer with her ankle dorsiflexion, not pointing into the band. But still…
In my commentary on my Facebook page (join me!), I agreed that I don’t often (ever, to this point) use a theraband for foot exercises with training clients, but for slightly different reasons than “they’ll probably do it wrong”. I received some comments on asking for a little more info, disagreeing, or sharing their faith in the band to do good.
It’s about time someone questioned my writing:
“using the band save my feet from injury and allow me to strength them in a pretty optimal way so I do not agree. I do when you say that it must be used properly but it’s indeed a really useful tool…”
…band work is a great way to reduce load on the joint, muscles, or tendons during rehab, for example. If a dancer is injured and can’t perform closed chain actions, why wouldn’t you offer band work as an option? A simple solution to the problem of curling the toes is to place the band at the ball of the foot, rather than around the toes. Cue the dancer to keep toes relaxed and point the “foot”, not the toes.”
“Can you comment on restoring ideal movement mechanics?”
I hope to reply to some of those questions/comments now.
My blog post today relates to four primary themes on theraband use:
1) Most peoples’ goals are vague to non-existent when they pick up a resistance band. They don’t know why they’re doing what they’re doing.
2) The open chain nature of banded foot exercises are likely not to contribute to ideal joint mechanics when the foot is on the ground, and area in which dancers need a lot of help.
3) What if the foot isn’t the root of the problem, just a symptom?
4) Will the banded foot-pointery not actually drive dancers deeper into their dance-specific adaptations rather than help them with what they specifically hoped it would? Which brings us right back to point one…
Just what is the goal, exactly?
And don’t say, “to strengthen my arch”, “ankle stability”, or “injury prevention”. That isn’t enough information. Most dancers (and dare I say, some teachers!) doing these exercises aren’t clear on their why.
Fitting that I just finished reading (audiobooking, rather) Start With Why, by Simon Sinek. SInek says, if you have your “why”, the what and how will follow, but without a why, the what means nothing. And while he is speaking primarily of business, this is true on all other levels of life, including your body.
But also, dance IS your business. Your body is one of your most valuable assets, and maybe it’s time to start treating it as such. What if you tried not just doing shit because so and so does it, or it looks cool, or because someone told you to. Make decisions congruent with your best interest in mind.
Unfortunately, I get the sense that many dancers don’t know what “best interests” means. Or they do, but choose to ignore it.
Let’s start with the “why” in the case of these banded foot pointing exercises- The foot’s equivalent of the sit-up. No one’s saying sit-ups are bad (well, some people are…), but you should know why you’re doing them and understand if it’s a choice that matches your goal.
What’s the goal?
Injury rehabilitation? To strengthen your ankles? More “stability”? To improve the arch of your foot? We need to be more specific, and to do that, we need to know more about you, the individual, and where you are right now.
Let’s say, for example, you landed a jump kind of hard and awkwardly and have some shooting pains in your ankle. Or maybe you changed directions quickly in class, slipped, and sprained your ankle. Is this a job for the band? Surely pointing your foot into a band for five minutes before class will help make your ankle more stable, which is what you need, right?
Let’s consider that the most common injuries in dance are to the foot and ankle. Sprains, shin splints, stress fractures, and broken bones etc.
What do these all have in common? Normally, these types of injuries happen while the foot is on the floor. Do we ever see foot and ankle injuries while the foot is in the air? Maybe through impact and direct trauma, but rarely, if not ever, does someone break their foot or sprain an ankle while it is in the air.
These injuries happen due to the way the foot and ankle react (or don’t react…) on the floor, in coordination with the rest of the body.
So if the way the foot interacts with the floor is the issue, for example, why the heck is a common solution to strengthen the foot with a band in an open chain? It just doesn’t make much sense.
Let’s go to town.
Open vs. closed chain
Open chain refers to the foot being off the floor, closed chain refers to the foot being in contact with the floor. The supporting leg in an arabesque is closed chain, the “up” leg, is open chain.
In gym-world, a squat is a closed chain exercise, and a seated leg extension is open chain.
Here’s the important bit: The foot and ankle do completely different things in open vs. closed chain.
Gait (walking) is predominantly closed chain (save for early and late swing). The implication is that the majority of what our brains recognize to be “natural” and useful movements for our bodies are in closed chain, walking being what our bodies were primarily set up to do. Working with how the body is designed to move through gait allows us to make incredible changes to how our bodies move, feel, and perform. This means, more often than not, working in closed chain.
In closed chain, the forefoot and rearfoot should move in opposition to each other due to the foot’s need to be in contact with the floor. If this opposition didn’t take place, the foot would act more as one big chunk rather than 33 articulating joints.
In a closed chain, the foot pronates and supinates.
In open chain, without the floor to provide sensory information, the foot does not oppose like it does when we walk. In open chain, the foot everts and inverts.
An important distinction to make here is between pronation and eversion, and supination and inversion. Pronation and supination are tri-planar movements involving opposing inversion and eversion the rearfoot, foorefoot, and toes.
Because the 1st met is off the ground, the left foot in this image is not supinated, its inverted.
Neither of these movements are good or bad. It simply is important to know the difference in order to make choices that support your goal.
Unfortunately, when it comes to supplementary training, the most popular forms of training for dancers are open chain, lying on the floor. This is fine, but it should not be the only form of exercise they do if we want to prepare them for the demands of dance when they stand up.
Let’s continue with the landing a jump example.
How is it possible for such graceful creatures as dancers to land jumps like a ton of bricks? I’ve been sitting on the exam panel at the dance school I work at this week, and it has honestly been painful to watch the students jump.
If we look at the foot as the first point of contact with the floor upon landing, much is left to be desired.
Upon landing a jump, the foot must quickly pronate (but not too much or too quickly) which will load the tissues on the bottom of the foot, and, like a spring, automatically resupinate the foot as the muscles catch and react to the force of the movement, propelling off the landing leg.
If we have trained dancers not to pronate (misinterpreting when and why pronation is useful) they will be landing a jump with a rigid foot and ankle, which feels pretty terrible. If we only recommend the use of bands to strengthen ankles and feet, we are never allowing them to access a hugely important component of landing a jump- Letting the bones of the foot spread to absorb force, aka, pronation.
I will speak primarily for ballet and contemporary dance in which the aesthetic of the art often interferes with the “ideal” mechanic for landing a jump. I was taught not to let my feet pronate, to push my knees out past my pinky toes, and keep my butt tucked under while I jumped, keeping “neutral” through my pelvis and spine. This aesthetic makes it nearly impossible to absorb shock, which is why the dance studio turns into a herd of elephants when it’s time to jump. I’m sure you know what I mean…
In fact, I already wrote about this HERE. But no one said much about it or seemed to care either way. It’s cool.
I also gave a talk/workshop on this last year at York University.
Wow, my hair was short!
Let’s talk a bit more about pronation
Pronation is a tri-planar movement:
In the sagittal plane the forefoot dorsiflexes and the rearfoot plantarflexes.
In the frontal plane the forefoot inverts and the rearfoot everts.
In the transverse plane the forefoot abducts (or externally rotates) and the rearfoot internally rotates.
The exact reverse is true for supination.
Recall that in gait, the foot, as a unit, should not invert and evert while on the ground (and even continues to oppose in swing to a degree), because this does not allow for a tripod to be in contact with the ground, or, we end up with a very reduced tripod.
Pronation is precious.
In the gait cycle pronation happens just once per step we take.
It is the only time in which the bones on the bottom and medial side of the foot spread open, and the muscles on the bottom of your foot and some of the back of the ankle (achilles tendon, calf), lengthen. This is the way your brain recognizes these muscles lengthening to be safe and useful in order to walk- It’s the way the muscles were set up to decelerate (lengthen under tension) your bones most efficiently as your foot hits the ground.
Sagittally speaking, with each step you take, your plantar fascia, and all the muscles that connect under your foot- tibialis posterior, flexor hallucis longus, flexor digitorum longus and brevis, and all the others under there that support the foot’s arches, will lengthen, and, in response to this lengthening, receive the input required to contract and pull the foot into supination.
As per Gary Ward’s rules of movement from his book What the Foot: A muscle must lengthen before it can contract. We cannot just eliminate one end of the spectrum and expect there not to be consequences.
If, as you walk, dance, and live, you avoid pronation, the muscles of supination will never get a chance to lengthen. Sure you can roll them out with a ball, but that doesn’t change the fact that your foot doesn’t ever use these muscles in movement through their full lengthening-shortening spectrum, they become stuck.
If you are to only train your feet with a band, to contract concentrically, you will have a very hard using muscles to absorb shock as you land a jump, as well as trouble using these muscles to point your foot.
But what about winging? Shouldn’t I use a band to train my ankles not to sickle?
Winging the foot is a weird movement, but by classical standards it looks pretty, so it’s here to stay.
The things we do for winged feet…
Winging, as in the back foot in an arabesque line, is an open chain movement involving:
Rearfoot, forefoot, and toe plantarflexion.
Rearfoot and forefoot eversion.
Whole foot in external rotation.
Not the most natural feeling thing to do…
Maybe your teacher has told you not to sickle your feet, so it’s off to the band to strengthen your feet into a winged position.
But before you set your peroneals on fire with the theraband, or do something silly with the Ballet Footstretcher, consider how this might affect how your feet perform when they are on the floor.
Knowing what you do now about foot opposition when it is on the ground, and the importance of this for shock absorption, and allowing muscles to lengthen and contract (which will actually improve your arch not make it worse), how useful do you think using the band will be for you?
Yes, it will be great for practicing what your foot does when your leg is off the ground, but what if that’s all you do to cross train? What happens when it’s time to jump? Have you prepared your body effectively to cope with that kind of stress?
I’m not saying don’t use the band, but before you do, consider these two things:
Does using a band match your goal? Do you really need to strengthen your foot muscles, or would it be more useful to give your feet an experience in closed chain, allowing the bottom of your foot to open, lengthening and contracting the tissues through their full range as they were intended to as you move.
If you are using a band specifically to reinforce an adaptation for dance, such as winging and pointing your feet, just make sure you have a strategy to unwind that so that your feet also understand what to do when they are on the floor. It might be interesting to check first, before practicing a specific skill to death, whether enhancing natural movement mechanics will get the job done on its own.
In the end, there are no right or wrong ways to train your body, but you must know why you are doing what you are doing.
One person’s “wrong” might be your “right”. There may be a time and a place to use a band, just make sure you know what that is for you.
In Dance Stronger, we go into more detail, and a few exercises that integrate pronation and supination in full body movements. If you are interested in going deeper into what I’m talking about in this blog post, you might be interested in checking the resource out.
Questions? Comments? Observations? Abuse? Let me know what’s going on in your head.
I love airplaning and all it’s variations. I can never remember exactly which warrior variation this is in yoga (is it 3?) but I think it is great, ass-burny fun.
Let’s talk a bit more about ankle and foot mechanics during the single leg deadlift/airplane/warrior 3/whatever the heck you call it.
Decided to make some detailed, scientific graphics to illustrate today’s concept. Behold, the airplane.
Recently, I received this question in an email about how to perform the airplane exercise:
Q: “…I’m sure I read somewhere in Dance Stronger you keep your supporting leg bent? Or did I totally imagine that?”
M: There are two trains of thought, and both are proper, as long as your choice is deliberate and done with awareness 😉 You can do it with a slightly unlocked knee, OR with a straight, but not hyperextended knee. If you are going to do it with an unlocked knee you foot should move into a slightly pronated position, while still maintaining a tripod, and if you do with a straight knee, your foot should be supinated (or at least attempting supinate away from pronation), with an arch, definitely not pronated. Try both and see how they feel.
A few hours later, the reply:
Q: Is it just a question of what feels better in your body or is there a reason why you would do one version over another?
M: It’s more like a question of how the foot and ankle coordinates with the knee dynamically in gait. In a single leg deadlift, as you go down, the foot and ankle should naturally pronate, and as you come up, should resupinate. So, bending the knee couples with pronation, and straightening the knee couples with supination. You want to respect that as much as possible in your training. So if you’re holding the airplane position with a straight leg, then you’ll want a supinated foot. If you’re holding the airplane with a slightly bent knee, you’ll want a slightly pronated foot, and if you’re realllyy bending your knee, you’ll want an even deeper pronation. If you’re doing the movement dynamically you should be able to move in and out of pronation and supination as your knee bends and straightens, respectively.
These were not the instructions I included in Dance Stronger, but hey, if people want details, I’m into that. I’m really into that. I’m stoked this question came up- seeing as lower foot and ankle issues are a huge deal in dance, the more we can do to integrate their healthy movement into weight bearing exercises, the better.
Did you know visual art was my lowest grade in high school? I don’t know why…
Trying to do a single leg deadlift with this focus on ankle and foot movement makes it feel INSANE. Bring this into your yoga practice and it will rock your world. Notice what your feet are doing during plies and you just might push a bit deeper down into a demi if you stop trying to control your arches from dropping.
By holding a pronated foot I don’t mean rolling completely to the inside letting the outer edge come off the floor- this would actually be an everted foot, I mean a “relatively pronated tripod”. And the same goes for supination. To supinate does not mean to roll all the way to the outside edge of the foot letting the ball of the big toe come off (that would be an inverted foot). We want an adaptable tripod, not a chunk.
This is why it’s useful to see people move without shoes on. At the gym/clinic I train at, nearly all of the clients I get as referrals from physio have orthotics. Orthotics for high arches, orthotics to support flat arches. What if you started treating your foot like the rest of your body and trained it to move better? Imagine if we all walked around with powerlifting belts on because we needed more “core support”- an ab orthotic. Just do the dang work, and if you still need the orthotic for your feet, or your abs, or whatever it is you are trying to control, it’ll be there for you.
My two cents for today. Tune into your feet on your single leg deadlifting/airplaning, and other activities, and see how an adaptive foot changes things for you.
Very quick post today, and it’s about ankles and feet.
First, check out these two videos. In particular, check out her front (left) foot/ankle as she performs a split squat. What do you see in the before vs. after?
I hope you saw what I saw: A big change in the control of her pronation. Rather, an improvement in her ability to limit excessive pronation on the descent, and then successfully re-supinate as she came up.
Just FYI, pronation isn’t bad. You need it for shock absorption. You need it when you dance as a part of turn-out.
In fact, to extend your hips and activate your glutes you need to be able to pronate so that you can then re-supinate, driving hip extension from the ground up.
Much like you need sadness to perceive happiness, darkness to perceive light, you need pronation to perceive re-supination and to extend your hips. Yin and yang baby.
You don’t need orthotics to prevent your foot from pronating (well, sometimes, maybe. But it’s not a long-term solution).
You’re better off working on motor control and training yourself to become an orthotic.
Pronation can become problematic when it happens at the wrong time, in excess, and gets stuck there at rest.
By the same token, anterior tilt isn’t bad. Lumbar hyper-extension isn’t bad. They are necessary movements for dance and for life.
But they can be troublesome if you’re stuck in one of those positions, or they happen at the inappropriate time. Does your lower back hyperextend doing a sit up? That’s not supposed to happen… But it might if you’re like me, and some other dancers who are stuck in ineffective extension patterns.
Thank you, back-bends and chest breathing.
The time between the first and second videos was about 5-10 minutes. What did we do in that time?
An Anatomy in Motion inspired exercise that looked something (but not exactly) like this:
And we used an AiM wedge under the lateral part of her left foot to coax it to re-supinate at the appropriate time.
How can this help her dancing?
Proper control of pronation and re-supination means glute activation and hip extension will happen at the right times.
For this particular dancer, it means that she’ll be able to save her back by extending at the hip instead of her spine in excess.
It means she’ll have better arch strength and probably be able to point her feet better.
Being able to activate her glutes at the right time means her sore, tight hamstring will be able to relax and feel better.
And one of her main goals for working with me, improving ankle stability for better balance, is likely to become more solid too.
We have a lot of work to do yet, but not bad for a 10 minute experiment, eh?
I’m not an AiM practitoner, but I’ve been playing around with Gary Ward’s concepts, and having some pretty cool results. What happens at the foot is kind of a big deal. If you can find an AiM person near you, I highly recommend it.
The main take-away?
Be aware that pronation isn’t bad. If someone recommends you get orthotics to limit pronation, get a second opinion. Find someone who does AiM and they will teach you how to become your own orthotic.
What do you think?
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