Health & Body

Ask Deb: How Do I Loosen My Upper Back Without a Foam Roller?


Q: Do you have any suggestions/stretches for loosening the upper-back muscles other than foam rolling? I don't feel like it's doing enough for me.

A: I'm right there with you on this one. That area of the body gets tight easily and is challenging to get to. I often target and massage the tight areas first with a pinkie ball against the wall. Then, I get started with rotating the spine in several different ways. If I'm sitting, I'll do rotation to each side as I lengthen the spine upward—sometimes using the arm of the chair to deepen the stretch a little bit more than what is normal. I'm imagining the spine lengthening upward as I do this and don't let myself side bend as I twist to the side. When I get to the end of my range, I'll stop, take an easy inhale, and on the exhale imagine rotating a little bit more—which inevitably allows for a bit more rotation. Of course do both sides.

You could also do twisted push-ups against the wall or lying on the ground, rotating your hips and legs opposite your upper body. There are so many different ways to rotate and 'wring' the tension out of the spine, like wringing a washcloth. (Which sometimes is an image I use while I'm rotating.) Ultimately, rotation is the key to spine health.

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.

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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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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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