Posts

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.

Hip Flexor Bounce

Here’s a quick 3 minute clip on a hip flexor bounce… and you’ll get to see my pup, too!

Hip Flexor Bounce

Flexibility and Aging

Let’s continue the theme of physical wellness and aging…

I am a teacher who teaches 6hrs straight a day, some tap, mostly jazz.  I stretch with one of my classes throughout the day. I am finding when I have my next class my hamstrings are even tighter. Any suggestions on why I feel I am losing my flexibility which was great 2 yrs ago. I am a male and 36 yrs of age. Thanks in advance for your help!  Rocco

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Great question – and – I will admit that your question hit a small nerve for me, as I don’t like some of the changes I see in my own flexibility. I had been chalking up the changes to not spending the same amount of time stretching now that I am teaching over performing, so I decided to look at the research.

This is what I found.

“Even elderly men and women over seventy years old can increase their flexibility (Brown et al. 2000; Lazowski et al. 1999). With strength training the elderly, even in their 90s, can increase their strength and muscle mass-not as fast and as much as young people, but they can (Fiatarone et al. 1990; Lexell et al. 1995)” Thomas Kurz, author of “Stretching Scientifically”.

YES! I found other research that supported the statement that aging and decreasing flexibility or strength do not necessarily go hand in hand. But let’s get real, okay? That is not the experience that most people have as they age. Why not?

The study of physiology and aging also states that as we age, our muscles and joints tend to get tighter, and that is because as we age connective muscle tissue shortens. This shortening of connective tissue can influence the range of motion we have at a joint, especially if muscle balance isn’t maintained.

Rocco’s question about his hamstrings could be a perfect example of this.  Rocco, I would have you look at your lower back muscles, the iliopsoas, and the erector spinae muscles and work to loosen them up by doing the psoas lunge (runner’s lunge) and the more normal rounding forward stretches we do for our spine. Often when the lower back muscles are tight, we will feel the strain in our hamstrings, and when the hamstrings are tight, that stress will be felt in our lower back. When one muscle group gets tight, the other muscle groups will try and compensate. The same pattern happens with strength. If one muscle is weaker, another muscle will try and take over some of the work – often setting up a possibility for strain or tendonitis, etc. in the compensatory muscle.

We are very aware of muscle balance and alignment as dancers, and when we are still taking class for ourselves we continue to work on maintaining good muscular balance. Teaching, however, as our main form of exercise, does not do the same good things for our bodies, simply because we are so focused on our students as we are moving. It’s been my experience that even if I am stretching with a class I am still observing students, talking and counting as I am stretching, yes – I’m aware of what is happening in my own body – but not truly in dialogue with it.

There are lifestyle changes that happen after the age of 30 that influence our flexibility and strength. We begin to have more responsibilities, less time to focus on our own health and well-being. Certainly, this has been a juggling act that many people – not just dancers – are faced with.

So – the good news is our bodies are adaptable and can improve its flexibility and strength even after a long period away from dancing (or having children, or whatever our reasons are).  The bad news is that it will take making it a priority and stretching and strengthening, not twice a week, or three times a week – but small amounts daily, or as close to that as possible.

It’s not useful to beat up on ourselves for not having the body we used to have when we were in our 20’s. And, we can take comfort in the knowledge that when we begin taking time out to stretch daily, we WILL see the results of our efforts.  Jane Fonda was right on when she said if you don’t use it you’ll lose it!

I’ll close with a quote from Dr. Michael Kaplan, director of the Rehabilitation Team, a sports medicine and physical therapy clinic in Maryland who says, “There’s no reason why people in their thirties and forties and even older can’t have just as much flexibility as when they were younger–or even more flexibility. A 60-year-old can have more flexibility than a 20-year-old, if she works at it and stretches.”

As dance teachers you all have many stretches that you have learned over the years to better your flexibility.  If you haven’t already, you might be interested in checking out my Effective Stretching dvd.  These stretches were designed to stretch muscles and fascia, sitting in your chair, easily and effortlessly.  They are simple to do – and – as the title suggests – very effective at creating change.  The dvd came out after I worked with my musicians and dancers over a couple semesters creating stretches they could do while they were studying or as a preparation for practicing.  Many students had more significant responses in their flexibility and function with these stretches over doing the typical passive, hang out and stretch ones they had been doing for a while.  Plus – if you order any product before the end of the month you’ll get a free Tune Up Your Turnout book!

Happy dancing!

Deborah

“Education is the key to injury prevention”

Splits training

There was a comment on the Splits entry that I’d like to use as this week’s post. Heidi writes

Do you recommend a particular approach for beginning training for splits. Are there other stretches that should be done first. Should a student demonstrate flexibility in other ways (e.g. be able to touch her toes) before trying to do the splits? I’ve seen many students who are far from being “all the way down” in the splits bend one or both knees. Should this be discouraged?

My reply:
Heidi, The reason they bend one of the knees is to try and get down a little farther – a totally natural response. I would separate the elements of the splits in my training. Meaning… work to increase the flexibility of the hamstrings – which allow the front leg to go lower – and also work the flexibility of the hip flexors, which allow the back leg to slide farther back without tipping the pelvis forward.

For the hip flexors doing daily lunge stretches is key. You can do them on the ground, standing or sitting in a chair (my favorite) I have a youtube video demonstrating 3 ways, including a passive hanging stretch. The chair lunge is not on their but simply imagine sitting on a chair in a lunge position and lifting up the front of your pelvis to increase the stretch along the front of the back leg that is extended.

As far as hamstring flexibility a quick and dirty way to check for tight hamstrings is to have the dancer sitting on the floor with both legs straight and together in front of them. Are they easily able to sit all the way up on their pelvis? If they are rolled onto the back of their pelvis you can suspect their hamstrings are tight.

My favorite way of stretching the hamstrings is in standing and putting one leg on a low enough surface to keep the pelvis in neutral and upright. If they have tight hamstrings to begin with and put their leg on the barre – they are going to be tucked under (rolled back like they did on the floor) and won’t get a good stretch out of it.

Once they have their leg on a surface, let’s say a kitchen chair, they would flex easily forward keeping their pelvis and spine in alignment. Don’t round forward with your back, just tilt at the hips. This should give a good stretch to the hamstring area. Don’t forget to keep the pelvis facing forward as you are tilting, as many dancers cheat slightly by letting the pelvis rotate towards their standing leg as they are stretching – which is exactly the problem they are trying to overcome in their splits.

Consistency in their stretching is key – especially in the growing years. If your students aren’t getting the results they want from their stretching you might need to investigate whether they have tight fascia somewhere else in the body that is influencing their efforts. Reread the post on flexibility where I talk about this.

Finally – I want to let you know that I now have Anatomy Coloring Pages for the young dancer available in the store. They are in a pdf format that you do multiple copies of for your younger students.

The muscles that are included in the coloring pages are:
1. rotators (turnout muscles)
2. Quadriceps
3. Hamstrings
4. Iliopsoas
5. Adductor (inner thigh)
6. Abductor (lateral hip)
7. Abdominals
8. Soleus (deeper calf muscle that determines depth of demi plié)
9. Gastrocnemius
10. Deltoid (that lifts the arm)

Each page demonstrates the action of the muscle, has an insert of what the actual muscle looks like, and at the bottom of each page is a sentence describing the action in simple terms. Perfect for the youngest (6 – 8 yrs) to begin learning about their body!

The price is right – only $9.95 – so check them out!

Warm regards,
Deborah

“Education is the key to injury prevention”

Développés

Greetings!
I’m excited to announce that TheBodySeries.com is going through a complete overhaul! I will let you know as soon as it is complete and also let you know of the holiday specials I’ll be running to celebrate the new site. Stay tuned!

Onto the question of the week

Hi there!
I was hoping you might be able to help me. I am a professional dancer and for several years I have been struggling with développés, especially when executing this step to the side. I have good range of movement in my hip and I can flex my knee and raise it to a point where my knee is almost touching my shoulder. However, I cannot maintain the height of my thigh as I try to extend the leg. My thigh and consequently the working leg, drops significantly. When shouldering my leg I can let go and hold the working leg at a good height, however I cannot maintain the height of my thigh as I reach the crucial last moment of extension in the développé. I am really hoping you can help me identify why my extensions are not as high as they might be. Perhaps I have a weakness in the iliopsoas muscles or perhaps it is my quadriceps or hamstrings which need strengthening? Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

With Thanks, Beth

Great question, Beth – one a lot of dancers will be interested in!

When doing a développé to the front or side the hip flexors are the prime movers meaning they are the ones most responsible for getting the leg up, and the hamstrings are the antagonist muscles, meaning they need to lengthen to allow the leg to go up higher. You are a smart dancer to ponder both sides of the joint! So often dancers and teachers will only look at one side of the joint, such as the hamstring flexibility when trying to get the legs up higher.

It sounds like your hamstrings are flexible enough as you can bring your leg easily up to the desired position with your hand, then release your hand and then hold it there. I’m less inclined to think there is a challenge with the hamstring flexibility.

This brings us to the front of the joint to the hip flexors. In higher extensions such as développés the iliopsoas is of primary importance at the beginning of the movement and then at the end. The strength of the iliopsoas will help hold your thigh up while the quadriceps straighten the knee.

Normally, dancers are pretty strong with their quads – so let’s have you try strengthening the iliopsoas muscle in the upper ranges of extension. I learned this exercise from Karen Clippinger, a marvelous teacher and anatomist.

Start by sitting with your left leg bent in front of you with the foot on the ground and your right leg extended straight on the floor in front of you. You are resting slightly on your hands, which are behind you. You may be slightly on the backside of your pelvis, but you are focusing on stabilizing your pelvis and not allowing yourself to roll onto the sacrum while doing this exercise. Okay – now lift your right leg up, keeping it straight, as far as is easy. You might get to the level of the other knee or you may not.

Once you have lifted it, slightly bend the right knee, bringing your thigh closer to your chest (remember – without rolling back on your pelvis!) Then once you have brought it slightly closer straighten the knee slowly (again – without rolling back on your pelvis!) and then lower the right leg to the starting position on the ground. Repeat several times – and then do the other side. It may take some days or weeks to feel as if you can significantly bring the knee closer to the chest – but you will see a difference in your extensions if you practice this.

You can also do this exercise in turnout. Even though you are keeping the legs in front this new found strength will carry over to your side développés. To make it a bit harder you could put a theraband around both knees giving yourself some resistance as you bring the thigh towards your chest and/or you could put a low level weight around your thigh – just above or below your knee – do not put the ankle weight at the ankle!

Let me know how your extensions improve!

Warmest regards,

Deborah

“Education is the key to injury prevention”


Feet & Proper Posture

My ballet teacher has been helping me a lot with my feet because they are my weak spot. She said that I am too strong in the outer part of my feet, instead of being strong in the inside part. She said that I am more prone to injury because of this, and that this is incorrect.

I know this is true, especially because my feet are pretty close to flat. I “roll in” my ankle in class and outside of class when just walking around. I try not to roll in as best as I can. I was wondering if there are any exercises to help strengthen my inner part of my foot.

Thanks, Rachel
PS: I have a theraband.

Rachel, I’m not sure what you mean exactly with the stronger outer part versus inner part of your foot. When your foot rolls in it is called pronation and yes, there are definitely exercises you can do to help strengthen the muscles of the feet.

Your first focus is to bring your turnout in to where you feel equal weight between the pads of the big toe, little toe and heel. Check how you are standing when you are waiting in line at lunch – or standing and brushing your teeth. The habit of pronation probably occurs in your regular life as well as in ballet class.

Start with rolling for a moment or two on a tennis ball or pinkie ball to release and relax the foot muscles. Start by simply by ‘playing the piano’ with your toes. Keeping the pads of the toes on the floor, lift the toes up in the air and starting with your little toe, put it down on the ground, then the 4th toe, etc., with the big toe being the last. Now reverse and lift the big toe up, the 2nd toe next, and so on. You can use your hands to help do this exercise. If your feet start to cramp, stop and roll on the ball for a moment.

The next exercise is to practice pointing your feet by separating your toes as they begin to lengthen. You will start to cramp on this – and again – stop and roll on the ball before trying it again. You can do this exercise easily with putting the theraband around your toes and pressing gently against the theraband as you extend your toes.

Next tip – get rid of your flip-flops! Wear good supportive shoes with an arch support to help you keep from rolling in. Becoming aware of your rolling in or pronating is the first step in changing your feet – and I can’t emphasize enough the importance of standing with equal weight on the 3 points of the foot.

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I am a faithful reader of your newsletter and I found your book, Tune up your turn out a great help too. Now at 40, I am taking 3 classes a week, I feel that the largest improvement in my dancing would come from understanding of the muscular recruitment of proper posture.

I can’t seem to get hold of the right balance between my deep abdominals, hip flexors and extensors. I don’t know if I am tucking under or holding my center. The visual that I got from my teachers is that I should think belly button to the spine, or lengthen from the bottom of my spine, but I don’t find this very helpful. Should I really be aiming for a straight lower back devoid of its natural curve?

I naturally stand swayback, in a slight turnout with hyper extended knees. Standing in parallel feels really weird, as if my knees are about to knock, and correcting for the exaggerated lordotic curve I end up on bent legs with tight hip flexors and ribs fanning out. I am experimenting with different recruitments, but I am afraid of acquiring bad postural habits, and I certainly don’t need any more of those.

I know that you can’t possibly diagnose my posture by email, but I was hoping that you might have a few tips, or visual images I can try. I know a bit about musculoskeletal anatomy, so to me it would be more useful if someone could address the issue in those terms, as in get out of the quads, use more hip flexors, for example, but this is wishful thinking with the teachers I encountered here.

I would be grateful for your advice.

Zsuzsanna from Budapest, Hungary

Sounds like you have learned a lot over the past 6 years! First – check out whether or not your slight hyperextension is connected to your swayback. Very often it is – and when you bring your knees out of hyperextension, the pelvis comes out of its forward or anterior tilt.

Your lower back will not board straight – and I wouldn’t want you to work towards that – clearly as you describe it creates other problems. What if you shift your focus to the pelvic bowl? If you were lying down on your back with your knees bent and your lower back just resting on the floor I would want you to feel that the pubic bone and the two points on your pelvis that feel like they are sticking up are on a level plane. (Those are your ASIS, or anterior/superior iliac crests)

Note that if you flatten your lower back against the floor your ASIS are probably closer to the floor that your pubic bone, and when you arch your back your pubic bone is closer to the floor that your ASIS.

Now come back up to standing. In standing it is more challenging for me to have a sense of the ASIS and pubis relationship so I shift to thinking that my pubis is lifting gently towards my sternum above it. This helps me to maintain the correct torso/pelvis alignment without putting my thinking (and corrections) into my lower back.

I also imagine that the pelvis is a bowl and I keep a small amount of lift between the pubis and my belly button in order to keep the front of the bowl from spilling their abdominal contents out as they do when you go into a swayback.

Let me know how it goes with bringing your knees to neutral when standing (you can hyperextend when its in the air) and bringing the front of your pelvic bowl up.

Best wishes!

Deborah

“Education is the key to injury prevention”

Arabesque

question of the week….

I’ve got a question about arabesque. Many of my students open their hips more than is necessary as they approach 90 degrees, which makes squaring their shoulders a problem, as well as turning out their base leg and aligning their ribs over their hips, leading to a lack of balance. This year, one of my goals with them is to instill a better sense of squareness. However, as soon as they start to really try to square their hips, their working leg turns in, drops, and the back of the knee softens. Grrr! I understand the meaning of turning out within the hip joint as much as possible, and we do work that, of course, but how exactly do you square your hips and still get any height on a back extension? I’m starting to think I need to concentrate more on the base leg turnout, because they’ll be less able to open that working hip if the standing leg is rotated more, right? Sigh……..Thanks for any reply……..
Jennifer

Delicious question, Jennifer! You have discovered one of the ‘myths’ of ballet – that you can keep your hips square as you do an arabesque. It’s why I created the DVD Analyzing Arabesque!

When you are taking a leg into a back tendu, you can keep your hips square for a short period of time. How long you can keep your hips square has to do with the range of motion of the hip flexors and your own personal boney hip structure. A few dancers can stay totally square for the whole back tendu – more often than not – most dancers have already opened the working hip by the time they reach the end of the tendu.

For an arabesque – I have never seen a dancer stay totally square in an arabesque. It is anatomically impossible. That being said the concept of squareness is one that we should strive for. But how?

You have hit the most important nail on the head and it has to do with the standing leg. The better a dancer gets at maintaining the turnout of the standing leg while doing a back tendu or arabesque, the squarer the hips will appear.

As you know the spine will rotate and spiral away from the leg in arabesque (right leg in arabesque, the spine spirals to the left) in order to keep the upper body focused forward. This also helps to keep the dancer on her standing leg.

The most important areas to work on if your students aren’t staying square are
1. flexibility of the hip flexors, especially the iliopsoas (this will help to give them a higher arabesque and an easier time staying up on their standing leg)
2. flexibility and strength of the rotators (this will help them rotate both legs more evenly – instead of focusing on one of the legs more than the other)
3. ability of the standing leg to maintain turnout (to keep the hips square)
4. range of motion of the spine to allow that easy spiral and to keep the upper spine upright (which makes the leg look higher)

Bottom line – the hips will open some – and the pelvis will rotate – effectively ‘turning in’ the standing leg. And – by focusing on countering that tendency by keeping the weight balanced on the standing foot (not dropping back into the heels as is so common) and thinking stabilizing and rotating the standing leg – you’ve got your best chance for that elegant line of the arabesque.

Your thinking is on the right track!

Warm regards,
Deborah

“Education is the key to injury prevention”