Pilates is an ideal conditioning method for dancers, because it tones and lengthens muscles, strengthens the core and builds alignment. And providing access to such beneficial fitness doesn’t have to involve the added expense of devoting an entire class to the method and hiring a certified instructor or becoming certified yourself. You can get started by integrating a few simple Pilates-based movements into your warm-up or cool-down. Three experts share the most effective exercises to incorporate into your technique class. Note: Though you don’t need certification to introduce these basic movements, you should have a sound knowledge of core conditioning. Take a mat class to brush up on the fundamentals, and be sure to go over these movements slowly for students who are unfamiliar with the fitness method.
THE ROLL-DOWN (pictured)
According to Gina Danene Thompson, artistic director of (PURe) Dance Ensemble, the roll-down exercise is three times more beneficial than a traditional sit-up. She recommends conducting a few repetitions during warm-up and cool-down to help students increase their center strength and improve balance.
1. Begin seated with the knees bent and feet flat on the floor, hip-distance apart. Keep the back straight and shoulders aligned with hips. Extend the arms outward, parallel to the floor.
2. Inhale, lifting the base of the spine upward. When exhaling, tuck the pelvis under, pulling the navel inward so that the lower back creates a curve.
3. Using the center, begin to roll the spine down, one vertebra at a time until lying flat. Pay attention to pelvic-navel-spine alignment. Let the arms float overhead.
4. Slowly roll up into a C curve, stacking the spine back together. Tuck the chin to keep the head in line with the spine and the shoulders dropped to lengthen the neck. Reach the arms forward, and relax in starting position.
Make sure feet remain on the floor at all times during this exercise to prevent forcing the workload onto the lower back.
James Harren of Pilates Houston and Houston Ballet uses the frog movement to help students understand the effect turnout has on pelvic alignment, and to stretch the glutes, abdominals and inner thighs. This move is traditionally done on the reformer, but it can be conducted on the floor with a Thera-Band.
1. Lie flat on your back and bend the knees in toward the chest. Keep the heels together and the toes a few spaces apart. The base of the spine should be in contact with the floor.
2. Place the exercise band across the balls of the feet; grip it near the knees. Keep the head down (this will mimic the proper spinal placement needed for executing pliés correctly) and use the abs to curl the upper body off the floor. The chest and shoulders should remain wide. Release tension on the band if tugging is felt. Do not tuck the pelvis or let the tailbone roll up.
3. Inhale; extend the legs toward the ceiling. Flex the feet, like a plié in first position. Starting at 90 degrees (i.e., perpendicular to the floor), progressively bend the legs down into a diamond shape. Do not drop the knees, or push the stretching limit. Go as far as possible without losing pelvic position or changing turnout.
4. Exhale; return to starting position. Do six to eight extensions.
To troubleshoot keeping the heels together, try holding a pad in place between the heels while doing the exercise. When getting familiar with this movement, it’s okay to omit lifting the head or involving the neck and shoulders, especially if straining is felt.
Franklin Method teacher Jan Dunn of Denver Dance Medicine advises using the extension-based swimming exercise to properly work the back muscles.
1. Lie on your stomach with the arms extended above the head and legs straight out. Keep the abdominals engaged and the low back comfortable at all times. Place a pillow under the stomach for extra lower back support.
2. First, practice raising the arms and upper torso, initially with both arms side by side, then the more advanced swimming motion, where arms alternate extending higher toward the ceiling
with each movement. Avoid hyperextending the cervical spine. Keep the neck and spine long. Do not hold the shoulders down; this will lock the surrounding joint muscles and result in a lesser range of motion. Gaze will be directly at the floor, or slightly out in front. Repeat five times.
3. Next, practice just raising the legs off the floor, initially side by side, then ease into the advanced swimming motion of one leg at a time. Extend one leg higher toward the ceiling than the other with each alternating movement. Repeat five times.
4. Put the arm and leg movements together, and slowly transition into the alternating swimming motion. Repeat five times.
To help grasp the basic shoulder-girdle anatomy used in this exercise, visualize the shoulder blades sliding down and out the side, widening the upper back as the arms are raised.
A guild-certified Feldenkrais teacher, Nancy Wozny reports on arts and health from Houston, TX. She is a 2010 scholar in residence at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.
Photo: Fitness model Jamie Dowd is a dancer, certified Pilates instructor and personal trainer. She teaches Pilates at Dance New Amsterdam in New York City.