Dancers LOVE to stretch… it feels good… we need flexible and strong bodies… and everybody thinks of stretching in terms of muscles. Most know that each muscle is wrapped in fascia, which is also called connective tissue. Did you know that each muscle bundle and each muscle fiber is also enveloped by fascia?
Yup! That’s a lot of fascia!
Dancers are returning to classes after summer break and there are many of them that are going to be sore after the first class or two back.
That soreness is often called delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS for short. You feel great in class, but the next day or even two days later your muscles ACHE! It used to be said that it was caused by an increase of lactic acid but lactic acid is reduced fairly quickly in the body while muscle aches can last for days.
This soreness is coming from doing an activity that your body isn’t ready for – like being out of shape or away from class and then jumping back in full tilt boogie:) It can involve eccentric contractions which is contracting a muscle while it is being lengthened. It can also come after trying a new movement pattern that that the body isn’t trained for (yet). DOMS goes away typically within a few days, and the next time you go to do the activity it feels better. You are conditioning your muscles AND fascia:)
Research suggests that it’s the fascia that has been strained rather than the muscle fibers. In fact – the number of pain sensors is far greater in fascia than in muscle. Fascia can be inflamed, stiffen up, dry up and wreck havoc with our movement. Remember the post about the lumbar fascia, which is a key player in lower back pain, stiffens up and looses mobility? You can rewatch the 2 clips of healthy lumbar fascia vs lumbar fascia from someone with lower back pain.
Fascia likes being stretched across multiple joints, as fascia connects and weaves long lines of muscles through the body. This is why when you roll a ball under your foot, your hamstrings might feel looser on that side. The hamstrings and the bottom of your feet are connected through the fascia. Often a solution to a flexibility problem may be far away from the targeted challenge area.
Fascia also responds to dynamic stretching. An example of a dynamic hamstring stretch I love is placing my foot on a chair in front of me. I then contract my quads on the leg that is being stretched and shift my sits bone backwards as if I was sticking my pelvis out. Keeping the quads contracted you can slowly and gently flex at the hip until you have a strong yet not painful stretching sensation. If you let go of the quad contraction you will lose the effectiveness of this stretch.
A nice way to get ready for class is to do a few jumping jacks, or brisk walk around the studio and then take a few minutes to roll on the pinkie ball or foam roller followed by lying on the floor and stretching your body as if you were just getting out of bed and yawning and stretching. Twist and bend your body in as many ways as possible and wake up those long lines of fascial connections.
If you live in Canada you might consider coming one of the workshops I’ll be offering on Anatomy of Technique: A Fascial Perspective where we will dive deep into looking at technique through the lens of fascia. Space is limited and they are happening in October!
To your success!
Hello, my five year old daughter is pigeon toed. Do you have any suggestions to help her correct this as a dancer? I know there is a chance that she may grow out of this and she also may not. Thank you so much!
Great question as many young children are pigeon toed. You see it most commonly in a child under 2 years of age and that can occur from how the baby was positioned in utero with the foot and/or shinbone being turned inward. I have talked about external tibial torsion where a child’s foot and shinbone (tibia) is more turned out than their thigh bone (femur) is. This is the opposite called internal tibial torsion. It often starts to self-correct itself after the child becomes more mobile. I saw this recently in one of my grandsons, who now by the age of 3 1/2 is running and walking with much less toeing in than I previously saw.
The other main reason for being pigeon toed is how the thigh is placed in the hip joint. Being five years old now, this might be where your daughter’s pigeon toed gait may be coming from. The medical term is femoral anteversion and when your daughter is standing without thinking about it both her knees and her feet would turn in rather than having the knees and feet facing forward.
A child with femoral anteversion can easily W-sit as in picture on the right – and – teachers and parents should gently change their position when we see this.
Being in dance class can often help develop the rotator muscles at the hip which will help turn out the whole leg. This isn’t going to happen over night, and the child with a turned in hip has to be extra careful they are creating their turnout from the hip rather than turning out just the feet to make it look right. I’ve seen a LOT of early pronation problems in young children due to their desire to make their positions look more turned out than what they actually can create at the hip. That’s my main concern with a young dancer who comes into dance class being pigeon toed. He/she needs to work primarily in parallel (over toeing in) and not worry too much about a small first position.
My suggestions for you is to see if you can see where the toeing in is coming from and then encourage running, kicking a ball, regular outdoor play… along with taking dance classes.
I’ve read the majority of children self-correct this toeing in by the age of 8 – so she still has some time to repattern as she is going through various growth spurts and muscle patterning.
To your success,
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,
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,
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,
Here’s a quick 3 minute clip on a hip flexor bounce… and you’ll get to see my pup, too!
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,
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,