Watch your language

When teachers say, tuck under or pull in your bellybutton, what is happening to the body anatomically? What are better catch phrases to use?

You bring up a very important point that dance teachers need to be aware of. Our language should be as anatomically accurate as possible. As teachers, we should be aware of the tendency to teach our students using the phrases that worked for us. The problem is these phrases like the two you mentioned can create a wide variety of responses in the body and not all desirable ones. For example, I can imagine a teacher using the phrase tuck under when the student has a swayback and they are trying to get the student to bring the front of the pelvis more upright and in alignment with the torso. Another teacher might use the phrase “pull in your bellybutton” with that same end goal in mind. If you use the phrase tuck under, the student may look like they are standing in better alignment, but muscularly they are contracting their gluteals and shifting forward over their feet to produce that command.

It’s important to note here that we all have a favorite perceptual mode that we work from. Mine is kinesthetic. I pepper my language with sentences that include the word I FEEL _____. When I listen to clients, others will say, I SEE what you mean, or, I HEAR you.

Let me use an example of describing little jumps to a group of beginning ballet students. I could describe an image of a merry go round horse, or jumping on a pogo stick to help them keep their alignment upright
when they land. I could direct them to listen to how their feet land on the floor. Or I could ask them to monitor kinesthetic cues and have them describe what is happening in their knees and ankles.
Going back to the common phrase of tuck under I would encourage teachers to describe anatomically what the goal is, which is the middle of the hip, knee, and ankle joint stay in a vertical line if you look at the dancers from the side. Try putting the dancers against the wall with their heels a few inches away. In this position the buttocks/pelvis would lightly be touching the wall, and the upper back would not touch at all. (Let’s face it; even with the skinniest of dancers, our pelvis should be farther back in space than our
shoulders). Have the dancer soften in front of the hip joints and deepen into a demi plié. They will see right away if they stay in alignment over their feet.

Some of them will tuck under and their head/shoulder area will hit the wall as their pelvis moves away. Some of them may totally move away from the wall and shift forward over the front of their feet. The wall becomes a way for them to monitor their alignment in the demi plié.

Ideally, we should give different images to our students so they can chose the one that clicks with them. When I teach dance classes I use anatomy to describe what is happening in joints of the body as a way of
introducing movement. I try not to demonstrate very much as I have found they end up watching me and not putting it in their bodies quickly enough, or they have an unspoken goal of wanting to LOOK like the teacher.

Historically, the goal of teaching has been conformity, rather than efficiency. We build our movement vocabulary on our past movements whether or not they are efficient. The plié, relevé, and tendu are the base for a multitude of other more challenging movements, no matter what the style of dance. If your student overly tucks under their pelvis when they do a demi plié, putting strain on the knees, then that is the base movement that they build their jumps on.

The body is so resilient that often the effects of the inefficient alignment are not felt until adolescence, or into our twenties, when the body finally says enough! That’s when you pick up the coffee cup and your back
goes into spasm, or you wake up in the morning and your feet hurt when you start walking on them. You can’t figure out why your body is suddenly talking so painfully to you. Turning your head to back out of the driveway and going into spasm may be the straw that broke the camel’s back and not the sole reason why you are now in spasm.

Bottom line – when a student isn’t getting what we are saying, sometimes we need to figure out a different way to communicate the goal, not just say it louder or more often. (All the teachers who are also parents will
agree with that ) Good teaching sometimes means adapting the message so the student can get it. Most of them are trying hard, they are passionate about dancing, as passionate as we are for helping them achieve their dreams.

Best wishes for an amazing 2010!


3 replies
  1. BethK
    BethK says:

    Those are some great ideas for new ways I can use to talk to my students about aligning their hips.

    Another one that I often use is “using your ab muscles, lift the front hip bones until the tail bone goes down.” This helps prevent them from trying to achieve hip placement using their buttock muscles.

    Some very young students try to test me, by overdoing this idea of straightening the lower back, tucking under fairly drastically, really trying my patience! In those cases, I go for the simplest approach of all: “Do it till it looks good!” Then I’ll imitate what they’re doing, and ask: “Does this look good?”

    It’s really amazing — every student, from beginner on up, seems to know, instinctively, what looks good!

  2. Ruth Ziegler
    Ruth Ziegler says:

    Hi Deborah:

    Thank you so much for posting this! I agree completely that we as teachers have a responsibility to help our students achieve their dancing goals in a healthy and safe way so that (hopefully) they will be able to dance as long as they wish!

    Here is an exercise I have found quite useful for finding that elusive active neutral pelvic alignment we want our dancers to discover and adopt: have the dancer face the barre in a natural first position (this is important – make sure the dancer isn’t forcing turnout) and then have the dancer place her hands on the barre for support and rise to demi pointe. Have the dancer then pull her hips back to achieve a rather pronounced anterior pelvic tilt (ie. I ask the dancer to arch her back, or stick her tutu out, etc.) so that she feels a nice openness in the front of the hips. Now here’ is the crucial part – I then ask her to bring her pelvis back from that position to align underneath her WITHOUT tucking her pelvis to do so. To accomplish this, the dancer must lengthen her body up, and use her abdominals and the sides of her hips and her gluteal muscles to do so. When correctly aligned, she should be able to let go of the barre and be perfectly on balance. Also, most often, when the dancer lowers her heels back down to the floor, she will see she has achieved a better first position. I didn’t invent this very useful exercise – the credit should go to Arturo Fernandez from Lines Ballet based in San Francisco.

    I should add that this exercise works best with dancers who are not really really young – I have ussed it successfully with my 8 year olds. With younger dancers, we work in the parallel alignment and then switch to the turned out position when working on say, plié or sautés, etc. quite frequently during class, to hopefully teach the idea that the pelvis should remain in that neutral alignment even when the legs are laterally rotated. We will do our sautés in the parallel alignment and talk about what they feel like, how easy it is to do them, how springy we can be, and then we see how they feel when our legs are laterally rotated.

    Thanks again Deborah – this stuff is vitally important.


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