Butt Seriously; Dancers Need Glutes! Part I
by Susan Haines, MFA, NKT, FMT, IASTM
My tween daughter is pretty embarrassed that her mom’s favorite research subject is the butt. She’s shaking her head at me as I type this. Embarrassing or not, the dance field needs to deal with all this “junk that has accumulated in the trunk” from training myths, media pressure that we either have too much or too little back there, and Insta images of the so-called #perfectbooty. Can a focus on proper muscle function overtake our society’s obsession with form and shape? Let’s examine the training myths that may be preventing dancers from understanding how to find functional strength and honor the butt as a site of power, literally and figuratively.
No Butts About It: What I hear most frequently from dance students is that they have been told to “Never use the butt”. They say, “My teacher told me to never, ever use my butt, I should keep it off!” When I ask them for more details about this cue, they seem to believe that something bad will happen if they activate the muscles in their butt and they should try to “relax everything back there”. The majority of these students are dealing with lumbopelvic instability, struggle to find balance on one leg, and lack the power to push off efficiently in jumps and leaps. They are eager to discover a new solution.
Jan Erkert states, “Dance teachers argue about the role of the butt” and compares two points of view. “Squeeze the butt, show me the dimple” to “let the butt go, let it all hang out” (Erkert 2003). And I’ll add a third option that is popular in ballet classes, where students hear repeatedly, “use your turnout muscles!" This usually results in dancers re-cranking their turnout from feet, or knees, holding on fiercely with their quads so they don’t fall over and hoping that the burning sensation in the hip region is proof that something must be working “back there.” I have been pleased to see more teachers using anatomy images in class to show what the deep external rotators look like, but we’re still a long way from truly finding activation and proper use of the gluteal region.
So, what are dancers to do? To start, let’s acknowledge that asking dancers to purposely “not use or relax” any muscle or region of the body just isn’t possible! The motor control center in the brain doesn’t work that way. This is one of the dance training myths that should be corrected. And, while we’re at it—let’s give dancers back their power, by helping them find strong, functional glutes that come in all shapes and sizes!
Relaxing the butt and letting it all hang out most likely came from a dance teacher trying to help their students stop intentionally squeezing the butt muscles at full force, as this can interfere with neurological coordination, and won’t allow for the quick weight shifts needed for dancing. This “relax” cue may have also developed around the idea that dancers need to find the deeper layer of muscles for external rotation, and the belief that squeezing the glute max interferes with this. The truth is a little more complicated. The glute max and deep rotators are all involved in external rotation: the fascial layers are gliding and tensioning, and the muscle fibers are shortening to move the femur (thigh bone) into external rotation. They all work together. The “squeeze” may have been passed down by teachers who were hypermobile and needed the additional stability, or from students trying to fulfill their teachers’ instructions of “use the glutes”. I find a lot of dancers try to overachieve with corrections, so if they are told they need glutes—well, they will give you some glutes with a 120% squeeze!
Test “the squeeze” for yourself: stand with your feet in parallel, or a position used in your dance style and squeeze or activate your butt tightly. Except for very hypermobile folks, you will probably find it challenging to bend your knees or move through space while keeping the glutes at this level of activation. Now try the squeeze and balance on one leg. You might find that this makes balancing easier, with full gluteal activation. This could be why some dance teachers insist that squeezing the butt muscles is the way to go, it does add stability! But hang on, we’re not quite done yet!
Now try the “relax and let it all go”: stand with your feet in parallel or a position used in your dance style and notice if you can sense any gluteal activation. If you instinctively activated your glutes in a squeeze, let this externally imposed activation go. Bend your knees and shift your weight, it should feel quite easy as it allows hip and knee and ankle joints to crease and move the body through space. Now try the balance on one leg, this may not feel as stable without any support from the gluteals. (Each dancers’ activation patterns may take over and you may find the glutes firing for support in the balance, and as discussed earlier, we can’t just tell a muscle to turn off if it is being activated by the central nervous system to support a joint or movement).
OK, so now what? Is there a middle ground between squeezing and totally relaxed? Yes, we want to find proper neurological activation of the glutes, as well as requisite strength. We want glutes that activate WHEN we need them, when the hip goes into extension, recruited by the central nervous system, not because we stop and squeeze! And we want to train the appropriate level of muscle activation for the movement we are performing and that requires neurological coordination as well as building strength.
Alignment! Of Course!
To find this, we need to go back to something that dance teachers all agree on—proper pelvic alignment! A common misalignment for dancers is working in an anterior pelvic tilt (APT) Dancers with this alignment issue usually have tightness in the front of the hips, hamstrings, and the low back. I see a lot of ballet dancers working in an APT because it allows them to crank a little more turnout due to range of motion in hip socket ligaments, or because they are using the shortened hip flexors to stabilize their standing position (because they don’t have functional glutes!) Sitting for long periods of time, or working in an anterior pelvic tilt, where the glutes are in a stretched position, and the hip flexors shortened, sets up a habitual patterning that results in the front of the hips (hip flexors, psoas, iliacus) staying short and tight, while the back (gluteal muscles) are lengthened and unable to fire or activate. Even when we stand up or move, the body has set its neurological pattern in this position and gluteal amnesia, where the glutes “forget how to fire” is the result. (Page, Franjk, Lardner, 2010) Jeff Gaudette, a master trainer, explains the ramifications of this: “Soon the body “forgets” how to use the gluteal muscles because it’s more efficient in the short-term to divert the neural signal intended for them to a stronger muscle close by to do the job instead. This means the hamstrings, lower back, piriformis and even your knees and feet have to handle more of the load and force generating power... The result? Overuse injuries and inefficient mechanics.” (Gaudette, 2018)
For dancers that always feel tightness in their hip flexors, and hamstrings that don’t response to stretching or rolling out, you may need to wake up your glutes and check your pelvic alignment. But instead of feeling like you have been doing something wrong, remember that our bodies are doing the best they can to make movement happen for us. Give your body credit for trying to find you stability and let’s add to your knowledge base with a new approach! Madeline Black has a great image for pelvic alignment, “floating the pelvis over the femurs like a gearshift in neutral—ready to move in any direction”. (Black, 2015) Try this cue after completing the exercises below that address the neurological coordination of the glutes and hip flexors:
- Rolling Out: Start by rolling out the front of the right side: hip flexors, and upper quadriceps fibers. A soft 4” inch ball works well for this area. You can also wrap a tennis ball in a towel to soften the pressure. You should use light to medium pressure, moving slowly, for about 90 seconds as we are aiming to down-regulate the hip flexors, and then up-regulate and activate the glutes. Go directly to step 2 and activate the right-side glute.
- Glute Activation in Single Leg Bridge: Lying on your back, bring the right foot flat on the floor by your sitzbone. Let the left leg stay extended in a neutral position. Start with pushing through the heel of the right foot—but don’t lift the pelvis yet. Begin by finding the firing of the right glute region when you push through the right foot. This is a subtle sensation, it can be challenging to feel, so go slowly and “listen”. Once you can feel the activation of the right-side glute, you can start to slowly lift the pelvis off the floor, leaving the left leg on the ground. Repeat 15x, slowly lifting the pelvis, ensuring gluteal activation is occurring. Some dancers may need more time rolling out the hip flexors if finding glute activation is challenging. Repeat for the left side.
- Watch this video for exercises to integrate neurological coordination of the glutes in standing:
- Try a balance on one leg or lifting the leg behind you. You should feel more activation from the gluteal region with the hips moving toward extension in movement, and more stability in standing and balancing. I recommend that dancers try to build a change in pelvic alignment from a kinesthetic awareness because these are very subtle changes in positioning.
And the mystery of the squeeze versus relax? Our new #goals are about training the glutes neurologically like a dimmer switch or volume knob— one that can be turned up or activated to full intensity based on the needs of the movement and each dancer’s individual structure. We want the brain to send the proper message to the muscles as an automatic neurological response and not an externally imposed action like an intentional squeeze or relaxing. Here’s to reprogramming our glute activation and our understanding that the #perfectbooty is one that offers stability, mobility, and power for humans of all shapes and sizes!
Bio: Susan Haines is a Dance Kinesiologist based in Bellingham, WA bridging the latest research in fascia, biomechanics, and neuroscience into dance training. Susan is a Level III NeuroKinetic Therapy practitioner; a sophisticated treatment modality that addresses the causes of dysfunctional movement in the motor control center. This work led her to create Dance Conditioning Technique, a unique training system that focuses on foundational strength. She has worked with dancers from American Ballet Theatre, American Repertory Ballet, Ballet Austin, and Oregon Balle Theatre to create conditioning programs for greater ease in turnout, pointe work, and partnering. She has an MFA from UNCG-Greesnboro where she studied with leaders in the field of Somatics and Kinesiology: Dr. Jill Green and B.J. Sullivan. She is a certified Pilates instructor who studied under Carolyn Watson, MS, LaC, Karen Clippinger, and Franklin Method with Eric Franklin and Tom McCook. She is trained in functional movement patterning and taping with Dr. Perry Nickelston and is a certified FMT Mobility Specialist. She is on faculty at Western Washington University teaching contemporary, ballet, jazz, and kinesiology in her Apolla Shocks. She has presented her dance conditioning research at conferences nationwide.
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