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”

2 replies
  1. Ruth Ziegler Ballet La Jeunesse
    Ruth Ziegler Ballet La Jeunesse says:

    Hello Deborah: Once again – I am in COMPLETE agreement. I often give the exercise against the wall that you describe above. Dancers are supposed to be able to use the body they HAVE, not try to force their anatomy into a form that is “supposed” to be the way ballet dancers should work. Just yesterday I worked with a dancer who has been told to “flatten, tuck under, tighten” and after she experimented with the wall exercise and others you suggest, she looked at me with a shocked expression and said, “You mean, I can dance with MY OWN BODY? That’s a LOT easier than what I have been doing1” Yay! I will take that. I could go on and on about the fact that their excellent information out there for dance educators, and STILL these antiquated and dangerous ballet myths persist.

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