Protect yourself in acro class.
Early in her teaching career, Joanne Chapman struggled with regular neck pain and couldn’t figure out what was causing it. “I went to the chiropractor and he said, ‘You must be lifting something really heavy, because your second and third vertebrae are literally compressed together,’” says Chapman, who owns Joanne Chapman School of Dance in Brampton, Ontario. “And then I realized—it’s from spotting my acrobats.”
As an acrobatics teacher, your top priority is keeping your students safe. But caring for students’ bodies can come at a cost if you’re not taking equal precautions to protect your own. The heavy and repetitive action of spotting is taxing and could eventually cause injury.
Chiropractic sports practitioner Dr. Corey Lichtman, who works with acro-trained dancers and spotters in California, says most spotters complain about their neck, lower back and shoulders—all areas that are vulnerable to any form of heavy lifting. “Teachers have a tough job,” he says. “They risk their own bodies to ensure that the student is safe.”
Supporting Students’ Weight
In the same way students should warm up for class, it’s important to prepare your shoulders, arms, abdominals and legs before spotting. This helps you adopt a solid stance and work from your core, instead of your limbs. Ashlie Wells, artistic director of the Dothan School of Dance in Dothan, Alabama, stands in a wide parallel plié while assisting stationary stunts like back walkovers, so she can take the student’s weight in her legs. This also helps her move quickly in any direction a student might fall. Chapman, however, prefers to kneel on one knee, which helps her own alignment while taking the student’s weight into her arms rather than her back or neck.
Either way, try to stay as close to the student as possible, spotting from her working side. Though it positions you closer to flying limbs, staying close allows you to brace your arms near your body, where you can provide the most support with the least amount of effort. It also helps you maintain good posture, since reaching far for a student carries you off of your center of gravity.
During more advanced exercises, you may benefit from having a second spotter stand directly across from you. Team spotters can either mirror each other’s arm movements or assign areas of the student’s body to protect. For instance, in a walkover, one spotter might be in charge of the student’s hips while the other assists the kickoff. “If something happens mid-trick or your arm gives out, a second spotter can make up for it,” says Wells. She prefers to have three spotters in the studio at a time, so they can rotate and rest between students.
During flying exercises, Chapman twists up a large beach towel lengthwise and loops it around the student’s waist, holding the ends. This ensures that the student won’t pull away from her, so she won’t have to reach out suddenly and support weight from a vulnerable position. It also distributes the student’s weight more evenly between her arms, reducing the strain on her own body. Other props, such as mini-trampolines and wedge mats, use elevation and gravity to train students without relying solely on your strength. DT
Ashley Rivers is a dancer and writer in Boston.
Chiropractic sports practitioner Dr. Corey Lichtman says teachers should cross-train to keep muscles in balance, since spotting often overworks one side of the body and is hard on the joints. “It just comes down to taking care of your own body, so that you can take care of others,” he says. Perform these exercises three to four times a week.
(10 reps with each leg, 2–3 sets)
Tie a resistance band circling two inches above your knees. Squat to 45 degrees in parallel. Keeping the knees bent, step a few inches directly right with your right leg. Follow slowly with your left, returning to the original position.
(15–20 reps, 2–3 sets)
Squeeze a soccer ball or dodgeball between your thighs and perform basic squats so the knees make a 90-degree angle. This activates your adductor muscles and stabilizes the patella.
External Rotator Stabilizer:
(15–20 reps, 2–3 sets)
Tie one end of a resistance band to a barre. Standing with the barre at your right, hold the band in your left hand, hugging the elbow to your side at a 90-degree angle and your forearm in front of you, parallel to the barre. With the elbow as an axis, rotate your lower arm directly to the side before returning to your starting position.
(15–20 reps, 2–3 sets)
Hold both ends of a resistance band with arms overhead. Bend arms and pull down until your elbows are bent at 90 degrees. Slowly return to starting position.
Top photo courtesy of Ashlie Wells; exercise photos by Amy Kelkenberg, modeled by Maya Barad