Dancer Health

Age-Appropriate Anatomy: When and How to Bring Technical Concepts Into Dance Class

Karen Clippinger uses a skeleton to illustrate a turnout exercise for middle-school students.

Anatomy and kinesiology are usually subjects reserved for university-level courses, but even if your kids aren't quite ready for a lecture about the relation between the trochanter and the anterior superior iliac spine, there are simple, practical lessons that can help them visualize the inner workings of their bodies and serve as a great introduction to movement concepts.

Helping students of any age experience anatomy and kinesiology concepts directly through exercises and moves they might use every day makes the information both immediately relevant and practical. They can begin to build an accurate vocabulary to describe human movement.


“You can start quite young talking about these ideas, if you give them something where they can see immediate improvement, see a difference in the mirror," says Karen Clippinger, professor at California State University, Long Beach. “That way they can apply a concept right after it's introduced, when the kinesthetic awareness is there."

Any approach to anatomy is going to look different for different developmental stages, says Patricia Reedy, director of Teaching & Learning at Luna Dance Institute. Even so, the 3-year-olds in Luna's programs are given core distal work, and instructors choose to use correct words with them right from the start. “Little kids might only understand gross parts of the body, so with a 3-year-old, we'll talk about hands, legs, arms, feet," she says. “But older kids love language, so we'll talk about the clavicle, the sternum. As they get to third or fourth grade and start to learn about body systems in school like the circulatory system and its organs, you can ask more questions—how does your muscle move and where is it attached? What muscles are moving as you bend your arm or move your leg?"

Skeleton Dance (Pre-K to Second Grade)

Reedy notes that there are many variations of what is known as a “skeleton dance," but regardless of which one you might use, it's a great opportunity to talk about how the joints work.

“You might make the dancers move with articulation through each of the joints of the body as you call them out," she says. “With the popularity of hip hop these days, we find kids enjoy the ideas of pop-locking, so it's a natural movement for them to play with. You might talk about getting circles going with one hand and wrist while you move your head in another circle. It all helps them start to think about the joints."

Pelvic Alignment (Third Grade +)

A great way to help students strengthen their core is to work on pelvic alignment through abdominal strengthening exercises. Clippinger, who is the author of Dance Anatomy and Kinesiology, advises having students stand sideways to a mirror and put their thumbs on the lower rib cage and little fingers on the hipbones, and they will feel the distance between their fingers increasing and then decreasing again as they tilt their pelvis forward and then tuck it back and then find vertical. Once they've experienced that feeling, they can take their hands away from the bones and try to maintain the distance accompanying the vertical pelvis, and try keeping that alignment all the way through an exercise, such as pliés or tendus, or a center floor exercise.

Clippinger also suggests pairing off dancers so they can do pliés pressed back-to-back with each other, keeping the pelvis and torso vertical as they descend, so they can feel that the back comes away from the other person if they start leaning forward. “With many young dancers, they're not used to using their abdominals for stabilization, so it can really help them start to figure out how to do that," she says.

Turnout (Middle School +)

The following exercise helps dancers activate the deep rotator muscles of the hip to maximize their turnout, rather than just gripping with the gluteus maximus.

“I have students start in a standing position with their fingertips at the base of the buttocks," Clippinger says. “I tell them to rock back on their heels and turn out, emphasizing that they should feel those rotators working at the base of the buttocks, rather than just clenching the whole gluteus. You want them to start feeling the sensation of the leg rotating in the hip socket as a separate thing from the pelvis rotating.

Dancers should repeat the movement—parallel, rock back, turn out, parallel—several times so they can feel the deep rotator muscles working. Then vary the exercise to include movement from parallel to turned out to tendu side.

“You can also have them try a combination clenching all those big muscles, and they'll find that when they try to move, they have to let everything go and lose their turnout, as opposed to trying to use the smaller deeper muscles, where they can both keep their turnout and continue to move at the same time," she says.

Contact Work (Teens)

Teenagers are often interested in partnering work, Reedy notes. She suggests exercises that let them play with weight and contact. “Have them think about how you make a strong base for a partner," she says. “What do you have to do? You can't just tense up; you have to yield against your partner. You can ask them to press against the wall or the floor, or 'rappel' off each other, so they can start to think about counterbalance."

Explorations like this can lead into discussions of bone structure and muscle anatomy, often in the context of safety. It also helps youngsters get a sense of the edges of their bodies. “I like doing work with weight, because kids can understand that it's about bringing your full weight, the energy of your muscles and bones to the skin and letting it radiate from the edge of the body out," she says.

“Knowing about anatomy and kinesiology can affect the way you move so powerfully," Reedy says. “We can't see inside our bodies, but we can experience it kinesthetically, play with it and begin to understand what's going on. Students can go deeper with dance when they know what their body is doing and how."

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