Ah, to be on one’s leg.

“On your leg”- The definition of a successful class, performance or audition

If you’re not on your leg then it will simply not be a good turning day. And if you’re not on your leg from the beginning, then good luck finding your leg for the whole rest of the day. 

Suffice it to say, if you don’t know how to get on your leg, dancing is hard.

The epitome of being on your leg: Rose Adagio. The fun starts at 1:35.

Oh, and my God her feet make me want to DIE a little.

But anyway, this “on your leg” thing- There are some challenges, as I’m sure you’re well aware.

Challenge 1: Good on-your-leg-days often seem random. It can be hard to identify which specific events or things correlate to the good days. “I was just on my leg today, I can’t explain it!”

Challenge 2: While we all know what it looks like when someone’s on their leg, we’re never told HOW to do it. Hearing, “On your leg! GET ON YOUR LEG!!”,  just isn’t enough feedback for some of us.

What does “get on your leg” mean?

Calling out the desired look and feel of being on your leg doesn’t provide the sensory experience of HOW to achieve it. Much like asking me to fold clothing- I know what a neatly folded T-shirt looks like, but hell if I know how to do it. I’ll learn one day, Mom…

Finding that sweet spot should be reflexive. You shouldn’t have to think about it and need to clench every muscle in your body to achieve it.

If you’ve been struggling for years to find that sweet spot on your leg, you might need to take a few steps back to figure out how to make it reflexive, automatic, and easy, and THEN add the fun technical stuff back in. This means breaking it down into it’s fundamental components, and rebuilding your balance.

What are the individual components required to get on your leg?

Let’s break it down, why don’t we.

Being on your leg, in anatomy speak, means full hip extension on the supporting leg, with hip adduction, neutral spine and pelvis, on top of a stable ankle (my understanding of it, anyway). And if you do ballet, it means to add as much hip external rotation as possible to the mix (yay turnout!).

*IMPORTANT FOR BALLET DANCERS: Be aware that if you are unable to get fully up into hip extension and adduction on your leg, and you then try to turn the leg out, bones, tendons, and ligaments and stuff will get in the way and  it don’t feel good when that happens. If you’ve ever experienced snapping hip, then you know what I mean…

external snapping hip

This is why, for the Postural Restoration Institute enthusiasts (#PRIlife), using the Hruska adduction drop test is a valuable tool for dancers, as it checks for a boney blockage impeding the femur’s ability to fully extend and adduct in the acetabulum.

But you and your body are smart, and so in an attempt to prevent all those bones and things from smushing and snapping together, you might do things like arch form the lower back, tilt the pelvis, shift your head around, and whatever else needs to happen to give the illusion of hip extension and adduction, making those two ranges of motion MAD important for on-your-leggery.

How to re-learn getting on your leg

I would start with some form of movement screening to look for places where natural movement is impeded by a lack of mobility and/or stability.

The fact of the matter is that everyone is different. What is preventing one person from acheiving effortless balance will be different from the next. This is why individual screening is so important. A good screening method should look at functional and dance specific movement patterns, and be able to identify limitations in range of motion and motor control.

A good example of this is the FMS (functional movement screen).

If you can't perform these functional moves well, perhaps improving them will help with your dancing, too?

Actually, in THIS STUDY, the injury rate was reduced substantially in a professional dance company over the course of three years after functional movement screening and implementation of a personalized conditioning program. Less injuries means more time dancing, perfecting skill, and developing artistically.

So yes. I think movement screening is important. If you don’t do the FMS screen (I’m not certified so I don’t do it), then your chosen screen should be able to identify the mobility and stability limitations required for a good single leg balance.

Mobility is the first frontier. It refers to your ability to physically get into the on-your-leg position.

Stability, the final frontier (I did watch a lot of Star Trek growing up, yes…), should be addressed next, and refers to your body’s ability to hold itself together while you’re up there on your leg.

First things first- Mobility requisites to get on your leg:

Below are the most common limitations in mobility I see in my client sample of dancers that are requisite components for reflexively getting on one’s leg:

Hip extension. This one is HUGE. If you can’t extend the hip all the way (ideally MORE than past neutral), then you can’t get up on your leg. Straight up. There won’t be enough space to do it. You also need hip extension to get into hip adduction…

In this image, the right hip is extended to neutral on the table, and the left hip is actually going into hyperextension, which is important to be able to do, as you'll need to get the hip to neutral while you're standing on it.

Hip adduction. Means to add the leg back towards the center of the body. If you can’t adduct the leg, you will have a hard time shifting sideways onto the leg, and when you try, bones and stuff might smush. You need hip adduction to get into full hip extension.

In this image, both hips are extended to neutral, and the bottom leg is lifting up into an adducted position. Many dancers can adduct the leg while it's flexed in front of them, but can't while the hip es extended. ..

You'll see in this picture, for Svetlana to be on her leg, she needs to be able to extend and cross the left leg past the mid line of her body so that she doesn't fall off her pointe shoe and land on her crotch.

Hip internal rotation. Yep internal rotation is important, too. You need full ROM internally to get on your leg. If you don’t have full internal rotation, from where do you think your external rotation comes? You never want to lose ROM in one direction because it WILL affect the opposite. Plus, if you have a hard time internally rotating, you’ll have a hard time adducting and extending…

In the image above the dude's hips are extended to neutral and rotated internally. He has awesome hip internal rotation ROM. Many dancers I see sometimes only have 10 degrees. Optimal is roughly 40 degrees. Bigger internal ROM means the external rotators will function better with the correct timing, so don't underestimate your need for internal rotation!

*PS: A while back I wrote THIS THING all about getting back into hip extension, adduction and internal rotation. Check it when you’re done with this article if you want more info on that.*

Talo-crural dorsiflexion. The ability to flex your foot. Loss of dorsiflexion range is a common red flag for ankle instability, among other things.

Another range of motion that is easily lost because of all day foot pointing. Don't let it happen to you!

Sub-talar pronation OR supination (eversion/inversion). Some people tend to have flat feet, some have really high arches. Some feet roll in, some feet roll out. Whichever is the case, if you can’t use one of these ROMs, you’ll have a hard time balancing consistently. And your calves will probably be tight mofos.

Both feet might roll in or out, or one might be opposite of the other, but your feet need to be able to do both at the appropriate times.

And the runner up (because this one can go either way, but is kind of important to be aware of)…

Lumbar flexion. Rounding your lower back isn’t bad. It’s pretty important for dance techniques like Graham (oooh dat Graham contraction). Like I said before, it’s never good to lose a range of motion, and dancers are prone to losing this ability to lumbar flex. Because back-bends all day. Same as with internal hip rotation- If you lose lumbar flexion, where do you think your backbend is coming from?  And you can’t be on your leg legitimately if your spine can’t get to neutral because it lacks the ability to lumbar flex.

Above, the dancer is performing a contraction involving lumbar flexion. If you lack this range of motion at your lumbar spine, you’ll probably do the rounding from your shoulders, and have trouble finding neutral spine to get on your leg.

If you look like the lordosis guy, and have to clench every muscle to get your spine to neutral, you might want to work on getting a bit more flexion ability at your lower back. It will give your backbend a better starting point to come from too.

Sooo because this post is getting excessively long (sorry!), I must cut it into two parts. The next part will have more tips on getting stable and some actionable steps (exercises and stuff) for you to try, so I do hope you’ll come back for that. In the meantime, if you have any questions or comments, leave them below.