Dance Teacher Tips

3 Tips to Help Young Dancers Understand (Healthy) Spinal Alignment

Class at Canada's National Ballet School. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann, courtesy of Canada's NBS

With little round tummies, shoulders up to their ears and limbs akimbo, young dancers are adorable twirling around in their first tutus and ballet slippers.

When they graduate from pre-ballet, though, proper alignment will become a top priority. Learning correct placement of the spine early gives children a solid foundation for their future training. Bad habits like slumped shoulders, buckled bottoms and arched backs with protruding tummies can inhibit technical development or lead to injury. Below, experts share three key strategies to help young dancers understand placement.


Use Imagery

Young dancers aren't yet able to understand how the bones, joints and muscles work to engage proper alignment. Gretchen Gunther, who teaches at The School at Steps in New York City, says that using imagery can help them activate their bodies, while making repetitive work playful. To engage the core and straighten the back, she has dancers imagine a marionette string pulling them up through their spines and pretend their belly buttons are push buttons. Immediately, she sees their backs lengthen and abdominals pull toward their spines.

Gunther says simple port de bras helps youngsters concentrate. Photo by A. Greenwald, courtesy of Steps

To access the subtler lower abdominals, Gunther asks students to think of what it feels like to zip up a tight pair of jeans. If she finds dancers twisting, she has them picture the torso as a rectangle, with shoulders and hips for corners, stacked and even, to keep everything on an even plane.

Physically Adjust Them

It's sometimes necessary to use physical manipulation while teaching children alignment, because they haven't yet experienced what the positions should look and feel like. “I'm very hands-on," says Kelly Burke, artistic director of Westchester Dance Academy in Mount Kisco, New York. “I put them into place, especially the younger dancers." That way, their muscle memory understands the effort it takes to align the spine.

Kelly Burke of Westchester Dance Academy. Photo courtesy of Kelly Burke

A finger under the chin or a light touch on the back or tummy is enough to remind them of the alignment corrections they've learned, says Gunther. Another strategy is to have them adjust themselves. She often has students push lightly at their own belly buttons to see if their cores are activated.

Keep It Simple

It takes a lot of effort for young dancers to organize their growing bodies, so Gunther simplifies port de bras by having students put their hands on their hips or fingers on their shoulders throughout some of barre and center, especially during active movements like chassés and gallops.

Burke often teaches exercises in parallel, so students can learn how the body should stack, hips over the feet, without having to worry about turnout. Slow relevés and tendus in parallel facing the barre can help them concentrate on keeping their backs straight and tummies in.

Teaching alignment to children requires gradual progression and constant reinforcement. “Ballet technique is so complex," says Gunther, who gives short barre exercises because she finds that when work continues after students tire, they'll often lose their placement, reinforcing bad alignment. “At this age, sometimes less is more."

Off the Barre and On the Floor

Working on the floor helps dancers concentrate and reduces the tendency to lean, arch and twist. Anuschka Roes of Canada's National Ballet School in Toronto uses these strength-building exercises to help young students learn to engage their cores and backs.

Dancer's Secret Exercises

Activates the abdominals

Have students lie face down on the floor and picture a ball inside their tummies, just below the navel. It slowly rolls in place and then at a diagonal up and toward the spine, stopping at the bottom of the ribs. Students' abdominals should be activated, with enough space to slide a hand between the waist and the floor. Repeat standing. Roes calls this exercise “the dancer's secret," because activating the abdominals is a subtle movement that shouldn't be seen from the back of the body.

The Superman

Strengthens the back muscles

Have dancers lie face down, head in line with the spine. With legs in parallel and arms above the head, they raise their arms and legs a few inches off the ground. Depending on a dancer's strength, the chest and torso may lift off the floor (without splaying the ribs). Have them hold here for 4–8 counts, resting for 8–12 in between sets. Repeat three times. The length of time they hold the position increases gradually during the exercise.

The Conversation
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy of Hightower

The beloved "So You Think You Can Dance" alum and former Emmy-nominated "Dancing with the Stars" pro Chelsie Hightower discovered her passion for ballroom at a young age. She showed a natural ability for the Latin style, but she mastered the necessary versatility by studying jazz, ballet and other forms of dance. "Every style of dance builds on each other," she says, "and the more music you're exposed to, the more your rhythm and coordination is built."

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Success with Just for Kix
Bill Johnson, Courtesy Just for Kix

Running a dance studio is a feat in itself. But adding a competition team into the mix brings a whole new set of challenges. Not only are you focusing on giving your dancers the best training possible, but you're navigating the fast-paced competition and convention circuit. Winning is one goal, but you also want to create an environment that's fun, educational and inspiring for young artists. We asked Cindy Clough, executive director of Just For Kix and a studio owner with over 40 years of experience, for her advice on building a healthy dance team culture:

Keep reading... Show less
Just for fun
Via Instagram

Happy Father's Day to all of the dance dads in the world! Whether you're professional dancers, dance teachers, dance directors or simply just dance supporters, you are a key ingredient to what makes the dance world such a happy, thriving place, and we love you!

To celebrate, here are our four favorite Instagram dance dads. Prepare to say "Awwwwwwwweeeeeee!!!!!!"

You're welcome!

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Insure Fitness
AdobeStock, Courtesy Insure Fitness Group

As a teacher at a studio, you've more than likely developed long-lasting relationships with some of your students and parents. The idea that you could be sued by one of them might seem impossible to imagine, but Insure Fitness Group's Gianna Michalsen warns against relaxing into that mindset. "People say, 'Why do I need insurance? I've been working with these people for 10 years—we're friends,'" she says. "But no one ever takes into account how bad an injury can be. Despite how good your relationship is, people will sue you because of the toll an injury takes on their life."

You'll benefit most from an insurance policy that caters to the specifics of teaching dance at one or several studios. Here's what to look for:

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

If you're a studio owner, the thought of raising your rates most likely makes you cringe. Despite ever-increasing overhead expenses you can't avoid—rent, salaries, insurance—you're probably wary of alienating your customers, losing students or inviting confrontation if you increase the price of your tuition or registration and recital fees. DT spoke with three veteran studio owners who suggest it's time to get past that. Here's how to give your business the revenue boost it needs and the value justification it (and you) deserve.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by World Class Vacations
David Galindo Photography

New York City is a dream destination for many dancers. However aspiring Broadway stars don't have to wait until they're pros to experience all the city has to offer. With Dance the World Broadway, students can get a taste of the Big Apple—plus hone their dance skills and make lasting memories.

Here's why Dance the World Broadway is the best way for students to experience NYC:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Margie Gillis (left); photo by Kyle Froman

Margie Gillis dances the human experience. Undulating naked in a field of billowing grass in Lessons from Nature 4, or whirling in a sweep of lilac fabric in her signature work Slipstream, her movement is free of flashy technique and tricks, but driven and defined by emotion. "There's a central philosophy in my work about what the experience of being human is," says Gillis, whose movement style is an alchemy of Isadora Duncan's uninhibited self-expression and Paul Taylor's musicality, blended with elements of dance theater into something utterly unique and immediately accessible. "I want an authenticity," she says. "I want to touch my audiences profoundly and deeply."

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Teaching arabesque can be a challenge for educators and students alike. Differences in body types, flexibility and strength can leave dancers feeling dejected about the possibility of improving this essential position.

To help each of us in our quest for establishing beautiful arabesques in our students without bringing them to tears, we caught up with University of Utah ballet teacher Jennie Creer-King. After her professional career dancing with Ballet West and Oregon Ballet Theater and her years of teaching at the studio and college levels, she's become a bit of an arabesque expert.

Here she shares five important tips for increasing the height of your students' arabesques.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Photo by Jennifer Kleinman, courtesy of Danell Hathaway

It's high school dance concert season, which means a lot of you K–12 teachers are likely feeling a bit overwhelmed. The long nights of editing music, rounding up costumes and printing programs are upon you, and we salute you. You do great work, and if you just hang on a little while longer, you'll be able to bathe in the applause that comes after the final Saturday night curtain.

To give you a bit of inspiration for your upcoming performances, we talked with Olympus High School dance teacher Danell Hathaway, who just wrapped her school's latest dance company concert. The Salt Lake City–based K–12 teacher shares her six pieces of advice for knocking your show out of the park.

Keep reading... Show less
Getty Images

Q: I'm looking to create some summer rituals and traditions at my studio. What are some of the things you do?

A: Creating fun and engaging moments for your students, staff and families can have a positive impact on your studio culture. Whether it's a big event or a small gesture, we've found that traditions build connection, boost morale and create strong bonds. I reached out to a variety of studio owners to gather some ideas for you to try this summer. Here's what they had to say.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Sam Williams and Jaxon Willard after competition at RADIX. Photo courtesy of Williams

Self-choreographed solos are becoming increasingly popular on the competition circuit these days, leading dance teachers to incorporate more creative mentoring into their rehearsal and class schedules. In this new world of developing both technical training and choreographic prowess, finding the right balance of assisting without totally hijacking a student's choreographic process can be difficult.

To help, we caught up with a teacher who's already braved these waters by assisting "World of Dance" phenom Jaxon Willard with his viral audition solos. Center Stage Performing Arts Studio company director Sam Williams from Orem, Utah, shares her sage wisdom below.

Check it out!

Keep reading... Show less
Studio Owners
Getty Images

Dance studios are run by creative people with busy schedules, who have a love-hate relationship with props and sequins. The results of all this glitter and glam? General mass chaos in every drawer, costume closet and prop corner of the studio. Let's be honest, not many dance teachers are particularly known for their tidiness. The ability to get 21 dancers to spot in total synchronization? Absolutely! The stamina to run 10 solos, 5 group numbers, 2 ballet classes and 1 jazz class in one day? Of course! The emotional maturity to navigate a minefield of angry parents and hormonal teenagers? You know it!

Keeping the studio tidy? Well...that's another story.

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox