Scoliosis tips

I am a ballet teacher and I have a student that is 15 and just found out she has scoliosis. She has been dancing all her life and is a good dancer. When I found out that she has scoliosis it put some things into perspective about her body and how she uses it. She has always had very tight hips and has an arch in her lower back. I was getting ready to give her the exercises from the Analyzing Turnout DVD but I wanted to ask you if there is anything that I shouldn’t have her do or better yet anything different that she can do to work around the scoliosis? Her limitations in this area make so much more sense to me know that I know what she is dealing with. She is affected in the thorax region and I would like to help her any way I can. She has aspirations of having a career in dance so any guidance you could give me would be greatly appreciated.

On another note, you are amazing! I have LOVED everything you have done and use it on a daily basis while teaching. When I was growing up and being taught ballet no one cared about how your body was built and how that played into learning how to use it. I think I am finally getting through to my students that it is okay if you don’t have perfect turnout and if you work correctly you can increase your turnout and still be able to move around when you are older.

Thanks so much for all you have done and are continuing to do for the dance community! I have had several other teachers sign up to get your newsletter and they all have enjoyed it as well!

Have a great day!


Great question!  Let’s talk about scoliosis.  There are 2 primary categories of scoliosis, the type that is idiopathic and comes on during the early adolescent growth, and a type I’ll call functional scoliosis, which is when the spine responds to a leg length different or other structural/muscular asymmetry.   Sometimes there is a combination of both.

I had a wonderful dancer/client I’ll call Sunshine (not her real name – but she had such a positive attitude:) who had her scoliosis picked up around the normal time of 12 -13 years of age.  She went to a doctor who specialized in scoliosis who said she needed to have surgery because the curve was greater than 40 degrees.   The mom was not about to say yes to surgery before they tried everything else first because she accurately understood that scoliosis surgery is one of the most difficult surgeries for children.  That is when they came to me.

I looked at Sunshine’s standing alignment and saw that she had leg length discrepancy and when I put something under the heel of her shorter leg, it improved (decreased) the spinal curves.  That was encouraging.  It meant that there was an aspect of her scoliosis that was functional.

One of her major curves in the thoracic area had a major rotary component to it.  It is what people see when a student with scoliosis rounds over…. The ribs rounding back on one side.

We started working on increasing her ability to rotate more evenly through all the areas of the spine.   You see every time the spine has lateral flexion (or side bends) it will always rotate.  It does this to take the stress off that area of the spine.

Try this.  Sidebend your head so your right ear goes towards your right shoulder.  Leave it side bent to the right (which is right lateral flexion of the neck) and now turn your chin first to the right, down towards your shoulder, and then rotate it to the left, up towards the ceiling.  It felt freer when you rotated right – yes?  This is an example of how the spine wants to rotate to take the strain away from the side bending.

I had her do twisted push-ups against the wall – doing more on the side with less flexibility.  She imagined a huge X going from the shoulders to the opposite hips – and instead of slumping into her normal standing alignment, which was sinking into one hip, she constantly corrected herself to imagine the 2 lines of her imaginary X were the same length.

click here to open short Quick Time clip showing twistedpushup (keep hips facing front, twist upper body to wall)

She had exercises (primarily rotation) received massage and craniosacral work to support the new muscle patterning, put a heel lift under the short leg – which she wore everywhere including her soft slipper – just not in modern class.  The lion’s share of the rehab I will give credit solely to her commitment to making postural changes.  This is not easy as an adolescent!

Sunshine went back to the doctor 3 months later, then 6 months later – and since she was showing improvement in her x-rays he allowed her to continue whatever she was doing☺!   She never did have surgery and continued to dance, graduating with a dance degree from college and is now dancing professionally with a company based in France!

The point of this longish story is not to say that surgery is NEVER needed – rather it is to encourage any parent who has a child recently diagnosed with scoliosis to make sure there are no functional aspects to the scoliosis that could be addressed.

As far as your question about giving her the exercises from the Turnout DVD – yes, you can give her any of them.  I would especially encourage you to see if her iliopsoas and hip flexors are tight – and then to have her focus on stretching them. Check or have someone check to see if there is a structural leg length difference that might be exacerbating the curve – and focus on giving her many images for long spine and one that easily rotates!

Hope this helps……

Warmest regards,

15 replies
  1. Esther Juon
    Esther Juon says:

    Hi Deborah,

    thank you so much for this article. I am told that there is no scientific way to measure leg length difference and I wonder how you do this.

    We offer a pre-pointe assessment before we fit dancers with pointe shoes and scolioses and leg length difference is something we try to look out for. We also try to establish if the dancer is in her 2nd growth spurt and if that is the case we ask the dancers to come of pointe so that her physical development can take place without putting undue stress on the growing body. Needless to say this is not a popular option but one we would like to fight for.

    Looking forward to your recommendations!


    Looking forward to you feed back!

    Many kind thanks

    Esther Juon

    • deborah
      deborah says:

      When I was working in a medical practice the physician would have the dancer get one x-ray, standing in good alignment, and then they would measure the tops of the femur heads to see if they were even or not. What I do is make sure the dancer isn’t standing in pronation or hyperextension and then evaluate the where the iliac crests of the pelvis are as well as the gluteal folds and the tibial tubercle. If all show one leg being shorter, I’ll look at the spinal curves and make sure the leg can be corrected without making the spinal curves worse – and then I’ll watch their alignment and get their feedback as I put something under their shorter leg. It is amazing how many of them get this smile on their face because it immediately feels more balanced and even when they are standing evenly. See if there is a physical therapist or someone around you that could come in to teach your staff to go through this process. If I have any questions about what I find – I always refer them back to a sports med doc or good physical therapist.

      That’s wonderful that you assess before fitting!

    • deborah
      deborah says:

      Hi Huey, I’m not absolutely sure which get-up you are talking about – but I do use a lighter kettle bell for my dancers and have them holding it towards the ceiling as they curl up (focusing on the obliques) then slowly coming upright either to kneeling or to standing – always watching their form, maintaining good alignment. I don’t let them do that on their own until they have gotten the okay from me and I have watched them. (I then have them roll back down to the starting position)

  2. Joanna Ivey
    Joanna Ivey says:

    Hi Deborah

    There is another type of scoliosis to which you didn’t refer-congential scoliosis- which includes vertebral deformity and is very different from idiopathic scoliosis.

    I was diagnosed with this form of scoliosis as a 13 year old and was terrified it would disrupt my dance studies. I have an extra piece of vertebrae and rib in my thoracic spine, I was in a brace for three years to correct the secondary curve and ordered to further strengthen the muscles in my back (yay! more ballet classes).

    I went on to have a fabulous 15-year career as a professional ballet dancer. Coincidentally, there is another dancer currently at The National Ballet of Canada, where I still work, who also has a congenital deformity which is visible (but only if you are looking for it!) and doesn’t limit her in her chosen career in the least. There are ballet schools, however, which will not take a student if they present with a congenital deformity which is a real shame and not very enlightened.

    Surgery is sometimes necessary where elements of the spine are severely deformed. That, thankfully, wasn’t my case but isn’t to say there are cases where it may in fact be the wisest course of treatment for a congenital curve that is progressing rapidly.

    Thanks for you insight as usual!


    • deborah
      deborah says:

      Thanks, Joanna, for your additional information! I so rarely see congenital scoliosis – that I did not put it in the post. And… you are absolutely right that surgery is sometimes essential to insure a healthy functional body for the long term. I hope it didn’t come across that I think surgery is never needed – I just wanted to make the point that there are often functional components that need to be addressed. Thanks for your comment!

  3. Treating Scoliosis
    Treating Scoliosis says:

    There are options out there for someone with a scoliotic spine, that are non invasive, most certainly not surgery! Exercises designed for someone with scoliosis can be very effective in easing symptoms and reduce curvature.

  4. Loren
    Loren says:

    Scoliosis should be diagnosed early so that it can also be treated at an earlier time. Late treatment can have severe consquences

    • deborah
      deborah says:

      True that earlier diagnosis can make the balancing process easier – but even when it is caught later there is always room for better improvement of muscle patterns and movements.

  5. Cidney
    Cidney says:

    Hey everyone! My name is cidney, and I have scoliosis. I’m also a dancer mainly ballet. I really have problems with my back and ribs, they hurt and get in the way all the time. When I sit my right hip bone covers and tucks in the bottom of the right side of my rib cage. The left side sticks out, I can’t even look in the mirror at myself without wanting to cry.. And the worst part is no one will talk to me about it. My doctor has taken X-rays and says its no big deal and my family thinks I’m crazy. Is there any one I can see to help me with my back? I just want to dance and be beautiful. I’m 19years old 5 foot and I weigh 85 pounds, naturally I’m small trust me I eat! But the smallness of my body just make the deformatys more noticeable. Please if you know anything that will help let me know! Thanks a bunch! Have a great day!!

      • Andrew Strauss
        Andrew Strauss says:

        Great Post!
        More and more doctors and therapists are recognizing the truth of what you are presenting here.
        Natural approaches to scoliosis care began in the time of Hippocrates 460BC who tried to correct the curves with a system of levers.
        In the beginning of the 19th century various exercise based approaches began to develop in Europe.
        There are now thankfully many different “brands” like Shroth, SEAS, Mehta, Dobomed, and CLEAR Institute.
        They all have some aspects in common like teaching active self correction methods.


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