When Dance Training Gets in the Way of Being Healthy

            Dancing should look easy; like an optical illusion.  It should seem effortless.  – Bruce Marks

         A dancer’s job is to create a grand illusion for the audience.  The most difficult steps must look easy, and no one must ever guess that pointe shoes contain feet that are home to bunions, blisters and bleeding toes.  Like athletes, dancers need to perform with sore, and sometimes injured or overworked muscles, but unlike athletes, dancers must never show any sign of weakness.  Dancers must always be ready to push themselves to the next level to secure a role or a job, and there is no option for taking the easy way out.
            While all of these qualities are necessary in a field where performance is the ultimate goal, it is these same qualities that can be harmful to dancers when they begin cross-training or conditioning classes.

            Pilates and yoga instructors and personal trainers usually offer several variations of an exercise, ranging from beginner to advanced levels.  Most dancers, in spite of being new to this type of training, will choose the most advanced version simply because that is what they have been trained to do.  Although dance teachers might make statements like, “You may do a double turn if you want,” or “You may add beats to this exercise if you’d like,” dancers know that if they want to be noticed, an option does not truly exist.  They are expected to challenge themselves.  Unfortunately, since dancers’ muscles are specifically trained for dance exercises, the advanced version may be too difficult at first and strain the dancer’s body.

            As the conditioning class or session progresses and the trainer looks to the client to determine if he or she can handle a heavier weight, more repetitions or a more difficult exercise, the dancer will not portray an accurate picture.  If a dancer finds an exercise taxing or difficult, no one will ever know it.  Dancers are always performing, and they are trained to make the most difficult look the easiest.

            Lastly, since dancers are used to working with sore or tired muscles and have extremely high levels of pain tolerance, they may not always listen and respond to their bodies the way others do.  A pulling or burning sensation in the muscle may be ignored and classified as a slight twinge that must be worked through, and dancers may continue the exercise, assuming that they are feeling “good pain” when in fact they are feeling an injury occurring.  Dancers may not even realize they are injured until swelling or extreme pain occurs.

            When in a cross-training or conditioning program, dancers need to remember that starting to train at the beginner level is not a bad thing, it is okay to acknowledge tired muscles and to listen to their bodies in a different way, and trainers need to remember that dancers will push themselves to the absolute limit.  Cross training in dance is necessary and effective, but both dancers and trainers need to be aware of the psychological ramifications of dance training in order to keep the dancer healthy.

Using Grey Matter to Make Dance Matter

Why Dance Matters is a virtual event created by Nichelle Strzepek of Dance Advantage that rallies the dance community online to affirm the impact dance has on the lives of individuals and communities.  This week's post was written to be part of this event and help others see why dance matters.

“To dance is to be out of yourself. Larger, more beautiful, more powerful. This is power, it is glory on earth and it is yours for the taking.” -- Agnes De Mille

            The brain weighs a mere 3 pounds, yet it is the most complicated organ in the human body.  It contains millions of neurons that fire daily and requires 25% of the blood that is pumped through the body with every heartbeat.  Each person’s brain holds enormous potential, and we, as dancers, have the opportunity and blessing to frequently tap into the potential of the right brain hemisphere, which is often neglected in today’s left brain analytical world.

            The left hemisphere is the logical side.  It deals with organization, rational thought, verbal communication and analytical processing while the right hemisphere helps process relationships, emotions, non-verbal communication and the kinesthetic sense.

            Dancers use the right brain hemisphere constantly, and it is when the kinesthetic sense and wealth of emotions from the right brain dominates that dance becomes magic. 

            According to the Llewellyn Encyclopedia Online, magic “draws its power from a deep well in the center of the human soul.”  It is the deep well of emotions in the human soul that is at play when a dance seems to take on a life of its own or when dance transcends boundaries that would otherwise be seen as barriers.

            The kinesthetic sense and non-verbal communication skills are the magic that is at work when a special needs child is reached through dance.  Each December, New England Ballet in Orange, Connecticut, performs an Adaptive Nutcracker that allows children with special needs to dance alongside typical peers and overcome their disabilities.  A Waltz of the Flowers, performed in wheelchairs, transports the audience to a utopia where anything is possible.

            The emotional passionate power was at work when Noble Barker, Founder and Artistic Director of New Haven Ballet in Connecticut developed pancreatic cancer.  Mr. Barker’s vision was to use the power of dance to change the life of every person in the community, and his illness left the Connecticut dance community without words.   Instead, the groups of dancers that he had touched brought a dream to life, ignored and overcame obstacles, communicated love when words seemed empty, produced a benefit concert to raise money for medical bills and gave Noble Barker a reason to keep fighting. 

            That same power was the motivating force behind a group of dancers that united when a fellow dancer’s life ended far too soon.  In January 2012, dancer Eva Block, was killed in a tragic fire in Poughkeepsie, New York at the age of 21.  Eva’s friends and teachers from across the United States came together in a performance that established a dance scholarship in her memory, wordlessly expressed their grief and gave her mother a brief image of hope.

            Through dance we access our right brain and use it to stretch ourselves, reach beyond our comfort zones, surmount obstacles, think less and do more, reach out to others, express what words cannot, become powerful and make a difference.  Dance matters because it enables us to use our right brain to accomplish what the left brain may deem impossible.

Working With Hyperextended Knees

            "More is not always better."

        The knee is a hinge joint, which means it is capable of flexing and extending.  It is a joint that is primarily held together by ligaments.  Some people are born with tight ligaments, and some are born with loose ligaments that allow for an increased range of motion.  Research has shown that most dancers have looser ligaments than the average person but has also concluded that dance does not result in loose ligaments.  This laxity appears to be genetic, and researchers have concluded that those who dance choose to because they have this expanded range of motion.

            A result of this increased range of motion is less control.  Loose knee ligaments allow that joint to go beyond extension into a state of hyperextension that results in the legs curving backwards.  This backward curve misaligns the leg and puts pressure on the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) whose job it is to prevent the joint from overextending.  Continual pressure stretches out the ACL further and contributes to instability of the knees, which must support the weight of the body on a daily basis. For these reasons, it is important that dancers be taught how to straighten their legs without hyperextending them. 

            When dancers with loose ligaments are told to straighten their legs, they tend to lock the knees in the hyperextended position that causes them to stand in a first position with space between their heels.  Instead of asking them to straighten their legs, educators should ask them to lengthen their legs.  Hyperextended dancers should bend their knees slightly and shift their weight forward while using the quadriceps muscles to lengthen the front of the thigh to lift the patella, or kneecap, up toward the pelvis.  This action will eventually strengthen the muscles around the knee, limit the hyperextension, stabilize the joint and enable the heels to touch in first position.

            The long line of a hyperextended leg looks beautiful in a non-weight bearing position of a tendu, degagé or arabesque, but rather than locking or hyperextending the knee, dancers should constantly be thinking about lengthening the back of the leg.

            It is extremely important that dancers with hyperextended knees learn to avoid locking the knees and to work correctly before beginning pointe work.  When dancing on pointe, correct alignment is the key to avoiding unnecessary strain on the body. 

            All dancers should avoid stretches which put unnecessary pressure on the ACL and place the knee in a hyperextended position such as a split stretch with the front ankle up on a chair while seated on the floor or sitting with the legs straight out in front while flexing the feet until the back of the knees touch the floor.

            Dancers who learn to respect and work effectively with the bodies they have will be able to dance longer, stronger, happier and healthier. 

The Barre: Why It Might Be Time To Step Away...

               “Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd.  Without innovation, it is a corpse.” – Winston Churchill

            There are few absolutes in the world, but every dancer who enters a ballet class knows that he or she should claim a space at the barre because barre work is the first part of class.  It is at the barre that muscles warm-up, stretching begins, new movements are introduced, dancers acclimate to the space and neurological pathways, that will be called upon in the center, are established or reinforced.

            Therefore, barre work is an excellent way to prepare the dancer’s body for work that will be done in the center, isn’t it?  Not entirely, say research studies that have measured muscle activation in dancers performing exercises both with and without the barre.

         In a 2001 study published in the Journal of Dance Medicine and Science, researchers found, that although there was no significant difference in muscle activation of the working leg during a développé devant, the muscles of the standing leg were activated significantly more when the développé was performed without the barre. (3)

            When Torres-Zavala, Henriksson and Henriksson studied professional ballet dancers in 2005, they found that the central balance point differed when dancers performed développé à la seconde with and without a barre. (2)

            In 2007, during a presentation given at the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science Annual Meeting, researchers spoke of a difference in muscles that were used with and without the barre when dancers executed rises to pointe from second position and pique retirés. (1)

            All of these findings seem to indicate that exercises performed at the barre may not be preparing the muscles and body for the work that is done in the center.  Dance physicist, Ken Laws, writes about dancers depending on the barre and using it to shift the torso farther forward in the arabesque position than can be realistically performed in the center.

            The barre should definitely be used in the warm-up, but dance educators need to be aware of the fact that it may not be as effective a place for preparing the body as has always been thought.  The barre is an important tool for focusing on the working leg, but teachers need to understand that stabilizing muscles are not being activated and that weight shifts at the barre are different from weight shifts in the center.

            Depending upon the focus of the class, perhaps, classes should not always warm-up at the barre.  Class can occasionally begin with traditional pliés, tendu and développé combinations in the center to help the dancer engage stabilizing muscles right away.  At other times the teacher may choose to design combinations that are performed partially at the barre and partially without holding onto the barre.  Additionally, cross training in other forms such as Pilates will help the dancers develop stabilizing muscles that might not otherwise be trained as often as gesturing muscles.

            The research that the field of dance science is providing can be invaluable in helping dance educators produce stronger dancers, but they need to be willing to use it.  It may mean departing from tradition at times, but sometimes change can be a good thing.

(1) Kadel N. & Couillandre A. (2007). Kinematic, kinetic, and electromyographic (EMG) analysis comparing unsupported versus supported movements in the ‘en pointe’ position. Journal of Dance Medicine and Science. 11(1), 23.
(2)  Torres-Zavala C, Henriksson J, & Henriksson M. "The influence of the barre on movement pattern during performance of développ." Proceedings of the 15th Annual Meeting of the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science. 2005, Stockholm, Sweden. Ed. Solomon R. &  Solomon J.  
(3) Wilmerding M. et al. (2001). Electromyographic comparison of the développé devant at barre and centre. Journal of Dance Medicine and Science.  5(3), 69–74.