Third instead of Fifth Position?

I am an adult ballet student who has come back to the fold after many years away. When I stopped in my late teens, I was discouraged because things like 4th and 5th position never was easy for me. I thought my body just wasn’t right for dance – but I miss it and love moving in that way so have returned to class in my thirties. I still question why I can’t do 5th position – can you shed any light on this issue? I can’t be the only dancer who is challenged by a perfect 5th.

Such a rich question! First, I want to say congratulations for returning to class! Ballet, and other dance classes are not just for the younger body. There are so many benefits to dance – no matter when you start and what your skill level is. Kudos to you

Through the years of testing anatomical turnout I will say with confidence that third is more appropriate than fifth position for probably 50% of dancers. A bold statement – for sure – but one that is backed up by the injuries to the hips, knee and ankle joints that I so often see.

The ability of a dancer to get into a perfect 5th position is dictated by the physics of their body for one thing. The slim hipped, long legged dancer has an easier time creating 5th than the wider hipped more muscular body. Just bringing the leg past the midline of the body to 5th often tilts the pelvis forward slightly, if the dancer doesn’t have adequate rotation and flexibility at the hip.

It’s super common to have a dancer stand more on their back foot and slightly bend the front knee in order to close heel to toe – and with slightly bending the knee they can then twist the lower leg and pronate the foot to make it look good

Yup.. 5th is not an easy position to do well! I would prefer a well-executed third position that doesn’t strain the knee and foot for my students. Does this mean we shouldn’t keep trying for that gorgeous position? Of course not… but we do need to remember that barre is the preparation for center movement and gorgeous choreography.

I would love it if more teachers did barre without the barre so that their students could see if they are ‘holding’ their fifth with an overly firm grip on the barre. I like the turnout exercise (away from the barre) of starting with your left foot in coupé and keeping that gesture leg turned out, slowly turn the whole body towards the right. Keep the left leg turned out, but simply rotate the whole body towards the right (which is turning in on the right leg) then rotate back to your starting position. It’s really easy to feel when you go too far and start to pronate on that right foot – you want equal energy in both hip with working rotation. Do that several times standing on the right leg, then of course, do the other side.

What insights do they have after doing that? Is one side easier than the other? One foot pronate more? Hard to keep the rotation on the coupé leg? An easy way to check out how you are working the rotation of both legs away from the barre!

Bottom line… if standing in 3rd position allows you to move more anatomically correct then that’s the best position for you.

To your success,

Deborah

How to get the shoulder blades flat on the back?

“What suggestions do you have to help dancers get their shoulder blades to lie flat on their back?”   Felicia

Okey dokey!  Let’s first talk about the anatomy of the shoulder girdle so it will make sense. It really is important to get those shoulder blades lying flat on the back so they can support the arms in port de bras as well as stabilize the shoulder girdle in multiple movements and decrease the potential for injuries.

Anatomy of the shoulder girdle

The shoulder blades, aka your scapulas, are a fairly flat, triangular bones that hang on the backside of the ribs.  They connect the upper arm bone to the collarbone.  There are 6 movements of the scapula.  You can elevate and depress (essentially a shoulder shrugging motion).

You can protract and retract which is pulling them together and separating them.  Picture on left is retraction.  That is what I often see dancers do wrong when they are doing their port de bras.

And you can rotate the scapula upwards and downwards, which is describing how the bottom of the scapula moves towards or away from the spine.

We’ve all heard of ‘winging’ shoulder blades, and that is when the inside border of the scapula moves away from the ribs.  Some teachers call them chicken wings:) This happens when there is an imbalance in the muscles of the shoulder girdle and may require both doing some stretching and strengthening in the area.

What are common reasons for winging of the scapula?

If they have a rounded of slumped standing posture when they aren’t at the barre, it’s quite possible they have tightness in the pec minor and the latissimus muscles.  Those muscles will need to be stretched as you work to strengthen the stabilizer of the shoulder blades, the serratus anterior muscle. This is the primary muscle that will need to be strengthened.

Here are pictures of the 3 muscles I’m talking about.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stretching the lat and pec minor

There are many different ways to stretch and strengthen these muscles but I’ll give you a couple of my favorites.

I like to stretch the lats by doing a doorway or what I call a C Curve stretch.  You may feel the stretch more at the armpit area or more towards the waist and lower back.  I’ll move gently looking towards and rounding my lower back to find the sweet spot of the stretch. Another stretch is called the prayer stretch and you can google that one.

A really nice way to stretch out the pec minor is lying on a foam roller and placing your arms on a high diagonal (sometimes I start by first doing slow angel wings to move through a range of motion) Breath and allow your arms to hang towards the floor.  Move your arms slightly to find your best places to stretch.

Strengthening the serratus anterior

Now onto the serratus anterior.  It is important to properly identify when this muscle is working.  Start standing, in good alignment, and draw your hands down towards the floor.  Feel the muscle engagement under your armpit?  That’s your serratus anterior.  I want you to keep that muscle engaged through the next exercise.  Start lying on your back with your elbows at a 90 degree angle and the back of your palms lying on the ground by your head.  (like the picture above on the foam roller but without the foam roller) Keeping your back lengthened, ribs dropped, slowly slide your forearms and back of the hands upwards. You are using the serratus anterior to keep your scapula drawing towards your pelvis the whole time.  This is not easy!  Keep them engaged!

If you want a challenge you can do the same thing as a wall slide – starting with your back against the wall, feet slightly away with knees bent.  Same instructions – keep the shoulder blades drawing downwards as the forearms keep contact with the wall and are sliding upwards.

Now have them stand and place their hands in a prayer position, pressing the palms together while drawing the scapula downwards. Maintain the placement of the scapula and open thearms easily to second position and notice how wide and open their chests are! Over time they will create better muscle balance and improve their port de bras line.

To your success!

Deborah

Stretching, Assessment, Pinkie Balls & Hamstrings

I received some great questions from Lynn and have imbedded my responses below.

Hi Deborah,

I have a few questions and was wondering the best way to go.  I have the Essential anatomy course for dancers and just started to dig into it a little bit because I bought it in the summer and just had my first baby in December so its been crazy.  Congratulations!!! I really want to learn more and more about anatomy and dancers. I never took anatomy at all and it has just been all my dance education along the way from anything I do know.  So thank you for doing this.  Its just hard because there is so so much information and I want to be able to answer a question if a kid asks me.  So I do things in small stages.  But was wondering I came from the erra of bouncing in stretching and then we moved in the static stretching.  Now I do understand dynamic because I do warm most of my classes with a jumping and getting things moving but then we usually go into stretches and based on what you were saying I was wondering if you have something like a sample of a class run down to get the kids warmed up properly for the 20min or so and then we go into technique, center work and across floor or center combos depends on the class.

Try warming them up in a cardiovascular fashion, jumping jacks, running, galloping, etc.  for about 5 minutes (which you are already doing) …. no stretching…. then go into class whether that is barre or modern warmup.  

Read more

What’s up with snapping/popping hips?

I had the pleasure of working with dancers from the Allegro Performing Arts Academy recently and they were the dancers shown in the picture on the post on strengthening the iliopsoas for higher extensions.  This week’s post is answering a common question about snapping or popping hips.  What does it mean?  There are different types of popping hip but first watch the clip below to see in action the type of popping hip I’m going to talk about.

The hip popping that is being shown in this clip is being caused by a tight IT Band snapping over the greater trochanter of the femur.  Huh?… what muscles/where are those spots you might ask?

 

greatertrochanter-300x248

 

 

The greater trochanter is the bump that is on the outside upper part of the thigh bone right before it angles in towards the center of the hip joint.

 

 

 

TFLGM-234x300

 

 

The IT Band, otherwise known as the iliotibial band, crosses over that area.  The iliotibial band is the fascial band that runs down the side of your leg that the gluteus maximus and the tensor fascia lata (TFL) muscles connect into high on the leg, and the band connects then to the bones below your knee.

 

ab-300x254

 

 
The gluteus medius and minimus don’t connect directly into the iliotibial band, but their tightness creates an imbalance around the hip that may lead to this snapping or popping hip problem.

 

 

 

When there is excessive pull or tightness from one or more of these muscles the IT band will ‘snap’ or ‘pop’ over the greater trochanter when you lean into or stick your hip out to the side.  that is what you are seeing as the clunk in the clip.  It’s pretty impressive, huh?  I’ve been asked by dancers if they are dislocating something because it is disconcerting to have such a significant pop, snap, clunk… however you want to describe it.

The good news is…. you can work to decrease the tightness around the area and the clunking, popping, and snapping will diminish.  The other benefit to addressing this?  As you decrease the tightness your range of motion should improve and consequently make movements of the hip joint, like développé, battements, ronde jambe, etc. easier and more efficient.

Stay tuned… next week we will look at the 3 different muscle areas and I’ll give you ways to release each area!  Have a productive and joyful week!

Deborah

“Education is the key to injury prevention”

 

Getting higher extensions!

Today’s posting looks at another way to help get your extensions higher and développés even smoother and more controlled.  It has to do with the wonderful iliopsoas muscle that you hear so many anatomists and body workers talking about!

I know I’m someone that always looks at this muscle carefully when I am assessing someone’s standing alignment.  It is such a major postural muscle and so strongly influences how the pelvis sits on the legs that deserves some extra attention.  When overly tight it can pull the lower back into a swayback. When it is overly weak it makes it hard to get the leg much over 90 degrees.  The quadriceps which also are hip flexor muscles like the iliopsoas (or psoas as many people shorten it to) are working hard, but they simply don’t have the leverage to get the leg up as high as what is necessary for dance today.

I was recently in Seattle working with students from the Allegro Performing Arts Academy and showed them a way to inconspicuously strengthen their iliopsoas while sitting in school waiting for class to begin.  By the way…. these students were wonderful!  So curious, open, and willing to work hard to improve their technique by understanding how the body really works!

The picture below shows them sitting on the front edge of their chairs, with their arms folded in front, keeping weight on both sits bones (or ischial tuberosities as they are called)  Without shifting backwards on the pelvis, or over to one hip they lifted one leg up and then lowered it to just touch the toe to the ground before repeating it 10 – 15 times.  Didn’t take very long to feel that very deep ‘tired’ feeling deep in the front of the hip.  That’s like practicing lifting the leg into the beginning stages of a développé before extending the leg (of course without dropping the knee… at least that’s the goal:)

sittingpsoas-300x225

It’s such an easy way to work strengthening the iliopsoas, and then you can simply swivel around and do a sitting lunge stretch to release the tightness form the iliopsoas.

A different way of strengthening was shown in a previous post and I’d like to repost that video in the newer format for all those who had trouble opening it.  You can use a theraband wrapped around the thighs and then slowly working to come more upright to simulate doing an extension to the front.  Of course the more you are upright – the harder it is!  Remember to slightly turnout the leg when practicing these as well as doing them in parallel.  It won’t take long…. just 3 or 4 weeks for you to see and sense improvement in the control and height of your extension.

Have a great week!

Deborah

“Education is the key to injury prevention”

 

A Somatic Perspective on Ballet

I’ve returned from TCU where I annually teach an intensive course for their freshman dance majors.  What a pleasure it is – (and what an amazing new facility they have after massive renovations last year!)  My good friend, Elizabeth Gillaspy is a professor of ballet at TCU consented to sit down and allow me to tape a conversation with her.  The first are her thoughts for new ballet teachers and the importance of exploring teaching methods and ideas beyond ‘look like this’ – which is understandably the most common way we all began in our early ballet education.  (The clip is approximately 10 minutes, so it will take a minute or 2 to load)

[jwplayer mediaid=”1226″]

This second clip is discussing how important it is to explore the ballet form from a somatic base.  This conversation took place because of my appreciation of how Elizabeth can take young adult dancers and so lovingly help them make changes in their technique.  It is hard to rework patterns of turning out from the knees down, or muscling your way through an exercise – and Elizabeth does it beautifully.  Here are some of her philosophical thoughts on how looking at ballet as a somatic practice.  Be patient, as it is about 10 minutes it will take a few moments to load!

[jwplayer mediaid=”1228″]

How to keep young dancers from overturning out?

I am teaching at a local ballet school.  I work with the children from the ages of 3 1/2 to 10, primarily.  I also conduct conditioning/pre-pointe classes for slightly older girls.  I am the only teacher for the youngest dancers but do share teaching assignments with other teachers for the girls in both the Ballet 2 and the Ballet 3 classes, and the pre-pointe classes.

Here is my dilemma – I would venture to state that roughly 100% of the students over the age of 8 are forcing their turnout – most with rolling in the ankles, some with exaggerated anterior pelvic tilts, most way over crossing their fifth positions.  I don’t allow any of those things in my classes, and am using several of your books to educate these young dancers so they can have a successful and safe dancing experience.

How do I help these students survive in other teachers’ classes?

If you do post this question (and I hope you will as it is vitally important) could you please make me “Anonymous”?  I don’t want to cause problems at this school as I think the students need me there.

Thanks!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

This is an excellent question and a common problem.  It is challenging to fix, though, if the teachers are encouraging the students to stand overly turned out – and it is also challenging because sometimes the students are the ones that are pushing their turnout because they want to ‘look good’.  I am going to focus my answer on what you can do with the students rather than trying to change the other teachers.  It’s really hard to create change in another teacher’s teaching methods especially if you don’t have the support of the studio owner.  You and I know that teaching ballet to young students using anatomical principles while encouraging the joy of dancing is very challenging!

The one exercise to illustrate how much functional turnout a dancer is working with is the clamshell exercise.  I’m going to add a variation on here for the younger dancers.

Have them on the floor, lying on their side with their buttocks touching the wall and their spines lengthened along the wall and their knees bent with their feet in line with their hips.  Being up against the wall will give them feedback whether they are rolling on their hip.  Then have them do the clamshell exercise and keeping the feet together open and turnout the top leg.  How far could they go?  So many dancers are hardly getting above 45 degrees!  It’s strange but true that I will find dancers who have more turnout at their hips than what they are able to functionally use in movement.

So that is the first focus I would offer to your students.  Develop the strength at the hip joint to accurately use their turnout.  After doing the clamshell exercise, make sure to tell them to stretch the turnout muscles!

Next I would encourage the students to practice barre without the barre.  It is much harder to over rotate when you aren’t gripping the barre.  Have them do that barre in stocking feet rather than soft slippers.  They may be able to feel the weight on their feet more easily and hopefully self-correct to bring the weight evenly on the pads of the big toe, little toe and heel.

Last suggestion I would have is to impress upon them to focus on their movement, rather than their positions.  This is a hard concept to get across because so many budding ballerinas are looking at pictures of a gorgeous dancer in a magnificent poses.  To help them focus on their movement I would have them begin to play with qualities.  Ask them to exaggerate what moving with tension and using all of their muscles feels like.  (this is commonly what they are doing☺ )  Then ask them to move gently, slowly, without any sharpness to their movement.  Try giving them different imagery to help.  A rubber band when stretched slowly won’t snap – but if it is stretched too quickly it may break or snap back.   Explore how a feather floating on the wind moves… and bring that into their demi plies or tendues.  Experiment with many images, including contrasting ones as well.

The goal is to have them thinking and feeling in new ways about their dancing, which in turn will give them better feedback encouraging them to more easily create changes in their patterns.  Perhaps a back door approach – but you never know what is going to create an aha moment.

I’d like to open up this conversation to other teachers…. What do you do to help young dancers use their turnout effectively and efficiently, and most importantly – safely?

Post your comments in the boxes below!

Have a great week!

Deborah

“Education is the key to injury prevention”