Updated: Mar 1, 2019
Regardless of where you stand on the scale from artist to athlete (see my previous post to know where I stand ;) ), you know there is a great amount of ability dancers must possess to be successful in their performances. It took me years to figure out how to define those abilities and train to improve them for my own dance performances. What I have discovered through my research, reading, learning, and teaching is that all of the abilities and goals you strive for in dance can be categorized into six areas of function in movement. Now, my teaching is founded on guiding dancers to understand these areas and develop each one so they may all work together while dancing. Understanding where your strengths and limitations fall within these areas is the first step to progress and success as a dancer. Here is how I define each one, and areas where you may be observing or experiencing them in dance already.
Flexibility and Mobility
When I ask dancers, their families, and even members of the general population what they think the most important function a professional dancer needs (I typically ask what they think dancers need to HAVE), I think 99% of the time flexibility is the first thing said. I sigh every time. Not because flexibility isn't important to dance ability, but because it is the most oversold of all six areas of function in movement a dancer needs to be successful and, as a result, frequently leads to injury due to the hypermobility that is pushed for in training. So what exactly is this function in movement that dancers are pushed for and why is it desired so much? Flexibility for dancers mainly focuses on ROM (Range of Motion) in their joints (ankles, knees, hips, shoulders) and spine and lengthening ability of muscles that cross them. What we tend to think when we think flexibility in a dancer is hyper-focused on ability to reach your toes or kick yourself in the head. You do not need these abilities to be a successful dancer, but it is important to have flexibility that allows for optimal performance in joints and muscles. Your body can be trained to find and maintain this. When working with dancers, I guide them to discover where their optimal flexibility is in joints and muscles and how to maintain it. Aside from the body, A flexible mind may be the most valuable asset of a successful dancer. Be flexible, and think beyond your ability to touch your toes.
I never knew how strong I was until I discovered how strong I was not. Something my body is still teaching me to this day. It is not very often that strength is focused on during technique classes, although it is very much required throughout. Ability to work at barre from plies to battements, jumping across the room, lifting partners or even lifting your own body weight in releve or with your hands on the floor all requires a great amount of strength in muscles all over the body. Strength is how much effort your muscles are able to put out into your movement; the power they offer your movement. Want to get your leg extension to the side higher? Want to gain more height in your leap? All the effort required to move and maintain any position of the body requires strength. Seeing that dance is the constant movement of the body through shapes, it is easy to understand why strength is needed. Much of the work I do with clients first focuses on strengthening muscles to support development of alignment, technique, and stability and then moves forward to strengthening muscles in the legs and arms that offer support of powerful movements like jumps.
Ah, stability. The friend I wish I had made years earlier. It is highly likely that it would have guided me away from so many poor decisions and potentially helped me avoid many injuries. Almost all of my acute injuries were a result of not enough control to support my movement. Now, it is the number one area of function in movement that I guide dancers to develop. So many of the dancers I work with already fall in the same space I did as a young dancer, there flexibility is increased but their ability to control their movement is minimal as well as their understanding of it. Stability is a very close friend to strength, as having stability requires strength and engagement of muscles. It is also balance's best friend, because muscles that can keep your body supported will help to maintain balance. If you have a hard time balancing through leg extensions, like a leg hold or arabesque, you may have some weakness in your stabilizing muscles. To be honest, it was not until I started my personal practice of Yoga that I realized I had weakness in the stabilizing muscles of my hips and shoulders. Yoga requires a great deal of stillness through various poses. Ever try holding yourself in a lunge without your hands on the ground? It only takes a few moments to feel heat build in your hips. With all the difficult movement and balancing we are constantly asking of our bodies while dancing it is important that we have stability to help manage that movement.
Fitness: the one thing every dancer knows they need more of but cringes at the thought of doing. Am I right? I usually get a lot of sighs from dancers when I mention that we are going to work on their fitness. I would do the same thing. Even told myself as a young dancer that I couldn't run or I could get hurt to avoid having to do it. Looking back at my excessive flexibility and lack of control or strength, that was a true statement, but not for reasons I understood at the time. Even though it may not be easy to admit, we see the need for dancer fitness all over the field. Examples of this need can be easily observed in classes or performances. In class, you will watch a dancer complete a center phrase with power and enthusiasm. Once finished, he/she will step off to the side, hunch over, and start gasping for air. At performances, you will see a dancer start off their choreography with energy and slowly that energy will fade along with full movements, by the time they head off stage they are sitting on the floor, again gasping for air.
How many critiques have you received about keeping your energy up or completing each step with energy?
Today, it is much more common for classes to involve fitness specific training, but unfortunately for the amount of energy required in performances (average 2-3 min per dance), one or two sessions of cardio in dance class per week will not improve your fitness to meet the demands of your performances. It just isn't enough to help you maintain your energy and efficiency through a three minute dancer, especially if you are not breathing properly through your cardio or endurance work. When working with dancers to improve fitness, we discuss and discover the why/when/how/what/where of breathing while dancing in order to support full movements. Then we progress through dance-specific low-impact to high-impact aerobics to increase ability to finish performances with energy.
So far, I have spoken about all the areas of function in movement in relation to how we move the body using our muscles, but now I want to talk about how we get those muscles to help maintain our structure. For our alignment we use our muscles to help arrange our bones in specific places while we move. Not only will this help us to move more efficiently but it will help us to avoid causing any harm to the body while moving. When working with dancers, I find this area is the number one missing link to their optimal functioning. Many of the times lack of understanding has sent dancers down the path of over compensating for misalignment. What do I mean by this? Have you ever been told that you have a sway back and that your sticking out your tail? Have you ever been told you roll inward when you stand in first position? Have you ever been told to pull your ribs in? Have you ever heard to drop your hip in passé? These are just a few of the misalignments that I observe often and overcompensations that the body will make to complete movement while misaligned. Your body is a complex machine, but unlike many engineered machines that will stop working when there is malfunctioning, our body will find a way to continue to move even if all it's parts aren't placed correctly. Opening us up to a whole lot of opportunity to get hurt. It is important for dancers to understand the structure and proper alignment of both their spine and pelvis along with alignment of joints and the relationships each has to the other as they move. This can be an overwhelming area to develop for young dancers, which is why I encourage the use of imagery and images to help develop understanding.
Technique comes in various forms and genres in dance. It defines patterns of movement and shapes of the body. Each genre of dance has its own skillful way in which we are to move the body to perform a task. The issue I continue to find in dance training is that each individual body already comes with information for how to efficiently complete movement through the various combinations of areas of functioning available. Technique is demanding of a certain aesthetic or look to the body and much of the way it is taught is about replicating that look. This can be a big issue and struggle for dancers. For some, it may seem like they are being asked to fit their bodies into the mold of someone else. Many of the compensations mentioned in the alignment section develop as dancers strive to meet the demands of a specific technique with focus of altering the way things look without focuses on areas of function to get there. They want their bodies to look a certain way but don’t understand what is happening from within. Have you every found yourself wondering why you can't have leg extensions that look like those of professional ballerinas or jumps like professional modern dancers? Ever wondered why one correction in class can help another dancer, but is having no effect on you? You are not alone. Your body is built and functions differently. You require your own path to find amazing abilities.
Let's go back to an example mentioned in the last section, lifting your hip in passé. This seemingly simple shape asks a great deal of a dancer's body. Performing it with proper technique requires flexibilty and strength in the hips, stability and strength in the core and stabilizing leg and hip muscles, and embodied understanding of pelvic alignment to name a few. It is highly unlikely that a class of even ten young dancers will have all areas of functioning and understanding to safely and correctly attain this body shape in their first few years of working in Ballet technique. Especially if they are not receiving individualized guidance to understand what is happening in their bodies and how to improve. This is why I work with young dancers individually on their technique after spending time developing their other areas of functioning. Technique requires attention to detail when dancing and requires in-depth understanding of the body and movement itself to achieve safely.
Now that you know about each function of your body and it's place in dance, let's talk about how you should address them in your training. Maybe you already have a great idea of where you have strengths and limitations in these areas, maybe you understand how to bring that awareness into your training and improve abilities to meet your goals. That’s awesome! Dance on! Don't be scared away if you are unsure of how to improve these areas. See my free Dance Training Assessment on my website to discover where you currently stand in your areas of function in movement. Feel free to sign up for a free consultation session to discuss your results. Dance is your passion, and the journey to discovering better performances is well worth it!
I want you to feel successful! So here is an insight into how I would address these areas in my clients. When working with a new client, I always assess their structure/alignment first. This is extremely important and valuable information to gather because alignment will offer information about technique, stability, flexibility, and strength in different areas of the body. I like to start with simple positions of the body, like those used in ballet and modern, and work through to more complicated patterns of movement. Having strong understanding and continuity in alignment will improve overall ability and help to decrease the likelihood of joint related injuries.
With the information I gather assessing alignment, I can start to attend to tight areas that need more flexibility and/or hypermobile areas that need more strength and stability. Remember - the best formula for successful dance performance - dancers should strive for reasonably equal amounts of strength and flexibility throughout their functioning. These areas constantly need to work together to help dancers achieve amazing abilities. Any areas where one can supersede the other could lead to limitation in ability or an injury.
Once clients have developed their alignment, flexibility, strength, and/or stability as needed, these concepts can be applied to more specific movement patterns within dance technique and can be further pushed in areas of dance fitness. What is important to remember is that these functions of a dancer's body will never reach a point where they no longer need to be focused on. Dancers, you know how much you need to think about while you are moving! All of this information must stay relevant to the way you train in order for consistent progress in your performances. These six functions partnered with your passion for dance are how you discover success. Dance Smarter!
Still unsure about how to assess these six areas in your body. I am here to help! Reach out to schedule your free initial assessment and I will come guide you to better understanding.
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