Part 1 of 3: Ballet - does it have to hurt?
In 2006, the Guardian ran an article about the agony of the professional circuit: https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2006/sep/05/dance. Read it and cringe. Stories of broken metatarsals, sprained ankles, damaged achilles tendons, blisters, bunions and corns, all managed with a heavy dose of pharmaceutical grade painkiller and the-show-must-go-on attitude.
Now a decade on from that article, the dance industry as a whole is far more educated and better resourced. Respected organisations such as Ausdance and the International Association for Dance and Medicine actively promote safe dance practice, with vast amounts of information readily available via their websites (ausdance.org.au & iadms.org). Professional dance companies including our own Australian Ballet, have Injury and Rehabilitation teams who work collaboratively with company members to prevent or minimise the impact of injuries and recovery time. (1)
I sincerely praise such names as Lisa Howell (theballetblog.com, perfectformphysio.com.au) and Marie Walton-Mahon (Progressing Ballet Technique, pbt.dance) who have collated their vast knowledge and experience into e-books, seminars and online material. Efforts like these have made safe dance practice more accessible to everyone. Not only can teachers continually expand their knowledge base and expertise, but dancers can also take control of their own knowledge and training.
Over this three-part series, we will be exploring a few of the more common areas where young dancers require support from teachers and parents to ensure their risk of injury is minimal to none, both short and long term. Please encourage your young dancers to invest in their self-care. The body is the dancer's instrument, and it must be respected, nurtured and trained with care and expertise.
Part 1 - Alignment & Core Strength (You CANNOT smash this out)
It might seem a bit simple or silly, but alignment is the first key of good dance practice. If your alignment is out, everything else is going to be out. Just imagine the Leaning Tower of Pisa trying to do a triple pirouette!
Eric Franklin has a beautiful book called 'Dynamic Alignment through Imagery' and I like to use the image below as an example of how a dancer's body should feel before they start to move.
Beautiful alignment begins with correct placement of the feet, using the tripod position (2). This is followed by 'stacking' the body - the knees, hips, pelvis, spine, chest, shoulders, neck, and jaw so that each portion is perfectly balanced in co-ordination with the other. Finally, we imagine the line of the spine extending into space, continuing the line of the body and thereby lifting the line of the jaw and cheekbones.
Next, in order to maintain good body alignment, a dancer requires
core strength. This is not something you can smash out at the gym in a 6 week program. It is far more focused, internal and meditative than most people realise. Core strength comes from years of refined directional practice. What does that mean? It means you must learn to sense (yes, sense!) your internal organs - where and how they operate in your body, and how to use the natural power of the breath to engage or release specific muscle groups.
The areas of the body that allow us to develop core strength are the transverse abdominals (muscles buried well beneath the six-pack), the multifidus (lower back muscles) and the pelvic floor.
Without correct alignment and core strength, a dancer may compensate by using incorrect muscles or may sacrifice placement to achieve certain steps or movements. A common example is the young dancer who sacrifices the position of the spine and pelvis in order to achieve a higher grand battement devant (i.e. the dancer allows the pelvis to tuck under when they do a front leg kick).
Immediate effects as a result of this type of mis-alignment may include:
- the supporting leg may bend at the knee;
- one or both legs may rotate inwards;
- the core may fold inwards;
- the shoulders and upper body may hunch forward;
- the neck may tense and jut forward.
Long term impacts of this type of mis-alignment if not corrected can include:
- if the supporting leg bends at the knee, the knee will often sway forwards and out of alignment with the hip and/or ankle, causing unnecessary pressure on and around the knee joint and subsequent knee pain.
- the ankle of the supporting leg will also often roll inwards at this juncture, and the arch of the foot ceases to be upheld, thereby weakening the ankle joint.
- inward rotation leads to incorrect use of joints and/or muscle groups to sustain turnout, leading to a weakening of the external rotators, overuse of the hip flexors and gluteal muscles, furthermore leading to poorly controlled centre work and weakened allegro.
- inward rotation can also lead to incorrect use of muscle groups used to elevate the leg, resulting in over-developed quadriceps and poor rotational alignment.
The good news is, this type of mis-alignment can be easily corrected. It requires visual and kinaesthetic awareness from teacher and student, and a commitment to quality over quantity. I always prefer to see a low but well-placed leg over a high but poorly-aligned leg, and I believe any good dance teacher would say the same.
Parents, I encourage you to ask your teacher to comment on your child's alignment. What is working well and what needs improvement? For the areas that require improvement, ask for some basic exercises to do at home. Every student is different and will have different needs, one size does not fit all. Most teachers will only require a couple of classes to really 'see' what areas need improvement, so don't wait a year until you ask!
Adult Students, I encourage you to exercise patience. Consider that you are working with 20 years or more of postural habits, so your challenge is not only physical but also mental and sometimes emotional. It is not unusual for the experiences of our past to be carried in the gait of our step, and leaving the past behind can be an emotional journey. Once again, ask for feedback and some basic exercises to do at home. Home-based training does not have to be time consuming, it could take as little as five minutes per day.
If your dancing is causing pain, go back to basics. Please don't press on in the hope that your body will fix itself, because it may need more information, education or training. Check your alignment, revisit your core, ask questions of your teacher, physiotherapist, or other industry professionals. Take some time to explore the sites mentioned above. Some sections are members only, however there is also a lot of valuable free material available to non-members.
And a final favourite phrase to leave you with today: if you don't comply, don't complain! You wouldn't expect a plant to bloom if it is only occasionally watered, and it is the same with our bodies. Start with small and consistent changes in your training and you may be surprised at the results.
So. Does Ballet have to hurt?
I'm interested to know - what do you think?
1. David Halberg, Return from Injury: australianballet.com.au
2. YVB December Newsletter, The Tripod Position: yvballet.com.au
3. IADMS: Article of Interest