Muscular Imbalances

“Our own physical body possesses a wisdom which we who inhabit the body lack.  We give it orders which make no sense.”           ~Henry Miller

            Balance can be defined as a harmonious state of equilibrium, and it is what we strive for:  a balanced lifestyle, a balanced diet and a balanced emotional state.  Dancers need to add muscular balance to that list.

            Our bodies function best when they are in this harmonious state of equilibrium.  Most physical activities, like dance, focus on certain muscle groups.  Unless the dancer is aware of how the muscular system works, there is potential for muscular imbalances to occur.

            The human body is built in a balanced manner.  Muscles exist and function in pairs.  The working, or contracting, muscle is the agonist, and the opposing muscle is the antagonist.  As the agonist shortens to pull on the skeleton, the antagonist must lengthen to allow the movement to occur.  When a dancer points his or her foot, the muscles of the calf contract to pull the heel up toward the knee.  The muscles of the shin must relax and lengthen so the arch of the foot and the toes can move away from the knee.  When a dancer flexes his or her foot, the exact opposite action occurs.  The muscles of the shin contract while the calf muscles lengthen.

            When a muscle group is worked repeatedly, that group grows tighter.  If the agonists are not stretched to preserve flexibility, and the antagonists are not worked equally, a muscular imbalance occurs.  The tighter and stronger muscles lack necessary flexibility and are at a greater risk of being injured during activity. 

            Muscles are similar to elastics.  A thicker shorter elastic will break sooner than a long thin elastic when it is forcefully lengthened.  A muscle will react similarly.  When a short, tight muscle must be extended quickly, a muscle strain or tear is more likely to occur.

            Additionally, since our muscles are attached to our skeletons, tighter muscles will pull on the skeleton at rest, and the weaker, longer muscles will allow it, causing bones to be put into unnatural positions that cause pain.

            While all dancers need to be concerned about muscular imbalances, ballet dancers are especially at risk because of the turnout that ballet requires.  The muscles that outwardly rotate the leg are worked constantly in ballet.  Quite often, ballet dancers stand out in a crowd because the external rotators are so tight that their pedestrian walk resembles a duck walk.  The sciatic nerve passes through the group of external rotator muscles and will get pinched if the muscles are tight, causing pain.  The external rotators connect to the pelvis and lower vertebrae.  When they are tight, they pull on the pelvis and vertebrae in a way that decreases the natural curve of the lumbar spine.  This action puts stress on the lumbar-sacral joint and reduces the shock absorption quality of the spine, causing lower back strain.

            Dancers who work with pointed feet for a majority of the time run the risk of creating an imbalance in the lower leg.  In addition to working with pointed feet, some dancers allow their heels to “pop up” during second position grand pliés and do not place their heels down in between jumps and relevés.  Since the heels are constantly raised, the calf muscles are never lengthened and grow tighter, while the shin muscles grow weaker.  As this continues, the entire weight of the body is shifted forward, and the body is forced to compensate for the change in the center of gravity.  Additionally, the shortening of the calf muscles strains the Achilles tendon, which is the tendon that connects these muscles to the heel.  This strain causes tendon irritation that will result in tendonitis.

            These are just a few of the muscular imbalances that can occur.  These imbalances cause the body to compensate in various ways that alter the skeletal foundation because of the muscular force exerted upon the bones.  The solution is a simple one that involves stretching the muscles after they are worked.  The strength of the muscles will not be altered, and the length of the muscles will be preserved.  Additionally, dancers can use various forms of cross training to strengthen all the muscle groups equally.  By avoiding muscular imbalances, dancers can dance efficiently, prevent injuries, avoid pain and lengthen their careers by preserving their carefully crafted instruments.

Dance for 3-5 Year Olds: Creating Passionate Young Dancers

 “Dancing with your feet is one thing, but dancing with your heart is another.”          – Author Unknown

            Children begin moving and “dancing” even before they are born.  Their constant movement begins in the womb before they take their first breaths and continues as they move through all of the developmental stages.  As soon as a toddler is able to walk, it is easy to see his or her affinity for music and the movement that it encourages.  Toddlers love to dance, and it is the dance educator’s responsibility to nurture that love when parents register their young children for dance classes.

            Classes that are offered to children in the 3-5 age range need to be consistent with developmental stages of this age group.  Just as a responsible dance educator would not offer pointe classes for six year-olds, strict technique classes should not be offered before the ages of 7 or 8 when the child is developmentally ready.

            Children between the ages of 3 and 6 fall into Piaget’s “pre-operational” category.  This age group is able to focus on one thing at a time, can follow simple “do’s and don’ts” and enjoys exploring, investigating, creating and imagining.  Pre-operational children are able to learn to take turns, to share and to cooperate.  Physically, these children are beginning to skip and hop and can balance on one foot for about ten seconds.

            It is not until the next developmental stage that the attention span, sequencing ability, physical ability or the self-control required in technique classes begin to develop.

            Dance classes offered to the 3-5 age group should reflect the pre-operational developmental stage.  It is important that these creative movement classes focus on gross motor skills, the basic elements of dance and creativity.

            Since fine motor skills are only beginning to develop, placing an extended focus upon them could easily frustrate the students.  Dance steps can and should be introduced in a casual manner, but barre work and time perfecting anything should be saved for when the students get older.  The quickest way to frustrate the students, frustrate the teacher and dampen the love of dance is to expect more of the students than they are capable of producing.

            Creative movement classes can be used to introduce the elements of dance through various games and with the use of props.  Shape might be taught through a freeze dance game, while pathways might be taught through parades, complete with streamers or even mini-instruments, or through games of “Follow the Leader”.  Imagination and creativity can and should be used extensively.  Students can explore levels while pretending to be animals or pretending to crawl under trees and leap over streams on a jungle safari.  Movement stories or short poems offer great opportunities to use dance to communicate.

            Each class should also allow time for a free creative dance within one or two given parameters.  The opportunity to freely move to music using imagination and creativity is a way to help a student’s passion for dance stay alive past this stage of development.  This stage can be used to ignite and preserve the passion that will be necessary when technique class begins.

            Technique classes require hard work, a tremendous amount of effort and concentration.  Those without passion will not succeed because steps without passion are simply movements.  Helping a child develop a passion is a lifelong gift and developing a passionate dancer is synonymous with success.

The Case for Dance in Public Education

         Each day students enter schools, sit at desks and get ready to learn.  They read, they write, they use computers, and they take standardized tests that are used to determine the effectiveness of the educational system.  They are told things like, “You can’t think while you’re moving,” or “You’ve got to be still to learn things.”  In walks the dance educator, the radical thinker, who actually believes that movement aids learning and encourages higher order thinking.

            In addition to the obvious physical benefits that integrating dance into education would provide, dance reaches the kinesthetic and tactile learners.  A large portion of today’s educational approach uses verbal and written skills, which are primarily left-brain hemisphere functions.  Kinesthetic learning primarily involves the right-brain hemisphere.  There is a strong belief that higher order thinking in one hemisphere increases higher order thinking in the other.  Doesn’t it make sense to strengthen the entire brain by engaging both hemispheres?

            Learning through movement makes the approach both active and experiential.  These types of learning are believed to double the educational impact.  In Seattle, Washington, a program that used movement to teach Language Arts to 3rd graders saw a 13% increase in reading scores over a 6-month period, (1) and a program based in Chicago, Illinois, saw similar results.  Between 1998 and 1999, first graders were taught letter sounds through the use of body shapes in the Basic Reading Through Dance Program and scored significantly better than their peers on reading assessments. (2)

            Integrating dance in the classroom involves using movement to illustrate and solve various learning problems and puzzles.  This integration often involves teamwork and encourages students to learn to work together and appreciate others’ solutions as they watch the problems being solved.

            Moreover, the arts promote high levels of self-esteem and self-confidence since they encourage creativity.  The actual dance creation can never be wrong.  Although it must satisfy given parameters, there is no standardized answer that judges the solution right or wrong, and the creations showcase multiple approaches to solving the same problem.  A 1992 study showed that students who were taught concepts through the use of music and movement scored higher on tests of creativity than those who were taught conventionally, (4) and in 2002, Sandra Minton found that high school students who studied dance had higher creative thinking scores in the areas of fluency, originality and abstract thinking than their peers. (3)

            Imagine the difference dance can make when the concepts of parallel, symmetry and area come to life in geometry class.  Imagine how interesting a study of another country becomes if it culminates in a festival that features students doing authentic cultural dances.  Imagine the students illustrating the three branches of government, the structure of the solar system or the concept of fractions through a dance.

            Integrating dance into traditional education may seem like a radical change, but aren’t the radical changes the ones that lead to radical progress?

1. Gilbert, A.G. (1977). Teaching the 3 Rs through movement experiences. New York: MacMillan.
2. McMahon, S. D., Rose, D. S., & Parks, M. (2003). Basic reading through dance program, the impact on first-grade students. Evaluation Review, 27 (1), 104-25.
 3. Minton, S.  (2000). Assessment of High School Students’ Creative Thinking Skills: A Comparison of the Effects of Dance and Non-dance Classes
Unpublished Manuscript, University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, CO.
4. Mohanty, B., & Hejmandi, A. (1992). Effects of intervention training on some cognitive abilities of preschool children. Psychological Studies, 3, 31-37.

So You Don't Think You Can Dance? I Beg to Differ

“Anybody can and should dance….It’s good for the body and the spirit.”
 – Isadora Duncan


            It is impossible for dance educators to imagine a life devoid of dance.  Our group is passionate about what we teach and we have to be.  Funding is scarce, and we are still working hard to convince the general population of the value and power of dance.  The easy part of our job is to teach the students who register for dance classes and are there because they want to learn about the art form.  Our challenge, as dance educators, lies in reaching those who do not really have a desire to dance but are placed in situations that require they learn about it.

        Each year, students involved in school musicals audition for and win roles in productions.  Most have been exposed to acting and singing, but only a select few have studied dance.  Many directors cast these dancers in the roles that require movement and allow the others to simply act and sing.  However, some directors believe that everyone should dance a little and require every cast member to spend some time with the choreographer.  It is in these situations that I have been challenged, that I have learned and grown, and that I have been given the opportunity to make a difference.
Photo by Nick Bencivengo

            At the first rehearsal I am often met with wide-eyed stares and exclamations of, “Umm, just warning you that I can’t dance.”  My response, honed by time and hard-earned experience, is now, ”You can absolutely dance.  You just don’t know it yet.” 

            It is the choreographer’s job to create dances that look good to the paying audience while making certain that ALL of the cast members feel comfortable on the stage.  Rehearsals become tedious at times, and more often than not, choreography needs to be re-worked because what I envisioned cannot be accomplished. 

            Some shows are more successful choreographically than others, but as a dance educator, I have been given a gift.  I have been allowed to share my love of dance with people who would never have entered a dance studio.  I have had the opportunity to help them feel a bit more comfortable with their bodies.  I have had the chance to help them see that we can accomplish new things that we often think are impossible, and in doing so I have, hopefully, helped raise self-confidence and self-esteem levels.  These cast members may be a bit more comfortable during the next audition, or they may choose to never dance again.  Yet, the next time they see someone dance, they will have a better understanding of and appreciation for the process it took to produce the final project. 

Photo by Nick Bencivengo
            My greatest hope is that the next time they are faced with a new challenge they think they cannot conquer, that they will remember the time they thought they couldn’t dance.  Touching everyone with dance in healthy ways is the reason I chose to be a dance educator.  Kudos to the directors and others in the world that allow us, and sometimes even force us to do it.

Caring For Injuries

There are three steps you have to complete to become a professional dancer: learn to dance, learn to perform, and learn how to cope with injuries. – D. Gere

             Pain is normally the first sign of an injury and is our body’s built-in alarm system that tells us something is wrong.  Shortly after the pain comes the swelling.

            Swelling is a natural reaction to an injury and occurs in order to promote healing.  When an injury occurs, cell tissue gets damaged, and the body receives a message to begin repairing this tissue.  Blood flow to the area increases as the body sends leukocytes (white blood cells) to the area.  Leukocytes are macrophages, which are the body’s “clean up crew”.  They migrate to the injured area and carry away the damaged tissue fragments.  Proteins are also released into the area to start repairing the tissue.  A hormone called Insulin-like Growth Factor 1 is also released into the area, which has been shown to increase the rate of cell regeneration.  The initial release of these fluids is necessary for the healing process, but the body overproduces these substances, and a large amount of swelling occurs.

            Applying ice to the injured area causes the blood vessels to contract and decreases the accumulation and circulation of the fluids.  Ice should be applied to the injury 3 times a day for 20-minute periods for the first 48-72 hours.  Ice that is left on an area for longer than 20 minutes at a time can damage the skin.  Ice also serves to numb the nerve endings and temporarily relieve any pain.  It is because of this numbing, that dancers should never use ice before dancing.  Since the area is numb, the dancer has no way of knowing if he/she is doing more damage.

            Other ways to limit swelling at the injured site are to take ibuprofen, compress the injury and elevate the injured limb.  Ibuprofen will decrease the inflammation and help to ease the pain.  Acetaminophen can help with pain management but does not decrease swelling.  Compression will minimize swelling by not allowing room for fluids and can be accomplished through the use of a brace or ace bandage.  Elevating a limb above the heart will limit the flow of blood and fluids to the injured area.

            Obviously, an injured area also needs to be rested in order to heal.  All of these treatments can be remembered by using the acronym RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation). 
            After the first three days, heat can be applied to the injury.  After the swelling subsides, encouraging blood flow to the site will provide the nourishment necessary for healing.  It is best to apply moist heat and avoid analgesics like Tiger balm and Ben-gay.  Analgesics contain methyl salicylate and menthol.  These ingredients increase blood flow to the skin, which makes it feel as if the area is being heated when in reality the warmth goes no deeper than the skin.

            As healing continues, gentle stretching will help encourage flexibility in the newly formed scar tissue which will not be as pliable as the original tissue.  It is more effective to stretch often for short intervals than to stretch for a long period of time.

            All injuries should be evaluated and treated by a doctor, but dancers who have information about how to treat the injury immediately improve their chances for a shorter recovery time than those who do nothing.