Health & Body

Ask Deb: How Can We Train the Abdominals to Stay Still?


Q: My students have beautiful alignment when standing still, but when they start moving, their abdominals become like jello. What gives?

A: When a student stands tall, lifting their ribs and lengthening their spines (as if they've put an invisible belt around their waists), it looks like they are in proper alignment. But actually, they're often holding their breath to maintain this position, and when they finally release their abdominals to allow air to come into the lungs, jello-like movement can occur. I suspect this is what is happening with your students.

So how can we train the abdominals to stay still? First, teach your dancers to get familiar with how the abdominals stabilize the pelvis. Have your students rest on their backs with their legs bent and the soles of their feet on the floor. Ask them to knit their abdominals together while sliding one leg out straight in front of them. Repeat on the other side. Your students will feel the engagement of their abdominals primarily below the belly button. They should still be able to breathe fully, and their abdominal muscles should naturally contract during the exhale.

Once you've done this, ask your dancers to stand up and draw the front of the pelvis upward toward the breast bone without lifting or dropping the ribs. Again, they will feel effort below the belly button. Have them walk around for two minutes while keeping the pelvis level and the spine elongated—it's harder than you might expect. This sensation of engaging the abdominals is what your dancers should aim for when moving. Strengthening these muscles will keep them from looking like jello in class.

Higher Ed
The author, Robyn Watson. Photo courtesy Watson

Recently, I posted a thread of tweets elucidating the lack of respect for tap dance in college dance programs, and arguing that it should be a requirement for dance majors.

According to, out of the 30 top-ranked college dance programs in the U.S., tap dance is offered at 19 of them, but only one school requires majors to take more than a beginner course—Oklahoma City University. Many prestigious dance programs, like the ones at NYU Tisch School of the Arts and SUNY Purchase, don't offer a single course in tap dance.

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Teaching Tips
Getty Images

After months of lockdowns and virtual learning, many studios across the country are opening their doors and returning to in-person classes. Teachers and students alike have likely been chomping at the bit in anticipation of the return of dance-class normalcy that doesn't require a reliable internet connection or converting your living room into a dance space.

But along with the back-to-school excitement, dancers might be feeling rusty from being away from the studio for so long. A loss of flexibility, strength and stamina is to be expected, not to mention emotional fatigue from all of the uncertainty and reacclimating to social activities.

So as much as everyone wants to get back to normal—teachers and studio owners included—erring on the side of caution with your dancers' training will be the most beneficial approach in the long run.

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Teachers Trending
Photo courtesy TUPAC

When legendary Black ballet dancer Kabby Mitchell III died unexpectedly in 2017, two months before opening his Tacoma Urban Performing Arts Center, his friend and business partner Klair Ethridge wasn't sure she had what it took to carry his legacy. Ethridge had been working with Mitchell to co-found TUPAC and planned to serve as its executive director, but she had never envisioned being the face of the school.

Now, Ethridge is heading into her fourth year of leading TUPAC, which she has grown from a fledgling program in an unheated building to a serious ballet school in its own sprung-floor studios, reaching hundreds of students across the Tacoma, Washington, area. The nonprofit has become a case study for what it looks like to carry out the vision of a founder who never had the chance to see his school open—and to take an unapologetically mission-driven approach.

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