Posts

Getting higher extensions!

Today’s posting looks at another way to help get your extensions higher and développés even smoother and more controlled.  It has to do with the wonderful iliopsoas muscle that you hear so many anatomists and body workers talking about!

I know I’m someone that always looks at this muscle carefully when I am assessing someone’s standing alignment.  It is such a major postural muscle and so strongly influences how the pelvis sits on the legs that deserves some extra attention.  When overly tight it can pull the lower back into a swayback. When it is overly weak it makes it hard to get the leg much over 90 degrees.  The quadriceps which also are hip flexor muscles like the iliopsoas (or psoas as many people shorten it to) are working hard, but they simply don’t have the leverage to get the leg up as high as what is necessary for dance today.

I was recently in Seattle working with students from the Allegro Performing Arts Academy and showed them a way to inconspicuously strengthen their iliopsoas while sitting in school waiting for class to begin.  By the way…. these students were wonderful!  So curious, open, and willing to work hard to improve their technique by understanding how the body really works!

The picture below shows them sitting on the front edge of their chairs, with their arms folded in front, keeping weight on both sits bones (or ischial tuberosities as they are called)  Without shifting backwards on the pelvis, or over to one hip they lifted one leg up and then lowered it to just touch the toe to the ground before repeating it 10 – 15 times.  Didn’t take very long to feel that very deep ‘tired’ feeling deep in the front of the hip.  That’s like practicing lifting the leg into the beginning stages of a développé before extending the leg (of course without dropping the knee… at least that’s the goal:)

sittingpsoas-300x225

It’s such an easy way to work strengthening the iliopsoas, and then you can simply swivel around and do a sitting lunge stretch to release the tightness form the iliopsoas.

A different way of strengthening was shown in a previous post and I’d like to repost that video in the newer format for all those who had trouble opening it.  You can use a theraband wrapped around the thighs and then slowly working to come more upright to simulate doing an extension to the front.  Of course the more you are upright – the harder it is!  Remember to slightly turnout the leg when practicing these as well as doing them in parallel.  It won’t take long…. just 3 or 4 weeks for you to see and sense improvement in the control and height of your extension.

Have a great week!

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”


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”