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!

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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”

Penché Tips

Summer is right around the corner and I know that I need to continue dancing. I am going to take a few classes here and there but I won’t be able to take them everyday like I usually do at school. (performing arts) Is that OK? I mean I guess I could do a barre in my bedroom and it wouldn’t hurt anything right? I would really love to progress and gain more flexibility and strength but I am a little scared of pulling a muscle or something. Do you have any tips on how to keep your body warm? I know jumping jacks, a few lunges and things like that but how do you know when you’re REALLY warm. Especially when you have longer legs like I do.

Another thing do you have any advice on “six o clock” penchés and tilts?
Thanks, Angelise

Great questions, Angelise! Summers are a great time to cross train and work in ways that you can’t during the regular school year. If you have the access to a pool, you could increase your cardiovascular fitness through swimming or water walking (a form of jogging in the pool). Biking as hard as you can for a minute and then pulling back is a form of interval training. Biking instead of running is easier on the dancer’s body.

Doing a barre in your room is a good idea. You can work slowly and carefully, paying attention to the weight on your feet, keeping the weight evenly divided between the 3 points of the foot. It would be great to do a barre without holding onto ‘a barre’ or ‘dresser’. I wouldn’t worry so much about pulling a muscle because you’ll be paying close attention to what you are doing, how it feels.

You ask a good question about being warm. Usually in the summer it takes less time to warm the muscles up. A few jumping jacks or jogging in place, should get the body going unless you are working in an air-conditioned room, then it may take a bit longer. Some dancers will feel they are almost at a light sweat. That never happened for me… but there was a sense of inner warmness that I would feel. It’s hard to put into words, so I would simply pay attention to how your body feels and you will learn what is ‘warm’ for you.

Penchés and tilts require the hardest type of contraction of a muscle, which is an eccentric contraction. The hamstrings on your supporting leg are stretching while you are slowly lowering.

My main tip is to practice keeping the weight placed between the front and back of the foot as you are lowering in your penché. Many dancers fall back too much onto their heel as they are lowering. Keeping even weight will help you keep the arabesque shape and the abdominals engaged as you lower.

The depth of the penché will be influenced by your hamstring flexibility. Once you have reached the range of the hamstrings you’ll start to bend the upper body forward – be aware of that and only go as far down as you can maintain your arabesque line. With repeated focused practice you will improve!

Deborah

“Education is the key to injury prevention”

Splits training

There was a comment on the Splits entry that I’d like to use as this week’s post. Heidi writes

Do you recommend a particular approach for beginning training for splits. Are there other stretches that should be done first. Should a student demonstrate flexibility in other ways (e.g. be able to touch her toes) before trying to do the splits? I’ve seen many students who are far from being “all the way down” in the splits bend one or both knees. Should this be discouraged?

My reply:
Heidi, The reason they bend one of the knees is to try and get down a little farther – a totally natural response. I would separate the elements of the splits in my training. Meaning… work to increase the flexibility of the hamstrings – which allow the front leg to go lower – and also work the flexibility of the hip flexors, which allow the back leg to slide farther back without tipping the pelvis forward.

For the hip flexors doing daily lunge stretches is key. You can do them on the ground, standing or sitting in a chair (my favorite) I have a youtube video demonstrating 3 ways, including a passive hanging stretch. The chair lunge is not on their but simply imagine sitting on a chair in a lunge position and lifting up the front of your pelvis to increase the stretch along the front of the back leg that is extended.

As far as hamstring flexibility a quick and dirty way to check for tight hamstrings is to have the dancer sitting on the floor with both legs straight and together in front of them. Are they easily able to sit all the way up on their pelvis? If they are rolled onto the back of their pelvis you can suspect their hamstrings are tight.

My favorite way of stretching the hamstrings is in standing and putting one leg on a low enough surface to keep the pelvis in neutral and upright. If they have tight hamstrings to begin with and put their leg on the barre – they are going to be tucked under (rolled back like they did on the floor) and won’t get a good stretch out of it.

Once they have their leg on a surface, let’s say a kitchen chair, they would flex easily forward keeping their pelvis and spine in alignment. Don’t round forward with your back, just tilt at the hips. This should give a good stretch to the hamstring area. Don’t forget to keep the pelvis facing forward as you are tilting, as many dancers cheat slightly by letting the pelvis rotate towards their standing leg as they are stretching – which is exactly the problem they are trying to overcome in their splits.

Consistency in their stretching is key – especially in the growing years. If your students aren’t getting the results they want from their stretching you might need to investigate whether they have tight fascia somewhere else in the body that is influencing their efforts. Reread the post on flexibility where I talk about this.

Finally – I want to let you know that I now have Anatomy Coloring Pages for the young dancer available in the store. They are in a pdf format that you do multiple copies of for your younger students.

The muscles that are included in the coloring pages are:
1. rotators (turnout muscles)
2. Quadriceps
3. Hamstrings
4. Iliopsoas
5. Adductor (inner thigh)
6. Abductor (lateral hip)
7. Abdominals
8. Soleus (deeper calf muscle that determines depth of demi plié)
9. Gastrocnemius
10. Deltoid (that lifts the arm)

Each page demonstrates the action of the muscle, has an insert of what the actual muscle looks like, and at the bottom of each page is a sentence describing the action in simple terms. Perfect for the youngest (6 – 8 yrs) to begin learning about their body!

The price is right – only $9.95 – so check them out!

Warm regards,
Deborah

“Education is the key to injury prevention”

Training for splits

Training For Splits

#1: I have my splits, but they aren’t straight (my hips aren’t straight). I’m wondering; is it necessary for your hips to be straight in the splits to be able to do good kicks and stuff? Or is it okay to not have straight hips in ballet?
Thanks!!! Talya

#2: I am a professional ballroom dancer and teacher who primarily competes in West Coast Swing. I have been working for over a year now to be able to do a split. The type of split I’m referring to is either left leg in front with right leg going back or vice versa. I find that I can get down quite far but there is still about two inches between the floor and me. Can you suggest exercises or stretches that will enable me to do a full split? I maintain a daily Pilates and yoga practice so I’m quite flexible.
I’ve been reading your newsletter for quite some time now and really enjoy it. Thank you, Ellany

#3: What are some good stretches for a good or high extension and leaps? My splits are fine but my extensions and leaps (jete) need some work.
Please help! La Precious

Deb’s Answer:
These three questions are speaking to the same issue of flexibility versus strength, and so I put them together. For Ellany, she is missing the last few inches of her splits, and for La Precious she has her splits, but needs work on her leaps and extensions. Talya’s question fits right in because of the misconception that you can keep your hips square doing the splits – which you can’t.

Let’s start first talk about square hips. Keeping your pelvis facing forward while going into the splits is a focus. The picture of a flexible gymnast in the splits has the back leg more parallel than what a dancer has in arabesque or a split leap. The dancer is working towards a turned out (and high) back leg which requires good front of the hip flexibility to allow the leg to go behind. The more you can keep the pelvis square – or facing forward – the easier it is to determine the path for the two legs when they open into the splits – certainly important if you are working on a balance beam, but slightly less so in the dance class. So Talya, the short answer to your question is it okay not to have square hips in ballet is yes – and – when you are doing battements or splits leaps focus your efforts on keep the pelvis facing forward – don’t get discouraged if you can’t maintain a perfectly square pelvis – and continue your stretching.

Now let’s talk some about flexibility. Since Ellany does yoga and Pilates on a regular basis I know that she is stretching regularly. The most basic analysis of the splits are that the front let have a strong stretch happening in the hamstrings and buttock muscles, while the back leg is stretching the front of the hip. The front leg should have the knee facing the ceiling and the back leg will either have the knee facing down to the ground, which stretches the hip flexors more or the knee facing to the side, which stretches the inner thigh muscles more.

I would have you first see what the natural inclination of your back leg is as you go down into the splits. Do you want to turn your leg out? Then focus on increasing and deepening your hip flexor stretches. Does your leg stay nicely behind and facing the floor? In which case, focus for a while on increasing the flexibility of your adductor, or inner thigh muscles.

The more pitched forward your pelvis is when you are going down in the splits, the more likely the hip flexors are keeping you off the ground. That may also give you a clue whether it is the hip flexors (usually the iliopsoas) or inner thigh muscles.

The last question I would ask of you is where do you feel the resistance to deepening the splits? If you don’t feel much muscular resistance to the lowering in the splits, then you might look at having some myofascial massage work done to release tightness in other areas along the front or back line that may be getting in your way.

With LaPrecious feeling that she has her flexibility and splits down, but unable to make her leaps more spectacular, that may be a deficiency in strength. More often I see weakness in the hip extensors (hamstrings) over the hip flexors (quads). Try lifting your back leg up more quickly sometimes makes a difference. Dancers are often overly focused on the front leg and lifting it u p high. The back leg is doing a very fast battement as soon as it pushes off (as in a grand jeté).

If your back leg doesn’t get as high as you’d like in your leaps, then focus on strengthening the extensors of the hip, the hamstrings and gluteal muscles.
You can do that by placing a small weight on one leg and doing back tendus or dégagés. You could also use a theraband and do the same thing by looping it around your foot and a support such as a heavy chair or sturdy pole or column.

Increasing your strength or your flexibility doesn’t happen overnight and consistency is key.

Turnout and 5th position

Today’s blog entry is in podcast form. Here’s the question and then you can click on the highlighted link to hear my verbal response.

Hi! I have always have struggled with my turnout due to my bone structure. I have a few questions regarding my turnout and would LOVE to hear your advice. First, I have pretty good turnout when my legs are in the air especially in passe where I can have an 180 degree passe and still maintain good turnout on my standing leg. I do not have this turnout when my legs are in contact with the floor, such as in fifth position. Why? Second, I have always had to really work on my fifth position. I feel that my bum is sticking out and that I have too big of a curve in my lower spine. I do not tuck my pelvis only lengthen it downwards and I also pull my front up in addition to strengthening my lower abs. Why is my alignment not straighter? Lastly, when I stand in fifth position my hips always seem to twist into the barre even though I am holding my turnout in both legs. I know I will never have perfect turnout but would like to use what I have the best that I can. Thank you so much for your time. I bought “Tune Up Your Turnout” and thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Thank you so much!!! Katherine

click below for my response. Be patient – it’s a 7 minute response and might take a moment or two to load.

Click here

Enjoy!

Looking at a demi plié

click here to view a quick clip on demi pliés. Start to train your eye to see assymetries! I’ve got a few spaces left for the workshop in June – only 20 total participants. Come join me!

Arabesque

question of the week….

I’ve got a question about arabesque. Many of my students open their hips more than is necessary as they approach 90 degrees, which makes squaring their shoulders a problem, as well as turning out their base leg and aligning their ribs over their hips, leading to a lack of balance. This year, one of my goals with them is to instill a better sense of squareness. However, as soon as they start to really try to square their hips, their working leg turns in, drops, and the back of the knee softens. Grrr! I understand the meaning of turning out within the hip joint as much as possible, and we do work that, of course, but how exactly do you square your hips and still get any height on a back extension? I’m starting to think I need to concentrate more on the base leg turnout, because they’ll be less able to open that working hip if the standing leg is rotated more, right? Sigh……..Thanks for any reply……..
Jennifer

Delicious question, Jennifer! You have discovered one of the ‘myths’ of ballet – that you can keep your hips square as you do an arabesque. It’s why I created the DVD Analyzing Arabesque!

When you are taking a leg into a back tendu, you can keep your hips square for a short period of time. How long you can keep your hips square has to do with the range of motion of the hip flexors and your own personal boney hip structure. A few dancers can stay totally square for the whole back tendu – more often than not – most dancers have already opened the working hip by the time they reach the end of the tendu.

For an arabesque – I have never seen a dancer stay totally square in an arabesque. It is anatomically impossible. That being said the concept of squareness is one that we should strive for. But how?

You have hit the most important nail on the head and it has to do with the standing leg. The better a dancer gets at maintaining the turnout of the standing leg while doing a back tendu or arabesque, the squarer the hips will appear.

As you know the spine will rotate and spiral away from the leg in arabesque (right leg in arabesque, the spine spirals to the left) in order to keep the upper body focused forward. This also helps to keep the dancer on her standing leg.

The most important areas to work on if your students aren’t staying square are
1. flexibility of the hip flexors, especially the iliopsoas (this will help to give them a higher arabesque and an easier time staying up on their standing leg)
2. flexibility and strength of the rotators (this will help them rotate both legs more evenly – instead of focusing on one of the legs more than the other)
3. ability of the standing leg to maintain turnout (to keep the hips square)
4. range of motion of the spine to allow that easy spiral and to keep the upper spine upright (which makes the leg look higher)

Bottom line – the hips will open some – and the pelvis will rotate – effectively ‘turning in’ the standing leg. And – by focusing on countering that tendency by keeping the weight balanced on the standing foot (not dropping back into the heels as is so common) and thinking stabilizing and rotating the standing leg – you’ve got your best chance for that elegant line of the arabesque.

Your thinking is on the right track!

Warm regards,
Deborah

“Education is the key to injury prevention”