Alabama Ballet company member Nadine Barton on pointe shoes and foot care.
1. What brand and model of pointe shoe do you wear?
2. How long have you worn this model?
For about five years.
3. Why does this model work best for your feet?
I like the way the model shapes to my feet as well as provides support in the right ways. I never liked having space from the floor when I am up on pointe, and, with these, I can always feel the floor.
4. Does anything about the structure of your feet create challenges for pointe work?
He looks over at me with that twinkle in his eyes, and I see the mischievous 7-year-old boy gleam through my husband’s 32-year-old self.
“Come on babe… just do it. Just show them your feet… please?” and turning toward his friends – okay more like acquaintances… practical strangers to me – he proudly says, “You guys have gotta see these things…”
I shoot a half glance-half glare back at him and he knows exactly my train of thought. But how can I be mad at him when he’s looking at me like that? When he’s so proud of them for me? How can I really be that embarrassed by my “worker tools,” as he puts it? After all, that is what they are, callouses and all… And it could be worse… He could ask me to put my leg over my head, or have them guess my weight.
I meekly slip off my loafers and hesitantly raise my gaze to meet their slightly horrified faces.
“Um…. Wow. Aghh… Yeah. So do they hurt? Because they look like they hurt.”
That’s the typical reaction I get whenever pedestrians (non-dancers, that is) see my very ugly ballerina feet – and they are very ugly. Our physical therapist, Boyd Bender, actually keeps a photo of them on his iPhone to show any of his clients who might feel self-conscious about their own toes…
And ever since Center Stage and that scene where Jody Sawyer takes off her pointe shoes to show a very bloody blister (you know the one…), it has been a point of fascination – pun slightly intended.
The funny thing, I find, is what we consider “pretty feet” in the dance world has nothing to do with how pristine they look in flip-flops… That’s relatively easy to accomplish: buff down those callouses and shellac a bit of red nail polish and voila! You’re good to go… ish.
There’s only so much you can do for those bunions…
The hard part is getting those feet to look pretty in pointe shoes… harder still to get the pointe shoe to cooperate with you. To conjure the effect of weightless, effortless floating; balancing or turning on a dime – these are hallmarks of ballet and yet not easy feats by any means. I can’t always blame every problem I have on the shoes, but sometimes they really do have a mind of their own!
Well after 19 years of wearing these mini instruments of torture I’ve learned a few tricks to making them work for me, instead of the other way around…
I’m so pleased to introduce this month’s guest contributor, Selina Shah, MD, a dance and sports medicine physician based in San Francisco, where she is Director of Dance Medicine at the Center for Sports Medicine. A dancer herself, Dr. Shah is the company physician for the San Francisco Ballet School, Liss Fain Dance Company, and Diablo Ballet, among others. Her article discusses the different factors that determine when a student dancer should begin pointe work.
We are grateful to her for sharing her expertise on this topic —pass it on!
- Jan Dunn MS, Editor, Dance Wellness
by Selina Shah, MD, FACP
If you are anything like me, you are captivated by ballet. You love its grace and its gravity-defying, gentle power. You dream of performing as a prima ballerina. In the years of work it will require to get there, perhaps the single most important milestone you will face is when to go en pointe.
Dancing en pointe is an advanced stage of ballet that requires unique skills. The challenge is to place almost all of your weight on the extreme tips of your toes, yet appear as light as a feather. In fact, no matter how long all of your toes are, research has shown that most of your body weight is carried on the tip of your big toe. It may sound very hard, but in truth, it’s even harder!
How Will I Know When I Can Get Pointe Shoes?
Most likely, your teacher will decide when you are ready to go en pointe. Many factors are involved in this decision. One common myth is that there is a mandatory age requirement of 11 or 12. In actuality, having adequate training rather than age is what matters. Usually, this means at least several years of consistent, high-quality training. Often girls are around age 11 or 12 before this happens, but some girls may be ready sooner, some later, and some not at all. Keep in mind the quality of work is more important than quantity.
You need enough flexibility in your foot to rise fully to pointe. One way to test this is to point your foot while sitting down with your legs extended in front of you. Next, place a pencil on top of the ankle and it should be able to lay flat from the tibia to the foot across the ankle joint.
You need physical and technical skills, such as strength, balance, alignment and control. For example, you should be able to hold passé on each leg with arms in high fifth for at least a few seconds. You should also be able to perform a clean pirouette with a smooth landing.
You also need to be able to continuously accept and apply teacher feedback.
Last but not least, you must consistently maintain your discipline and focus to keep your skills sharp and reduce the likelihood of injury.
Barre is where you form the crucial foundational skills on which pointe, and all other ballet movements are built. Listen to your teachers when they give you corrections and apply them until they become second nature. For instance, “working the floor with your feet” in tendus helps build your foot strength, which is essential for pointe. Working diligently on your turnout (and not cheating!) results in proper alignment. Use your core strength (ask your teacher how to do this correctly) to help you with balance and control. Apply these skills in the center and across the floor.
Various Foot Types
Knowing your foot type is important when you look for pointe shoes. Most people fall into one of three categories.
- The “Giselle” or peasant foot shape is one where the first three toes are of equal length, making this ideal for pointe because the big toe gets assistance from the other two toes in carrying the weight.
- The “Morton’s” or “Grecian” foot, in which the second toe is the longest, is more prone to developing callouses, pain, and stiffness in the big toe. Most of the body weight is still carried by the big toe in the Morton’s foot.
- A narrow “Egyptian” foot, in which the toes taper in length from the big toe which is the longest, usually requires a cap on the second toe so that it can assist the big toe with weight bearing.
Finding The Right Pointe Shoe
Pointe shoe fitting is complicated because of the variability in shape, size, strength, and flexibility of each dancer’s feet. Most dance stores will have specialized pointe shoe fitters on staff. Your first visit to the store will take some time as you try on a number of shoes until you find the one that feels good and fits properly. As you gain experience in pointe, you will likely change shoes.
With hard work and dedication, one day you may be fortunate enough to hear the words “You are ready for pointe!”
Selina Shah, MD, FACP is a board certified sports medicine and internal medicine physician and the Director of Dance Medicine at the Center for Sports Medicine in San Francisco, CA and Walnut Creek, CA. She has lectured nationally and internationally on various dance medicine topics and has published papers in medical journals and books including her original research on dance injuries in contemporary professional dancers. She is the dance company physician for the San Francisco Ballet School, Liss Fain Dance Company and Diablo Ballet. She is a physician for Berkeley Repertory Theater, Mill’s College, St. Mary’s College, and Northgate High School. She takes care of the performers for Cirque du Soleil and various Broadway productions when they come to the San Francisco Bay Area. She has taken care of several Broadway performers (i.e. American Idiot, South Pacific, Lion King, Book of Mormon, MoTown, and Billy Elliot). She is a team physician for USA Synchronized Swimming, USA Weightlifting, USA Figure Skating and travels with the athletes internationally and nationally. She is also a member of the USA Gymnastics Referral Network. As a former professional Bollywood and salsa dancer, Dr. Shah is passionate about caring for dancers. She continues taking ballet classes weekly and also enjoys running, yoga, Pilates, weightlifting, and plyometric exercise.3
Hau’oli Makahiki Hou! — That’s Happy New Year in Hawaiian! I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday — and
“Nutcracker” season — and are ready to start the New Year. This month’s post is a brief one to help you with your stretching. New research (on dancers) shows that the intensity of your stretching doesn’t have to be extreme in order to increase your flexibility.
The post is written by Matthew Wyon, PhD, who has written for our Dance Wellness column before — Matt is currently serving as the Vice President of IADMS (International Association for Dance Medicine and Science), and is also a professor / researcher at the University of Wolverhampton (UK), as well as being affiliated with England’s National Institute for Dance Medicine and Science.
So — enjoy the post, and have a good start to your New Year of dancing longer, stronger, and safer!
- Jan Dunn, MS, Dance Wellness Editor
by Matt Wyon, PhD
Dancers are renowned for their flexibility or range of movement, and devote a lot of time maintaining and enhancing this attribute. There has been much written on the different stretch techniques such as static, dynamic and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) and when they should be implemented — for example, dynamic stretching during warm-up and static during recovery. However, the intensity at which the stretch should be held has had little research until recently. We often feel that unless the stretch is just below the pain barrier, the point where the muscle starts to wobble, nothing will change; this often equates to “8 out of 10” intensity.
A series of recent studies has started to challenge this concept. The first showed that at 8/10 intensity there was a huge increase in inflammation blood markers, suggesting that the muscle being stretched was actually being traumatized — but at lower intensities (3-6/10) this effect wasn’t noticed.
But will this lower intensity help increase flexibility?
A six week experiment on dancers who were split into one group that stretched at their usual intensity (8/10), and another at the lower intensity (3-5/10), noted that the dancers in the lower intensity group increased their grande battement and developpé height. The second group (8/10 intensity) saw a very slight but not significant increase (5-degree) compared to 20-degree for the low-intensity group.
So it seems less is more when it comes to stretching intensity!
It must be emphasized that this intensity should be used at the end of the day as a recovery and improving range of movement technique, rather than during warm-up.
At Wolverhampton he is the course leader for the MSc in Dance Science and Director of Studies for a number of dance science and medicine doctoral candidates. He is a founding partner of the National Institute of Dance Medicine and Science, UK.
Prof. Wyon is Vice President of the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science and a past chair of the Research Committee. He has worked with numerous dancers and companies within the UK and Europe as an applied physiologist and strength and conditioning coach.
He has published over 80 peer-reviewed articles in dance medicine and science.0
This month I’m offering you some thoughts on turn-out, that often-debated subject in dance (especially ballet) that we all worry over / strive for / get obsessed with. I am especially indebted to long-time dance medicine colleague and researcher, Dr. James Garrick, MD, for his insightful comments on this article–and a special “thank you” also to Dr. Matthew Wyon, PhD – Research Centre for Sport Exercise and Performance @ University of Wolverhampton (UK) / Vice President of IADMS, for his input as well.
Enjoy–and Pass It On!
- Jan Dunn, MS, Dance Wellness Editor
OK, so let’s talk about turn-out…that elusive external rotation of the legs in the hip socket that dancers (especially ballet dancers) all strive for.
This post is going to be just a brief foray into that (often thorny) discussion. I’m not going to give you detailed anatomical information–there are various online resources (as well as books) especially written for dancers that can give you excellent, very specific anatomical detail (I’ve provided a partial resource list at the end).
What I do want is to share with you what I feel is important for every dancer / teacher (and parent) to know–gleaned from 40 years of teaching dance / 35 years in the dance medicine field / 32 years of teaching Anatomy, Kinesiology, and Injury Prevention to dancers in university dance departments.
Just the Basic Facts, Ma’am
Turn–out, as every dancer and teacher knows, involves rotating the legs outward from the hip socket. It enables us to be able to have full range of movement in dance, especially in sideways directions.
A Brief History of TurnoutTurn-out has historical beginnings going back to the French and Italian courts, evolving from a combination of different things–such as fencing / having to move sideways or back your way out of the king’s presence (so that you wouldn’t ever turn your back on him) / and (my particular favorite) – in court, turning one’s leg out to show the intricate designs on the heels of one’s shoes (France’s King Louis XIV – “The Sun King”, who founded the Royal Academy of Dance in 1661 – was actually one of the first to do this, to show off his elaborately decorated shoes to the court!).
For many years, the desired “perfect” turn-out meant (especially in ballet) that you had your feet completely turned out, straight side to side, in a 180 degree straight line. But unfortunately…
Very few people have a hip socket that is capable of rotating the femur (thigh bone) completely out to the side–so the extra slack instead gets transferred to the knee joint and foot (for a full detailed analysis of how this all works, see some of the resource articles mentioned at the end). This is called, as you probably know, “forcing” your turn-out–which means that you are using compensatory movements at the knee, foot (rotation / twisting), or lumbar spine (hyperextension, or “swayback”) to increase the apparent range of your turn-out.
The problem is–if dancers “force” their turn-out from the knees / ankles / lumbar spine, not-nice things can result, especially over time.
The structure of our hip joint is something we are born with—different factors determine how much / how little turn-out we have at the actual joint. For example:
- The shape of the bones
- How deeply set into the hip socket the femur (thigh bone) is
- How tight or loose the ligaments are
You will find some online sites that say you can possibly change your structural, inherited turn-out with early training (between ages 8-12), but this is still very much debated in the dance medicine and science field, and some of the people who are most knowledgeable about this, from a research perspective, do not think it is really possible.
What can be changed, however, is muscle imbalance–both strength and flexibility–around the hip joint, which can limit hip external rotation.
Interested? Read on!
The average person on the street usually has turn-out in the range of 40-45 degrees. We know that dancers usually average around 55 degrees, and occasionally slightly more–but very few people have that 90 degree turn-out in the hip socket that equals 180, when the heels are together in 1st position.
So when you see dancers standing at the barre in 180-degree first position, the chances are pretty good that they are “forcing” it, and taking the extra stress in the knees and feet.
Why Forcing Turnout Is Not Good
Over time, forcing turn-out puts undesirable force and pressure on joints / body parts that were not designed to do that–in particular, the feet / knees / lower back.
Be aware that there are some dance blogs that will tell you that’s it OK to do this (force at the knee / foot / lumbar spine), but those sites are ignoring the majority of the dance medicine research–which tells us that it is potentially detrimental and injurious to those body parts, over time. To quote well-known dance science researcher / author, Karen Clippinger, MS, in her textbook “Dance Anatomy and Kinesiology” (Human Kinetics, 2007):
“Failure to maintain turnout at the hip and excessive twisting from the knee down are believed to be a contributing factor to many injuries of the knee, shin, ankle, and foot”.
Other prominent researchers in this area will all tell you the same thing–and add injuries of the lower back to the list as well.
Interesting Things To Know About Turnout
Testing how much turn-out you actually have at the hip socket should ideally be done by a dance-familiar physical therapist or trainer (or physician).
There is one prone (lying on your stomach) “eyeball” test that I like to use, which can give you / your teacher a fair idea of where your range falls–and while physical therapists would use a goniometer (the instrument used to measure joint angles) to give an exact reading, it is possible to use this same test to give an approximate estimate of the dancer’s hip external rotation.
Muscular Imbalance Issues
I mentioned above how muscle imbalance can affect your turn-out (remember our article on Causes of Injuries? – the importance of muscle balance….?). If the muscles on one side of the joint are stronger (or less flexible) than the other, it will limit full range-of-motion for that leg, in all directions–including turn-out.
It’s important to note that the hip internal rotator muscles are weak and tight in many dancers (especially ballet)—and that this will limit the amount of external rotation that can happen. Dancers can sometimes increase their measured degree of turn-out by as much as 20 degrees when they do have this imbalance situation and are put on a program for stretching and strengthening the internal rotators.
And sometimes, you aren’t actually using all the natural turn-out that you do have, simply because the external rotator muscles aren’t strong enough to hold it. So that principle of equal muscle strength and stretch is really important here…and remember that weak muscles = tight muscles.
We usually have one leg that naturally has more turn-out than the other–but be aware that muscle imbalance can also make that happen as well (here is where you need a PT to do some analysis / muscle testing). Assuming that there actually is a structural difference between R and L (there is with me, as with many dancers), you should never try to force the lesser-turned out leg to match the greater one. That will only lead to more problems down the road. Determine which of your legs is less–for example, R is 55 degrees, and L is 50–and then always match your legs to that lesser angle, to avoid stress and potential long-term injury.
Turnout In Performance?
Research in dance medicine has shown that in performance, we don’t use the same amount of turn-out as we do in class–we use less. This begs the question: If this is indeed the case, why do we insist on emphasizing extreme turn-out in class, when it does not transfer to performance?
Tibial Torsion Issues
We are often told that in a well-aligned turn-out position (i.e not forcing), we should aim our “knees over toes” – specifically, the 2nd toe (or the joint space between the 2nd/3rd toe, which is the center of the forefoot).
This is indeed correct for a leg that has a straight tibia (shinbone) – but if you are among the dancers who have tibial torsion (where the tibia rotates inward slightly, with a slight curve to the outside of the leg), that knee / 2nd toe alignment doesn’t quite match up.
There is nothing wrong with tibial torsion–it is just a different structure than a straight-line tibia–but it is important to know about, as both a teacher and dancer. (In dance screenings that I’ve participated in, as many as 40-50% of students had this type of leg structure).
Dancers with this type of anatomy often need to line the knee up with the great toe, as opposed to the 2nd, or between 1st / 2nd toe joint–as opposed to 2nd / 3rd. Forcing the knee over to the 2nd toe can cause supination (rolling outwards) in the foot, and additional problems at the knee joint.
It’s best to work with a knowledgeable dance teacher / trainer / physical therapist, if you have this type of leg alignment so that you can find the optimum position for your own individual structure.
Last, But Not Least, Turn-In!
Having a lifetime in dance and preventing injury is what it’s all about, and in that light, listen up, folks:
Turning in is equally important for dancers–maybe more so than turning out. It’s the imbalance around the joint that leads to injury, remember? So if you’re only always turning out (as many ballet dancers do) and never doing exercises in parallel, or more importantly, turn-in, you aren’t really using some of the important muscles around both the hip and knee joints…and that pre-sets us up for injuries down the road.
Plus, an important thing to realize is that those turn-in movements are keeping our actual hip joint healthy, over long years of use. It is full range of motion in any joint that keeps it healthy, and works to avoid arthritis. By only doing turn-out movements, and never / rarely doing parallel / turn-in, we are ignoring a good segment of the joint capsule…and joints that don’t move fully develop arthritis way faster than joints that move all through their natural range of motion!
So if your dance environment doesn’t provide good opportunities to use turn-in, find outside activities like Pilates, that will help keep your body in good overall balanced strength and flexibility.
And Remember–Turn-Out Doesn’t Make or Break You As A Dancer
There are so many things that all come together to make a good dancer. It’s not only the body we are born with, but the training, the artistry, the personality, the musicality…the list could go on and on.
Dr. James Garrick, MD, one of the pioneers of dance medicine, long-time physician for the San Francisco Ballet (among other companies), and researcher on turn-out, always counsels dancers to not get hung up on how much turn-out they do or don’t have. He reminds them that some of the world’s greatest dancers do not have that magical 180 degrees, and that working within your own natural turn-out, and focusing instead on all the many things that make us beautiful dancers–is what’s really important.
So – dance on – and don’t force your turn-out!
Resources for further reading
There are many sites that discuss turn-out online–here are some that I like:
(Editors Note: this is an extremely detailed anatomical description)
“Dance Anatomy and Kinesiology” – Karen Clippinger –Human Kinetics, 2007
“Dance Medicine Head to Toe: A Dancer’s Guide to Health” – Judith R. Peterson, MD – Princeton Book Company, 2011
“Finding Balance” Fitness, Training, and Health for a Lifetime in Dance” (2nd Edition) – Gigi Berardi – Routledge, 2005
Editor Jan Dunn is a dance medicine specialist currently based on the island of Kauai, Hawaii, where she is owner of Pilates Plus Kauai Wellness Center and co-founder of Kauai Dance Medicine. She is also a Pilates rehabilitation specialist and Franklin Educator. A lifelong dancer / choreographer, she spent many years as university dance faculty, most recently as Adjunct Faculty, University of Colorado Dept. of Theatre and Dance. Her 28 year background in dance medicine includes 23 years with the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science (IADMS) – as Board member / President / Executive Director – founding Denver Dance Medicine Associates, and establishing two university Dance Wellness Programs
Jan served as organizer and Co-Chair, International Dance Medicine Conference, Taiwan 2004, and was founding chair of the National Dance Association’s (USA) Committee on Dance Science and Medicine, 1989-1993. She originated The Dance Medicine/Science Resource Guide; and was co-founder of the Journal of Dance Medicine & Science. She has taught dance medicine, Pilates, and Franklin workshops for medical / dance and academic institutions in the USA / Europe / Middle East / and Asia, authored numerous articles in the field, and presented at many national and international conferences.
Ms. Dunn writes about dance wellness for 4dancers and also brings in voices from the dance wellness/dance medicine field to share their expertise with readers.
Our guest author for this Dance Wellness posting is introducing a topic I have been wanting to bring to our readers–integrating somatic work into dance. Nancy Wozny has long been associated with somatics and dance, and is currently Editor-in-Chief of Arts + Culture Texas, in Houston. She is a Feldenkrais teacher and has taught at Baylor College of Medicine, Texas Women’s University, the Jung Center, and other institutions, and has been a guest lecturer at Rice University since 2005.
Somatics (the term is derived from the Greek word for the living body ‘ Soma”) many years ago was called “The Body Therapies”, and has long been a topic close to my heart. In the 1980’s / early 1990’s, I was Director of the Workshops for Professionals at The American Dance Festival, which included The Body Therapy Workshop–and in that capacity, I had the privilege to learn about and experience many forms of somatic work, and could see their benefits for dancers.
Nancy’s article will be the first in a series of articles I hope to have for you, our readers. This one is meant as a general introduction to the subject, and down the road we will have separate articles on some of the major somatic systems that are being used in dance. We have already talked about some of them – Pilates, for example, and Franklin Method, could be considered to be in this category.
I’m very pleased that Nancy has agreed to write this initial article on a very important topic —Enjoy !
Jan Dunn, MS, Dance Wellness Editor
by Nancy Wozny
“How do you allow the movement to be reversible at any moment?” asks Ami Shulman, while teaching in the contemporary program at the school of Jacob’s Pillow. Shulman, formerly of Compagnie Marie Chouinard and now a Feldenkrais teacher, is part of a new generation of movement educators shaping the dance field one plie at a time.
Somatics has come a long way since I was once introduced by accident as an expert in “somnambulism,” which technically is a sleeping disorder. We do, in fact, become a little sleepy when doing a somatic practice, but that’s not the point.
Much of what makes up the field of somatics was in motion way before the term was coined in 1976 by philosopher Thomas Hanna. Somatics derives from the Greek word for the living body, “soma,” and is the study of the body experienced from within. More simply put, it’s the skill of being able to sense one’s state of being. You would think we wouldn’t need help with that, but due to the habitual nature of our modern lives, we do.
Today, if you mention you attended a Feldenkrais Method or Alexander Technique session, many of your peers will have some idea of what you mean. The years of “Feldenwhat?” and “Alexander who?” are fading. The Alexander Technique even got a mention in Lena Dunham’s popular HBO hit show GIRLS. There’s also a much greater chance that you might run into somatic principles and concepts in your daily life.
Listening to Shulman pepper in instructions with words like “soften,” “feel,” “explore” and “sense,” reminds me of just how fluid the boundary can be between somatics and a dance class. There are a multitude of ways the work surfaces in a movement class. If your dance or yoga teacher starts with a body scan on the floor, that’s somatics. If you have worked with a foam roller with your physical therapist, yep, somatics. (Moshe Feldenkrais was first to use those handy cylinders. Back in the day, they were made from wood.) If you have tried any wobbly balance challenging gadget, yes, that too has its origins in the somatics goal of enlisting a non-habitual environment to elicit new movement. If anyone has asked you to stop and pay attention to what you are actually doing in that moment, boom, somatics.
The idea that we can better pay attention to our actions to control our movement can be traced back to the late 19th-century European Gymnastik movement, which used breath, movement, and touch to direct awareness. François Delsarte, Emile Jaques-Dalcroze and Bess Mensendieck encouraged a kind of inside-out expression that questioned the traditional nature of movement training. They seemed to be saying “the body is the person,” thus joining mind and body in a celebration of the human form.
The American contribution to somatics also deserves mention. Mabel Ellsworth Todd’s classic text, The Thinking Body, introduced dancers to the role of the mind in dance training back in 1937. Her student, Lulu Sweigard (who later taught at Juilliard), developed a process of activating the imagination to affect movement called “ideokinesis.” (from the Greek words for “idea” and “movement”) Irene Dowd, who won the American Dance Festival’s 2014 Balasaraswati/Joy Ann Dewey Beinecke Endowed Chair for Distinguished Teaching award, carried the work even further. Eric Franklin, with the Franklin Method, continues to explore and develop new ways to incorporate imagery and neuroplasticity concepts into dance training.
The American Dance Festival, in Durham, NC, under the leadership of Dean Martha Myers, introduced somatic work to thousands of dancers in the 1980’s and ‘90’s, with The Body Therapy Workshops and by having specific classes and faculty as part of the regular Festival schedule. Myers, while not a somatic practitioner herself, early on recognized the value of this work for dancers, and through her, ADF became one of the seminal places where somatics integrated into dance training. Her 6-part Dance Magazine series “The Body Therapies” (1983) is considered one of the best early sources for learning about the field.
Soon, it seemed people from all over the world, from a variety of disciplines, were exploring the same territory from different entry points. Because dance is a body-centered art from, it has always been ahead of the body/mind game.
In fact, so many of the American somatic pioneers harked from the dance world. Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen (Body-Mind Centering) was first to consider how our developmental structures are mirrored in our movement. The late Emily Conrad (Continuum) considered the primacy of the fluid system. Joan Skinner (Skinner Releasing Technique), Elaine Summers (Kinetic Awareness), Susan Klein (Klein Technique), and Judith Aston (Aston-Patterning) each added their own approaches as well.
And then we need to consider all the somatic smoothies going in dance, yoga, Pilates and fitness classes. The material is out there and people are using it, whether they know where its origins are from or not.
So what defines an activity as somatic? Here are some basic guidelines. Know that there are differences between each somatic discipline that may stress one of these principles more than another. While the modalities differ, the goal of living a more complete and embodied life remains central to the somatic domain.
Starting in a neutral place:
Somatics is a subtle process, if we don’t know where we are in the first place, it might be hard to tell that anything is different at the end. We need a baseline to know that change occurred. Most somatic classes begin with some kind of inventory of how a person is operating. It may be as simple as lying on the ground and sensing which parts are heavier.
Slower than slow:
If you have ever listened to someone playing a familiar song on the piano so slowly that you forget what song it is, you will know exactly why we move so slowly in a somatic class. When we move slowly, it gives us the time to pay attention, and our habits are less likely to commandeer the train of our body and take over. We get a fresh start and a better chance for improvement. Keep in mind, things aren’t always slow; that would be too habitual.
When Shulman asks her students to use their feet like a tongue, suddenly the quality in the room shifts as they consider the contact of their body against the floor. Many somatic practitioners have used visual images to evoke certain ideas, direction or quality of movement. The mind/body card has been since backed up with mirror neuron theory concerning the power of thinking yourself through a movement.
Whether its Emily Conrad’s open attention, or Alexander’s inhibition, or Feldenkrais’ many rests, there is always the pause that matters. Somewhere in the process, you will stop what you are doing. Somatics enlist a discontinuous process, and the pauses are built into the lessons. In Feldenkrais, the pause is when the work does its work.
Somatics practitioners talk a lot about habit. The first thing to know is that we need habits. Life would be a huge bore and a chore without them. We would spend all day trying to figure out how to tie our shoes. Habit is not the bad guy. But not having enough habits, or using the wrong habit to accomplish a certain action, can lead us into trouble.
If you find yourself doing the same thing week after week, it’s not somatics. We like to change it up on planet soma, so there is very little repetition. Most often you are doing movements that you have never done before, which will feel awkward and sometimes, even annoying. Dancers don’t like to be beginners, but they should give it a try more often. When you do a movement that is new to you, it’s hard to bring old habits to the floor, because you don’t have any.
Exploration rather than accomplishment:
This is a tough one for dancers, who are used to getting somewhere, and generally speaking, the faster the better. The “there” of somatics is not one place, but many places. Lessons are designed for you to explore through. You navigate a constrained playground set up by the lesson or practitioner.
Feel rather than see:
When I was a young dancer, moving away from the mirror meant I basically disappeared. I had no idea where I was in space without my BFF, the mirror. I was constantly getting lost on stage because of this over reliance on my reflection. In a somatic experience, the mirror should and will be covered. You will be sensing yourself from the inside. This is a skill, and a rather handy one at that. As mirrors do not follow us around in our lives, I suggest you learn it well. (Editors’ note: Do you remember from the Sally Radell articles on mirrors? – I gave you Master Limon Teacher Betty Jones’ favorite quote: “mirrors put you outside of your body, not in it”!)
How does somatics fit in with a dancer’s overall training regime?
In my day, some dancers went off the deep end of the somatic pool and forgot that they needed daily training to keep up their technique. This is the contradiction we need to embrace in any kind of elite training. It takes hard work to make a dancer, with tons of repetition and time in the classroom. Somatics doesn’t replace training, it augments it, preventing the strict training regimes necessary in dance from becoming injurious. It helps spread the neurological load, so we move with more of ourselves in terms of effort. We don’t build strength in a somatics activity, we gain easier access to our strength. Just like a diet, we need and crave variety, and a chance to reboot our system so that we are operating in the most optimal way. That’s what somatics offers.
Do I have to go to a dedicated somatics class?
These days, a somatic experience can be slipped into just about any kind of movement class. There are ballet teachers who have been known to bring in a little somatics between tendus and grande battements. As I said earlier, the material is out there and being used in all kinds of innovative ways. You would be hard pressed to find a physical therapist not using some somatic principles in their work. A dedicated class is terrific for injury prevention and deep learning, but know there are many ways to access this wealth of knowledge.
What will seem downright weird to newbies?
Honestly, just about everything. You will think you are wasting your time on the ground sensing yourself when you could be stretching. Your teacher may not be a dancer or even look remotely like a dancer. I remember thinking during one of my early Feldenkrais classes that the movement was ugly. You will wonder how these simple movements will help you. You might doubt everything. All of this or some of this will probably happen. Carry on anyway. It will be worth it in the long run.
So why add this to your already jammed back training regime?
A few reasons: you will have a longer career, you will gain skills that will stay with you way beyond your dance career, and finally, you will simply be more graceful to watch, whether you are fetching water or doing a 32 fouettes.
Nancy Wozny picked up the somatics cause when she was 22 and never put it down. She has taught Feldenkrais classes to a broad range of individuals and has taught at Baylor College of Medicine, Texas Women’s University, Rice University, the Jung Center and other institutions. Her stories on dance and somatics can be found in Dance Magazine, Dance Teacher and Pointe. Currently, she is editor in chief of Arts + Culture Texas, based in Houston, TX.2
I am delighted to introduce you to Moira McCormack, the chief Physiotherapist (that’s the UK word for Physical Therapist) for the Royal Ballet Company in London, England. Moira is a former dancer who became a PT, and has been working with dancers for over 20 years.
Several months ago we had an article on stretching, and I promised you a follow-up; a piece specifically on hypermobility — so here it is! We are indebted to Moira for writing this for 4dancers, as she is one the leading experts in this area of dance medicine.
- Jan Dunn, Dance Wellness Editor
Everyone knows that dancers need to be flexible. You can work hard to achieve flexibility but while this is not easy or comfortable it is achievable to a certain extent. However, there are those dancers who do not have to work for flexibility – they can already do the splits every which way, often have swayback knees, a very flexible spine and ‘amazing’ feet. These dancers have an inherited joint flexibility. This means the connective tissue, at cellular level, which binds the body together – joint capsule, fascia, ligaments, tendon, and skin – is not as tightly or evenly knit together compared to other bodies.
Just before you wish you were one of those, you need to know the drawbacks. If you have inherited a global hypermobility (hyper=more than normal) there may be some far reaching consequences.
These dancers also have flexibility where they do not need it – the joints of the fingers which bend backwards to an alarming degree, the shoulders that are extremely flexible and the swayback elbows which look distorted. Also the skin is over stretchy, especially at the elbows and knees and over the back of the hand.
Those dancers find it hard to build strength, control and stability. If joint capsule and ligament allow more excursion (movement), this can lead to early wear and tear or even injury if dislocation takes place.
Good stability around joints is a result of joint capsule and ligament restriction and deep muscle activation during dynamic movement. All dancers need this, but the hypermobile dancer needs it even more, to counteract the lack in ligamentous restriction and protection.
There is a whole range in flexibility of the human body – from a global tightness which we do not find in dance to a global hypermobility which we do see, but it is not necessarily recognised as a condition to be handled with care.
The hypermobile dancer can make beautiful shapes but the coordination required to achieve a speedy petit allegro can be elusive. Balance and correct alignment can also be compromised in the dancer who is struggling with joints that are more mobile than stable. Overuse injuries and trauma can occur and it is the accumulation of injuries that progress the unfortunate dancer into what we call the Hypermobility Syndrome.
The hypermobile dancer who understands the particular requirements of her / his body will find training more logical and encouraging.
As with all dancers, stability and control starts with the pelvis and spine. The deep abdominal muscles and deep spinal muscles targeted in Pilates exercises are isolated and activated (editor note: In Pilates this is called “core control”, and in dance as often referred to as “center”).
The hip joint needs a balance of muscle around the ball and socket joint to stabilize and protect it. Placement and control should not be compromised by height of legs and ballistic (quick bouncy) movements.
The shoulders also require stabilizing, with exercises targeting the rotator cuff muscles to avoid subluxation (where the joint slips out of place just slightly) or dislocation (where it comes completely out of the socket) – especially in young male dancers who are starting lifting work.
The hyperextended knee needs to gain control throughout range, not just in the locked back position, to allow a global control of posture.
The foot requires correct alignment in order to cope with all dance techniques and needs specific foot exercises to develop the strength required for jumping, landing and pointe work. The very flexible foot, although attractive, is harder to control.
The hypermobile dancer finds it hard to gain and maintain strength – the ability to generate force within contractile muscle tissue. For this, high resistance exercises are necessary in the gym using equipment. This ‘cross training’ really is necessary for this particular body type.
This is the term used to describe the body’s position sense…i.e, knowing where you are in space. Good proprioception of the pelvis develops with core stability exercises, which educate correct spinal position. Good proprioception of the knee is developed with balance and resistance exercises and attention to perfect alignment in class. Take care not to rely on mirrors in studios. Instead try to develop better sense of position by improving alignment through careful repetition. Dancers describe this as ‘getting on your leg’.
Balance mechanisms are challenged in the more flexible dancer. Balance and proprioception are a result of accurate sensory information from joints and muscles via the nervous system. There is some evidence that these mechanisms are slower in the hypermobile body, which has to work harder than others to improve. Balance exercises in conditioning classes, the use of a wobble board and trying simple movements with the eyes closed can improve this.
Good coordination is the integration of all the above. The hypermobile dancer may struggle with speed and complex technique but repetition and determination produce rewards. (Slower work is their forte which can make the most of their exceptional lines.)
Posture and Alignment
The characteristic hypermobile posture – the rounded shoulders on the tucked under pelvis resting over the locked, swayback knees – is not to be recommended. So much time spent locking into the front of the hips and the back of the knees is weakening. Developing good postural habits – taking posture from class outside the studio with you (without the turn out) – can help with stability and control.
Fatigue can occur earlier in the hypermobile dancer simply because dancing can be more challenging for this type of body. Some aerobic exercise should be part of every dancer’s regime – swimming, brisk walking or using gym equipment.
The hypermobile dancer enjoys stretching because it is easy and feels good. However, stretching for long periods at the end of range can simply encourage instability. Sitting in box splits for too long is not good for hip joints and is unnecessary for already flexible muscles. We all prefer to practise what we are good at, while we should work at what does not come naturally. Instead, concentrate on stability exercises.
Frustratingly, sprains and strains can take longer to recover as hypermobile tissues heal more slowly. You may notice that your skin bruises and scars easily. That is because it is thinner and more delicate than normal. Injuries do heal however, but need patience and following all the same rules.
To conclude, the hypermobile body has a number of challenges but also some valuable advantages. Line and flexibility can be truly displayed once strength, stability and coordination have been acquired. In dance, different body types will require a different emphasis in training. Understanding the hypermobile body means you can train with realistic aims.
BIO: Moira McCormack MSc is Head of Physiotherapy at The Royal Ballet Company in London, UK.
After a professional dance career in classical ballet she retrained as a Physical Therapist and has worked with dancers for the last 20 years. She teaches anatomy, dance technique and injury prevention internationally, with a main interest in the management of the hypermobile dancer.0