Health & Body

3 Exercises for Healthy Spinal Alignment

Denise Wall demonstrates her T-neck alignment imagery. Photo by Matthew Murphy

Spinal alignment is like turnout, says Michael Kelly Bruce, associate professor of dance at The Ohio State University. "It's a mechanism, not an aesthetic." But as with turnout, dancers' visual goals often lead them to force their bodies into unnatural positions. "A healthier spine has to do with acknowledging the structural integrity of what's there, as opposed to changing it to meet that aesthetic," he explains. He compares a spine without its natural curves to winging the foot. "It's gorgeous in arabesque, but you don't want to stand on it. It's not very supportive," he says. Ballet dancers are particularly prone to extremes in erasing the curves from their backs. "People from New York City Ballet dance gorgeously, but in my opinion, their spines are weird," says Bruce.


In his classes, Bruce coaches students to understand their torsos in three dimensions. When cueing dancers' spinal flexion, he focuses on lengthening the back rather than contracting the front. “The images I work with are on the opposite side," he says. “It's about lengthening the vertebra away from one another, and as a result, the front works."

Having dancers work on movement while lying on the floor is particularly helpful, he says, because it lets them use gravity in a different way to make familiar movements easier or more challenging. Here, he shares a floor series for finding mobility, stability and length in the spine.

Finding Spinal Articulation on All Fours

In this series, Bruce asks students to focus on the expanding side of the body more than the contracting side to stay aware of the torso's three-dimensionality.

Cat/Cow

Tabletop. Photo by Emily Giacalone


Cat. Photo by Emily Giacalone


Cow. Photo by Emily Giacalone


• Begin in tabletop position on hands and knees with your spine's curves intact and your scapula lying flat.

• Inhale and feel your ribs expand.

• Exhale and curve the spine from tail to skull, articulating through each vertebra. As you move through the upper thoracic, pull your scapula away from each other.

• Inhale and expand into the dome shape.

• Exhale, flexing the hips as you lengthen out through each vertebra, establishing the curves of the spine back to your tabletop position.

• Inhale, lifting your eyes and sitz bones at the same time to cow. Don't drop into it; instead, extend the spine.

• Exhale, lengthening all four sides of the spine back to tabletop position.


Lateral Flex

Photo by Emily Giacalone


Photo by Emily Giacalone

• Exhale to lengthen your right side (bending to your left), drawing the right side of the rib cage away from the pelvis and right ear away from the sitz bones. Return to the starting position.

• Repeat four times on the exhales, then four times on the other side.

• Then do four sets on each side moving as you inhale.


Around the World

• Exhale, lengthening your spine in one action to cat.

• Inhale, lengthening your right side to move into a side bend to the left.

• Continue inhaling to cow.

• Exhale straight back up to cat.

• Repeat for a total of four half circles this direction. Then go the other way.

• Finish on an exhale in cat, feeling your posterior ribs expanding. Exhale to lengthen back to tabletop.


Love Your Curves: Spinal Edition

The typical spine has four curves from bottom to top—sacral, lumbar, thoracic and cervical—and correct posture doesn't mean flattening them out. On the contrary, it is essential to actively support those curves. Looking from the side, someone should be able to draw an imaginary line from a dancer's earlobe through her shoulder joint, hip and knee, ending just in front of the ankle joint. Maintaining correct alignment takes some strength, however. That's why dancers who haven't developed abdominal strength often have a swayed lower back.

When making corrections, sometimes dancers overcompensate, leading to tucked bottoms or a jutting chin. Here's how some of our experts help dancers find alignment without overshooting.

Irene Dowd Photo by Kyle Froman

Place a fingertip on the crown of the dancer's head, right above the ears. Tell the student to get taller, pressing against your finger toward the sky. Be careful not to place your finger too far forward, or you'll encourage the student to tilt her head up instead of growing taller through her central axis. —Irene Dowd, anatomy expert, The Juilliard School

Denise Wall Photo by Matthew Murphy

Standing behind the student, hold the shoulder joints between your fingers and thumbs, and pull them apart gently. Have the dancer imagine her body is a letter T, with the torso as the vertical line and the shoulders along the top. This helps spread her back muscles away from the spine instead of pinching the shoulders back and sticking out the ribs or hunching the shoulders forward. —Denise Wall, teaching alignment through imagery at Denise Wall's Dance Energy

Megan Williams Photo by Kyle Froman

Finding the neutral pelvis can be tricky, because dancers have strong muscles that want to take over, like glutes and quads. Have a student take a demi-plié, and feel how the pelvis hangs without much support. Have her try to maintain the vertical position of her pelvis as she straightens her legs. There should be a crease at the front of her hips. Tucking erases that crease. —Megan Williams, former Mark Morris Dance Group company member


News
Getty Images

It can be tricky to get away for a conference, whether due to travel budget concerns or finding a substitute to cover your absence. One silver lining of the pandemic is that five conferences are now available online, no travel necessary. You'll find sessions to address your concerns no matter what your role in the dance community—whether you're on the business side, interested in curriculum development, need continuing ed certification, or a performer who wants to teach. Why not gather colleagues from your studio or school for an educational watch party to inspire you as you launch into the new school year?

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
Getty Images

Talar compression syndrome means there is some impingement happening in the posterior portion of the ankle joint. Other medical personnel might call your problem os trigonum syndrome or posterior ankle impingement syndrome or posterior tibiotalar compression syndrome. No matter what they name it—it means you are having trouble moving your ankle through pointing and flexing.

Keep reading... Show less
News
Scott Robbins, Courtesy IABD

The International Association of Blacks in Dance is digitizing recordings of significant, at-risk dance works, master classes, panels and more by Black dancers and choreographers from 1988 to 2010. The project is the result of a $50,000 Recordings at Risk grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources.

"This really is a long time coming," says IABD president and CEO Denise Saunders Thompson of what IABD is calling the Preserving the Legacy and History of Black Dance in America program. "And it's really just the beginning stages of pulling together the many, many contributions of Black dance artists who are a part of the IABD network." Thompson says IABD is already working to secure funding to digitize even more work.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.