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

Exploring Fascial Plasticity

Dancers are always concerned with maintaining or increasing the flexibility in their muscles. To really understand how muscles become more flexible we need to understand how to change the fascia that connect to the muscles.

Most dancers know that fascia, which is the dense connective tissue that surrounds the 200+ bones and the 600+ muscles of the body. It keeps structures (like muscles) separated from each other yet interconnected in a 3D like web.

Using an orange analogy, the outer rind is like the superficial fascia, and the sections of orange are similar to the fascia that surrounds our muscles, bones, nerves, etc. Fascia ties and connects everything together!

This is why if you have tightness in your neck, it may be influencing the flexibility of the hamstrings. There is a fascial line that connects the muscles along the back of the body called the superficial back line. I mention this because it bears repeating that if you are not getting the results that you want from your stretching efforts – look at other areas of the body that may be holding tension and creating a pull or tightness along the fascial line.

This young man is a perfect example of this. He was taking yoga classes and a student in the opera department. We found the tension at his neck significantly influenced his hamstrings. He was doing lots of hamstring focused stretching in yoga class but until he focused on releasing his neck tension he was unable to get release and relief along that back line. Doesn’t he look WAY more comfortable in his body in the picture on the right? That change took 3 months. As a side benefit – his vocal technique improved too!

Now back to talking about fascia and plasticity. Plasticity means the ease with which something is molded or shaped. Fascia will reshape itself when there is a slow, steady and sustained pull on it. Too fast of a stretch and fascia/muscle tears. Plasticity is different from elasticity. Elasticity is the ability of tissue to stretch and then go back to its original shape. Plasticity means the tissue over time (think potentially weeks/months) slowly reshaping itself into a new length. That is what dancers want from their stretching.

Bottom line… slow, steady, sustained stretching is the way to go. Doing some of that passive stretching that dancers love to do at the end of class can be very useful (at the end of class – not the start!) If you add on some muscular engagement from the opposite of the joint – you will get even more benefit! For example doing the typical standing quad stretch is good – but when you also lightly engage the glutes while using the abdominals to keep the pelvis in neutral – it becomes even more effective of a stretch! Hold that stretch for 30 seconds, take a quick break and then go back for another 30 seconds and see how your quads feel!

If you want to actively explore fascial properties and new ways to train your fascia to be both elastic and responsive think about joining me in the South of France this summer! I will be doing a deep dive into fascial training, alignment assessments, and exploring body/brain strategies for optimal performance. Registration is now open!

Stretching Concerns: How Much is Too Much?

I have a student who is stretching every time I see her. Always!  She has a teacher who wants her to have a penché of 180 degrees, which is difficult because she has tight hamstrings, even though we’ve been working on stretching them.  She says she is in a lot of pain and I’ve asked her to back off on the stretching but another teacher told her she needs to stretch her hips. Now the student is conflicted… does she stretch? or rest? And what stretches are best for her to do?

Wow!  Great question… let’s work through some of the issues.

How is she stretching?

What I don’t know is her age and where she is feeling her pain.  If she is still growing and feeling her discomfort in the muscles I would make sure she isn’t stretching passively – and instead encourage her to do more dynamic stretching.  An example of a dynamic hamstring stretch is placing your left heel on the seat of a chair and contracting the quadriceps of left thigh.  Then think of shifting the sits bone backwards in space without bending forward. Keep the foot flexed and the quads contracted the whole time.  It will feel different from the normal hamstring stretch.  Stretching dynamically, she is less likely to go to far and strain muscles.  Here’s an older article I wrote on Too Young For Splits Training? you might want to check out.

Where is her pain?

I’m really curious where she is feeling pain.  If she is feeling it in the hip joints I would encourage you to send her to a sports med doctor or PT that is well-versed in the demands of the dancer.  Any labral tears or joint challenges need to be ruled out to make sure she isn’t forcing her body into positions that are injuring the joint.  There have been many examples of young dancers forcing their stretching and damaging the joint capsule, for example.

Functionally strong?

Consider this student’s overall muscle balance.  Where does she fall on the spectrum between a loosey-goosey dancer and one that is tight and strong?  Is her flexibility and strength fairly even? Could she weak and tight and thus has a hard time supporting her movement from proper alignment? It may sound counter intuitive but some dancers would be better off gaining some functional strength in their movement.  For example, can this student sit on a chair and rock forward onto one leg and stand up easily without having the knee turn in or the foot pronating?  Can she easily stand in one position and do the smallest of tips forward and back to center as if she was starting into her penché?

Penché is quite a complicated movement that requires balance, flexibility, strength and a well placed pelvis and torso!  I have no doubt that there are other ways for her to work towards penché without focusing just on flexibility.  You were right in telling her to back off what is creating pain.  Hopefully, with some further analysis it will become clearer what the underlying issues are.

To your success,

Deborah

Inner Thighs and Turnout

[quote]Can you clarify the function of the inner thigh in standing and in extensions? There are many teachers who instruct students to use the inner thighs to “feel” turn out, but I cannot see how the adductors assist in turn out. One teacher has said to “press the heels into the ground in fifth position to feel the inner thighs working in an effort to maintain turn out in standing. I cannot seem to find the reason for this and would love your thoughts of the inner thigh’s function in standing in a turned out position as well as in extension. Thank you so much for your blog and your products in an effort to further the education of the dance community!  Thanks, Jenn[/quote]

Excellent question and one that is worth discussing.  First, let’s look more closely at the adductors, the muscle group that are the inner thigh muscles.

Read more

Takeaways

holding brain copyI recently returned from TCU where I had all the freshman dance majors in a course called “The Working Body”.  And work they did… meeting every day for multiple hours a day, exploring how to bring anatomical knowledge into their technique and dancing.  They were wonderful – and I will miss this very special group!

I asked them on the last day to take 5 minutes and write down a takeaway from the week.  I was curious after such a whirlwind of a week what stuck and seemed most important.  Below are their brief statements and a few responses and explanations from me. (They gave me permission to post) I hope you find it interesting reading!

[quote style=”boxed”]I dealt with a compression fracture in my upper back for a long time, and I have had pain in that area for a long time. When we talked about the spine in the course, I learned a way to feel as though I’m decompressing my spine and putting air in between each vertebra. It definitely helps with the pain I face now, and will prevent me from future spinal injuries! AA[/quote]

I remember seeing this dancer’s spine change after focusing on increasing and balancing the rotation of the spine.  It was so cool to see that some of the lateral curves improved – it just goes to show that with every lateral curve of the spine – there is also rotation.  I’ve seen good improvement with focusing on improving spinal rotation first then focusing on stretching.

Read more

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

Too Young for Splits Training?

I have a question just came up regarding splits and young dance students. When is it safe to start doing splits with young children, and why? Most of us start at about 7 years of age, for a variety of reasons. None of this is based on any research we can find. Also mentioned was the fact that in gymnastics, splits are started earlier.

Do you have any opinion on this, or would you be able to head me in the right direction to find the science we need to back up our practice?  I very much appreciate your time and consideration. Thank you so much!

When to start stretching?

Picture-4-150x150

This is a great question, Nancy!  And you are right there isn’t much research on this.  What we know is that children’s bodies generally begin to lose flexibility as they come into their adolescent years. Being introduced to effective stretching at an early age will certainly help set in the practice of working their joints through a full range of motion and understanding that a strong and flexible body is what you want – especially as you age!

When I was teaching very young children (5-7 years of age) my focus was on building better coordination and control over their body.  Are they developing the ability to balance on one leg?  Do they understand what efficient alignment is?  Can they follow your verbal directions? (Beyond just doing what you are demonstrating and not paying any attention to what is happening in their own body)

These are all important pieces of the stretching puzzle by teaching young dancers learn how to stretch safely and effectively.  These attributes are more important than a strict age designation for a formalized stretching program.

There are 5 and 6 year old students who are very coordinated and can follow directions easily and who know where their knees are facing, or if their knees are bent.  Those students are the best candidates for more focused split training.

So let’s talk about one could approach the splits with very young children.  I’m going to stick with talking about the front splits for this post.  In the front splits there are 2 primary muscle areas that are involved. The front leg needs hamstring flexibility and the back leg needs hip flexor flexibility.

Stretch hamstrings and hip flexors individually

These 2 areas are key for good alignment and separating the 2 areas and working on flexibility training can start as early as the child shows the appropriate coordination as talked about above.  What I mean by this is I would do hamstring stretches separate from practicing the splits.  Sitting on the floor where they can see whether or not their legs are straight and then rolling back on their pelvis (slumping) then sitting up straight and tall is a good quick test to see where they are with their hamstring flexibility.  They should be able to sit on their sits bones ideally without a lot of strain at the hamstrings or bending their knees.

Even with the younger students I like teaching them how to put their leg up on a low chair or stool and doing single leg hamstring stretching.Picture-2  By doing one leg at a time even a young student will become aware if one leg is tighter – and can be guided to do more stretches on the tighter side.  For the student who can go for extra stretch you can have them sit on a yoga block or cushion and extend one leg forward while having the other one bent.

Lunge stretching for the hip flexors can be done in the runners lunge position as well as in a standing lunge, or one with your foot up on a low surface and leaning forward.  If they are able to go for more range in the hip flexors have them sit on the yoga block or cushion (or

P1018459-150x150anything that gets them slightly off the floor) and extend the back leg while keeping the front leg bent.

What I would NEVER do is to push a young students legs straight or physically adjust them too much (meaning with pressure or pushing) them into a specific position.  You run a risk that by doing so you are placing them in a position that their body isn’t ready for. While the stretching practices that some gymnastic coaches give to their young students can be successful (like taking the leg and passively stretching the leg) it can also be painful and potentially stretches ligaments and joint structures in ways that can be injurious.  (Image on right is a no no!)

A young dancer will automatically keep themselves out of painful stretching – and should be encouraged to not do anything that is painful.  We need to teach them to listen to their bodies from a very early age.

I like using props to help them move into practicing splits – starting them sitting up on an appropriate surface and stretching long and straight the front and back legs.  This way they can release their weight into the stretch without putting themselves in a funky or weird position.  (Think of someone reaching to the floor awkwardly with one or both of the legs bent because they don’t have enough flexibility to easily put their hands on the ground – not an effective way to stretch!)  I’m sitting on low stool in the picture below to stretch both the front and back legs equally while keeping my body upright.  I am not in favor of over-stretching for the very young dancer.  Generally, they have not developed enough strength to be put in such an extreme position.

P1018469-150x150

Bottom line is they need an adequate amount of flexibility in both the hip flexors and hamstrings before they ever try a true split.  Working on the different muscle groups individually, though, can start as soon as they are able to work with guidance in effective stretching practices.

play-200x300I’m not sure if my following statement is a true one – but it appears to me that children are less flexible than they used to be. I wonder if there is a correlation between less time spent in playing on the playground and in the yard as many of us teachers grew up doing.  In a nutshell, less physical activity and physical play going hand in hand with tighter and less flexible young people.

Good stretching practices are important to set into early in life.  While I don’t think it is imperative that a young dancer has to have their splits by age 8 or 9, I do know that as they become pre-teens and teenagers they decrease their injury potential by keeping their muscles flexible and strong as they grow into their adult bodies.  And of course… the same is true as we mature into and beyond our 20’s.

And with that thought…. I’m off to stretch!

Hoping everyone has a wonderful holiday break!

Warmest regards,

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”

 

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”

Développés – how to strengthen

First of all I would like to thank you for the great website and your great blog!

I am a 19-year-old ballerina and have been doing ballet recreationally since I was 5. A couple of years ago I decided to take it more seriously and to train more hours. I have three questions and I would really appreciate it if you had the time to answer them. The first one is a rather short one: How can I prevent Achilles tendonitis, especially as I have noticed that I pop my ankle more often, which I didn’t use to do as much before (it doesn’t hurt).

The two remaining questions have to do with each other: As I have been training more now, I have been working on my développé, they aren’t that bad, but not really outstanding: I can do about 100 degrees but I really wish to get it higher. However it seems that it is not only the muscles that are making it harder to improve, but also a popping in the front of the hip when LOWERING my leg after a développé and sometimes when raising the leg, too. As I noticed that, I kept stretching the iliopsoas muscle before développés and battements, it got better but it still pops and keeps me from doing my best (although it doesn’t hurt, my leg feels like “not free”!).

Could it be another muscle that needs to be strengthened and stretched? How can I get rid of that popping and improve my développés at the same time?

Thanks a lot for taking the time to read my letter!
Liz

Great questions, Liz! Let’s start with the easier one first. If your ankle is popping more, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you are on your way to developing Achilles tendonitis – but it does make me wonder what’s happening in your standing alignment. Evaluate honestly if the weight is staying balanced between the front and back of the foot – are you over turning out at the feet in first position – and can you do a demi plié and keep the anterior tibialis tendon (the one at the front of the ankle) during the descent of the plié. Check those 3 areas and correct them as they may be creating some muscle imbalance.

Stretching is key for the Achilles tendon – and while most do the traditional lunge calf stretch, I prefer putting my foot over a thick book, and then stepping forward with the other leg to do a modified lunge. You don’t have to step very far forward to get a super stretch of the calf muscles. Also do this also with the back knee just barely bending to place the stretch down towards the tendon. Both variations are important.

Onto développés.

Many dancers aren’t aware of the importance of a strong iliopsoas to their extensions and développés. When you are lifting the leg to the front there is a point above 90 degrees where the quads are less effective and the iliopsoas becomes more important for a gorgeous high extension.

I’m posting a quicktime movie of an iliopsoas strengthening exercise. You will place a theraband around the thighs and then bring the knee towards the chest.. You can also do straight leg legs or développés. The more upright you are by moving from your elbows to your hands, the harder. Do these exercises with the leg slightly turned out leg. It is a challenging exercise but you will be quite happy with the results, I promise! Then stretch the iliopsoas afterwards. I’ll be curious if your ‘popping’ will get better after balancing out the strength to flexibility of the all important iliopsoas muscle.

This clip is taken from my new Essential Anatomy: A Multimedia Course for Dancers and Teachers

I’m putting it all together as we speak – and they will be ready to order (along with some very special bonuses) next week – for sure! I have put together over 3 hours of quicktime movie clips (along with an outline and study guide) that bring anatomy to life – talking and illustrating important muscles, concepts and what to do… in order to dance smart and teach smart. After clicking the link the movie will open up and take just a moment to load.

psoas strengther with theraband

Until next week!

Deborah

“Education is the key to injury prevention”