Are my legs straight?

Hi, I’m 12 and I just started ballet around 1 and half years ago. I know my technique needs a lot of improvement, but I am most concerned about my knees. Whenever I pull my knees up in my exercises, the teacher says they’re not pulled up enough and I have to pull them up more, but they’re already as pulled up as they can be. She tells me to sit on the floor in pike and flex my feet to get the skin under my knee to touch the floor. She gave me some exercises to do to help me fix it but I don’t think they’re working because whenever I do the exercise it just feels like she wants me to have hyperextended knees. What other exercises can I do to get my knee to touch the floor?

Earlier this year I wrote a post on fascial plasticity that had a picture of a young man who significantly straightened his legs over the course of a semester by working on releasing fascial tightness in his upper back and neck. The body is an amazing, complex set of relationships! For that young man he needed to focus on releasing and stretching his whole back, not just the hamstrings. (Which were mighty tight when he began)

Not having a picture of your alignment and not knowing what muscles might be weak or tight, it is hard to say definitively… do this… and your legs will straighten more. I’m trying to make a point that dance is not a one size fits all program, because we all have different bodies and strengths!

I recently participated in an online discussion about this very problem, and quickly became discouraged by the misinformation and suggestions to work through the pain of stretching and/or strengthening. NO! Pain is an indicator from the body that something is not right and please please please listen to the messages that your body gives you.

Okay… ’nuff said… I’ll get back on track with your question.

Your teacher is correct that the quadriceps contract to straighten the knee. There are 4 (quad) muscles that come together to form the tendon that the kneecap is encased in. You want even pull from all of them to keep the kneecap correctly in its track on the thigh bone. It’s not unusual to find the lateral or outer quadricep pulling a little bit harder than the medial or inner one. Just focusing on ‘pulling up’ the knees won’t press the back of your knees to the ground if the boney structure of your leg won’t allow for hyperextension.

It could be that the muscles at the back of your legs are tight, and you could focus on some extra calf and hamstring stretching. Include the back and neck too just in case you are like my student with the extra tight upper back.

I have seen the shape of a dancer’s legs change as they gained strength and muscle tone. It wasn’t because their knees changed how much they could straighten, but the change in muscle shape made the whole leg look different. A overall improvement in alignment always helps.

My best advice is to go to a physical therapist who understands dancers and have an evaluation so that you can target your efforts and work smart, instead of just harder.

I appreciate your desire to understand your body and how to work with it! With commitment and hard work I have no doubt that you will see great improvements in your technique over time. Don’t get discouraged with starting dance at age 12… I’ve seen college students get bitten by the dance bug and make a career out of it – it’s never too late.

To your success,

Deborah

Returning to Pointe after Injury

I’m a professional freelance dancer (I’m 30, if it matters), and over the past two years, have suffered a number of injuries that have kept me out of my pointe shoes. 

First off, I suffered a 2nd metatarsal stress fracture (which I kept dancing on… misdiagnosed for several months because it was in the joint. Due to dancing corporate gigs in heels on concrete), followed by a really resilient ankle impingement (again, not pointe related, but just coming to the end of healing that). Shortly prior to this series of injuries, I had a shoe fitting and was mostly pleased with what I walked out with (should it make a difference, I was originally in Blochs, shortly in Freeds (hated them), and now in GMs). 

My question is this: after these foot injuries and the time off, is it reasonable to go back to those most recent pointe shoes, or should I be refit again with these injuries in mind? I’m not sure how much of a change this would create (aside from loss of strength/flexibility), and whether it’s safer to start from square one. Since I’m not with a company, I’m truly on my own and just looking for another opinion. It might be a valid question for others as well- should a dancer always be refit after a foot injury?

Thanks for any insight you might have! 

Good question! Reassessing pointe shoes after an injury is not a bad idea, or even periodically throughout one’s career. What I’m more interested in is to make sure your foot has come back fully after the injury – so the fitter will be evaluating a strong yet flexible foot.

Begin by sitting legs in front of you and simply pointe the two feet. How do they compare? What about when you flex the toes? And then flex at the ankle?

Now stand up in a parallel first and releve on both feet – then again in turnout. Now do the same with a single leg rise. You are looking for differences that may indicate any weakness or tightness.

Next, I want you to mobilize the foot… Here is a short (2 1/2 min) Youtube video that does a good job of demonstrating that. I think of ‘wringing’ the foot out like wringing a washcloth when he is demonstrating the last mobilization. I also like to gently hold the big toe and the 2nd toe and separate them in opposite directions… and then move to separating the 2nd & 3rd toes, and so on… down the line.


Your feet should feel nicely warmed up and mobile now as you redo all of your releves and rises on both feet, then single leg. Hopefully, the foot that sustained the fracture and injury is moving a bit better. Now after mobilizing the foot you can go into your stretches and strengtheners that you were given by your physical therapist – and back to be fitted for point shoes.

Good luck on your return to pointe!

To your success,

Deborah

Fascia and Brain Functioning

Exploring fascia is fascinating and I keep learning more relationships between the health of our fascia and the health of our bodies.

This post will summarize some ways it influences our brains. If these posts are interesting to you please consider attending the Texas June 21-23 workshop – where the exploration of fascia will be woven into many of the classes.

Understanding the intellectual properties of fascia is the first step – but how do we actually weave that information into technique is even more valuable – and that will be covered in this intimate workshop among other topics.

Now onto fascia and brain health. I watched Dr. Mark Hyman’s Broken Brain 2 episode on Optimizing Brain Health (no longer available for free, but series can be bought) In that episode Dr. Shalini Bhat talked about fascia’s influence on brain health.

One of the main take-aways was how poor posture (visualize sitting in front of the computer slightly slumped) can negatively influence the circulation to the brain. There is an artery that runs through the vertebra and it is compressed when there is a forward head posture which compromises the blood flow to the brain.

What’s important and yet challenging about this information is that often we don’t know that the circulation to our brain may be slightly compromised. How many people will admit to having a little brain fog – or feeling more tired than usual – but simply chalk it up to less than optimal sleep. Perhaps optimizing our spinal alignment may help. (I am much more aware of lengthening my spine and looking forward instead of down as I write this on my desktop computer)

The other way that chronically poor posture will influence the fascia is with the Golgi tendon organs. These are connected between the muscle fibers and tendons and senses changes of muscle tendons. (This is different from the Golgi tendon reflex, which is when swelling or pressure on the tendon will cause the muscle to release to prevent further damage)

When we change our posture and alignment the Golgi tendon organ tells the joint where it is in space. But… When poor posture becomes habitual – think about kids always looking down at their phone – the Golgi tendon resets where ‘normal’ is and that person’s proprioception is being influenced.

Posture can shift slowly over time. Looking at the image to the left most people would way his posture is pretty good but unfortunately, if you are a people watcher as I am, you’ll see a LOT of people standing in a forward head posture such as this.

We have to encourage our students, and ourselves, to be more self aware of our alignment – outside of dance class! (alignment assessment is another topic in the June workshop!)

One other key suggestion for healthy fascia offered in the program was stretching and moving our body in all directions and keeping it hydrated. Dancing does a good job with the first suggestion and I see lots of water bottles these days instead of soda, yay!

Take care of your fascia!

To your success,

Deborah

Hip Flexor Bounce

Here’s a quick 3 minute clip on a hip flexor bounce… and you’ll get to see my pup, too!

Hip Flexor Bounce

How Quickly Can Change Happen?

The secret of CHANGE is to focus all your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new.

Socrates

We are at that familiar time where many of us are reflecting upon the past year and pondering how we’d like 2019 to be. It started me thinking about how quickly can change really happen?

Generally, science says a mildly sprained ankle takes 5 days to 2 weeks to heal, and a moderate one from will take 4-6 weeks. A hip flexor strain takes between 1-8 weeks to fully recover. Changing an unwanted habit? Some say 21 days, a research study by Lally said anywhere between 2-8 months to adopt a new habit.

Is it possible to change a chronic injury or unwanted habit even faster than normal?

Science is starting to back up the above Socrates quote. We know that where you place your attention your energy goes. When you or your child is sick at home in bed a wonderful distraction is to pop a favorite movie in to watch. It’s pretty remarkable that for short periods of time they forget they’re sick and get wrapped up in the movie. This concept of where your attention goes your energy flows has been around for a while and is pretty straight-forward but often hard to use deliberately when we are trying to change our flexibility or results or negative patterns.

The major challenge to changing quickly is how our past habits and patterns of thinking, feeling and doing are hardwired in the brain. This is how learning happens. We do something over and over again until we don’t need to even think about it – our bodies automatically get ourselves ready for the day in the same way, we drive to work in the same predictable routes, and generally have the same thoughts and emotional responses to certain people in our life. These hard-wired patterns are not bad – they allow us to get a lot done without much conscious decision-making. Being such creatures of habit does have a downside, though, when it comes to wanting to change something about our life or body.

Awareness and knowledge is key to creating deliberate changes. The first step is to define what it is that you want. The second step is to become familiar with the patterns that are keeping you stuck in the current situation.

For example, let’s imagine a dancer who wants to increase their flexibility. They learn the appropriate stretches necessary to address their stiffness. That’s a good knowledge step for sure. They need to spend time becoming aware of all the negative statements they make about their body and flexibility and catch themselves when they start that self-sabotage loop. This goes beyond deciding on a positive affirmation to say to themselves. It might be a good mantra to say to oneself, “my flexibility gets a little bit better every day” but if immediately after saying that you feel discouragement or add a silent and sarcastic yea… right…, then chances are flexibility isn’t going to change as quickly as they’d like.

There is a concept in neuroscience called neuroplasticity which explains how the brain can hardwire new habits and create change. This short 2-minute video explains it beautifully.

Now getting back to our example of a dancer wanting to improve their flexibility. They need to catch their sabotaging thoughts and behaviors. Thoughts are pretty easy to define but let’s say they become aware that after eating a lot of sugar they feel achey and stiff. Once they become aware of that pattern they have a choice point when contemplating another serving of dessert. No judgment if they choose the extra dessert, but they are simply demonstrating that the sugar habit is stronger than their new flexibility patterns.

Being aware and knowledgeable of their flexibility patterns will streamline the change process. In other words, they need to ‘act as if’ they are already the flexible dancer they want to be… saying the things to themselves a flexible dancer would say, feeling emotionally how grateful they are to be flexible and acting and having the patterns of a person who honors their body’s flexibility. This seems pretty straightforward and simple – but challenging to put into practice.

Dancers are really good on the ‘doing’ part of the equation – but often not so good on the becoming aware of their thought and emotional patterns in response to their doing. There are strategies to help our students learn to become more aware of the complicated interplay between their body/brain and their results and it doesn’t require diving deep into their psyche or analysis.

Exploring the body/brain connection is the missing link in our training of dancers and one that I will be delving into this summer in both the Texas and France workshops. Understanding and exploring anatomy is still the foundation of these workshops with integrating the body/brain knowledge into your teaching.

Happy New Year, everyone! Now… back to journaling about who I want to be in 2019!

To your success,

Deborah

How NOT to use your abdominals

I came across a clip I took of a dancer sucking in her abdominals to bring herself into alignment and thought it might be interesting to talk about what’s really happening when she does this… Let’s watch a couple for a couple of rounds.  

Let’s dissect what’s happening as she does this.  It is a pretty common pattern. A student lifts up their ribs and lengthens the spine almost like they put an invisible belt around their waist.  At first glance it looks like they are in proper alignment, albeit with some tension.  Notice how tension comes into the neck and throat muscles.  It’s as if she is holding her breath… which is pretty much what she’s doing!  It’s then a challenge to get a deep breath if you maintain this position.  You would need to release the abdominals in order to allow the diaphragm to move downwards to inhale deeply. Remember the role of the abdominals is to create the front of pelvic bowl and keep the organs in place.  The abdominals are important to efficient breathing and of course come into play flexing the spine forward like in a sit-up.

So what to do?

I think the trick is to get them to become familiar with the feeling of how the abdominals stabilize the pelvis.  Have them find that feeling first lying on their back and lacing the abdominals together while sliding one leg at a time out to straight.  They will feel the engagement of the abdominals primarily below the belly button.  They should still be able to breath fully and there will be movement of the abdominals during the inhale and exhale – not held.  Point out to the students how the abdominal muscles naturally contract during the exhale. (which is why we encourage lifting, etc. on an exhale, to get that extra abdominal support)

Now stand up and draw the front of the pelvis upwards towards the breast bone without lifting or dropping the ribs.  They will again feel the effort below the belly button more than above and they still have to breathe!  Walk around for 2 minutes keeping the pelvis level and spine elongated.

That’s a more accurate feeling for engaging the abdominals to maintain anatomical alignment!  Plus… the goal is to always stand with our pelvis in neutral, instead of just at the barre or in dance class!

To your success,

Deborah

Stretching Tip!

Today we are going to talk about fascia and flexibility and what one simple action you can take to increase your flexibility.   Fascia-150x150

First… what is fascia?

Fascia is connective tissue that wraps and surrounds every muscle, bone, nerve and organ in the body.  It gives separation between these structures and creates a 3-dimensional, interconnected web of tissue through the body.  

Screen-Shot-2013-06-24-at-3.56.49-PM-150x150Imagine an orange or grapefruit that you’ve taken the outmost skin off of.  If you could magically make the juice disappear from inside white fibrous webbing that’s left is the fascia.  It’s almost impossible to separate the fascia and muscle, for example.  That is why a lot of practitioners talk about the myofascia.  Myo for muscle and fascia for … well fascia.  Some of you may have experience a myofascial massage that focuses on releasing fascial pulls.  

What most people don’t know is that fascia is composed primarily of water – approximately 70%. The other 30% is compoased of collagen and elastin and proteoglycans, which are proteins and carbohydrates.  

Read more

Put your health first on the list…

Happy January! I love the first of the year as it is so filled with potential and possibilities and thoughts of change.

As a dancer and dance teacher there have been  similar patterns to my thoughts over the years at this time. I vow to decrease my sugar intake, increase my exercise and spend more time with the people I really care about – quality time – not just quantity.

Within a few weeks life gets busy and somehow my good intentions are pushed to the back recesses of my mind.  I forget the importance of those simple goals… after all if you aren’t healthy you can’t be at the top of your game physically, mentally, emotionally.  When your body doesn’t feel good – you don’t feel good.

It’s a challenge to keep focused on a daily basis and decide that there is nothing more important than to feel good.   We know that when we feel good life works better and when we feel badly about ourselves nothing works quite as well.  We forget (at least I forget) that no one else is in charge of my perspective besides myself.

I blame life…. if only I had more money… if only I didn’t have to work so many hours… if only I had more time to focus on myself.

I forget that success at anything is an inside job – that then gets reflected into the outer world of my life.  It is my commitment to myself to make 2012 my healthiest and happiest year yet.  Not a resolution…. a commitment.

Every now and then I’m going to use the blog to update you on my progress.  Nothing like public accountability to get the juices going:)  I’ve got a few different strategies that I have already begun.  One is a new way to do some high intensity fitness training – easily – with my 10 pound kettle bell.

The article that inspired me can be found here. I’m all for ways to exercise and maintain health that are efficient and don’t require an hour or more out of my day.  Who has time for that!

After reading the article, come back to read the rest of the post… otherwise it won’t make sense.

Here are the modifications I made since I don’t have a bench to do the various presses that are talked about in this article.  I do 3 of the 5 recommended exercises. My modifications for the chest and overhead press are to take my 10 pound weight lie down on the floor for the chest press and do the very, very, very slow straightening of one arm (with weight) towards the ceiling and a very, very slow descent back down.  You only need to do 4-5 reps before your arm is very, very tired!  (how many times can I use very in this post?) 🙂

Then do it with the other arm.

For the overhead press I do the same thing one arm at a time either sitting or standing, slowly pressing the 1o pound weight towards the ceiling.

You can do it with whatever amount of weight seems appropriate to your level of strength – start light – you can always increase.  The tempo of the action is more important than the amount of weight in the beginning.

For the leg press I came up with a nifty variation: standing on 1 leg, in parallel, doing the slowest demi plie you have ever seen.  It was amazing to me how quickly my thigh muscles felt like they were burning as I did my 4 reps on each leg.

I can then change it up and do a couple of more active interval trainings like jumping jacks as quickly as I can for up to a minute, then walking around until my heart rate has come back down to normal.

I’m curious to hear other’s responses if they try the super slow movement sequences.  Feel free to post your comments below.  Next week I’ll get back to answering your questions.

Hope everyone is having a good start to the new year!

Best regards,

Deborah

 

“Education is the key to injury prevention”

Top 20 Dance Blogs

Everybody has their favorite dance blogs that they bookmark and read.  Nichelle at DanceAdvantage.net (a wonderful blog) is having a contest for the top 20 dance blogs.  I decided to enter my Dancing Smart blog in the Teacher Talk section.

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The way this contest works is the blogs with the most comments will win in their category and this is where I need your help!  Please comment below this post with a brief comment of either why you like the Dancing Smart blog, or even simply wish me good luck in the contest.  Nichelle will check this post by the end of 12/20 – which is tomorrow (I know… I know… I’m slipping in just under the wire – but the end of the semester has been kind of brutal:)

If you can spare the time to comment I would be most appreciative!  I’m working on this week’s post which is on what age should flexibility training for splits take place.  Watch your inbox over the next few days for when it’s up.  Will be a good one!

Thank you in advance for supporting me – together we can spread the word about Dancing Smart and Teaching Smart!

If I make it to the finals – voting will take place after Christmas.  I’ll let you know how we do but in the meantime please post a brief comment below.

Warmest regards,

Deborah

“Without dance I cannot feel my soul, hear my heart, or see my dreams.”  Ninka

“Education is the key to injury prevention”