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."

Dance Teachers Trending
Barbara Bashaw in Thompson Hall of Columbia Teachers College. Photo by Kyle Froman

Barbara Bashaw has always been a pioneer. Since kicking off her career in education by building a dance program from the ground up at an elementary school in Brooklyn, she's gone on to become an inspiring force in teacher training. Now, as director of the new doctoral program in dance education at Columbia University's renowned Teachers College and as executive director of the even newer Arnhold Institute for Dance Education Research, Policy & Leadership, she's in a position to effect change nationwide.

"The study of dance education is a young field," Bashaw says. "Music and visual arts are far ahead of us, in terms of the research that has been done, as well as the foothold they have in education. Anywhere education is being discussed, we want to put dance on the table—and that means developing researchers and championing research that will push public policy." In a climate where arts education feels both more endangered and more necessary than ever, Bashaw is ready to blaze a trail.

Keep reading...
Instagram
Karen Hildebrand (center) with 2019 DT Awardee Marisa Hamamoto and members of Infinite Flow. Photo by Joe Toreno

Every year in our summer issue, we honor four dance educators for their outstanding contributions to the field. Recipients have included studio owners, professors, program directors, K–12 teachers and more, whose specialties run the gamut of dance genres.

We need your help to identify this year's best in the profession. Do you have a colleague or mentor who deserves to be recognized as a leader and role model?

Send your nomination by March 1, 2020. You can e-mail us at danceteachereditors@dancemedia.com with the following details:

Keep reading...
Sponsored by Akada Software
Photo by Jenny Studios, courtesy of Utah Dance Artists

Running a dance school used to involve a seemingly endless stream of paperwork. But thanks to the advent of software tailored specifically for dance studios' needs, those hours formerly spent pushing papers can now be put to better use.

"Nobody opens a dance studio because they want to do administrative work," says Brett Stuckey, who leads Akada Software's support team. "It's our job to get you out of the office and back into your classroom."

We talked to Stuckey about how a studio software program can streamline operations, so you can put your energy toward your students.

Keep reading...

To celebrate Valentine's Day in the most dance-centric way possible, we sat down with five powerhouse dance-teaching couples to talk about their love stories. What do they admire about each other? What are their couple goals and their teaching philosophies, and how do they make their relationships work, especially when they work together? Get ready to swoon!

Keep reading...
For Parents
Photo by Paul B. Goode, courtesy of BAE

Watching through the studio windows—or even from the sidelines in a Mommy and Me class—can surely make parents wonder what exactly our little tykes are getting out of weekly ballet lessons. After all, they're repeating the same things class after class. Are they bored? Are they progressing? Why are they doing that again?

Keep reading...
Site Network
Photo by Nina Lokmadzhieva, courtesy of Varna IBC

The oldest ballet competition in the world doesn't have the funds for the show to go on: The 29th edition of the Varna International Ballet Competition, scheduled for July 12–30, 2020, has been postponed indefinitely.

Keep reading...
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: I have a 15-year-old student who has problems keeping her heel fully on the ground during a demi-plié. How can I help her?

Keep reading...
Site Network
The eight 2020 Prix de Lausanne prize winners. Photo by Rodrigo Buas, courtesy of PdL

The 2020 Prix de Lausanne has officially come to a close after a thrilling week of classes, coaching sessions, competition performances and networking forums. The annual competition, which was live streamed around the world and watched over 1.1 million times, gave 77 dancers an opportunity to perform and take class in front of an international panel of judges. In addition to a classical variation, candidates had to master a contemporary solo by Mauro Bigonzetti, Jean-Christophe Maillot, Cathy Marston, Wayne McGregor, Heinz Spoerli or Richard Wherlock.

Keep reading...
Dance News
Photo by Wendy Turner, courtesy of Boulder Jazz Dance Workshop

This summer, as for the past 42 years, students will flock to Colorado to immerse themselves in jazz dance training and performance. High school and college students, professional artists and teaching artists alike will find opportunities for growth and connection.

The Boulder Jazz Dance Workshop honors tradition while also embracing innovation and change within the jazz dance genre and dance field in general. Before executive/artistic director Lara Branen began the Workshop, she and her co-founder Michael Geiger had studied at separate times with San Francisco jazz teachers Ann Garvin, Linda Heine and Ed Mock. Later Lynn Simonson became their primary inspiration. Each year Branen invites new guest artists to join long-term faculty who devotedly return year after year, including: Wade Madsen (modern dance), Nancy Cranbourne (jazz), Christy McNeil Chand (jazz) and Meghan Lawitz (contemporary). This summer will include lyrical, musical theater rep and a heels class, in addition to the program's regular offerings.

Keep reading...
Site Network
Getty Images

Nope, there's still no Oscar for Best Choreography—but we now get to reveal the winner of our own Dance Spirit award for Best Movie Choreography of 2019! Though we're big fans of all seven of the nominated choreographers, and think each one deserves to be acknowledged for their contributions to some of our favorite films this year, there can only be one winner. And based on your votes, that is...

Keep reading...
Site Network
Photo courtesy of Meier

Pointe shoes are high-maintenance. New pairs are not only expensive, but time consuming. So it's no surprise that many dancers try to extend the lifespan of each shoe. But did you know that dancing on dead shoes can increase your risk for a variety of injuries?

Keep reading...
Dance Teacher Tips
Jill Wolins (center, in pink). Photo courtesy of Wolins

"The best judges come from the competition circuit," says Jill Wolins, who trains adjudicators for the Star Dance Alliance and Starpower National Talent Competition. "If you competed as a kid, you have proper respect for how hard these dancers work. It's not easy to do what they're doing."

Wolins began judging competition events in 2001 in between dancing as a Rockette and performing on Broadway/national tours of The Producers, The Will Rogers Follies, Sweet Charity and Grease. And, yes, she came up on the circuit herself, before earning a BFA from the State University of New York at Buffalo.

Keep reading...

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox