R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Don’t Ignore the Body’s Complexity!
Ok, ok, I apologize for my cheesy title and rhyme. But every time I scroll through social media and see accounts sharing exercises and declaring that ALL dancers should be doing THIS or THAT, I hear Aretha Franklin’s voice belting out the need for RESPECT. I’m looking for some RESPECT for the complexity of the body. RESPECT for the very specific needs of dancers RESPECT for those who have done the work and know their “stuff”. RESPECT-ing that each individual dancer might require a different path to support strength, stability, mobility, and coordination. But high-end production values, clever captions, a big ego, and good acting can go a long way to substitute for in-depth, quality information about the body and dance training. I do believe, without a doubt, that they all are motivated by wanting to help dancers prevent injuries. But somewhere within the quick delivery of social media and the pressure for these trainers and therapists to keep posting, to keep our attention on their “brand”, we get caught up in a world of quick tips, quick fixes, and one-size-fits-all explanations that have been distilled into an easy to understand in 15 second message.
These bumper sticker-esque training messages go something like this: ‘Want higher kicks? Sit on the floor, extend your leg, and try to lift your leg off the floor with your hip flexor—‘cuz that’s right dancers—I’m telling all of you, in 15 seconds or less—that you ALL need stronger hip flexors.’ ‘Want better balance? Tie or loop or hook yourself into some therabands from various limbs and stand on a ball on one leg. Now just stay there and BALANCE. Make sure to clear all glassware and furniture from your space first.’
Do we ALL need stronger hip flexors? It depends. Are your hip flexors already neurologically “locked short” from constant kicks and crunches and an anterior pelvic tilt? If so, then this exercise will just reiterate your muscular imbalance. Your hip flexors MAY need to be stronger in certain planes of movement, but we’ll never know until we re-establish their neurological function and ability to contract concentrically and eccentrically in relationship with the other muscles/tissues at the hip region.
Who doesn’t want better balance? Is an exercise like this going to help you? It depends. Is your lack of balance related to a neurological or neurovisual issue that comes from switching from external mirror focus to an internal focus? If it is due to a muscular weakness or sense of opposition/decompression through the body, then you may find success with adding more muscular tension into the system. If it is due to a vision or neck and jaw issue, then this exercise is just going to frustrate you.
The body is complex. Very complex! That hip pain might really be related to an alignment issue on the opposite ankle when you push off in a leap—or even push off in a simple step forward. And many technique classes and training programs skip right over building foundational stability and ask dancers to execute movements that they don’t have the requisite awareness or strength to perform. I joke with my students that we need to stop B.A.M.P.ing during challenging movements! I see all too often the results of dancers pulling off vocabulary “By Any Means Possible”. I’m sure you’ve BAMPed, we all do it! You know…gripping like mad through the chest and neck to hold your leg up for just a few more seconds? Or tensing up or even arching your back to eek out the end of a turn? The most common (and maybe the most detrimental)—when your standing foot/leg is really unstable so you grip your hip flexors and neck flexors to compensate. I call this one out as the most detrimental because you are pulling off the step, but you’re not building functional strength in your standing ankle and foot, you’re wiring in a different (less successful) stabilization pattern that the body may call upon every time you try to stand on one leg. Once you try to balance on that leg, or turn, or land a jump—you’re asking this faulty foundation to handle increasingly advanced skills. And once you are learning advanced skills in your classes, it is rare to go back and check on basic stability.
How do we proceed from here? Acknowledge where you might need to build a better foundation! Be honest with yourself and go slowly. Even standing on one leg and testing your own stability at the foot, ankle, knee, hip, and trunk can be helpful. If this feels solid, test a slow knee bend or plie. If things get shaky, maybe you need some strength and stability work. At the ankle? At the knee? At the hip? In the trunk? The mirror might be helpful as well as asking your studio teacher for feedback on your standing stability. If you are dealing with an injury, seek out qualified practitioners who have expertise and a clear understanding and RESPECT for dance-specific movements.*Susan Haines is a dance kinesiologist bringing new ideas in dance science
directly into technique classes to prevent injury and build dancer specific
strength. Susan works with the causes of dysfunctional movement in the
motor control center with NeuroKinetic Therapy. She created Dance
Conditioning Technique to bridge research in neuroscience and fascia into
dance training. She is the Director of Dance at Western Washington
University and has presented her research at conferences nationwide. She
has studied fascial movement patterning and taping and holds certifications in
NKT, NCPT Pilates, Yoga, FMT Mobility Specialist, and