We are the third week into the semester at the dance academy I work at here in beautiful Torono.

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I am super stoked. Why am I so stoked? I’ve never had the opportunity to work with one dance class progressively for the course of a semester. I’ve done drop in classes with rather irregular attendance, but nothing enhances one’s progress like making it mandatory to show up for class in order to graduate.

I thought it might be nice to share the progress of the class and my observations. And, as always, when I write, I learn. So it will be a nice practice for me to retrieve details deep from my brain. Maybe some of you will even enjoy reading this. And maybe, so will I…

Last semester I did in fact work with the 1st year class at the academy, however, last semester I was not a great teacher. I was gone for a lot of the semester.

First, I was away for a total of 5 weeks to present some things at a conference in Hong Kong, then to study Thai massage in Thailand, and studying Anatomy in Motion in Melbourne.

Then, after a series of unfortunate events involving my own idiocy, a few missed flights, and overstaying my visa in China and nearly needing to pay my way out (a place I had not intended to be in the first place, let alone get stuck in for more than 24 hours), and then contracting the plague after arriving back in Canada three days later than scheduled. So I ended up missing 7 classes that semester. My bad.

This semester, things will be different.

THE FIRST CLASS…

The goals.

I wanted this class to place an importance on both education- the understanding of why we’re doing what we’re doing, as well performing the physical work to enhance their movement quality and general strength (as is the theme of the class).

I had lofty ideals for this class. I had planned out how I wanted to assess the students at the beginning of the semester, how I would re-assess at mid-terms, how the class would progress, etc. Well, none of that happened. Welcome to reality. 

The time-limit factor.

I have 60 minutes per week with them. This ends up being more like 50 minutes per week since they are consistently 10 minutes late for class, and then have to rush off to ballet class immediately after we are done.

Side note: I am super curious to get their feedback on how ballet class feels after having done my class first. More data needs to be collected…

Side note two: The entire class is injured in some way.

So, realizing that 50 minutes per week would not allow me to execute my grandiose vision, I complied with reality, and reduced the amount of “stuff” we’d tackle in a session.  

In any case, it is more beneficial to focus on less stuff more deeply, than to do more stuff, superficially. I’d rather the class get through 3 exercises in a deep way, with understanding, feeling what they are doing in a way they can replicate on their own, than 12 exercises just going through the motions in a disconnected way.

The “assessment”

I planned for the first class to be entirely a movement exploration. No “strength” training. Not even any real “movement practice”. Just exploring and finding out where they are now. Unfortunately, the heat was off in the studio that day and it happened to be about -20 outside, and so my poor students we freezing to death on the one day we weren’t moving enough to break a sweat. #SorryNotSorry.

What was the assessment? Call it more of a check-in. We don’t have the means/budget to do any objective testing that would require reliable equipment (like a vertical jump test) nor do we have the time to do a lot of assessing. So what can we do to ensure they are still progressing class to class? The dancers can learn the fine art of checking in (as per rule #7). And truly, it is an art and a skill. One that, as we practice, we can hone to move from more subjective to more objective.

For example, if I were to ask you to stand quietly and try to feel your foot pressures on the floor, you may feel that we are standing with equal pressure on both feet, not rolled to the inside or outsides, or weighted more to the front or back of your feet. Maybe you feel pretty dang centered. In reality, what the outside observer might see is that you could be standing with your pelvis shifted to the right, yet feeling centered. In this case, what you’re feeling is likely not to be an accurate read of your foot pressures. Your subjective experience is not matching with reality.

Arguing with reality is a waste of energy. I personally don’t recommend it.

Over time, the ability to improve your objective perception of your body can be trained, much like any other skill. As you learn to feel your body in stillness, and learn how it reacts to various movements, tuning in to what changes, along with someone observing and giving you some feedback from their point of view, you can start to put together a more honest picture of what your body is doing.

One dancer I once had in class told me her feet felt even. The way she was standing told me this could not be the case. “Are you sure that’s true?” I asked her. “I don’t know….” was her reply. At the end of the class, she remarked, “I can feel my arches!”. So, I asked, what did that mean? “At the beginning of class you didn’t know what was happening with your feet, now you have arches. What happened?” Was she standing more on the insides of her feet before, and now she was more centered on her feet? Less everted? Again, she didn’t know. Not yet.

This is the beginning of the process and speaks to the importance of the check-in before and after a movement session. The more information we can gather and correlate with before and after experiences, the better sense we can get of where our bodies are really at.

Moving along.

The check in.

So we checked-in. Foot pressures. Pelvis, ribcage, and skull motion in 3D (a la Anatomy in Motion). And natural spinal motion in sagittal plane. Basic stuff.

The results?

  • The majority of these dancers don’t know their pelvis from their ribcage. This is a bit of an issue as, in gait and many other activities, for efficiency of movement we need the pelvis and ribcage to oppose each other in all planes of movement. If you rotate your ribs to the right, your pelvis should be able to stay where it is, or, rotate left. This rules is true for shifting, hiking, side-bending, and anterior/posterior tilting, too. The result of this opposition is that we create space between our ribs and pelvis, joints get to open and close, abdominal tissues get to load and contract in response to motion, blood and other fluids gets to go where there was previously no motion, and we can access the lateral and spiraling motions so common in dance more effortlessly.
  • Breathing in an “ideal” pattern is not a thing for these guys. This exists on a spectrum in this class- Some dancers couldn’t close their mouths, sit still, or get the breath out of their chests, and others got right into the zone (of apposition…). Interestingly, having seen these dancers perform in their dance exams, it was evident that, for the most part, the dancers who demonstrated a more ideal pattern of breathing (diaphragmatic, 360 expansion, ZOA with exhalation, etc), or were able to change their pattern of breathing with gentle cueing, were the ones that stood out to be as being more interesting to watch dance. Perhaps there is some sort of study someone in the dance science world could do…
  • Spinal motion needs a lot of work. Meaning, their quality of spine flexion (rounding), and extension (arching) lacked the freedom and range of motion that would make their lives a lot easier. Many of them have only a few points they hinge off of, so the load sharing through their spines is not kind to them. Too, the natural opposition that should occur between the lumbar and thoracic spine, and the cervical spine, is not yet natural for many of them. Below is a quick recap of what that means:

Then, I asked them how many joints their spines had. Long pause… One dancer finally guessed, “seven?”. “Well, maybe that’s how many YOU have”, I joked.

Our spine has 33 joints. It is my aim for them to be able to feel that and use that mobility in their dancing. And seeing as nearly all the dancers in this class complain of back pain, what better place to start than with their spines.

So, after the check in, we did a little 10 minute exploration of that, and checked in again. Some dancers reported changes in their foot pressures, feeling more centered. Some did not. Either way, it was useful information for all of us.

Onward we go.

THE GENERAL CLASS STRUCTURE

Unfortunately, the 50ish minutes per week we have together is not sufficient to get through the amount of stuff that ideally we’d have time to do. Some equipment would be nice, too. Maybe some kettlebells and some resistance bands would be cool. Maybe at least some mats to make kneeling on the floor comfortable.

Fortunately, I like and am used to minimalism, so the equipment we have to work with is their bodies, the floor, and the air they breathe. I think it will be sufficient.

With the limited time it was a task prioritization challenge to design the curriculum. In an ideal world, we’d have two sessions per week together as a minimum. One class we might spend more time working on movement quality and some more subtle stuff, and the other session more time might be spent on strength development.  

In any case, this world ain’t ideal. Here is roughly how each class flows right now:

  1. Check in. At the beginning of each class we check in consistently with 2 or 3 simple measures.
  2. Movement preparation/warming up. In this phase we work on things like breathing, spinal mobility, differentiating body parts (remember, your pelvis is not your ribcage!), accessing tri-planar movements, foot mechanics (accessing pronation/supination), dynamic “stretches”, and lower threshold core stability work, getting them warm and primed to move in a more efficient way.
  3. Actual strength building stuff. Right now, this portion of the class is much shorter, maybe ⅓ of the class time. There is a learning curve for the preparatory/movement quality portion of the class, and each dancer is at a different place. Rather than rush forward, leaving people behind, we go slower and in that way we’ll all make more progress in the long-term. So far we have been learning single leg deadlifts, crawling, and push-ups.Side note: I was super impressed that everyone in this class could do one push-up. That almost never happens.
  4. Check-in/cool-down. We check back in with the measures from the beginning of class. What has changed, and what hasn’t? We might revisit some breath-work to calm their systems down, and prepare them for the next 90 minutes they will spend looking at themselves in a mirror wearing a bodysuit and pink tights, holding their breath, wishing they had more hip rotation, more flexibility, pointier feet, longer legs, and generally, wishing they were better than they are now: Ballet…

So far, I’m really enjoying this class structure. The difficult bit is making time for everything that is a priority. With more experience, I suppose this will become easier and more intuitive, and it will also depend on the individuals in the class.

Ideally, I’d love the class to be driven by what the dancers want to accomplish and are curious about. I recall several classes last semester in which we sometimes took 10 minutes to discuss ideas that were foreign to them, but important for their progress. Like how lifting your leg up in front of your was not an action performed by the hamstrings, and that “quads” is not a bad word. Getting dancers to learn how to squat seems to go hand in hand with the quads-are-not-bad conversation. Good times.

THEIR PROGRESS SO FAR.

The injured dancers aren’t improving much, which it does not please me to report… I don’t know much about the kind of therapy they are receiving, if any, and they have a strenuous schedule. Too, there is still the fear of taking time off to recover from injuries for being left behind the rest of the pack.

I witnessed a 1st year student, in last semester’s dance exams, dance every single one on a sprained ankle. By then end of the exam week, it was very clear that she should not be dancing, but when you have to make the call between saying you can’t dance, and risking your grades, and taking time off… Well, I’ve been there. It’s a tough call to make that inevitably ends with you not making a choice- Your body says “nope”, and you stop.

  • Overall, the rest of the dancers are doing quite well. I have observed that many of them are developing more movement into spinal flexion each week. (Every single dancer in this class has a flat board for a lumbar spine that does not want to budge. But slowly, this is changing.)
  • Their focus is improving. At first, it seemed as if they had trouble keeping their mind on the movements we were performing. Some of them seemed to need to stop, and look around the room for a bit before getting back into the movement practice. Each week they seem to be developing more “mental endurance”, and are able to spend more time practicing the movements, and less time getting distracted and re-connecting. As we know, more time spent in deep work/deliberate practice/flow (whatever term you prefer)= better results.
  • Breathing and bracing, and creating intra-abdominal pressure is now a concept they embrace and can demonstrate while lying on their backs. This is awesome. One or two dancers are lagging behind here, but overall the group is kicking butt and getting stronger each week and ready to increase the challenge.

SOME OTHER CHALLENGES

As you would expect from a group of collegiate level dancers with goals to perform professionally, these guys are quick adapters with pretty good body awareness. They are mature 18-20 year olds who want to perform their best and are motivated.

The challenge is, they are stuck “on”, and “on” is their comfort zone.

There is a level of arousal that is optimal for performance, and the sense I get is that these dancers are wayyy shifted to the right (aroused) side of this scale. Too much arousal, too much sympathetic nervous system activity, means they will not perform at their best.

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I feel ethically not great about giving them a class that is also “ON” (such as a high intensity class) while they are unable to leave their “on” state, as many of them seem to be at this point. I would rather, and feel it is more beneficial at this time, give them the tools to turn themselves down to “medium”, maybe even to “low”, so that they can experience this end of the spectrum, and go back to on, full-force, when it’s required of them.

You can’t turn on unless you can turn off first, and no one gets stronger without allowing themselves a sufficient amount of recovery. This is why we focus for the first part of the class on tuning in, quality of movement, and noticing their breath. Intensity is modulated (challenge/level of exertion) as they can handle it.

Dancers are not athletes that typically receive much guidance on recovery, guidelines for strength training effectively, nutrition, etc. In 50 minutes, I can’t convey everything I would like to, but I can start, and chip away at it every week. It’s been inspiring so far, and a lot of fun.

We’re only three weeks in… Let’s see what these dancers can do.