“BALANCE – The ability to equally distribute weight and remain upright." Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Balance, equilibrium, steadiness, stability – a goal for a happy life and a necessity for a dancer. Balance is regulated by our body in three different ways: through our eyes, through the vestibular system of our inner ear, and through sensory receptors in our muscles that provide proprioception.
We constantly use our eyes to determine where we are in space, and this optical sense is the body’s most dominant way of establishing balance. The optical righting reflex helps ensure that we remain upright since it works to keep both eyes constantly on the horizontal plane.
The vestibular system helps the body maintain balance through the anatomy of the inner ear. This system gives the brain information about the body’s position during movement. The ear canals are filled with fluid and lined with cilia, or tiny hairs, that are sensitive to the movement of the fluid. When the position of the head shifts during movement, the cilia send signals to the brain to activate the muscles that keep the head vertical.
Our body also uses proprioception to determine if we are balanced. Proprioception is the body’s awareness of its position and movement in space. There are sensory receptors located in the body’s muscles, tendons, and joints that send messages to the brain, letting it know where the different parts of the body are and how they are moving in relation to other body parts. The sensors in the muscles respond to muscular contractions, those in the tendons respond to changes in tension, and the sensors inside the joints respond to changes in pressure while those in the connective tissue surrounding the joints respond to the speed of a moving joint.
These three systems work together and communicate with the cerebral cortex in the brain. The cerebellum controls coordination and stores learned information about muscular actions that can restore balance. The signals that the systems send to the cerebral cortex are integrated with the information stored in the cerebellum, and the body is able to right itself when it is thrown off balance.
When one of these systems does not operate correctly, the body must rely on the other two systems. If an inner ear infection disturbs the vestibular system, the optical reflex and proprioception must be depended upon to maintain balance.
The proprioceptive sense is vital for a dancer. A dancer must be able to “feel” the difference between a parallel position and a turned-out position and needs to be able to sense how high a leg is being held. When turning, dancers need to be aware of the position of the gesture leg, and dancers need to be aware of the position of their arms. Mirrors can be used as a tool when dancers are first learning a skill, and the eyes and vestibular system can be used to establish balance when the training is at the beginner level. However, as dancers grow more advanced, learning skills like tilts and advanced, inverted jazz turns, it becomes difficult to rely on these two senses, and when a dancer performs onstage with lights, the optical sense is taken away. Reliance upon the proprioceptive system becomes a dancer’s lifeline.
Since this system must be relied upon so heavily, it is important to help students develop it in the studio. Although the mirror can be used effectively as a tool, dancers often become dependent on it. Having dancers perform combinations facing away from the mirror forces the dancers to rely on their proprioception to determine where they are in the space and what positions they are in. Another way to work on the proprioceptive sense is to ask the dancers to perform stationary combinations with their eyes closed. When this idea is first introduced, the combinations can be simple port de bras exercises and then progress to exercises that include développés, grands battements and even jumps.
Our bodies come equipped with three systems meant to help maintain balance, yet we often do not use all three effectively. Dancers can improve and strengthen their technique and performance skills vastly when they are aware of, learn to use, and practice training the proprioceptive system.