Teaching Tips

Beyond Basic Planks: These 12 Variations Strengthen More Than Your Abs

Photos by Jayme Thornton for Pointe. Modeled by Anna Greenberg of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School.

Planks are one of the most popular exercises for core strength, but they're not just about flat abs. Julie O'Connell, physical therapist and performing arts program manager at Chicago's Athletico Physical Therapy, says that dancers can use them to maximize their conditioning: Look at the corrections you're getting in class or the choreography you're learning and mirror those concepts in your strength work.


Get creative: There are several plank variations below, but the possibilities are limitless. For example, if you have to do a long arabesque balance onstage, you might hold a forearm plank with one leg in a turned-out arabesque to build strength and stamina.

Create a circuit of four variations, or if you're short on time, sprinkle them throughout your day, says O'Connell. Instead of completing a certain number of reps, work until your body is fatigued. This might mean doing controlled dégagés in a front plank, right side plank, left side plank and reverse plank for 30 seconds each. If you're not tired, increase the time to 45 seconds for each position on your next round.

How to progress: "Challenge yourself to whatever capacity you're up for, making sure that you maintain form and function," says O'Connell, who notes that the exercises can be done in parallel or turnout. Planking on your forearms gives you more stability than straight arms since your body is closer to the floor. When you're ready, progress to variations that only have two points of contact with the ground, or those that require moving a prop like a physio ball or foam roller.

Keep these form tips in mind throughout any plank circuit:

  • Don't look down or strain your neck. Keep your head in line with your body.
  • Engage your shoulder blades and avoid splaying the ribs.
  • In side planks, stack your shoulders as well as your hips.
  • In reverse planks, engage the glutes and squeeze the shoulder blades.

Three Points of Contact

● Lift and lower one leg at a time.

● Pulse the heel toward the ceiling.


● Translate elements from barre to a plank position. O'Connell recommends a series of dégagés or battements to the side and back, shown here with both legs in turnout, though it can also be done in parallel.


● Draw one leg up into retiré, return and switch legs.

● For more of an upper-body strengthener, keep the legs still as you move from a forearm plank to straight arms and back down, one arm at a time.

● Start in a reverse plank position, using your glutes to lift your body up. Test your stability with a series of front and side dégagés or battements. For another variation, slowly développé side and carry front.


Two Points of Contact

● Lengthen your opposite arm and leg off the ground.


● For more of a challenge, reach the arm and leg on the same side off the ground.

● From a side plank, dégagé or battement front, side and back, with legs in turnout or parallel.


Incorporating Props

● Start in a basic plank with your feet on a physio ball. Slowly draw the knees toward your chest, moving the ball in, then return to straight legs. To strengthen the obliques, pull the knees in on a diagonal.


● Start in a side plank with your bottom arm extended and the top leg placed on a ball slightly in front of you. With control, push down on the ball and use your leg to move the ball forwards and back to the original position.

● Place your forearms on a foam roller and push it several inches away from you, then pull it back in. Start with your knees on the floor for more stability.


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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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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