Mobilizing the Soleus Muscle

Here’s a quick clip on how to mobilize the soleus muscle. It’s great for those dancers who feel like their demi plié is too short. Enjoy!

Flattened lower back: Structure or Habits?

I have a student who has experienced some lower back pain. She had x-rays taken and was told that she has a reverse curve shape of the bone structure in her neck. There is definitely a narrowing of the spaces between the vertebrae at the base of the neck. She has been having lower back pain and may have some narrowed spaces in the lower lumbar also.”

What does this mean for her dancing? What do I need to be concerned with during class? Thanks!

I’m always so appreciative of teachers who ask questions – and wonder why? It’s those questions that started me on my own path – having students come up and say, my right knee bothers me when I’m doing plié in 5th – why? My left arabesque is higher than my right – why? Then I would look at their alignment and movement with a more critical eye, noting their asymmetries and patterns. (Remember – everyone is asymmetrical!)

All bodies, including the prepubescent ballet body, should have 3 curves in the spine. At the neck and lower back areas the curve goes forward towards the front of the body, and in the chest area it curves towards the back of the body. It is not accurate to judge spinal curves by the shape of their muscles and buttocks. Look at their alignment by analyzing where the centers of the ear, shoulder joint, hip, knee and ankle joints are.

I have seen young ballerinas work hard to make their neck absolutely flat. They pull their chin back and down. It’s a look they are trying to achieve. They don’t understand that lengthening the thoracic spine typically brings the head into alignment. Having the cervical curve flattened influences the other spinal areas. It must – they are connected!

I have also seen dancers try and tuck their glutes under, trying to make the lower back look less arched. As the x-ray report states, inappropriately trying to decrease the curves of the spine will narrow the spaces between the vertebrae. This isn’t good.

Okay – we’ve established the fact that you need to have curves in your spine. Now how do you help her as her teacher? I would begin by putting her on the floor or mat and having her feel how there is space between her neck and her lower back and the floor. Her first impulse will be to flatten those areas. Work with her to breath easily, allowing the ribcage and abdominals to gently expand and softly fall – without any extra muscular effort.

In efficient breathing the spine creates a ripple effect, and there will be a small movement at the head and pelvis when lying at rest on the back. This is appropriate. I suspect this student is an over-worker and probably ‘holds on’ when trying to create good alignment. It would be useful to see if this is because of inefficient muscle patterns or an erroneous idea of how to make her alignment look right.

Then I would bring her up to standing and place her in anatomical alignment against the wall with her buttocks lightly touching and nothing else – so she again can have some feedback of what it feels like to have a natural curve in those areas. Do some easy demi pliés with her buttocks lightly sliding along the wall, keeping the weight on her feet between the 3 points and let her give you feedback. I often get the comment, ” I’m sticking my butt out” but if they could watch themselves from the side they would see the beautiful and aligned descent into and out of that demi.

Warming up before class would focus on releasing tension. Watch her carefully for straining and pushing to put her body ‘in alignment’. Easy spinal swings, relaxing over a physioball (on her back as well as on her stomach) will feel good. I’m assuming that her physician has put her in physical therapy and she has exercises to do to help redevelop the natural curves to the spine.

Most of all – help her become aware when she is standing stiffly, pulling her head back and up. The other pattern will be tucking under the pelvis. I’m not sure which end of the spine is more the culprit for her – but I imagine you have some ideas from being her teacher!

Having her discomfort decrease will be postive indicators that you are on the right track!

to your success, Deborah

“Education is the key to injury prevention”

Changing Habits

The way dancers improve their technique is by developing movement habits that follow anatomical and muscular guidelines. Over time, a demi plié or rélevé becomes automatic and this is what we want, especially if the mechanics of those movements are good.

As teachers it is our job to guide them into learning those effective neuromuscular habits. Learning, by definition, is making new synaptic connections in the brain. The more we do something the same way, the wiring of that pattern becomes stronger and more automatic.

It’s not uncommon to have students come into our class who have some inefficient movement patterns that are causing problems. Let’s say they aren’t using their rotators correctly, or they have a poor alignment patterns or some functional mobility or stability issues. We need to remember that these may be hardwired patterns and as such it is going to take many repetitions of the desired new pattern before they truly shift away from the problem movement.

We all have strategies for helping our students physically make the desired change. What I want to touch upon is how we can help our students more quickly shift by recognizing how their emotions can help or hinder the process. Emotions are a chemical response in the brain, often caused by our thoughts.

To make learning new patterns easier we need to link change with a state of relaxed alertness (also known as an alpha brainwave) instead of to stress or anxiety (a high beta brainwave). So many of us dislike change – we don’t like not knowing exactly what is going to happen – how long it will take – and we don’t like feeling uncomfortable when we realize we’re doing something that isn’t helping us reach our desired goals.

Some young students will equate making changes with being ‘less than’.

  • They forget that learning what doesn’t work is uber important to figuring out what does work. Mistakes are a valuable learning tool!
  • They need to be reminded that where they focus their attention is where their energy goes. If they are thinking about falling out of a turn… their brain gets a mixed message between the image of how they want the turn to go and an image of falling. Not helpful for consistency or accuracy.
  • They need to be reminded that every day in class is different – they will be a subtly different person depending on how well they slept, what they ate and what happened that day.
  • They need to be reminded that it’s easier to make changes when you are feeling good about yourself. Resiliency and grit and desire are as important, if not more, than natural talent.
  • C.S. Lewis said “You can’t go back and change the beginning but you can start where you are and change the ending.”

Let’s make it a practice to remind our students to stay calm and curious as they figure out what shifts and changes will help them improve their dancing. Let’s try and keep them in a relaxed and eager state during class by being aware of what state or mood we are in. How we are feeling and the stressors we’re facing can impact our teaching. It’s a skill to shift your focus towards the task at hand and bring yourself back into balance if need be. These are valuable skills for us all. Teaching/modeling to students how to take class and improve their technique without sabotaging themselves is a worthy goal.

My point is that we all hardwire emotional/chemical responses to our dancing and teaching. The first step is to be curious and observe – not judge – our thoughts. Every now and then ask your students how they feel after doing a combination. Acknowledge their effort, then have them silently and non-judgmentally observe their thoughts and emotions. What could they do differently next time? Changing their mood from frustration to being curious about what went wrong goes a long way to bring them back into a learning mode.

The younger the student, the more important it is to prioritize a healthy learning environment inside the classroom. So many students consider their studio as their second home… and their teachers as parental figures. I love my fellow teachers so much because of their commitment to do right by their students and give them the skills to become better dancers… as well as more compassionate, resilient and extraordinary human beings.

To end this post… here is a 2 minute video that beautifully illustrates how the hardwiring of our habits must first change in our brain.

To your success!

Balance Perspective

I’ve been doing a deep dive into functional movement and how it might help explain certain technique challenges. I discovered an asymmetry in my own movement which was strongly influencing my ability to balance on one of my legs.

Balance, both the standing on one leg kind, as well as balance in muscle usage is key to staying healthy and fit at all ages! The interesting tweak in my thinking came when thinking about how to improve this balance asymmetry. Do you start with improving the movement pattern or improving your proprioceptors?

Perhaps it is the chicken and the egg question…. and they certainly work intimately together – but prior to finding the clip below I would have given a student, and myself, the goal of standing on one leg for up to 3 minutes. Certainly a worthy goal and it will improve your ability to balance on one leg.

But could it be even more effective to address the balance challenge through improving the dysfunctional movement pattern? The answer is yes. Evaluating a movement pattern for where mobility or stability is off and working to correct the deficiency is bringing your motor control and balance… well… back into balance!

Doesn’t mean that you can’t still practice balancing at those odd moments during the day – that will absolutely help you improve your balance standing on one leg. If you are balancing on one leg and doing other things at the same time it is even better1

Brushing teeth on one leg (including the bending over to spit in the sink), reaching down to pick something up on one leg, or even washing dishes on one leg will challenge and improve your balance. My go-to balance exercise was tossing a pinkie ball between my hands – but I’m not sure it was challenging enough.

So this week… challenge your balance in all ways and share your experiences in the comments below!

Here is the clip that started me thinking in a new way…. enjoy!

To your success, Deborah

(I just passed my certification for being able to offer a functional movement screen (FMS) – I’ll be talking a lot about what I’m learning in the months ahead:)

Training Penchés

In the process of working with my son who sustained a grade 2 hamstring strain/tear this week I’ve been thinking about hamstring training and rehabilitation. I’m always trying to figure out the mechanics of an injury – no matter what the sport. If you know how or why an injury occurred then you can bring specificity to your rehab efforts. Specificity is an important principle in strength training. It means your conditioning exercises should be as similar as possible to the pattern of the movement you are training for. Don’t worry – I’m going to bring this back to dance in a moment.

He injured his hamstring during a heel hook move while bouldering. Think of doing a grand battement and then pulling yourself up by pushing down on your heel as you reach one arm upward to continue the climb.

Definitely needs both strength and flexibility – similar to what a penché requires. Dancers focus more on training flexible hamstrings to get those high extensions and splits but often are lacking in strength, especially when the hamstring is lengthening or doing an eccentric contraction, which is what the standing leg of a penché is doing.

Let’s first test the general strength of the hamstrings. Start in a bridge position and lift your pelvis up off the floor. The hamstrings are shortening or concentrically contracting when you do this. The same is true if you place your legs on a physioball and lift your hips up to form a straight line with your body. Still a shortening contraction. Both exercises will help the hamstring become stronger, especially if you do them one-legged, but aren’t specific enough to the requirements of a penché.

For eccentrically training the hamstrings you could begin by lying on your stomach, one knee bent with a 1-5 pound ankle weight on. Then slowly… slowly… straighten your leg. You are beginning to train the hamstring to control that lengthening contraction.

A fun way to train lengthening contractions of the hamstrings is to stand on one leg in front of a chair and slowly lower yourself to sitting. It’s harder than it sounds. Most of us will plop down at a certain point rather than controlling the descent. The lower the chair… the harder it is.

The next variation could be placing one leg on a chair (or physioball) and slowly reaching towards the floor with the opposite arm. Don’t expect to actually touch the floor at first. Only reach as far as you can smoothly maintain your balance. The other leg will not reach up into an arabesque but stay on the chair. This is also surprisingly hard to do well!

The final variation is to actually do the penché by lifting the back leg into arabesque (which is a concentric contraction for that hamstring), and then slowly flexing at the hip into the penché, maintaining good upper back and arabesque alignment.

These exercises will certainly help train your penchés, but also are really good for making sure your hamstrings are both flexible and strong!

To your success,

Deborah

Ankle Mobilization Variations

Here are 2 variations to add to your ankle mobilizations. The most important and first variation that I showed you can be found here. I received a lot of positive feedback on that clip!

If you have questions please email them to deborah@thebodyseries.com.

To your success,

Deborah

Aggregating Marginal Gains aka Incremental Changes

What does it mean to aggregate marginal gains? It’s when there are small, incremental changes in multiple aspects of an activity or process that add up to a remarkable change over time.

For a dancer, improving turnout by one percent, their flexibility by one percent, and alignment by one percent add up to improving their technique way more than just one percent. Each aspect influences the whole positively or negatively.

For example, a student who is working to improve their turnout can make a choice to make their first position more than what they can create at the hip joint. At first, this decision can bring them some positive feedback as they look in the mirror and see themselves in a more pleasing first position.

Over time, though, that decision can bring with a host of other negative impacts that are only felt when enough time has passed. Pronation problems, knee issues, tightness at the hips for example.

How could a teacher shift that? By guiding the student to focus instead on a 1% change, which could be maintaining equal weight on the feet at the barre or sensing the engagement of the external rotators at the hip. In other words, shifting their focus to incremental changes in their process rather than the end result.

As teachers it requires us to breakdown the different aspects of dance into more bite-size pieces so that our students know that there are multiple places they can improve and each one adds up to ‘improved technical skill’.

Duh… I can hear some teachers groaning… of course… !

I get it – as teachers we understand good technique is more than high extensions. AND…. I think many of our students still focus on the end result more than the process… how they look rather than what they are feeling.

When they are evaluating themselves on whether or not they nailed the triple pirouette or jumping combination it can takes them out of a learning mindset. The mindset where they learn to pay attention (somatically) knowing where their weight was in that pirouette, or where their alignment was as they took off into a leap. Understanding that dance is very complicated neurologically and being patience and methodical will pay off! After all it takes over 200 muscles to take one step – can you imagine the neurological patterning it takes to do a demi plié?

Making incremental positive changes in other areas in their life will also influence their technique. Drinking enough water to be fully hydrated, getting enough sleep, etc. are important influences to what happens inside the studio. Encourage them to take those small one percent steps. It may be as simple as drinking an extra tall glass of water first thing in the morning to improve hydration.

We need to remind them that small steps/habits/actions taken daily create BIG results!

To your success,

Deborah

Ankle Mobilization

Wanted to share an awesome mobility exercise for the ankle. This clip may help those with short demi pliés and/or tight soleus muscles. The band that I am using can be found on Amazon (under $10) I would use the orange or red band.

This exercise reminds the ankle how to flex effectively without overusing the tibialis anterior muscle or foot tension. Try it and let me know your results!

To your success, Deborah

Spine Mobilization

Here is a quick video on mobilizing the spine. Try it and see how good your spine feels afterwards!

to your success, Deborah

Mobilizing Exercises

Decided to share thoughts about mobility versus flexibility and show you how to change a more traditional hip flexor stretch into a mobility exercise. Try it and see what your response is! Might be helpful for some students who struggle with regular stretching.