Dancer Health
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The human head weighs somewhere between 8 and 12 pounds. For many of us, our youngest students included, that comparatively large weight spends on average at least a couple hours a day hunched over a screen. While you may not consider your students as average, there is no denying we spend more hours than ever looking down at handheld mobile devices. "I think of it as 'tech posture,'" says Blossom Leilani Crawford of Bridge Pilates, "when the head is forward and the shoulders are forward. People don't know where their heads are anymore, and you certainly can't turn well with the weight of your head forward."

Forward head posture seems to be the very antithesis of the open chest, lifted spine and presentational sensibility of most classical dance training. But beyond the aesthetics, this misalignment can affect balance and coordination in developing dancers and, at the extreme end, can be associated with nerve damage and pain down the arm.

According to Dr. Marshall Hagins, physical therapist for the Mark Morris Dance Group, there are really two things going on when you see forward head posture. First, the skull is projected forward in front of the body (as in when we look down at a phone). But then, because we are social creatures who want to see and interact with the world in front of us, the head rotates backward on the spine, thrusting the chin up and out. "The muscles in the front of the neck are short and relaxed," he explains, "while the muscles in the back, which are keeping the head from falling further, are lengthened and overworking." The neck muscles have a very high density of proprioceptors and the nervous system feedback is working to fight gravity all of the time, all of which can result in a levator scapulae that is overused and painful.

Hagins offers a tent analogy for balancing the head in three dimensions without simply resorting to a military posture. "All the surrounding neck muscles need to have just the right amount of tension to keep a heavy object, such as the head, balanced atop the tent pole of your spine," he says. "When it leans one way, the corresponding wire becomes loose and the other wires have to pull harder." He notes that it can still be possible for dancers to move in and out of the proper positions even if the resting posture is slouched. However, assuming such a posture for most of the day can lead to injury.

The phenomenon has caused Crawford to modify the abdominal exercises in her mat class. "I sometimes ask for the head to stay on the floor for the single-leg stretch or double-leg stretch," she says. "I call it 'angry turtle' when you work to draw the back of your head into the floor. Once that is understood, it is easier to transfer into lifting the head off the ground properly."

However, both Hagins and Crawford caution that dancers are often hypermobile and prone to overcorrecting, so it is important to focus on good postural habits and incremental changes so they don't move from one misalignment of the head and neck to another. Here are three simple exercises Crawford uses to help students find and feel where proper head alignment is in different planes of movement. They are great on their own, in any warm-up, or can be easily sprinkled into a Pilates mat routine.

Supine Head Float​

Elena Prisco, age 17, student at Lake Tahoe Dance Collective. Photos courtesy of Thompson

1. Lie on your back, knees bent and feet planted, with a yoga block, or prop of similar height, under the shoulder blades. Let your head rest back into this big, chest-opening stretch, with your fingers interlaced, hands behind your neck so that your pinky fingers are against the base of your skull.

2. Float your head up to spine level, chin tucked in, hands helping to
traction your neck long. Use exhales to activate the abdominals and keep ribs heavy and soft while your head is up. Hold for a few counts and then rest back into the stretch.

3. Repeat several times, being careful not to let the chin jut forward.

*If you are ready for more, float the pelvis up to spine level along with the head. Keep the pelvis in a neutral, untucked position.

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Photo by Laurie Sermos

Walking into Rhythm Dance Center, the eye is instantly captivated with color and whimsy. Each wall has a different graphic wallpaper adorned with photo collages from the latest recitals; every chair is upholstered in yet another fun pattern; chandeliers hang in neon colors; and in the homework lounge, the mantra “Be Amazing" beckons in large glittered print. But there is one thing noticeably absent from all the eye candy: trophies.

“We have never been caught up in winning," explains Becca Moore, owner and one half of the force behind the popular studio just outside Atlanta, where fun and creativity reign, and there is a class for everyone, from recreational dancer to pre-professional. “It is more about process and growing. We set goals, of course, but not necessarily to win first place. Besides, we don't have room for trophies to collect dust here, so we donate them and talk to the kids about that."

Moore and her partner Dani Rosenberg decided to open a studio together when they were barely out of their teens. Now in its 23rd year, Rhythm Dance Center has grown from 100 students to more than 1,000, with professional graduates such as “So You Think You Can Dance" winner Melanie Moore and students who go on to Ivy League educations. Bursting at the seams with dance bags piling up everywhere on any given afternoon, the large five-studio home they built 15 years ago is barely large enough to contain them.

Photo by Laurie Sermos

The two were only 19 and 22 when they signed their first lease. They had gained valuable experience at the studio where they danced in high school, eventually teaching and helping with scheduling and costume ordering. And they did have the guidance of business-minded parents who taught them about customer service. But they credit their success in large part to learning from their mistakes and following their passions. After more than two decades in business, doing nearly every aspect of it together, the pair is so in sync they not only finish each other's sentences, they often speak whole sentences for one another. “We have very few disagreements," says Moore. “We see eye to eye on almost everything, so we are rarely in conflict."

Some of their mistakes have been more expensive than others. “The vending machine," groans Moore. Early on, they took out a lease on a vending machine, seeing it as a good way to make a little extra cash. Unfortunately, it never worked, and the fine print was not in their favor. “We had to pay to get out of that situation," says Rosenberg.

“Or remember when we tried to be too cool?" They laugh trying to explain a period when they had put pressure on themselves to teach the trendiest jazz moves. That didn't last long. Moore elaborates, “Our faculty keeps current and is amazing at it. We stick to teaching the more classic jazz technique we are good at."

Though they may joke about their trial-and-error business approach, the truth is that it takes a great deal of foresight and planning to run a studio of this size. These women clearly have that down. They hold partial staff meetings every Monday to make sure everyone is on the same page, and they have informational meetings in advance of recitals for parents of the six casts, plus auditions for the performing company to clearly lay out expectations and head off misunderstandings.

Photo by Laurie Sermos

But perhaps the biggest challenge at this stage of Rhythm's existence is having enough space to accommodate growing enrollment. They have begun renting a separate office space—which both claim enthusiastically was the best decision they ever made; now they can get work done without constant interruption—and a sixth studio nearby to give them time to mull over expansion plans. There is talk of adding on to their current building, but that would require permits and major planning within the community. “There's no question we have to expand," says Moore. “It's just a question of how."

They take two yearly retreats with members of their faculty, many of whom are homegrown, to plan and prepare for recitals. And they have made friends with other studio owners in their area and around the country. They enjoy grabbing a drink with others from the greater Atlanta area when they end up taking their schools to the same conventions. And they've developed close friendships with studio owners farther afield, such as Christy Curtis of CC & Co. Dance Complex in Raleigh, North Carolina, whom they met at an event in Hawaii seven years ago. “We probably exchange a text with Christy once a week," says Moore.

“We started talking by the pool and found our studios are similar in size and thought process," says Rosenberg. “It is nice to hear how another studio deals with the same issues. Christy once shared a spreadsheet she uses for her recital tech week, and we adopted that immediately. We have even taken social trips together—it's like therapy."

Indeed, running a studio the size of Rhythm affords very little time off. “We are willing to stay at work until 2 am because we are not committed to other things," says Moore. “This has always come first."

Rosenberg nods, acknowledging the sacrifices and admitting it would be an impossible endeavor without the support of each other. “This is our family. It may be an unconventional lifestyle, but it suits me. I'm very independent, and I got this insane work ethic from my mom."

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“Take the right foot to coupé; now rise,” says Sara Knight, in her heavy British accent. As her students struggle to keep their torsos from twisting as they relevé, she laughs good-naturedly, knowing the difficulty of her request. “Ah, it’s looking a bit windy in here!” she says.

Peek into her classroom—located at the Battery Dance Company studios in downtown New York, five stories above the Canal Street din—on any given afternoon, and you are likely to find her students levitating. Knight raises their chins, lifts their quadriceps and pulls them up by their waists, sometimes so skyward that the dancers’ feet begin to slip from their pointe shoes. But though her hands-on approach could be called gravity-defying, she’s quick to bring her students back to planet Earth when she senses a stilted pose or affectation.

“Turn your head and just talk to me,” she asks of a student with a stiff head tilt that strains her épaulement. “It’s a normal occurrence to turn the head. As much of ballet that’s not normal, using the head is.” The conversation relaxes the student, and as the tension drains out of her neck, she is able to complete her line more gracefully. It’s this balance Knight finds between the practical and astral demands of ballet that marks her teaching style, as she prepares her students for the professional world ahead.

Though she never set out to start a ballet school, Knight has found that her training—Russian-based, but spiced with French, English and Danish styles—fills a pre-professional niche, even in the crowded New York City market. Now in its sixth year, the SLK Ballet School enrolls a small group of teenage girls from 1 to 6 pm every weekday. Once a year, the students have an opportunity to take a ballet exam (based on the Vaganova Ballet Academy’s exams), attended by a professional panel. “It gives me a chance to sit back and assess where the students are in their training,” she says, which is a common process in most full-time European ballet schools. “There is a sense of nervousness just like in auditions or performances, so the exam helps the dancer practice how they have to push past their fears.” Knight and her panel employ a mark system of one through five, five being the best. Knight schedules meetings with each student afterward to discuss their marks.

The preparation for such a test is grueling. Knight is detail-oriented, worrying as much about the musicality of a waltz as the placement of the little toe or perfectly square hips. Almost every combination at the barre is repeated on relevé. During a difficult adagio, she is relentless in her pursuit of the perfect attitude promenade, reminding her students it will affect their grandes pirouettes later. “Don’t give up, don’t pull back,” she calls from the ground, where she is crouched near a student’s supporting leg, sculpting her dancers’ bodies with her physical adjustments. “You’ve got to educate your inside thigh, and move just your heel. That’s it; you’ve got the stuff. Now put it together!” DT

Atlanta-based writer Candice Thompson danced with the Milwaukee Ballet Company and is a writing fellow at Columbia University.

Sara Knight graduated from both The Royal Ballet School and the Vaganova Ballet Academy (as its first British graduate). She also completed The Royal Ballet School Teacher Training Course, where she worked under the tutelage of master teacher Valerie Adams. Knight danced professionally with the Russian Ballet and Choreographic Miniatures. She co-founded the Greenwich Ballet Academy in Westchester County, New York, and was ballet mistress for Central School of Ballet in London and NYC’s Ellison Ballet before founding SLK Ballet School in 2009.

Erina Tanaka, 18, has been a student at SLK Ballet for three years.

 

Photography by Kyle Froman

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