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,


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.

Releasing the Lateral Quadricep muscle with the foam roller

Below is a quick video that I took showing how I’ve been working with releasing tension in my lateral quad muscle. I have a tendency to be tighter with the lateral quad, lateral hamstring and gluteus medius muscles because of having a woman’s body (aka slightly wide hips) but this pin and stretch technique with the foam roller has really helped.

If you have questions – about the video – or questions you want me to address in an upcoming newsletter please contact me!

To your success,


Pin and stretch lateral quad

Young Bones and Splits

I am trying to find out the most up to date information on the safety of splits and moves like tilts in young children and growing bodies. I don’t mean over stretching and I don’t mean how stretches happen but specifically should we be putting children with soft bones into a splits position before a certain age of development or milestone? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. Thank you!

Great question!  I searched to see if I could find any research on children and flexibility training and could not find anything that specifically addressed your concern. 

So here are my thoughts on the subject of young children and flexibility training.  There is a range of flexibility in children just as there is in teenagers and adults.  I’ve always believed that the first focus for training the young dancer should be to develop movement coordination and proper skeletal alignment which in turn creates strong and flexible muscles. 

When children begin stretching, they need to learn how to do it safely. They need to learn what is an okay physical sensation for them.  Children have multiple growth spurts where bones grow faster than muscles and they need to learn how to stretch without undue strain. 

It is during these growth spurts where the malleable bones of the young child are most vulnerable. Bone responds to pulls on it by growing outward. That is how bone spurs are created as well as Osgood Schlatter disease. The challenge is to train muscular flexibility and strength in our young children without creating undue strain on the bones. That requires teacher guidance to learn what are appropriate muscular sensations for stretching and strengthening. No pain no gain has no place in the training of young bodies. 

For the majority of dancers, having tight hip flexors and hamstring muscles is what keeps them from easily going into the splits (Alignment is important as well as indicated in the photo below.

Breaking down the splits and conditioning the hamstring muscles and hip flexor muscles separately is a good idea.  This will decrease potential muscle strains and joint injuries.  The majority of children working towards splits don’t need to be concerned with negatively influencing their bone growth if they learn how to stretch properly.

If you have a young child that is naturally flexible and can easily do the splits – it’s possible they could put undue pressure into the joint capsule so those children need to work more on their muscle strength and movement stability over flexibility. 

There are my best thoughts for training splits for the young dancer. First focus on movement coordination and patterning. And then let’s teach all our dancers (both young and old) what safe stretching and strengthening might feel and look like.

To your success!


Virtual classes

Hello all! I received a jam-packed full of good idea email from Ruth Ziegler answering my question of what do you do to keep yourself sane and hopefully less exhausted from teaching virtual dance classes. Her response is below… Thank you Ruth!

Great topic and so relevant!!!  I teach mainly adults – some very advanced, needing to get back to performances (hopefully) later on this summer and some not as advanced but definitely wanting NOT to lose strength, flexibility and technique.

I have been reading the information that is available through my teacher and dancer wellness groups about the dangers of trying to do a class “full out” while in limited spaces, on less than ideal floor surfaces.  I am very grateful for the generosity of many very skilled teachers, in giving sample classes, advice, suggestions, etc. 

Here are some great resources I have found: 

At Home Barre Class

Barre and Center Work from Pacific Northwest Ballet: 

I have a theme for each class I present – using the best music I can find, that goes with each theme. One week we did a mainly Russian inspired class and I sent out the reminder email about the class with some of the email written IN RUSSIAN Emoji No, I don’t speak Russian but I was able to find a translation of the phrases I wanted and I just did that.  We used some amazing Russian music and I took inspiration from this teacher: 

One week, we did a Broadway inspired class, using music from Cats, Cabaret, Sound of Music, Chicago, and incorporating  more contemporary types of ballet choreography. 

The technique classes are 90 minutes long and I spend a longer than normal amount of time at the barre or whatever support dancers may have. I include at least one or two exercises for turning and at least one exercise for petit allegro.  I even have a very safe “face the barre” build up for saute arabesque and cabriole derriere. 

I may start the class with a safe center floor “get moving” flowing sequence that I learned from Dmitri Kulev, Artistic Director of DKCBA.  Or … with advance notice, I will have dancers get out their large stability balls and we will do a few dancer- specific stability ball exercises before going to the barre.  We will repeat an exercise at the barre at a faster pace, to get the heart rate up, while staying very safe and not jarring knees, ankles, etc.  We will do the opposite for things like adagio – once at a normal tempo and then again at a slower tempo, to work on strength and stamina.

In the center, I have dancers do exercises that feel like the “real deal” but are safe.  We do tendus and degages with either a sustained balance or a pirouette, pas de basque, lots of waltzy things, very soft “pillow” jumps (ie. I ask dancers to work on the bounce and suppleness of the landing from a jump and not the height or strength of the jump), I have exercises for spotting, and of course we can always work on musicality, artistic expression, etc.  I always include an exercise that feels like a big jump but isn’t, and always include a formal reverence. 

Anyway ….. I STILL find it really hard and I am just exhausted after explaining, demonstrating, and dancing all the combinations in the classes.  I have a larger viewing screen but I still can’t really see all my students clearly.  That is quite frustrating.

Thanks so much for your generosity as well.  I am really enjoying the FUNctional Anatomy videos, as are my students!
Happy and safe dancing, Ruth

Thank you Ruth!

To your success,


Releasing Muscular Tension

Having to hunker down at home opens up a space for activities such as exploring ideokinesis in ‘constructive rest position’, a term that I learned from my mentor Irene Dowd many years ago. This may be very useful to offer to your students at this time – both for re-patterning movement and releasing excessive muscular tension.

I learned about ideokinesis, which is envisioning a specific action or line of movement happening in the body without actually moving the body. We did ideokinesis lying on our back with our knees bent, feet slightly apart so the knees fell towards each other (I prefer to simply place my lower leg on a coffee table or over a bolster) and hands resting by our side or resting on our abdomen.

The guided ideokinesis clip below has the focus of asking the muscles to get into the state of no-work, or neutral. It starts off with a quick explanation and then goes into a guided visualization of about 18 minutes.

Hoping that you and your students might find this useful in this stressful time! We need to arm our toolkits with many different strategies as you never know which one is going to be effective for our students (and ourselves). Try it – and if you are so inclined share your comments below.

To your success! Deborah

Guided Ideokinesis by Deborah Vogel

Real or Imagined?

I got a great question from a reader who wanted to understand better the phrase I have used many times…. “The brain doesn’t know the difference between what is real and what is imagined”.

Let’s dive a bit deeper into this. I was trained to use ideokinesis to change neuromuscular pathways. The reason why we move is that the brain sends a message through the nervous system to the muscles – they contract – and create movement. There is always cortical involvement in movement – always.

When a person has a spinal cord injury their brain is functioning, but the message isn’t getting through the nervous system to the muscles because of the injury at the spinal cord.

Ideokinesis (ideo… idea or image, kinesis… muscle) is just a fancy way of using your imagination, envisioning or using visualization and/or intentions. It doesn’t really matter what you call it – the response is the same.

There is much research out there showing that if you envision making a free throw in proper form, it will help your accuracy. Research at the Cleveland Clinic showed that subjects that imagined doing biceps strengtheners in fact tested stronger at the end of the study – and kept their results for 3 weeks. This was strengthening through thought alone!

Now… I am not promoting that we train our dancers by having them imagine class instead of taking class. But those who have to sit out because of injury or health reasons would do well to envision themselves doing the class even though they are resting on the side lines.

What we are thinking influences our emotional/chemical responses in our body… all the time! Similar to how our movement carves well-known neurological paths in the brain so we can move in the right way when we hear 2 demi plies then a grand… our thinking also carves neurological pathways and patterns in the brain. For example, there are certain negative (and positive) experiences from my past that if I allow myself to ruminate about will begin to shift my emotions.

As I think about a past experience it brings with it all the emotions I hard-wired with it. September 11th is one of those experiences. I can describe in exquisite detail where I was when I learned about the attack and if I continue to remember I can easily bring up the emotions that are connected with that day.

When we are envisioning or imagining a situation… our brain doesn’t know that it isn’t real in that moment… and sends out corresponding chemicals (our emotional responses) as if it was.

If it was a significant past experience the emotional charge will be stronger than remembering an event such as going out to dinner with friends, that may not be as noteworthy emotionally.

The power of the body/brain connection comes from when we are conscious of our responses and can make choices about what we want to do in response to the information the brain has gathered.

For example, if I can catch myself starting to feel my blood boil when I remember a confrontation I had (in the past) and how it is negatively influencing how I feel in the present moment (sitting at my desk) — then I can make a choice to switch my thinking and consequently switch off the stress response that happening.

Being aware that we have the ultimate responsibility and accountability for our thought patterns and habits is empowering! Not always easy to do but definitely a skill that should be encouraged.

The brain doesn’t distinguish between what is real (in the present moment) from what you are imagining (from the past or future). It responds to what you are thinking…. period. It responds by creating chemicals which get sent into the body (aka your emotions) which influences the health and well-being of our body.

I do think it is important to acknowledge that we get into patterns of thinking and feeling that become so ingrained into our lives that we aren’t even aware that we are responding by default – or in other words – the same way we always have responded – no matter whether it is healthy or an unhealthy response.

This is what I meant by the brain doesn’t know the difference between what is real and what is imagined. Hoping that helps clarify…

To your success,


The Skinny on Shin Splints

Shin splints are an equal opportunity injury – not just a runner’s injury, but very common to dancers too! 

In dancers, pronation, awkward foot/ankle alignment and tibial stress fractures are often offered as the reason for shin splints.  What is universally accepted is that shin splints are an overuse syndrome.  In other words, excessive loading to the tibia (shin bone) more than it can handle. 

Anytime a dancer starts feeling shin pain and it is getting worse with activity it is an indicator they should get to the doctors and get checked out.  Don’t try to keep working through the pain unless you want to risk increasing your rehab time.  You need a proper diagnosis. Is it stress fracture, compartment syndrome, medial tibial stress syndrome or myofascial trigger points? All will present with shin pain.  

The doctor I worked for had a cool way (even if a bit unscientific) to check for stress fractures when a dancer came in with shin pain.  He had a tuning fork that he would hit on the edge of the table then place on the shin bone.  If the vibration of the tuning fork created pain in one specific spot he would suspect a stress fracture.  Remember stress fractures don’t immediately show up on x-rays until bone growth/healing has started.  Pretty cool, eh? 

The type of shin splints that are felt in the upper/front part of your shin are often caused by the anterior tibialis muscle being overworked.  I felt this area when I first got back to hiking up and down some rocky areas and took me a few days and working every night on massaging the trigger points before it went away totally.  

With that type of shin pain you’ll often find a tender spot on the upper third of the anterior tibialis muscle.  You can rub gently to release it, put the sore spot against the edge of a chair or on a pinkie ball or foam roller and imagine the tension slowly melting away.  The goal is not to create pain – the goal is to work with the discomfort and feel it letting go.  Often finding the sore spot and then doing 10 foot circles in each direction will help mobilize the tissue.  It should feel looser and more relaxed afterwards… and if you don’t re-injure the muscle by overworking it again the next day, you should feel as if you are on the road to recovery.  

Other areas of shin pain, deep between the bones or the lower part of the shin area will require more extensive rehab and rehab should be guided by your PT or doctor. Trying to release any muscular soreness as described above typically won’t make it worse, but it might not make it better either – which is why you want to get shin splints properly diagnosed and not just ‘push through the pain!’  You need to correct any faulty alignment and respect the pain. 

Bottom line… the longer you try to keep dancing/jumping/running with shin splints… the longer it may take to recover.  Having shin splints doesn’t mean that you have to become a couch potato and not exercise – but you do have to allow the tissue that is loudly talking to you to heal. 

To your success,