The Dancer's Clinic

panta rei dans lullaby

Video - Panta Rei Danseteater 'Lullaby'

Norwegian dance company Panta Rei Danseteater, late last year, conducted a little experiment whereby three dance makers created two pieces with the same name based on the same idea, featuring three male dancers and two musicians, to see what the outcome was.

June 2nd, 2016

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by Josie Lucas

Dance is a career which requires a broad range of skill. It is both athletic and artistic; individual and unified. Dancers train hard to perfect the aesthetic, but to what extent do those involved understand the functions of their bodies? Is dance not also a science?

This is often an area given little consideration whilst training as a dancer, sometimes it is only through injury and rehabilitation that dancers learn about the physiology of their bodies. After completing my dance training and furthered this by becoming a Body Control Pilates (BCP) Instructor, I began to realise how scientific our movement is.

All movement, dance included, is based around the use of leavers, force application and a sound use of skeletal muscles. It was amazing that it was possible to progress even this far with so little understanding of how my body was moving.

As dancers, often we are more concerned with the creative process and why we are moving, rather than how. So we may ask ourselves, if our aim as artists is to communicate an idea and we achieve this, does it matter how we do it? Well that depends on how long we would like to communicate with our bodies.

Better Understanding

To have a better understanding of body mechanics can only serve to improve technique and career longevity. This is why myself, a dancer and BCP instructor, and Kirsty Harte, a BCP Instructor and Physiotherapist, decided to set up The Dancers’ Clinic. We really wanted to assist dancers to learn more about the functioning of their bodies.

The Dancers’ Clinic is a project we have been trial running with the HND and Foundation Degree students of Newcastle College. Course leader Amanda McGarvie and lecturer Lynne Cavanagh-Cole (also a BCP teacher) had already been providing some ‘core technique’ and ‘anatomy and body work’ classes which they co-wrote into the foundation degree syllabus. This encouraged an enthusiastic response from both teachers and students towards The Dancers’ Clinic .

There have so far been three courses, all outside college hours as part of an enrichment programme. This means that the students volunteer and fund the course independently. Each course has taken a different approach.

The first was geared towards delivering both practical and theory based work; the second focused on more individual problems that the students were encountering in technique class; and the third more on the Pilates technique as a way to re-balance the body and enhance dance technique, with the option of signing up for an extra private physiotherapy/Pilates session.

Each clinic has received a very positive response from those who have taken part and many have noticed many visible changes in their bodies even after a short period. This has also been noted by the students themselves and their technique teachers. The main problem areas we have encountered so far have been as follows:

  • • tight superficial hip flexors
  • • weak inside thighs (adductors) and deep gluteal muscles
  • • tight overworked external rotator muscles (in the gluteals)
  • • a lack of shoulder (scapular) stability
  • • a lack of core stability.
Footnote One

(1) Pelvic neutral - a general guideline for locating this is to line up the two hip bones (anterior superior illiac spines) on the front of this pelvis in the same vertical and horizontal (transverse) plane as the pubic bone.

Spinal neutral is when the spine is in a position which allows its natural curves. Like an elongated ‘s’ shape. It should go in at the neck (cervical vertebrae), out over the ribs (thoracic vertebrae), in at the lower back (lumbar vertebrae) and out slightly over the pelvis (sacral vertebrae).

Footnote 2

(2) If one area of the spine becomes stiff or locked, the areas around it become hyper mobile to still enable the vertebral column full movement.

This is noted in spinal extension, the body has adapted so that the movement can still take place, but the spine hinges above the tight area. This makes the movement less efficient by overusing one area and sometimes uncomfortable.

The above were contributing factors to the postural problems of the dancers, some of which were often sticking the bottom out (lordotic) and round shouldered (kyphotic). Not the posture you may expect of a dancer, but not an uncommon one. The reason being that the body works with a system of mobilising or action muscles and stabilising muscles. The mobilisers are phasic muscles which switch on and off as required.

They can work to about 70% of their maximum effort level. Such muscles are: the superficial hip flexors (mostly rectus femoris and sartorius), the hamstrings (biceps femoris, semimembranosus and semitendinosus), the quadriceps (rectus femoris, vastus lateralis,vastus intermediaries, vastus medialis), the six pack muscle (rectus abdominus) etc. Big muscle groups which lie close to the surface and whose primary function is to move us around. Stabilising (core) muscles tend to lie deeper in the body, they are designed to work for extended periods of time without a break and so work at around 30% of their maximum effort.

Examples of these muscles are the pelvic floor muscle, the deep abdominal's (transverse abdominus), the deep spinal muscle multifidus etc. Whilst some muscles have the ability to both stabilise and mobilise, mostly this role exchange happens through imbalance. When the stabilising muscles are not giving adequate support to the structure, it must be found more superficially. For example, if the deep gluteal muscles (gluteus medius and gluteus minimus) are not working, the hamstrings may compensate.

The deep gluteals not working might be noticed if it is difficult to maintain parallel, if when standing on one leg one hip lifts or drops or if when landing a jump, the knee turns in. If the hamstrings are overworking by stabilising and mobilising continuously, they may become tight and weak which may start to infringe on the dancer’s flexibility. This is just one example but there are many more.*

With regards to the dancers at The Dancers’ Clinic the following was also apparent. The overuse of the superficial hip flexors meant that they were becoming short and tight, this can then cause the pelvis to swing backwards (anteriorly tilt), pulling the pubic bone backwards to create an increased lumbar curve which sticks the bottom out. For this we targeted exercises to release the overworked hip flexors and recruit the deep hip flexors (the illiopsoas muscle) along with basic core muscle strengthening to help maintain pelvis and spine in a neutral position.(see 1).

Better Alignment

Better alignment and understanding of muscle use encourages a better battement using only the muscles needed. There was also a lack of mobility in the lower lumbar vertebrae of some dancers, possibly as a result of their pelvic position. Some dancers felt that this was affecting their ballet in particular, and how well they could ‘back bend’(spinal extension) without discomfort or hinging from one place.

We concentrated a lot on the segmental control of the spine. Learning to move one vertebra at a time, both curling forward (spinal flexion) and lifting back (spinal extension), so that locked areas began to loosen and hyper mobile areas to strengthen .(see 2)

Any deviation from neutral position with the pelvis can change the weight transfer through the legs. For some this was resulting in the weight transmitting into the heels locking the knees and through poor use of the adductors, causing the legs to bow slightly. This was affecting the use of muscles when in the parallel position. We did some strengthening for the adductors but also focused on releasing the locked joints and standing alignment. Misplaced weight through the legs can make good ankle, knee, hip alignment difficult leaving the dancer more susceptible to injury in that area.

Also contributing to this, some of the students had fallen arches (collapsed medial foot arch) and/or weak deep gluteals (gluteus medius muscles) which makes holding parallel difficult, especially when moving. Again, this leaves the knee joint open to injury, especially when weight bearing, and causes other muscles to stabilise the pelvis. It was therefore important to strengthen both feet and gluteals to achieve better alignment.

Many of the students also had problems with a tightness over the chest (pectorals and anterior deltoid) and between the shoulder blades (rhomboids) which they found to be hindering their development of Graham technique as they were overusing the shoulders. Again, we needed to re-balance by strengthening the main shoulder support muscles (lower trapezius, serratus anterior) and loosening off the tight areas and re-strengthening in a better position.

These are just some examples noted in the bodies of the dancers at The Dancer’s Clinic. It does not mean that every dancer will experience these same imbalances. Nor do I want to imply that the causes and effects suggested are the only possible answers to what may be happening in the body. Yet the clinic feels that the approach taken has worked well for the students involved, and the students have noticed a significant change. However, it needs constant re-assessment on both parts as not every exercise works for every body.

For example, if you struggle with jumps, then you need exercises that help replicate the strength, speed and accuracy needed in a jump. Usually these will be other forms of jump. Doing floor based exercise for an hour can help many things, but it is unlikely to improve your jump height as it is the wrong position at the wrong speed. It is important to be flexible with the exercises and modify them if they do not suit the body your working with.

Informing The Dancer

Just because one dancer with a long back has wonderful, rippling movement it does not mean that another will. They may have less mobility but far more control creating a very different quality. It is not practical to set standards by other people’s bodies. It usually ends in disappointment.

For this reason that the dancer needs to be as well informed as possible regarding their body, its strengths, its weaknesses and habits and also their body mechanics. This means that they can modify any supplementary training to target the areas they need to strengthen without creating imbalance.

We hope to continue The Dancers’ Clinic as it has had such positive feed back from those involved. As many of the advanced exercises were created on dancers and resemble aspects of dance technique, it would be nice for the dancers to progress to a higher level to affirm the connection and worth of both disciplines in creating a healthy strong body, as was Joseph Pilates’ aim.

It is recognised however that Pilates, like anything else, has its limitations. Whilst it can help to improve some aspects of dance technique, other goals such as jump height will probably require other exercises, which we would also like to introduce to The Dancers’ Clinic. With the diversity of dance technique and the unusual demands placed on the body technique class is not enough, dancers must find supplementary training which is both dance specific and specific to the aim. This can only be done through knowledge and understanding.

*For example, it was noted at The dancers’ Clinic that for some of the students, if the muscles which stabilise the shoulder blades are not working enough (mainly the lower trapezius, serratus anterior and rhomboid muscles) then in a Graham fourth position with the arms, the shoulders were lifting too much. While some elevation is necessary, too much makes the movement look awkward and may indicate over work in the upper trapezius muscle.

Josie Lucas trained in Newcastle upon Tyne. First studying on the HND course at Newcastle College, then for my BA(Hons) in Dance at the University of Northumbria at Newcastle. Following injury, her interest was swayed to the mechanics of the body and its use/misuse. To gain a better insight into this Josie trained as a Pilates instructor with the Body Control Pilates Association.

Her experiences learning both disciplines which have lead Josie to form The Dancers’ Clinic. The purpose of this article is to explain what the project is and to express her observations. It is not intended as a scientific, academic or in anyway conclusive analysis.

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