Healthy Hips Are Happy Hips

Photo by Emily Giacalone, modeled by Lizzie Villareal

Our hips are overachievers. They are the main source of turnout and the axis of all leg movement. Dancers work them hard. No one knows this better than Heather Heineman, physical therapist at the Harkness Center for Dance Injuries at NYU Langone Medical Center. She treats all kinds of hip injuries in dancers, frequently from overuse. That's due, in part, to dancers' nonstop schedules. “In most sports, you have spring warm-up season, then you compete, then you cool down, then you take a break," she says. “You're still exercising, but you're doing different movements." But for dancers, it's repeat, repeat, repeat, all year round.

Dancers need to know how to properly care for and strengthen their hips—not just for career longevity, but to achieve maximum performing capability. There are several ways hips can suffer, but building the right muscles can help achieve proper technique and avoid injury.


Few athletes use the full range of their hip motion as much as dancers. All that rotation of the femur head in its socket can certainly take its toll. But Heineman adds that common wear-and-tear hip ailments—like snapping hip syndrome, bursitis or a labral tear—often go hand-in-hand with misuse or improper technique. Even in well-trained dancers, weakness or imbalances in the muscles surrounding the pelvis and core can cause a dancer to overwork certain muscles, leading to chronic irritation or worse.

And let's not forget the constant quest for perfect turnout. We've all seen dancers try to force 180 degrees of rotation. They crank from the ankles and knees or tilt the pelvis and stick out the buttocks to find a little more space in the hip sockets. But in turnout, Heineman stresses cheaters never win. In addition to making themselves vulnerable to injury, dancers who try to force extra turnout never actually achieve their fullest rotation. “There's often more turnout available than what those dancers are achieving the wrong way," she says.

There's no shortcut to maximum turnout or to strong, healthy hips. But by incorporating hip- and core-strengtheners into a cross-training routine, dancers will notice a difference over time. Heineman suggests these three exercises, specifically, because they strengthen the muscles needed for leg movement and turnout while stabilizing the core.

Clamshell

Do this for strong external rotators, the group of six small muscles at the back of your hip that run from the hip bone to the femur.

1. Lying on your side, bend your knees so your shoulders, hips and heels are in one line. The pelvis should be neutral, hips stacked one on top of the other.

You should feel this classic exercise in your buttocks. If you feel it in the iliopsoas or the front of the hip, readjust to find a neutral pelvis. Or, change your position so your feet are back behind you and your shoulders, pelvis and knees are in a line.

2. Lift your top knee toward the ceiling, without shifting your hips or pelvis. Think of drawing your top hip toward the heels to keep from hiking or tucking the hip. Lower the knee. Repeat for 2 sets of 10.

Side-Lying Leg Lift

Strengthening your gluteus medius, a smaller muscle behind your hip and under your gluteus maximus, will keep you from overusing the psoas and prevent an anterior pelvic tilt (sticking the backside out).

1. Start lying on your side in a straight line, head to toe, with your buttocks about a fist's distance from the wall. You can support your head with one hand and place the other on the floor in front of you.

2. Extend the top leg in a mini arabesque so the heel touches the wall behind you.

3. Lift and lower the leg slowly, going as high as you can without hiking the hip. (It won't be very high.) Keep both legs parallel. In fact, it may help to think of turning in the working leg slightly. Do 2 sets of 10.

Marching

This engages low and deep abdominals to help you separate the movement of the legs from your pelvis—so you can really keep your hips still when you move to passé.

1. Begin lying on your back with a neutral pelvis, knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Exhale slowly, through pursed lips, like you're blowing air out through a straw. You should feel your lower abs engage.

Rest your hands on the insides of your hips to make sure your psoas muscles aren't engaging, or popping out against your fingers, too much. You don't want the hip flexors to do all the work.

2. Using the abdominals and relaxing the psoas, lift one leg up so the shin is parallel to the floor and the knee is at a 90-degree angle. Keep the pelvis steady. Lower slowly. Switch legs. Repeat for 2 sets of 10.

What Is a Neutral Pelvis?

Finding that sweet spot that's neither tucked nor arched can be tricky, even for teachers. For instance, you can never tell if a dancer is in alignment by looking at her backside, Heineman says. Everyone's derrière is a different size, and you don't want to encourage a curvier dancer to tuck her pelvis. Instead, look at her front. The pelvis is in a neutral position when hip points and pubic bone are on a level plane.

Feel-Good Flexors

Some dancers could lean into a lunge position all day and not feel a stretch in their hip flexors. Heineman has the solution: Lie on your back, feet flat on the floor. Lift your pelvis up into a bridge and slide a foam roller under your sacrum. Pull both knees toward your chest. Hold onto one while you lengthen the other and lower it toward the floor. Keep one hand on your knee and the other on the foam roller to hold it in place. Keep lengthening the leg as long as possible; then allow the knee to bend and lower the heel to the floor. The foam roller tucks your pelvis under for an exquisite stretch across the top of the hip.

Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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Teachers Trending
Alwin Courcy, courtesy Ballet des Amériques

Carole Alexis has been enduring the life-altering after-effects of COVID-19 since April 2020. For months on end, the Ballet des Amériques director struggled with fevers, tingling, dizziness and fatigue. Strange bruising showed up on her skin, along with the return of her (long dormant) asthma, plus word loss and stuttering.

"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.


The state of Alexis' health changes from day to day, and in true dance-teacher fashion, she works through both the good and the terrible. "I tend to be strong because dance made me that way," she says. "It creates incredibly resilient people." This summer, as New York City began to ease restrictions, she pushed through her exhaustion and took her company to the docks in Long Island City, where they could take class outdoors. "We used natural barres under the beauty of the sky," Alexis says. "Without walls there were no limits, and the dancers were filled with emotion in their sneakers."

These classes led to an outdoor show for the Ballet des Amériques company—equipped with masks and a socially distanced audience. Since Phase 4 reopening in July, her students are back in the studio in Westchester, New York, under strict COVID-19 guidelines. "We're very safe and protective of our students," she says. "We were, long before I got sick. I'm responsible for someone's child."

Alexis says this commitment to follow the rules has stemmed, in part, from the lessons she's learned from ballet. "Dance has given me the spirit of discipline," she says. "Breaking the rules is not being creative, it's being insubordinate. We can all find creativity elsewhere."

Here, Alexis shares how she's helping her students through the pandemic—physically and emotionally—and getting through it herself.

How she counteracts mask fatigue:

"Our dancers can take short breaks during class. They can go outside on the sidewalk to breathe for a moment without their mask before coming back in. I'm very proud of them for adapting."

Her go-to warm-up for teaching:

"I first use a jump rope (also mandatory for my students), and follow with a full-body workout from the 7 Minute Workout app, preceding a barre au sol [floor barre] with injury-prevention exercises and dynamic stretching."

How she helps dancers manage their emotions during this time:

"Dancers come into my office to let go of stress. We talk about their frustration with not hugging their friends, we talk about the election, whatever is on their minds. Sometimes in class we will stop and take 15 minutes to let them talk about how their families are doing and make jokes, then we go back to pliés. The young people are very worried. You can see it in their eyes. We have to give them hope, laughter and work."

Her favorite teaching attire:

"I change my training clothes in accordance with the mood of my body. That said, I love teaching in the Gaynor Minden Women's Microtech warm-up dance pants in all available colors, with long-sleeve leotards. For shoes, I wear the Adult "Boost" dance sneaker in pink or black. Because I have long days of work, I often wear the Repetto Boots d'échauffement for a few exercises to relax my feet."

How she coped during the initial difficult months of her illness:

"I live across from the Empire State Building. It was lit red with the heartbeat of New York, and it put me in the consciousness of others suffering. I saw ambulances, one after another, on their way to the hospital. I broke thinking of all the people losing someone while I looked through my window. I thought about essential workers, all those incredible people. I thought about why dance isn't essential and the work we needed to do to make it such. Then I got a puppy, to focus on another life rather than staying wrapped in my own depression. It lifted my spirit. Thinking about your own problems never gets you through them."

The foods she can't live without:

"I must have seafood and vegetables. It is in my DNA to love such things—my ancestors were always by the ocean."

Recommended viewing:

"I recommend dancers watch as many full-length ballets as possible, and avoid snippets of dance out of context. My ultimate recommendation is the film of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev. The cast includes the most incredible étoiles: Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire, Jean-Marie Didière, who were once the students of the revolutionary Claude Bessy."

Her ideal day off:

"I have three: one is to explore a new destination, town, forest or hiking trail; another is a lazy day at home; and the third, an important one that I miss due to the pandemic, is to go to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where my soul feels renewed by the sermons and the music."

Teachers Trending

Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

When the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May catalyzed nationwide protests against systemic racism, the tap community resumed longstanding conversations about teaching a Black art form in the era of Black Lives Matter. As these dialogues unfolded on social media, veteran Dorrance Dance member Karida Griffith commented infrequently, finding it difficult to participate in a meaningful way.

"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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