Head-to-Toe Bad Habits and How to Fix Them

Four master teachers weigh in on their approaches to common problems. 

From left to right: Irene Dowd, Sheila Barker, Finis Jhung and Pamela Pietro

Bad habits—they’re enough to drive any dance teacher batty. Seeping into a student’s technique, their routine, almost involuntary nature makes them extremely difficult to break. Dance Teacher asked Finis Jhung, Irene Dowd, Sheila Barker and Pamela Pietro for their advice on conquering common bad habits they see in class.

 

 Jutting Chin

Before

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The tendency to jut the head and chin forward feels so subtle that many dancers aren’t aware they’re doing it. Luckily, adjusting their alignment ever so slightly makes a world of difference. Irene Dowd, who teaches movement-based anatomy/physiology classes at The Juilliard School, uses these two cues to help students have a longer, more relaxed neck and face.

With your fingertip, find where the dancer’s central axis comes out through the top of the head, right above the ears. Have the student “get taller—press against my finger away toward the sky,” says Dowd.

 

 

 

 

Don’t place your fingertip too far forward on the head. “If it is, the face is going to tilt up,” she says.

 

 

 

 

For the second cue, place two fingers on the back of the head, near the base of the skull. Ask the student to “put eyes on the back of your head, open those eyes and see what is behind you.” This also refreshes the face and eases the jaw.

 

 

 

 

Before

Rounded Shoulders

A common postural habit is allowing the shoulders to round forward. In a misguided effort to fix the problem, many students squeeze their shoulder blades together. Instead, Dowd recommends a multistep approach to help dancers discover a more useful strategy.

 

 

 

After

First, widen the distance between the shoulder joints to the sides, “so that both the front and the back of your shoulder girdle expands,” says Dowd.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lift the arms to second position, reaching out with the fingertips as if to touch someone or something you love. “The third finger is going to lead the lower angle of the shoulder blade out into space,” says Dowd.

 

 

 

 

Lift the arms overhead to fifth position, which automatically widens the shoulder blades in back and wraps their lower tips around the armpits.

 

 

 

 

 

Sustain the shoulder blades wide as you bring the arms down again into second.

 

 

 

 

 

Lifeless Arms

Before

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After

Limp, droopy arms are one of Sheila Barker’s pet peeves. “There’s no energy flowing through the body and the fingers,” says the popular Broadway Dance Center jazz teacher. Holding excess tension in the neck and shoulders, and failing to initiate port de bras from the back are usually the culprits (as opposed to lengthening the neck, relaxing the ribs down and rotating through the shoulder, releasing energy down the arm and past the fingers). “It’s not just about the arms,” says Barker. “It’s all connected to the body.”

 

 

 

 

To identify what muscles to engage, Barker recommends dynamic arm rotations in second position (forward and backward). Keeping the shoulders down and neck relaxed, feel the movement initiate from the upper back and scapulas. Use the breath, feeling a release through the back.

 

 

 

Don’t initiate movement from the shoulder girdle and neck. “It doesn’t come from the shoulders,” says Barker. “It comes from the back. There’s an energy and flow and breath that has to be included every time.”

 

 

 

 

Barker often sees energy stop at the elbows. Have students flex their wrists and wiggle the fingers to reconnect them to their lower arms and hands. “Then shake it all out to release some of that energy.”

 

 

 

 

 

Splayed Ribs 

Before

When Pamela Pietro, an associate arts professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts Department of Dance, asks students to narrow and concave their abdominals, they sometimes respond by splaying their ribs out into their front space. They frequently forget to utilize the back of their rib cages. “They pull together in the front, but that’s where your diaphragm is, your breathing mechanism,” says Pietro. “The rib cage needs to move out and in because there’s cardiovascular activity.”

 

 

 

 

To correct splayed ribs, lightly press your hand on the back of the student’s rib cage. “I ask them to draw their rib cage into my fingertips,” says Pietro. “It gives them an area in their back space as they widen and expand.”

 

 

 

 

At the same time, feel the feet draw into the floor while the top of the head moves up toward the ceiling. “Now we’ve created this big, wide, three-dimensional area.” For added imagery, ask students to visualize the rib cage as gills that billow in and out, rather than a static cage.

 

 

 

Arching the Lower Back 

Before

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After

Arching the back is another poor postural habit that consequently releases the stomach muscles and tilts the pelvis down. When Barker sees dancers habitually sink into their lower backs, she recommends this floor exercise to help strengthen their abdominals and lengthen the spine.

 

 

 

 

Lie on your back, with knees bent and feet flat on the ground, hip width apart. Lift the arms overhead, keeping the shoulders and ribs down, and feel the stomach engage into the lower back. Take a deep breath and exhale.

 

 

 

 

Point the feet and inhale. On the exhale, bring the knees into the chest. Without arching the back, lower the legs down, keeping the feet pointed.

 

 

 

 

On the next exhale, lift the knees again and bring hands behind the head. Inhale, and on the exhale curl the upper body in, bringing the elbows into the knees. Holding the position, take another deep breath. Relax any tension in the neck.

 

 

 

 

On the next exhalation, extend legs to 90 degrees, elbows still reaching toward the knees. Hold for two breaths. “You’re not bouncing,” says Barker. “You have a continuous flow of energy just breathing and holding.”

 

 

 

 

Flex the feet, lengthening through the legs and maintaining the upper-body curl with elbows in. “Feel the energy going out and up,” says Barker. Hold for two breaths, and release.

 

 

 

 

Hiked Working Hip 

Before

A common bad habit (noted by master teacher Finis Jhung) occurs when students hike the working hip during passé and développé. In an effort to pull up in their supporting leg or to lift the working leg higher, they neglect their hip alignment, resulting in a tilted pelvis. “It’s a bit hard to pirouette like this,” says Jhung. “It’s really easy to fall over, though!”

 

 

 

 

After

To help identify proper hip alignment, have students execute a simple grand plié in first position, preferably facing a mirror. Point out the squareness of the hips at the bottom of grand plié. “The knees are level with the hips, and your pelvis is not tilted,” says Jhung.

 

 

 

 

 

With that added awareness, have them try passé, keeping the hips as level as possible. “You want to keep yourself always in the center of the body, balanced and square.”

 

 

 

 

Knees Not Aligned Over Toes 

Before

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After

When students measure their turnout based on the position of their feet, they often wrench them past their natural hip rotation. As a result, their knees don’t align over the toes (especially in plié), putting them at risk for injury. “The foot rolls in, the knee collapses and there’s no support or muscular control,” says Jhung.

 

 

 

 

 

To help students determine their true range of rotation from the hip, start by having them stand in parallel facing a mirror, with both hands on the barre. Lift the right leg to 45 degrees, keeping the foot flexed.

 

 

 

 

Turn out the right leg, making sure not to move the hips, and lower.

 

 

 

 

 

Repeat with the left leg, finishing in first position. Do not bend the knees to force turnout at the ankle. “This is your personal position,” says Jhung.

 

 

 

 

Plié sideways to the mirror to ensure that the hip, knee and toes are in alignment. Feel contact with the floor and a muscular connection between the hips, knees and toes.

 

 

 

 

Holding Tension in the Feet 

Before

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After

“This habit drives me crazy,” says Pietro. “Students do not use their feet to the fullest expansion, so the toes start crunching.” She cites over-pointing the foot as the source of tension. “Aesthetically it’s a great line,” she says, but dancers often neglect to release the foot as it articulates through the floor, especially while attempting to find their balance or move rapidly. “I like them to feel the extension of the foot drawing into the floor, so that they’re using the entire foot—the top, the bottom and all the way around.”

 

 

 

 

To find the full surface of the foot on the floor, imagine the space between the ball of the big toe, ball of the little toe and the inside and outside edge of the heel growing wider, while the fascia underneath the foot spreads out.

 

 

 

 

Additionally, elongate through the toes and create space between the metatarsals.

 

 

 

 

“Think of big, spongy feet—what I call ‘platypus feet’—pressing into the floor,” says Pietro. DT

 

 

 

 

 

Troy Herring and Ashley Halger, both 21, are senior dance division students at The Juilliard School.

Photographed by Kyle Froman

Dance Teachers Trending
Roshe (center) teaching at Steps on Broadway in New York City. Photo by Jacob Hiss, courtesy of Roshe

Although Debbie Roshe's class doesn't demand perfect technique or mastering complicated tricks, her intricate musicality is what really challenges students. "Holding weird counts to obscure music is harder," she says of her Fosse-influenced jazz style, "but it's more interesting."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Alternative Balance
Courtesy Alternative Balance

As a dance teacher, you know more than anyone that things can go wrong—students blank on choreography onstage, costumes don't fit and dancers quit the competition team unexpectedly. Why not apply that same mindset to your status as an independent contractor at a studio or as a studio owner?

Insurance is there to give you peace of mind, even when the unexpected happens. (Especially since attorney fees can be expensive, even when you've done nothing wrong as a teacher.) Taking a preemptive approach to your career—insuring yourself—can save you money, time and stress in the long run.

We talked to expert Miriam Ball of Alternative Balance Professional Group about five scenarios in which having insurance would be key.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Photo by Brian Guilliaux, courtesy of Coudron

Eric Coudron understands firsthand the hurdles competition dancers face when falling in love with ballet. Now the director of ballet at Prodigy Dance and Performing Arts Centre in Frisco, Texas, Coudron trained as a competition dancer when he was growing up. "It's such a structured form of dance that when they come back to it after all of the other styles they are training in, they don't feel at home at the barre," he says.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teachers Trending
Kendra Portier. Photo by Scott Shaw, courtesy of Gibney Dance

As an artist in residence at the University of Maryland in College Park, Kendra Portier is in a unique position. After almost a decade of performing with David Dorfman Dance and three years earning her MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she's using her two-year gig at UMD (through spring 2020) to "see how teaching in academia really feels," she says. It's also given her the rare opportunity to feel grounded. "I'm going to be here for two years," she says, which offers her the chance to figure out the answers to some hard questions. "What does it mean to not dance for somebody else?" she asks. "What does it mean to take my work more seriously? To realize I really like making work, and figuring out how that can happen in an academic place."

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Turn It Up Dance Challenge
Courtesy Turn It Up

With back-to-back classes, early-morning stage calls and remembering to pack countless costume accessories, competition and convention weekends can feel like a whirlwind for even the most seasoned of studios. Take the advice of Turn It Up Dance Challenge master teachers Alex Wong and Maud Arnold and president Melissa Burns on how to make the experience feel meaningful and successful for your dancers:

Keep reading... Show less
Dancer Health
Deanna Paolantonio leads a workshop. Photo courtesy of Paolantonio

Deanna Paolantonio had been interested in body positivity long before diabetes ever crossed her mind. As a Zumba and Pilates instructor who had just earned her master's degree in dance studies, she focused her research on the relationship between fitness and body image for women and young girls. Then, at age 25, just as she was accepted into the PhD program at York University in Toronto, she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes (T1D).

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by The Studio Director

As a studio owner, you're probably pretty used to juggling. Running a business is demanding, with new questions and challenges pulling your attention in a million different directions each day.

But there's a solution that could be saving you time and money (and sanity!). Studio management systems are easy-to-use software programs designed for the particular needs of studio owners, offering tools like billing, enrollment, inventory and emails, all in one place. The right studio management system can help you handle the day-to-day tasks that bog you down as a business owner, leaving you more time for the most important work—like connecting with students and planning creative curriculums for them. Plus, these systems can keep you from spending extra money on hiring multiple specialists or using multiple platforms to meet your administrative needs.

So how do you make sure you're choosing a studio management system that offers the same quality that your studio does? We talked to The Studio Director—whose studio management system provides a whole host of streamlined features—about the must-haves for any system, and the bonuses that make an excellent product stand out:

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Robin Nasatir (center) with Peter Brown and Vicki Gunter. Photo by Christian Peacock

On a sunny Thursday morning in Berkeley, California, Robin Nasatir leads her modern class through a classic seated floor warm-up full of luscious curves and tilts to the soothing grooves of Bobby McFerrin. Though her modern style is rooted in traditional José Limón and Erick Hawkins techniques, the makeup of her class is far from conventional. Her students range in age from 30 all the way to early 80s.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: I need advice on proper classroom management for dancers in K–12—I can't get them to focus.

A: Classroom management in a K–12 setting is no different than in a studio. No matter where you teach, I recommend using a positive-reinforcement approach first. As a general rule, what you pay attention to is what you get. When a student acts out, it's generally done in order to gain attention. Rather than giving attention to them for inappropriate behavior, call out other students who are exhibiting the positive behaviors you desire. Name the good actions, and all of your students will quickly learn what it takes to be noticed.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips

For an aspiring professional dancer, an unexpected injury can feel like a death sentence to a career that hasn't even started. The recovery process following an injury can be one of the most grueling and heartbreaking experiences a performer will ever face. In times like these, dance teachers have the power to boost or weaken a dancer's morale.

With that in mind, we've compiled a list of do's and don'ts for talking to a seriously injured dancer.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Teacher Tips
Getty Images

Q: Last season I had three dancers on my junior team who struggled all year. They've trained with me for years, yet they keep sliding farther behind their classmates. What should I do?

Keep reading... Show less

mailbox

Get DanceTeacher in your inbox