ASPIRING DANCERS ARE REALISTIC MYSTICS.
To a highly motivate ballerina, the dancer’s world is not just a fleeting figment of her imagination. It is a real entity, consisting of much grit and hard work. Martha Graham said it takes ten years to make a dancer. The dancer must be dedicated year after year for no amount of dreaming will refine her instrument into the sensitive and powerful vessel it needs to be to claim the stage and command an audience with just a humble embodiment of her nonverbal moving art.
While dancers must be realistic they are often perfectionists. The pursuit of dance is a climb toward an ephemeral ideal. Striving for perfection does not usually lead to the crazies as Natalie Portman’s character in “The Black Swan” might have you believe, but rather the quintessence a dancer strives toward is sought through reason, sensitivity and logic as well as deep passion and methodical practice.
DANCE STRONGER DANCE LONGER
Dancers are born to dance and live to dance, but the making of a dancer is a rigorous practical process that includes years of dedication, long hours in the studio implementing movement techniques, flexing, stretching and strengthening physiques, stimulating muscles and nerves, reshaping figures and designing somatic bodies to move better everyday. The technical abilities of the trained dancers’ body moves through progressive phases into achievements encompassing greater skill and control. At first improvements in technique are easier to achieve and more pronounced. As experience broadens accomplishments are harder to obtain, successes more subtle and illusive. However, aspiring and accomplished dancers never cease striving to enlighten their bodies as instruments of the art. Their thriving passion is peaked to explore ever more ways to improve their technical skills, to refine their virtuosic prowess and to enhance their performance repertoire.
In today’s world there are many options and explicit styles of dance to master. To heighten one’s professional marketability a dancer can no longer stick to one technique or style but must embrace and explore fully his or her versatility. Dancers today commit themselves to a comprehensive spectrum of diverse styles, go to the gym and practice a variety of contemporary somatic modalities. When career longevity is the goal, dancing smarter not harder can mean dancing longer. Sometimes it is not about loading up on more technique classes, or building bigger muscles, but learning more ways to improve the alignment, symmetry and functional balance of one’s dancing body.
Finding ways to optimize agility, seamless neuromuscular connections, propulsive power and cellular endurance without sacrificing the functional integrity or suppleness of ones joints is the ticket to success. Achieving expressive authority, efficiency in movement and optimal energy expenditure are all necessary for a sustainable dancing career. One method dancers have come to rely on for that extra boost in awareness and performance is pilates (pronounced puh-LAH-teez). Practicing pilates will not only take the dancer’s technique and performance to the next level it can help one avoid injury and achieve career longevity.
Pilates offers dancer’s supplemental training that will enhance the dancer’s kinesthetic abilities and awareness, improving proprioceptive connections and aesthetic attributes without creating excessive bulk or causing additional muscle stiffness that can inhibit movement quality. Basic pilates exercises can assist the dancer in achieving more power and grace to attain more elegant lines and precise movement clarity. In addition, incorporating a cardiovascular element into the dancer’s fitness program is important to help dancers maintain ideal body weight and build stamina for performance. However, fitness workouts on a stair climber or stationary bike will easily tighten already tight hip flexors and potentially bulk up quads that will hinder efficiency and freedom of movement at the hip. On the other hand, aerobically oriented workouts done supine on a pilates reformer using a jump board will strengthen the core, improve stamina and challenge coordination, while minimizing stress on the hip and knee joints. Likewise, weight training workouts may help to improve a dancer’s strength but not at the expense of adding additional bulk that may compromise the ease and character of movement desired in a particular choreographic expression.
The Pilates method has proven to be very popular and effective with dancers.
Martha Graham and George Balanchine were among the first renowned American dancers to use pilates to refine and restore the expressive instrument of their somatic art. The founder of contemporary pilates, Joseph H. Pilates came to America after the first world war and opened his studio in New York. When the word got around dancers flocked to his studio embracing the phenomena of his exceptional new method. Since the mid 1920s, dancers following in the footsteps of Martha and George, have used the method developed by Joseph to sculpt and tone, strengthen and refine, align and balance their bodies. Nearly a century old today, this system conditions the deep core muscles of the abdomen and back, giving support to the spine. It works to correct muscular imbalances restoring the body’s natural alignment and symmetry. Much like dance the pilates method of conditioning strengthens while lengthening muscles simultaneously, so flexibility is not compromised for strength, and agility is not sacrificed for power. Dancers practicing pilates cultivate a strong aligned physique that helps to facilitate movement ease. Expressive power, agility and grace is attained through balanced flexibility and strength, core functionality and movement efficiency.
One challenge dancer’s face is that techniques such as ballet and modern aim at virtuosic feats that require excessive joint mobility and extremes in range of movement. When practiced daily, there is an increased risk of injury due to repetitions of these anatomically demanding movement patterns and postural habits that stress joints and distort the body’s natural alignment. Adding the pilates method of conditioning into the dancer’s repertoire facilitates a return to balanced alignment by focusing on the stimulation and conditioning of the torso’s core muscles that function as the primary support structure for the moving body. Practicing pilates oriented exercises facilitates awareness of the proper natural relationship of the head and spine, pelvis, ribcage and shoulder girdle that will foster a safer more neutrally engaged placement in an optimally balanced dancing body.
Pilates practical applications perfect technique and support performance.
Dancers know that cohesive choreographed patterns and integrated movements of the body originate from a strong center. All dancers must understand and engage the center appropriately because not only does the center connect all the movement of the extremities but a strong and optimally aligned core can help prevent injury to all the joints of the neck and shoulders, spine, hips and knees. Especially dancers of Graham technique, who use oppositional movements emanating from a percussive contraction of the center emphasizing pronounced engagement of the deep muscles of the pelvis and lumbar spine, can use pilates core conditioning, integration and awareness to enhance their performance.
Learning to engage the body’s core neuromuscular structure and natural alignment properly will allow the dancer to move more efficiently distributing the stresses implicit to the dance form more evenly throughout the body. Correcting imbalances and redistributing habitual forces more evenly can also help to develop and maintain greater anatomical symmetry for both health and aesthetic purposes.
The pilates method employs a balanced synergistic practice that integrates aligned connections and develops antagonistic muscles uniformly. Through an even practice inherent to the method, pilates can teach the body to conquer propensities that may have the dancer favor one leg or one side of the body over the other. Pilates may help the dancer identify, recondition and correct structural tendencies that could lead to the over development of certain muscle groups adding to the detriment of others.
For example, if one has a tendency to overwork the quadriceps in the front of the thigh, pilates practice can recondition the dancer to use the hamstrings and gluteal muscles in the back of the leg more effectively and efficiently to support and balance all dance movements where the quadriceps is being over used. When performing a front or side extension to get any noticeable height, it is necessary to maintain core support while engaging the thigh from deep within the hip joint fully engaging the iliopsoas while lengthening the back of the leg and releasing the superficial quads in the front.
While most dancers have sufficient elongation of the hamstrings in the back of the leg, they often have overdeveloped quadriceps using them too much adding inhibitory bulk to the front of the thigh. The excessive bulk hinders the maximal flexion of the hip joint necessary for ballet extensions. Pilates can help release some of the extra tension that causes the superfluous bulk without sacrificing the strength necessary to lift the thigh and extend the lower leg.
Large quadriceps are generally deemed unattractive to dancers and create a technical challenge, however, developing stronger hamstrings and more muscular gluteals not only facilitate the dancer’s stride empowering jumps and extensions, they are more shapely and considered attractive adding to an aesthetic appearance generally preferred by both dancers and audience observers.
Every dancer’s anatomy is different. For some sustaining basic essentials of dance movement, such as turnout, can be difficult and uncomfortable. For others improving agility is their life long challenge. Then there are those whose quest is developing the necessary strength to control extremely supple ranges of flailing limbs. Practicing pilates can be a crucial element in facilitating the dancer’s kinesthetic awareness of both the static and dynamic alignment necessary for ideal anatomical functionality. Discovering the sensation of optimal alignment and implementing it on a daily basis is of paramount importance to the professional dancer seeking to sustain a notable career.
Dancers, especially classically trained ones, can become excessively preoccupied with the positions of their arms and legs. They sometimes bypass the vital significance of initiating and connecting movement through and from the core. In addition, much of dance training is focused on achieving the impressive tricks that wow audiences without nearly as much actual contemplation geared toward the systematic use of the breath. Every exercise in pilates begins with an understanding of the dynamic the breath facilitates. Dancers practicing pilates learn to connect to movement more fluidly through the breath bringing the focus of complex movement patterns back into the core. The practitioner’s dance is more grounded and connected into the center. Their dancing communication becomes dynamically tied to the movement of the breath into and out of the lungs, adding a more naturally expressive and empathic quality to their moving presence.
Cultivating core strength and channeling the power of the breath will increase the dynamic efficacy of peripheral muscles, enabling tight tendons to release and overworked muscles to let go. Over developed or extremely taught muscles can compromise joints and pull the body out of alignment, inhibiting the body’s natural fluidity and expressive freedom of movement. They also cause discomfort and pain. In the quest for the ideal arabesque or perfect panche, dancers sacrifice optimal alignment. They become hyperextended and over placed trading optimal safe alignment for the practical ultimate line.
The skeleton is designed to support the musculature and the musculature guides the bones. A properly supported skeleton enables the muscles freedom to move when called upon without compromising moving bones or joints. The dancers quest sometimes overshadows this essential fact of life. Pilates can help bring the dancers grand ambition and aspiring temper back to this simple reality. Unlike a dancers training that is designed to conquer the pull of gravity, pilates workouts leverage body proportions and the skeleton to take full advantage of gravitational forces. These benefits facilitate releases in tension that restore the natural optimally aligned placements of the major body masses.
In pilates many exercises are done seated and kneeling or even lying on a mat, reformer, and/or trap table, also called a pilates cadillac. The pilates equipment is designed to both assist and challenge the body’s natural abilities. The usual gravitational pull on the vertically standing body is alleviated, transformed and sometimes reversed in varying positions so that restoring functional balance, proper alignment and better muscle usage can be obtained without any additional negative stress placed on muscles, bones, or joints.
Why does pilates work for dancers?
Today pilates practitioners employ an idea that was not initially introduced by Joseph Pilates but came later as an influence of research done in physical therapy. The idea goes by the term “neutral spine” which is used to identify the position of the spine when it is elongated vertically while standing stretched in its natural S curve alignment. Properly engaging the muscles of the torso while maintaining the pelvis and elongated spine in its neutral relationship whether aligned vertically or horizontally produces the most muscle activation and integration of the torso and thus the greatest benefit to functional alignment and core stability. Essentially, strengthening the core involves much more than merely doing sit ups. In pilates practice, the focus is not simply on engaging the major abdominal muscles but how they are engaged in relationship to all the other muscles of the body.
Typical fitness crunches and some pilates oriented abdominal exercises such as the roll up will primarily challenge the most superficial layer of muscle that includes the rectus abdominus, often referred to as the “washboard” or “six-pack” abs, that run vertically in front of the torso, and the internal and external obliques, which crisscross on the sides of the torso. Performing other pilates core exercises done with a more neutral relationship of the spine and pelvis such as is done in the hundreds or any variation of plank as in push ups will target not only these large superficial muscles but also the deeper transversus abdominus, which runs horizontally wrapping around the front of the torso like a girdle, as well as the smaller muscles running deepest along the spine.
The transversus abdominus is significant because it is primarily responsible for holding in the contents of the internal viscera. The transversus abdominus engages involuntarily when laughing spontaneously or coughing suddenly and it is voluntarily engaged by consciously pulling the navel in against the spine. It is easily sensed by actively flattening across the front of the hip bones making the muscle firm much like a piece of leather stretched taught over the rim of a drum. All the while it is important to maintain an elongated torso and neutral relationship of the pelvis and spine.
It is accepted pilates practice to engage the abdominal core sensing both muscle length and width, flattening, scooping and hollowing out the main belly of the abdominal with efforts focused to minimize any bulking or bunching of the individual fibers or parts. The breath is engaged to facilitate core strength and flexibility by using the movements of respiration to fully expand the chest cavity three dimensionally inhaling into an elongated torso lifting and separating the ribcage from the pelvis while maintaining a taught, trim and fit waistline. The core essence of pilates will ensure optimal movement functionality and the efficient ease of mobility, both of great significance to the dancer.
While pilates workouts can be designed to improve a dancer’s turnout, one particular benefit of pilates to classically trained dancers is working the legs in a more neutral parallel position. Maintaining the legs in a parallel position is a more natural alignment of the leg integrating more muscle activation and thus more conducive to hip longevity. Classically trained dancers work the external rotation of the hip joint to excess and thus balancing that action with the opposite working the legs while internally rotating the thigh may enhance the suppleness of the hip joint and help prevent common knee or hip injuries related to the turnout that may surface sooner or arise later in life.
PILATES IS THE BEST INJURY PREVENTION!
Dancers are exceptional athletes. Much like professional football players whose promising careers can end all too short by one debilitating hit, the dancing athlete too can lose her career with one detrimental mishap, a sudden fall or the unanticipated force of excessive torque. More often body imbalances created through unchecked habitual patterns leave dancers at risk. Learning to prevent injury before it happens as opposed to rehabilitating an injury after it does is a much better way to go if the dancer hopes to enjoy an exciting career for years to come.
In the context of injury prevention, along with a nutritious diet, chiropractic care and massage, pilates cannot be beat. Today more physical therapists use reformers and trap tables in their practice than ever before not to simply treat injury but to restore integrity to an imbalanced overwhelmed physique. When prevention is sought rehabilitation may be avoided helping to extend the dancer’s longevity by many years. To keep up with their arduous rehearsal and performance schedules many professional ballet companies are now requiring company members to do pilates, a proactive effort to keep their dancing stars strong and free of injury. Many Radio City Rockets practice pilates year round to stay fit and injury free especially during their busy Christmas season when they perform up to six shows a day.
As a rule and essentially a job requirement dancers tend to have a notoriously high pain tolerance. Having a high threshold for pain helps the dancer get through grueling rehearsals and difficult performances, however, pain can also be an indicator that something is seriously wrong and should not be dismissed too soon or too lightly. Learning to listen to the body’s signals is essential for dancers to refine their instrumental vessels, to correct poor alignments and muscular imbalances before a chronic condition becomes an acute injury. Attending to the subtle somatic messages the body sends out whether intuitively sensed on stage or refined on a pilates reformer will nurture the dancer’s living body as well as the health of her whole spiritual being.
Pilates options facilitate a perfect dancing body!
The growing trend in pilates today has put a studio in practically every neighborhood and daily mat classes in every gym. However, private lessons may be a bit costly for a young dancer’s budget and class schedules do not always sync up with personal ones. Fortunately, you do not need to rearrange your schedule to enjoy the benefits of the pilates method. While having a private instructor has its obvious benefits, there are other options. If you cannot afford a private teacher nor find a class that fits into your schedule there are many videos on the market that can teach you the basics of pilates.
Video workouts come in many levels so it is wise to choose one that is appropriate for you. Joseph H. Pilates believed pilates was a means to an end. It was a method that served the individuals whole self, body mind and spirit. He insisted that the movement be executed mindfully with focused concentration and precision. Joe placed emphasis on the quality of movement, not the quantity of repetitions. Performing exercises consistently with a clear intention and focus, with purposeful contemplation and precise execution, will enable the practitioner to engage the deep core muscles initiating restoration and balance right away. Now it is your turn.