Health & Body

Are Your Dancers Gripping Their Glutes? Here Are 3 Exercises to Support Proper Engagement

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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.

Orientation

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.

Alignment

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."

Movement Potential

"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.

Troubleshooting

"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.

Dancer Diary
Claire, McAdams, courtesy Houston Ballet

Former Houston Ballet dancer Chun Wai Chan has always been destined for New York City Ballet.

While competing at Prix de Lausanne in 2010, he was offered summer program scholarships at both the School of American Ballet and Houston Ballet. However, because two of the competition's winners that year were Houston Ballet's Aaron Sharratt and Liao Xiang, dancers Chan idolized, he turned down SAB. He joined Houston Ballet II in 2010, the main company's corps de ballet in 2012, and was promoted to principal in 2017. Oozing confidence and technical prowess, Chan was a Houston favorite, and even landed himself a spot on Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch."


In 2019, NYCB came calling: Resident choreographer Justin Peck visited Houston Ballet to set a new work titled Reflections. Peck immediately took to Chan and passed his praises on to NYCB artistic director Jonathan Stafford. Chan was invited to take class with NYCB for three days in January 2020, and shortly thereafter was offered a soloist contract.

The plan was to announce his hiring in the spring for the fall season that typically begins in September, but, of course, coronavirus postponed the opportunity to next year. Chan is currently riding out the pandemic in Huizhou, Guangdong, China, where he was born and trained at the Guangzhou Art School.

We talked to Chan about his training journey—and the teachers, corrections and experiences that got him to NYCB.

On the most helpful correction he's ever gotten:

"Work smart, then work hard to keep your body healthy. Most of us get injuries when we're tired. When I first joined Houston Ballet, I was pushing myself 100 percent every day, at every show, rehearsal and class. That's when I got injured [a torn thumb ligament, tendinitis and a sprained ankle.] At that time, my director taught me that we all have to work hard, memorize the steps and take corrections, but it's better to think first because your energy is limited."

How it's benefited his career since:

"It's the secret to me getting promoted to principal very quickly. When other dancers were injured or couldn't perform, I was healthy and could step up to fill a higher role than my position. I still get small injuries, but I know how to take care of them now, and when it's OK to gamble a little."

Chan, wearing grey pants and a grey one-sleeved top, partners Jessica Collado, as she arches her back and leans to the side. Other dancers behind them are dressed as an army of some sort

Chun Wai Chan with Jessica Collado. Photo by Amitava Sarkar, courtesy Houston Ballet

On his most influential teacher:

"Claudio Muñoz, from Houston Ballet Academy. The first summer intensive there I couldn't even lift the lightest girls. A month later, my pas de deux skills improved so much. I never imagined I could lift a girl so many times. A year later I could do all the tricky pas tricks. That's all because of Claudio. He also taught me how to dance in contemporary, and act all kinds of characters."

How he gained strength for partnering:

"I did a lot of push-ups. Claudio recommended dancers go to the gym. We don't have those kinds of traditions in China, but after Houston Ballet, going to the gym has become a habit."

On his YouTube channel:

"I started a YouTube channel, where I could give ballet tutorials. Many male students only have female teachers, and they are missing out on the guy's perspective on jumps and partnering. I give those tips online because they are what I would have wanted. My goal is to help students have strong technique so they are able to enjoy the stage as much as they can."

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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