“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.