If you’ve ever taken a ballet class, then I can wager that you’ve heard this correction at least once:
“Tuck your pelvis under!”
You’ve probably also heard:
“Pull-up!”, and its evil play-friends, “Engage your core!”, “Suck in your gut!”, “Get your ribs in!”, and then to top it off (as I was always told), “Don’t look so weird!”.
HAHAHA really? You want me to suck it my gut, tuck my butt under, push in my ribs and NOT look like I’m constipated? Right…
These cues are generally given to help us find “neutral” alignment and dance better.
At best, this verbiage can convey the wrong feeling and cause extra tension, and at worst can cause life-long movement habits that can cause pain in and of themselves, long after you’ve stopped dancing.
I currently am working with a former dancer in her 30s. She’s had a few kids and now works as a chiropodist (yay feet).
We quickly discovered that it is VERY difficult for her to access anterior tilt in basic body-weight movements, such as a rockback. Her pelvis will begin to tuck under almost immediately- She doesn’t know how to hip hinge.
Something clicked for her instantly: All the years in dance, for as long as she could remember, teachers had been telling her to tuck her pelvis under. Not only did this become a habit in her dancing, but became her “thing” years after she stopped performing.
And if you’re unfamiliar with the terms anterior and posterior tilt, see the picture below:
Let’s continue with the story.
My client began to notice all the different moments in her life that she would habitually posteriorally tilt (tuck under) her pelvis rather than hinge from her hips.
When she bent down to pick up her kids. While sitting. And as a response to stress. Tucking under had become her pattern, and she began to realize that this was probably why her back was always sore, too.
She asked me to teach her the proper way to bend down to pick up her kids, to which I replied, “So you want to learn to deadlift, eh?” (a deadlift is just a loaded hip hinge, and a kid is for sure a load to lift).
Her pain quickly decreased by improving her awareness and by working to mobilize her pelvis and improving her ability to anteriorally tilt.
And her husband reports her butt has firmed up a bit too. #science at it’s best- if you can’t load your hips, you can’t work dat booty.
So if you teach dancers, please be aware that the cues you give them may stay with them long after they’ve stopped dancing. Your words carry more power than you think.
Also it is important to recognize that every dancer is different. We all learn in different ways, so please be ready to adapt what you say to match the individual. This is a skill that takes time and experience working with many bodies.
WHAT’S THE “BEST” PELVIC ALIGNMENT?
A dance teacher recently asked this question in a group that I follow on Facebook. Her question (paraphrased): “What’s the best position for the dancer’s pelvis? Neutral, anterior tilt, or posterior tilt?”.
Of course it seems like a no-brainer. Neutral, obviously.
Or is it?
This question makes it seem like only one position can be the best, and the other two are the devil- Positions to avoid because they are bad, bad, bad.
If you think that she’s right about this, then sorry to burst your bubble but posterior and anterior tilt are good!
Your body was designed to do these movements. They are necessary and without them you wouldn’t be able to walk properly.
Why demonize positions that are completely natural and healthy for the body? Especially for an activity like dance, the movement vocabulary of which is infinitely vast! Why limit yourself to just “neutral”?
IS NEUTRAL SOMETHING TO AIM FOR?
Yes and no.
Yes you should be able to get to neutral with any joint- Spine, pelvis, hips, shoulder, feet, etc.
And yes, you should also be able to posteriorally tilt, anteriorally tilt, and do all the other fun movements each joints of your body is built to perform .
You can have it all. Good news, I hope, if you’ve been beating yourself up because you can’t stay perfectly “neutral” while you dance.
That said, if you can’t get to neutral ever, that’s a problem.
I have a pretty crazy degree of anterior pelvic tilt at rest (as I wrote about HERE), and this wouldn’t necessarily be considered problematic except for the fact that I can’t tuck my pelvis under enough to even get to neutral.
Think of neutral as a particular range of motion that just happens to be mid-point on the spectrum.
Mid-point is a range of motion you definitely don’t want to lose. Just like posterior tilt or anterior tilt. Just like kicking yourself in the head. Or sitting on your head…
I repeat: Every movement your body is capable of performing is perfectly healthy and good and you should not avoid any of them.
We sometimes subconsciously learn to avoid positions that our brains perceive to be a threat because of injury, emotional reasons, or inappropriate cueing from teachers.
So we learn to work around these points in our of range of motion to avoid feeling distressed. And good thing we do, because it’s a really clever way to avoid pain (physical or psychic) in the short-term.
Long-term however, avoiding and then losing a range of motion isn’t so healthy.
All that to say that the question should not be “which is the best position“, but rather “HOW can I help my students access the appropriate ranges of motion at the appropriate times?”
To be confined to neutral while dancing, yes, even in ballet, is like dancing constipated and scared.
That’s probably why I always looked so weird and got injured a lot…
NEUTRAL SPINE/PELVIS REVISITED
There is a difference between trying to keep someone neutral during activity & trying to facilitate muscles to reduce the pull of a pattern. Neutrality might be achieved, but the bigger goal during training in particular is to not allow a stronger bias to create significant torque onto the system.
Neutrality is awesome, but learning to establish balanced muscle work with movement patterns is end-game….
Read that again.
For most of us, to keep an absolutely perfectly neutral alignment of pelvis and spine is not going to happen. “Neutral” is also a position that is slightly different for everyone, and on any given day.
To force uniformity on a position that is highly variable and constantly in flux is madness.
What’s more important than staying neutral, which by the way I don’t think is possible, is the ability to, as Michael states, “reduce the pull of a pattern” that could create excess torque on a joint or system of joints.
What this means is that how the movement feels for the dancer is more important that how it looks to the outside eye.
Aesthetics are an important part of dance, but no two people can move the same way, and trying to force a dancer to look a particular way, i.e. stay perfectly neutral, will only add strain to their system causing that “weirdness” I couldn’t avoid (because I was trying to be perfect and move like someone I wasn’t).
If the movement feels good for the dancer, there is an absence of extra strain, and it meets the criteria of the aesthetic they’re aiming for (the choreography for example), who cares if it’s not perfectly neutral?
As a colleague of mine pointed out (after I asked him if the corrective exercise I was doing looked “right”), he said, “How does it feel? Are you feeling ___ happen? If you’re feeling it in the right places that’s all that matters. Proprioception is everything“.
Unfortunately for those of you who want solid “yes”, or “no” answers, everything is shades of grey. But this is also a beautiful and liberating thing.
WHEN IS NEUTRAL GOOD?
When a joint is neutral, or centrated (sitting centered relative to it’s maximum extremes of possible range of motion), it is at a mechanical advantage. Sort of.
Actually, a muscle has the highest force producing capabilities when it is stretched out and ready to recoil, like a stretched slingshot. So when you get stuck in one range, there is a constant tug-of-war going on- The muscle wants to recoil, but your brain ain’t letting it.
This is why things can start to feel tight, like you hamstrings and groin.
Anyway, yes, a neutral pelvis is good to aim for as it will allow you to access optimal turnout, hip flexion and extension and minimize stress on the spine and other joints.
This is one mindset… Want another one? Sure you do.
If mindset A is “to achieve maximum range of motion, one must start from center”, then consider mindset B, “To achieve neutral, one must be able to feel both other extremes of that joint’s range of motion”.
This could turn into a huge chicken-or-the-egg discussion, or we could just all agree and say it’s never great to lose ANY range of motion, neutral included.
I guess the biggest thing I want you to consider is that neutral is not a position, it’s just a point on the movement spectrum and you shouldn’t get stuck there.
After all, is the body ever capable of being completely still? I dare you to try (hint- it’s not).
So if neutral is but a range of motion we move through, impossible to hold, and getting stuck in one range of motion at the expense of others can be unsafe and tension-creating, why are we treating it like the holy grail of dance?
WHAT’S A BETTER CUE THAN “NEUTRAL”?
I realize I may have made things even less clear for you. Good! I hope you’re thinking.
What then do you say to a dance student who clearly needs some help sorting out their pelvis/spine/joints you feel need to be more “neutrally” aligned?
While I said that all ranges of motion are good, being sloppy or stiff at the wrong times needs to be corrected before becoming habits that cause pain.
I’m not a dance teacher, so this is not my area of expertise. I’m good with the supplemental work to help dancers bring new awareness and movement possibilities to their art, but when it comes to teaching dance, there are so many people who can do it better than me.
A few things I’d like to say though, from my perspective.
1. Avoid using cues like “tuck-under” and “suck it in” that are positional and can pack emotional baggage.
Give cues that are meant to create a change in movement rather than encourages the dancer to maintain a position while trying to move.
“Tuck-under” and “suck it in” can also make dancers feel like they have a butt that’s too big, or they are fat, and it really sucks to have to dance around in a bodysuit and tights thinking that your dance teacher sees you that way, judging your body.
2. When cueing and corrections alone don’t work, screen dancers, if you can, and recommend some supplementary training to help them.
Sometimes coaching won’t work because the student isn’t ready for it, psychologically or physically- Something beyond their consciousness is holding them back. Supplementary training can help bring these limitations to their awareness and help them to make change.
Check out THIS RESOURCE that showed the benefits of helping dancers with supplemental work outside the class, and this improved their alignment.
Dancers were given separate “tutoring” sessions to supplement technique classes in hopes it would transfer into class.
“The major focus of the tutoring sessions was increasingawareness and motor control, and developing good alignment habits to promote lasting improvements. The resultsof the study indicate that following intervention each of thedancers decreased their degree of anterior pelvic tilt by anaverage of 3.5 degrees. Through a simple tutoring programthese dancers were able to improve their pelvic alignmentand gain a greater understanding of what was necessary formaintaining this alignment.”
Addressing the pelvic needs of a dancer will eliminate the need to tell them to “tuck under” in class, as they’ll be in a more optimal alignment reflexively.
3. Consider giving them a regressed exercises.
Allow dancers to prioritize proper movement quality over leg height, or excessive range of motion beyond their control. Better to take a few steps back and master the basics.
4. Treat each dancer as an individual.
Remember that what worked for you may not work for every dancer. And please try not to project your own fears and movement biases upon your students.
For example, if you were told to tuck under, you may see this as the ultimate correction, and whenever you see a bum out of place you urge them to tuck it in.
This might not be their specific issue.
And if you had knee pain, then you might cue movement a particular way that worked for you to avoid knee pain. You might do this subconsciously.
If your students don’t have knee pain, they don’t need to avoid it! Just be aware of whether the cue is for you or for your student.
Yes, this makes your job as a teacher pretty difficult. I hope you enjoy the challenge and reward that informed, individualized cueing can bring. Your students will certainly benefit, and you’ll learn a ton.
5. Consider a subtle shift in the language used to communicate alignment.
If you check out THIS article, it seems like it made a huge difference to change from using the word “tuck” to “tilt”.
Mention of the word tilt seemed to suggest the possibility of a different action… Janice Chapman speaks of “slightly tilting” the pelvis without clenching the buttocks, which, in her words, “helps to engage the lower abdominal and pelvic floor muscles in a posturally advantageous setting.”
So I highly recommend varying the verbiage you use to cue your students. What might be a harmless and effective cue for one student could be highly distressing for another depending on their unique history.
- All movements are good. Posterior and anterior tilt are no better or worse than neutral.
- Trying to stay perfectly 100% in neutral spine or pelvis can cause excess strain on your system. Minimizing strain and getting dancers to feel the movement correctly is more important than them looking perfect (because as you know, dancers can make almost any movement look good…).
- Take the time to learn to cue each dancer in your class as an individual and avoid projecting your past experiences upon them.
- Sometimes supplemental exercise is necessary for a dancer to overcome a limitation that they can’t be coached out of.
If you’re interested in seeing what I mean by “supplemental exercise”, you’ll want to check out Dance Stronger- A book, 4 week training program, and amazing supportive community. I created Dance Stronger to help you overcome limitations that could be causing excess strain and frustration in your quest for “neutral” and better, stronger dancing.
Dance Stronger is available 100% by donation, because I know you’re a starving artist with priorities. Like coffee, And that shit’s expensive!
I hope to see you in the DS community, and please leave a comment below if you have thoughts, questions, or want to crush my soul (please don’t do that though).