Choosing Which Side to Start On…Does It Make a Difference?

        “Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!”― Dr. Seuss 

          "Right foot front", "Let's start on the right", and "Stand with your left hand on the barre, starting with your right foot" are common phrases in almost all dance classes. Turns are normally done to the right first, and groans are

commonly heard when a teacher requests that the turns be repeated to the left. Is this because a large majority of the dance population has a preference for the right side, or is this because dance classes favor the right side?          
          Children demonstrate a preference for being right or left handed at a young age. By the time they learn to write, it is usually clear which hand is preferred. However, children are normally mixed footed, not showing a preference for either their right or left feet, until late childhood or early adolescence. Studies have suggested that the preference that develops is partially a result of environmental influences. (2)

          If the environment is influential in determining which side a dancer prefers, known as a lateral bias, it seems that dance educators should examine their manners of teaching. Data gathered from observing 20 different ballet classes showed that dancers practice combinations on the right side up to 26% more than they do on the left.(1)

          Most teachers demonstrate the combination on the right side which encourages modeling on the right side. When the class marks the combination, it is usually done to the right, and the combination is usually performed first on the right side. In many cases, there is no demonstration or rehearsal on the left side, and students are simply expected to perform the exercise on the left. When dancers were interviewed about common practices in class, only 12% expected that combinations would be demonstrated on the left side as well as the right.(3)

          Most dancers will claim that they prefer the right side, but if both sides were treated equally in class, perhaps that claim might be different. In a study conducted on 40 undergraduate dancers who were taught a combination on the left side and then asked to perform it on the right side, the dancers were able to transfer the steps to the right side significantly well.(5) The transfer seems to indicate that although students might prefer to learn a combination on the right first, it may only be as a result of habit. Continuously learning a combination on the right side first, reinforces neural pathways between the brain and the right side of the body. Therefore, when learning a combination on the left side first, it would seem that the dancer would have to be more engaged and focused because the pathways would not be as well developed. Further support of this theory comes from a study including both novice and experienced dancers that showed left side learning took more time. (4)

          In addition to developing habits, lateral bias in dance class could also be causing imbalances in muscle strength and joint range of motion since one side of the body is being used more than the other. It would be beneficial for dance educators to consider varying class and making a conscious effort to demonstrate, mark, and/or begin combinations on the left some of the time.

          In doing so, educators could begin to address and possibly decrease developing muscular imbalances, reinforce more neural pathways, and create an atmosphere of deeper focus and engagement in class. This type of class variation will help to create healthier dancers who might even end up able to turn well on both sides.
(1) Farrar-Baker, A. & Wilmerding, V. Prevalence of lateral bias in the teaching of            beginning and advanced ballet. Journal of Dance Medicine and Science, 2006; 10 (3&4) 81-4.
 (2)Gabbard C, Iteya M. Foot laterality in children, adolescents and adults. Laterality. 1996;1(3):199-205.
 (3)Kimmerle M. Lateral bias in the dance class. In: Chin MK, Hensley L, Coté P, Chen S (eds): Global Perspective in the Integration of Physical Activity, Sports, Dance, and Exercise Science in Physical Education: From Theory to Practice. Hong Kong: Contemporary Development, 2004, pp.167-174.
(4) Kimmerle M, Coté P, Patterson J. Bilateral transfer of right and left dance sequences in experienced and novice dancers. In: Solomon R, Solomon J (eds): Proceedings of the 17th Annual Meeting of the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science 2007. Canberra, Australia: IADMS,2007, pp.18-22.
(5)Puretz, S. Bilateral transfer: The effects of practice on the transfer of complex dance movement patterns. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 1983; 54(1):48-54.

Understanding Muscle Cramps

Ultimately, we become aware of most of what is going on within us mainly through the muscles. - Moshe Feldenkrais

Muscle Cramp - that tightening feeling in the belly of a muscle in places like your calves or your thighs that is accompanied by pain!!

            Muscle cramps occur when a muscle or group of muscles involuntary contracts and will not release, or relax. There is no reason for the contraction to occur. The muscles do not have any work to do, yet they act as if they are being called to action.

            Muscle cramps can occur at any time - whether we are awake or asleep -  and for a variety of reasons. The type of muscle cramps that dancers suffer from are exercise associated muscle cramps. Science has yet to determine the exact cause of exercise associated muscle cramps, but there are two possible theories that are being studied.

            One possible cause is overuse and fatigue. Muscles, like the rest of our body parts, grow tired after use and stop working correctly. For a muscle to work correctly, the body depends upon clear communication between the brain and the muscle. Messages are sent back and forth along a string of nerves called a neural pathway. The brain sends a message to the muscle for a contraction to occur and waits for the muscle to supply the brain with feedback to know whether or not an action has been accomplished or if another message must be sent to continue or increase the muscle contraction. An example of this situation would be the varying degrees in which a dancer can rise up into a relevé position. A dancer may choose to rise onto demi-pointe or full-pointe.
Each of these  positions requires a different degree of contraction in the calf muscles. The brain depends upon muscular feedback to know if the position has been reached. When a muscle and a neural pathway are overused or tired, an imbalance occurs between the signals sent to the muscles and the feedback provided to the brain. This imbalance causes the brain to continue to signal the muscle to contract and causes a cramp and an involuntary contraction that will not release. When this cramp occurs, it is best to gently massage and stretch the muscle while keeping it warm until the contraction releases.

            Another possible cause of exercise associated muscle cramps is dehydration and a loss of electrolytes. Electrolytes are minerals found in fluids in your body that keep the body functioning. Some examples of minerals that are relied upon for proper muscle contraction are sodium, calcium, and potassium. When we exercise, we lose water and some of these minerals through sweat. A way to eliminate dehydration and electrolyte loss as a cause of muscle cramps is to stay properly hydrated when dancing and to snack on healthy, nutritious food that will keep minerals at optimal levels.

            Understanding what happens in your body when muscles cramp can help you to minimize their occurrences and, hopefully, recover from them before you find yourself in too much pain.
Miller, K. C., Stone, M. S., Huxel, K. C., & Edwards, J. E. (2010). Exercise-Associated Muscle Cramps: Causes, Treatment, and Prevention. Sports Health, 2(4), 279–283. doi:10.1177/1941738109357299

Schwellnus, M.P. (2009) Cause of exercise associated muscle cramps (EAMC)--altered neuromuscular control, dehydration or electrolyte depletion? British Journal of Sports Medicine, 43(6), 401-408.