“The body as an instrument must be prepared for the physical activity that the class demands of that body”
Some of the many causes of dance injury are:
- Lack of concentration; poor focus
- Poor health (lack of sleep/food)
- Poor studio environment
- Lack of warm-up preparation
- Lack of all round fitness.
As a prevention strategy, a good warm-up before dancing will aid in:
- Focus of the mind on the class/performance to come
- Preparation of the body for class/performance
- Greater chance of achieving correct technique when body is working properly
Do you go to school without your spelling homework completed? Your reading done? Your maths problems sorted? If you do, then that class is less productive as you continually play catch up with everyone else. The same applies to dance class. Why would you not do the preparation to get the most out of class?? Or a performance??
It has been established that lack of focus is a great contributor to the injuries that may occur whilst dancing. There can be many factors that affect this either externally (outside the parameters of dancing/class/studio) or internally. By taking a small amount of time before class to prepare your body and mind for the task ahead, you are decreasing the risk of injury. Even whilst warming-up, you may injure yourself. Therefore, first prepare your mind and then work on your body.
How to do this?
- Dress in appropriate clothing and shoes and secure your hair
- Before anything, you must increase your heart rate so the body is ready to move. Cardio work (fast walking with arms swinging, into a slow jog, etc.) is of vital importance to increase the flow of blood (and oxygen) throughout your body.
- Start your physical warm-up either at the barre or on the floor – set up a pattern that you can follow easily. Focus on the rhythm of your own breathing before attempting any physical movement. When you have this, gradually start to move in time with your breathing. Simple movements to begin with, e.g. at barre, demi-plie, divided tendu; or if on floor moving arms and/or legs.
- As your mind starts to focus more on ballet and the movements to come (and less on any external issues) then you progress through a warm-up for the whole body.
Your warm up should work on the abdomen/torso, hips, legs, knees, feet, shoulders, arms, upper back and neck, finishing with gentle stretches that start at the back of the head and work down through the back, gluteals, hamstrings, calves and achilles tendons.
5-10 minutes for a young child ranging up to 20-30 minutes for a senior student is essential if you are to get the most out of your dancing.
Just as it is important to prepare your body before a class or performance, so must we look after ourselves when it is over.
You need to return your heart rate to normal gradually and to stretch out the muscles that have been working hard throughout class to relieve any possible stiffness and soreness that can result from over-use.
Again anywhere from 5 minutes up to 20 minutes depending on the age of the dancer and the amount of physical activity that has been undertaken is necessary to complete the cool down process.
You may start with easy flowing movements for legs and arms (walking) before moving on to stretches that target the larger muscle groups (back and legs) before finishing with a simple port de bras for the arms and the like.
What is the natural position of the spine and its role in posture stabilization.
The spine is naturally curved. Infants are born with primary curves in the thoracic and sacrum areas of the spine. As they grow and explore, they develop secondary curves in the cervical and lumbar regions, which enables them to support themselves in an upright position. The thoracic curve assists in supporting the weight of the head (with the assistance of the developing sternocleidomastoid muscles in the neck). This extra weight is balanced out by the curve in the lumbar region as the weight is centred in the pelvis.
With the spine aligned naturally, the central line of balance is also in perfect alignment, i.e. ear à shoulder à hip à knee à ankle, one on top of the other in a vertical line. With the developing strength of the various muscles that support the spine, dancers increase their postural stability, which allows for correct placement and training of technique.
In ballet, we emphasise a lengthening of the spine (torso) to allow for greater freedom of movement of the legs and arms. A straight spine is a difficult concept for younger children to grasp. To encourage correct carriage of the head over the spine you can . .
- put sparkly dangly clip-on earrings on girls . . . don’t let them touch your shoulders!
- Walk tall like a giraffe (boys), swan (girls), and so on.
Another problem area of the spine in young children is the sway back/duck tail. This will make any chance at stability in any transfer of weight exercise from Pre-Primary level upwards virtually impossible.
Simple things like standing against a wall with head, upper back, bottom and heels all touching the wall is a good way to learn correct placement. Then take a step away from wall and maintain the posture. You can also teach them to . . . . .
“zip up their jeans (pelvis to navel – to bring lower spine into alignment), zip down their parka (neck to navel – to prevent arching back) then lock the 2 zips together at your belly button.”
Another option is when either standing with their back against the wall or lying on their back (supine) on the floor. Put their hands in the space at the small of their back and contract their abdomen/tummy as they breathe out, without flattening their lower back against the wall/floor.
Turnout comes from the hip joints
- What role does the pelvis have in achieving efficient and productive turnout?
- The pelvis must be in neutral alignment so as to effectively distribute weight from the body above down through the legs.
- If it is tilted forwards or backwards, then weight is distributed unevenly which will likely cause (may) damage to the spine, particularly in the lumbar area.
- The head of the femur sits inside the acetabulum part of the pelvis. If the pelvis is titled sideways (scoliosis) or forwards (lordosis) then the position of the hip joint will be distorted.
- This then places strain on the surrounding muscle groups as they attempt to rotate the femur and maintain this turned-out position in ballet.
- Strengthening the iliofemoral, pubofemoral and iliopsoas ligaments will increase the stability between pelvis and femur, which translates to greater control when developing turnout.
- The muscles surrounding the pelvis, gluteus minimus/medius/maximus and transverse abdominis, activate slightly to maintain the neutral pelvic girdle position. Weakness in these areas can lead to development of lordosis amongst other negative consequences.
- This then enables the rotator group of muscles to develop to increase the degree of turnout from the hip joint. It is also important to note that the adductors and hamstrings play a very active role in stabilising and making the turnout of the legs
The Dancer’s Foot
What is efficient use of the foot in order to achieve balance and stabilization during pointe work?
The foot supports the weight of every part of the body. Therefore, careful attention to how you stand on it is required.
It is essential that the toes and forefoot remain straight and strong to dance en pointe. The strength of the ankle goes hand-in-hand with this.
Located between the metatarsal bones, the intrinsic muscles of the forefoot (lumbricals) must be developed to hold the toes straight and long, whether you are standing on two feet or one foot, or pointing the foot. When teaching, we ask the student to feel the foot through the floor when standing (with emphasis on weight slightly forward over front half of foot) and in a degage when sliding through the foot as the leg opens and closes.
This is then strengthened in allegro as you push off and alight moving through the foot off and onto the floor.
Which finally leads to a greater stability for dancing en pointe.
The ankle’s ability to extend and flex is dependant on the strength and flexibility of the calf muscles and achilles tendons.
When dancing en pointe, the foot and ankle are in a “planter flexion” position for most of the time, requiring strength and support from the calves.
In addition, the development of the longitudinal arch evenly across the inner and outer edges of the foot is imperative. This importance is evident in the RAD syllabi as the first exercise in Pre-Primary is “Exercise for Feet” where we teach them to pointe, in effect showing them what their feet will look like when dancing en pointe!
Children often start ballet lessons in early childhood (ages 3-6) at a time when their little bodies are growing rapidly. As their gross motor skills develop, so does their sense of balance and co-ordination. With the lengthening of the spine, the internal organs literally fall into place and their baby tummy gradually disappears. During middle childhood (ages 6-10) their physical growth is fairly regular and the corresponding development of dance ability increases accordingly. In relation to turnout – the basis for all ballet movements – it is interesting to note that during this pre-adolescent time, it is possible to mould the femoral neck and iliofemoral ligament in order to increase the range of turnout in a student’s hip joint. This can be achieved with ballet training plus resistance exercises during the ages 8-10 (Geeves, 2004, p.62)
Then, just when they are feeling confident and strong, along comes adolescence! All of a sudden balance, co-ordination and strength disappear overnight. Bodies change shape – for girls a more rounded appearance, whereas boys, whose limbs can grow at an alarmingly faster rate than girls, take on a more gangly appearance. Confidence falls by the wayside as steps that were performed with ease last month are now a nightmare to do. What is going on?
Fact: The skeleton grows faster than the supporting musculature. This imbalance causes immeasurable stress on the surrounding muscles, tendons and ligaments. In addition, as bones often do not completely ossify until early adulthood, some major muscles may be attaching to cartilage instead of directly into the bone. (Rist, 1997, p.29)
Growing adolescents find that not only are they unable to control the movement of their limbs, but their alignment and posture will be uneven and the range of turnout may be severely compromised. Add this to a diminishing stamina and self-confidence in their ability starts to falter.
Great care must be taken by the dance teacher to design a class that does not stress these already stressed bodies and brains! Plan a class that is well rounded, including sections of barre, centre, pirouettes, adage and either allegro ORpointe1 (for girls) / grand allegro (for boys). Why? The strength required for allegro/grand allegro and pointe work is far greater and to combine both of these sections in the one session time and time again will only add to the physical and mental stress of the adolescent. If there is too much repetition in these areas – especially when working from one foot to one foot (Rist, 1999, p.37) – you risk causing injury to the young dancer.
- The question “When to startpointe work?” (if at all) is another important factor (McCormack, 1994, p.22). Age does not signify readiness, but strength and flexibility of the student. As an alternative to pointe work, the Royal Academy of Dance offers the Advanced Graded Syllabus (Grades 6, 7 u0026amp; 8) which has an emphasis on artistry and the development of ballet style as well as more dancing in the Free Movement and Character (Polish, Hungarian u0026amp; Russian) styles.
Pilates is all about building abdominal and back strength; often referred to as ‘core strength and stability’. Exercises performed on the floor in the supine position alleviate the weight-bearing issues that may exist when standing. The inclusion of a Fitball and Stretchband into class is another alternative. A Floor Barre is another great way to focus on the alignment of the spine and pelvis (Karin, 2006, p.55). By working slowly, you will engage the deeper muscles surrounding the torso and gain the control required to perform all barre exercises.
Working out in water is another option during the adolescent growth phase. Students will have to engage their abdominal muscles to maintain their equilibrium whilst working in the water (Derbyshire,2002, p.48) The resistance provided by this medium is good for strengthening muscles and increasing flexibility and the natural buoyancy of water reduces stress placed on muscles as they struggle to keep up with the bones’ growth. Plus, it might be fun!
To dance you must have enregy, your bones must be strong and your joints must be flexible; your muscles must be toned and powerful, your heart and lungs must work efficiently. (Buckroyd, P.1)
A dancer’s diet should be no different than that for any other person, i.e. a variety of foods including complex carbohydrates (grains and pulses) mixed in with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, a smaller amount of first class protein (lean beef and poultry, tofu and certain beans for vegetarians) and even lesser amounts of additional sugar and fat. This balance will foster physical and mental alertness and enable the adolescent dancer to continue training without the risk of fatigue, which is one of the leading causes of injury for adolescents. (Geeves, 1997, p.32)
Regular eating and drinking also ensures the body’s metabolism works efficiently to extract the necessary vitamins, minerals and nutrients required for healthy living. By drinking water throughout the day (before, during and after class), the body will remain well hydrated to cope with the rigours of extreme exercise. Being thirsty is an indication that the body is starting to stress due to lack of fluid. (James, 2005, Issue 138, p.40)
The changes in body shape that come with adolescence often trigger a response to eat less. Female dancers (and athletes) are at risk of developing Female Athlete Syndrome, where their food intake is so minimal that body functions begin to falter. Oligomenorrhea (irregular periods) and amenorrhoea (cessation of periods for more than three months) are early indicators. When amenorrhoea occurs during adolescence, females are depleting the calcium reserves in theri bones at a crucial stage of development. To achieve one’s optimum peak bone mass, calcium rich foods (e.g. dairy – milk/cheese/yoghurt, and fish – sardines/salmon/tuna) must be eaten during the childhood and adolescent years. Insufficient bone density by the age of 20 places you in a higher risk category for developing osteoporosis after menopause. (Sayce, p.2)
Adolescents may feel they have limited control with the changes taking place inside them, but food is a tangible item over which they can exercise control. How to prevent this? Education is knowledge and knowledge is power! A visit from professionals in this field (particularly those who work with dancers and athletes) to talk about nutrition and its effects with students and their parents/guardians would be an ideal way to help the student and their family prepare for the challenges ahead.
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