Dancer Health

The Flexion Connection: Coaching Dancers With Poor Spinal Flexion

Model Lizzie Villareal. Photos by Emily Giacalone

As a young competition dancer, Lauren Saglimbene struggled with spinal flexion, or the curving of the spine that contracts the front of the body and elongates the back. “My modern teachers were constantly correcting me because they thought I didn't understand what a contraction was supposed to look like," she says. “It took a long time for them to figure out my spine just didn't move that way."


Competition judges may ooh and ahh at a ridiculous back-bend, and ballet teachers fawn over the girl whose arabesque leg stretches far beyond 90 degrees. But that exquisite arch, known as the back's extension, is only half of the equation. Flexion is equally important, and for some dancers, the motion poses a little-understood challenge that can leave teachers at a loss for how to help. Without mastering flexion as well as extension, students may be setting themselves up for failure.

A certified strength and conditioning coach, Saglimbene notes that all rotation or spiraling of the spine is half extension and half flexion, so even a small issue with flexion can limit the spine's overall ability to move. For example, ballet dancers with poor spinal flexion can have difficulty achieving full épaulement and keeping their shoulders square in arabesque. Additionally, she warns that those with spinal imbalances will often experience back and neck injuries down the road—from arthritis (which she suffers from) to herniated discs to sciatica.

The good news is there are steps you can take to prevent this outcome. For younger dancers or those whose problem is only minor, she suggests exercises to lengthen hip flexors and psoas into students' pre-class warm-up. (For extreme cases, where dancers can barely contract their spines at all, Saglimbene suggests referring students to a physical therapist, because correcting a lifelong imbalance is no easy feat.) “Often, dancers are sitting at a desk for the majority of the day, so the hip flexors and the psoas muscles start to get short. This creates a natural arch in the lower and middle back—the opposite of a contraction," she says. “Core strength is a great place to start, but until those muscles are released and reset, it's hard to improve on a contraction. You'll be working against the resistance of very strong muscles."

Saglimbene suggests three exercises to increase flexion—two stretches to help create movement in the spine and pelvis, and one exercise to teach dancers to use that extra movement correctly. They are rooted in sports science, designed to strengthen and stabilize muscles while avoiding overstretching.

Supine hip flexor release

1. Lie on your back with a yoga bolster supporting your head and extending to just below your shoulder blades.

2. Let your legs relax at hip width. If legs flare drastically to the sides, tie a belt or towel around the knees.

3. Relax, letting the spine drop toward the floor. On students with limited flexion, the rib cage will be extended. Over time, this section of the body should relax.

* The longer you can stay in this position, the better. Start with a minute, breathing deeply and focusing on letting go of tension in the pelvis. Saglimbene recommends imagining your body is an ice cube melting in the sun.


4. Try the “bottoms up" approach. Put the bolster beneath your hips (not under the vertebrae), so they're lifted in a bridge, and let the lower back hang down. Arms and legs should be relaxed. Take deep breaths for at least a minute.

Rabbit pose

1. Kneel on a yoga mat with your hips on your heels.

2. Fold forward so the top of your head is on the mat, and reach back to grab your heels with your thumbs on the outside. The head should bear only a little weight.

3. Lift the hips. Keep the top of your head on the ground, and don't look side to side. Your spine should make a C curve.

4. Exhale while pulling your heels and continuing to lift the hips. You should feel every vertebra stretching apart. The ultimate goal is to get your forehead to touch your knees.

Rolling with elbow on knee

1. Lying on your back, extend your left arm above your head as you bring the right elbow to touch left knee. The spine will naturally form a gentle curve.

2. Maintaining the connection of elbow to knee, turn your head to the left and roll slowly onto your left side. Try not to let your extended leg lift off the floor.

3. Then, look to the right to initiate the roll back onto your back. Repeat 6 to 12 times, then switch sides.

* This exercise promotes stability and coordination between the nervous system and muscles. You should feel it on the front side of the abdomen, not in the neck.





Show Comments ()
Dance Teachers Trending
Jenaé Elizabeth, founder of Dance Dynamix, with students. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth

No doubt turning the dream of owning a dance company into a fully operational business is a tough feat. From finding studio space, marketing, securing funding and more, it can all be very daunting. The challenge of taking a dance-related business to new heights can be even greater if you are a person of color. However, it's not impossible. According to the 2012 census, there are 27.6 million businesses in the United States, and only 2.6 million are black-owned. In honor of Black History Month, DT spoke with several black-owned dance studios and companies and asked them to reflect on the significance race has had on their efforts to run the dance company of their dreams.

Keep reading... Show less

Alexandra Costumes' bold apparel has been making its way onto stages across the nation and people are noticing. Why do coaches love these costumes so much? With years of experience in the dance industry, the minds behind Alexandra Costumes know what works for dancers—comfort, performance and stage-worthy style.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Ski ballet champion Richard Chompsky

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago back in the 1980s, ski ballet was a sport. At the Olympics. Yes, it's hard to fathom, but there was, in fact, an event, (technically a demonstration sport) at the 1988 Calgary Games and the 1992 Albertville Games, that entailed performing to music on a ski slop, with full skis and poles. One athlete even sported gold lamé sleeves on his ski suit. Although it was called "ski ballet," it's more like an eclectic celebration of ice skating meets gymnastics, with a ski base, and a dash of baton twirling.

The only question to be asked: Why is this still not a thing? Do yourself a favor, stop everything and watch these amazing highlights from this forgotten, yet wildly fantastic hybrid sport.

P.S. You're welcome.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Photo by Joe Toreno

Every year, DT honors four outstanding dance educators. Past recipients of the Dance Teacher Awards have included studio owners, professors, program directors and more, whose specialties run the gamut of dance genres. We need your help to find this year's best in the profession. Do you know a teacher who deserves to be recognized as a leader and role model? (Of COURSE you do! Who first opened your eyes to dance? Who's mentored you in your own path to becoming a dance teacher? Who saw you hiding in the back row and sought you out after class to take an interest in your dance studies? Who introduced you to modern dance? Who helped you nail fouetté turns?) Nominate him or her for a 2018 Dance Teacher Award!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance News
Misty Copeland. Photo by Jayme Thornton

Is anybody else confused about why dance isn't an Olympic sport, yet??? I mean, honestly. Dancers train like Olympians every day! They can stun you with their technical prowess, wow you with their uncanny athletic ability AND make you cry all at the same time. Dancers are freaking magicians, and it's time we let them into the Olympics!

Here's who we'd want to see on Team USA if dance were a part of the Olympics. This team is STACKED! Check it out!

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo courtesy of NYCDA

Competition and convention season can seem never-ending, but with access to the world's most popular teachers, the experience is invaluable and gives students the opportunity to learn from the best in the business.

Seth Robinson, who teaches contemporary and improv with STREETZ and REVEL dance conventions, has taught and judged thousands of dancers across the nation. Here, Robinson offers three tips to better prepare your students for dance's ever-popular, jam-packed events.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Thinkstock
I'm a senior at a Performing Arts high school. I have been taking ballet for 2 years and started taking tumbling classes with a local gymnastics instructor. One of my jazz teachers advised me to stop as she said it would create bad habits. I enjoy the classes and think my dancing has improved. Thoughts?
Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox

Win It!

Sponsored