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Accessing the abdominals

I have a question about abdominal strength or should I say… lack of! I tell my students to pull up the front of their abdominals, but when I place my hand on their stomach I don’t feel anything. I’m not sure if they even know how to engage them. Can you recommend any specific ideas for ballet class?
Thanks!

Excellent question! I want to say that even when dancers do abdominal exercises on a daily basis it doesn’t necessarily mean they will use them efficiently in standing during the dance class. We need to get our students to use their abdominals effectively ALL the time, not just in class!

I’d like to first remind everyone that the only thing a muscle can do is contract. It can do a shortening contraction (concentric), lengthening contraction (eccentric) or isometric contraction, which stays the same length. When you are doing a crunch or sit-up, the abdominals are doing a shortening contraction – in other words – the two ends of the muscles are coming closer together.

If you are lying on your back knees bent and lifted towards your chest, and then slowly drop your toes to touch the ground, doing a leg lowering, you are doing an eccentric contraction. This is the type of contraction dancers need to use to keep their pelvis in neutral as they move their legs. It is also the most challenging of the contractions.

Too many students engage their abdominals so fiercely it is as if they have put an invisible belt around their waists and have cinched it closed. The first time they need to take a deep breath in they lose their abdominal support.

You might try this in class. Take 5 minutes to explore the sensation of the deep core when it’s turned on and working. Start on hands and knees with a flat back and slowly peel off one hand without shifting AT ALL! As they slowly peel off one hand, and placing it back down without shifting they will sense their abdominals supporting and staying flat. It’s not a big sensation. (of course do the other hand too)

I teach my students that if they learn how to engage the abdominals properly in standing and in movement, they won’t need to do umpteen sit-ups as a part of their training. Have your dancers stand easily in first or parallel position. Have them imagine they are lacing up their abdominals as they do their shoes. Have them place one hand below the belly button so they can feel the abdominal wall drawing up and inwards – while their other hand is just below the sternum, which is the area where the ribs come together in front. The area just below the sternum should be relatively soft as they need to continue to breath easily and effortless while they are using their abdominals. This will not feel like a strong contraction! Then walk around the room for at least 2 minutes maintaining the upright, neutral pelvis and long spine. That is how we should walk all the time!

The more they practice having a neutral pelvis through the deep engagement of the abdominals they will transfer that to their dancing, because that has become their normal alignment, whether standing in class or talking with a friend, or sitting in a chair!

To your success,

Deborah

“Education is the key to injury prevention”

‘Center’ strength for young dancers

I’m a captain of my school dance team and our younger girls seem to be lacking in mainly knowing their center, their strength there and how to hold it (as well as their strength in general). I was wondering if you know of any exercises that could help?

Thanks, Rebecca

Great question, Rebecca! And a very hard one to answer. There are many abdominal strengtheners that are out there for you to do as a part of your training of your younger members. Exercises such as leg lowering, or physioball situps, even the regular ‘crunches’ will help to develop strength to the abdominal muscles. What they don’t do though, is help to train the young dancer on standing and moving from a powerful core. That requires that they learn how to move in good alignment and at their full height.

Here’s a few tips to help them explore what that feels like.

The simplest and quickest cuing I’ve found to get someone to lengthen their spine is to place their own hand on top of their head (right in the middle, not by their forehead or at the very back) – and then ask them to lengthen upwards into their hand. Watch them lengthen their spine and then ask them to keep that length as they move.

You’ll need a theraband for the next of tips – it doesn’t matter whether it is a stronger or lighter strength. Take the theraband and place one end under a foot (only 1 -not both) and the other end in the same hand. Grasp along the theraband so as you bend your arm and get tall at the same time – there is a light pull on the theraband. Feel how the abdominals are engaged – not in an aggressive fashion – but in a long and firm fashion. Do a demi plié on one leg keeping a light pull on the theraband.

Now transfer the theraband to your other hand so you have a diagonal pull and again notice how that wakes up your middle area as you align your body and do a few demi pliés on one leg. Then put the theraband under the other foot and do the same thing again, first using the same arm as leg before switching hands.

Another easy exploration is to take the theraband in each hand and gently pull your hands away from each other as if you were going to open to second position with your arms (to the side) now keeping a small pull walk, gallop, skip, or move in anyway you’d like. In order to keep that gentle pull between your arms you will have to engage your core as you move.

These tips will help to teach a dancer what it feels like when they are using their core. It takes strength to stabilize a properly aligned body – and my college students have often had ‘aha’ moments after trying these exercises. I’ve even put loops in one end of a theraband and put their foot in that – and then putting the other end of the theraband in either hand – had them explore how many ways they could move keeping tension on the band. That is a fun exploration!

Once they have the idea that alignment and core strength go hand in hand – I think whatever they do to physically strengthen their core will have a much better chance of being used as they are moving.

I know they are lucky to have you as their dance captain!

Warm regards,

Deborah

“Education is the key to injury prevention”