“A man is as young as his spinal column.” – Joseph H. Pilates
It is impossible to discuss proper body alignment and healthy dancing, without writing about the spine. The bones of the spinal column, or vertebrae, house and protect the body’s life line, the spinal cord. Attached to the spinal cord are the nerves that carry messages between the brain and the rest of the body. Additionally, when the spine is aligned correctly, it supports and stabilizes the body, allows movement of the torso, and acts as a shock absorber.
The tailbone, or coccyx is at the base of the spine and is several bones fused together as is the next section of the spine, the sacrum. The sacral spine is made up of five vertebrae that are fused together and is responsible for distributing the body’s weight evenly to the pelvis and hip joints. Balancing the body on top of the sacrum are the 5 lumbar vertebrae, which are the largest vertebrae and support most of the body weight. The 12 thoracic vertebrae are stacked on top of the lumbar spine, and they allow for the movement of the torso and connect to the ribs. Sitting on top of the thoracic spine are the 7 cervical vertebrae. This portion of the spine is very flexible, makes up the neck, and supports the skull.
In between each of the vertebral bones are the intervertebral discs. The discs are composed of cartilage and contain a fluid-like substance. The discs serve as shock absorbing cushions during activity and allow the vertebral bones to move in different directions without grinding against each other. As gravity pulls us down during the course of a day, the discs flatten a bit, making us shorter at the end of the day than first thing in the morning. A gradual flattening of the discs during a lifetime is what is responsible for people shrinking as they grow older.
The spine’s natural ability as a shock absorbing mechanism is a result of the natural curves that occur in the vertebral groups. The cervical and lumbar spines curve toward the back of the body while the middle part of the spine, the thoracic spine, curves toward the front of the body. The curves allow the spine to act as a spring rather than a solid structure when walking, running, dancing, or jumping and allow for spinal flexibility.
When a dancer does not pay careful attention to spinal alignment, several problems can occur. When lengthening the body, it is important that the dancer not think about only “pulling up” from the front of the body. The dancer should lengthen the torso equally in front and back, trying to create as much space between each of the vertebrae as possible. Additionally, a dancer should never try to eliminate any of the spinal curves. Tucking the tail under to artificially increase turnout or achieve greater height when raising the leg causes the lumbar curve to disappear and tips the pelvis backward. A backward tilted pelvis causes tightened hamstrings and overstretched quadriceps muscles, creating a muscular imbalance. An opposing muscular imbalance will occur if the lumbar curve is exaggerated if a dancer sways his or her back. Similarly, dancers who round their shoulders or push their chins forward change the curve of the cervical spine and cause similar imbalances in the muscles of the upper torso and neck.
In addition to creating imbalances which cause the body to compensate in various ways and can lead to injury, exaggerating or increasing the curves of the spine places the intervertebral discs in unnatural positions and creates unnecessary pressure. Resultantly, these discs may slip out of position or rupture and leak fluid. Either of these problems will put pressure on the surrounding nerves and cause extreme pain.
If taken care of and kept in correct alignment, the spine will allow dancers to flex (bend forward), hyperextend (bend backward), flex laterally (bend sideways) and rotate while also providing necessary protection and weight distribution. However, the instant the alignment of the spine is ignored or altered, a dancer begins to compensate and starts down a road toward the possibilities of pain, muscular imbalances, and injury.