When ballet star David Hallberg sought out the medical team at The Australian Ballet to help him recover from his ankle surgeries, one of the things rehabilitation specialist Megan Connelly had him learn was to jump from his hips. By doing so, he learned to put less stress on his lower legs and feet and access the powerhouse group of muscles surrounding the hips, most commonly referred to as the glutes. While many parts of his rehab were particular to him, understanding how to properly engage the glutes is something many professional and pre-professional dancers can stand to gain from.
While it is true that the gluteus maximus is the biggest muscle in your body, it is only one of the three muscles that make up your glutes, along with the smaller gluteus minimus and the gluteus medius. These three are responsible for hip extension (arabesque), abduction (lifting leg side) and external and internal rotation. And underlying them are a set of six tinier assistant muscles in the back of your pelvis, often referred to as the "deep six," that help you stabilize your hips and turn out your legs. All of which is to say your hips contain a very powerful network of muscles. Understanding how to unleash the potential of that power not only requires rethinking how to cue turnout but also asks for new ways to visualize and understand the pelvis in motion.
"Dancers often have a vague idea that if they lock down on their glute muscles, it will help them turn out," says Connelly, "and often that comes from being asked to hold on to their turnout." But a gripped glute muscle, because it is stuck in a contracted place, is in essence turned off and not able to contract and release normally. To get out of gripping, Connelly instead asks for the opposite: "Unlock your hips if you want to turn out. The leg has to be able to move in the hip joint, and the pelvis has to be able to articulate on the leg bone."
To begin the unlocking process, Connelly educates dancers about the pelvis along a vertical axis, so that they can understand and imagine how orientation, alignment and movement potential can change the way they work in class and dance onstage.
Your pelvis has a range of positions, from neutral to a posterior pelvic tilt (tucked under) to an anterior pelvic tilt (bum sticking out). Each deviation from neutral affects how the muscles function—properly or dysfunctionally. Sometimes the simplest and best way to ungrip, or unlock, is to lengthen the entire body. "Relax your entire footprint into the floor while reaching the top of the head up toward the ceiling, and bingo," she says. "You can find the exact right orientation of your own pelvis without overthinking where neutral is." She also avoids saying "ungrip" or even mentioning the glutes specifically, since the brain has a powerful way of gripping that muscle just by focusing on it. Our muscle groups are interconnected, so addressing the alignment of the whole body and using movement cues can be an efficient way to orient this area.
Where should your pelvis be in relation to your feet? Connelly asks for dancers to imagine their pelvis as a bowl that is suspended up over their feet, sitz bones high above heels. "If we put our bones in a better place, it allows the lower glutes and rotators to initiate first."
"If I ask a dancer which way their pelvis moves in a plié," says Connelly, "I often get back a bewildered look before they answer 'It moves down.' But thinking 'down' encourages a heaviness and a tuck." Instead, she uses oppositional energy cues. What happens if you imagine the pelvis floating up when the knees bend? Try a demi-plié with this thought in mind. As you stretch your knees, imagine your pelvis as the first thing coming back up out of plié. "If you can keep your tailbone gently floating upward [to avoid tucking], you will be surprised by how much you can feel the back of your legs and your glutes working," she says. Try a small relevé, with the same image of the pelvis bowl floating high in opposition to the heels. Work through these initiations of the jump—from first, second and eventually with one leg in coupé—first using rotational discs as a tool (to ferret out any cheating of turnout and gripping), and then without the discs, either facing the barre or in center.
"It's all a process, and there are no quick fixes," says Australian Ballet's Megan Connelly. "But when a dancer is sitting in the pelvis and jumping from the feet instead of the glutes, you will often see the feet go out to the side in the air. Again, I go back to the pelvis, imagining that it lifts in the air before the feet, hovers, and then is the last thing to come down to the ground."
In addition to working in technique class, she also recommends three exercises for cross-training and to support proper
glute activation. "Different bodies have different modifications, so it is important to understand the idiosyncrasies of your own body in order to do these exercises well," says Connelly. If you are unsure of proper form, seek out an experienced set of eyes to watch you and give you alignment notes.
4-Point Kneeling for Rotation
Photos of principal artist Ako Kondo by Kate Longley, courtesy of The Australian Ballet
1. Loop a TheraBand around something stable, like a table leg, and your ankle. Begin in a kneeling position, with knees under hips and hands under shoulders, set up far enough away from the table leg so the band gently pulls your leg into internal rotation. Make sure it's in a straight line from anchor point to ankle.
2. In the kneeling position, work against the resistance of the band to externally rotate your leg and focus on turning the thigh bone in the hip socket.
3. Maintain a long spine, head to tail, that allows for a natural low-back curve. As you move through 10 to 15 repetitions, be sure to keep the hip flexors, hamstrings and glutes soft, and to not tuck your tail under.