Practicing Pilates

Pilates is an ideal conditioning method for dancers, because it tones and lengthens muscles, strengthens the core and builds alignment. And providing access to such beneficial fitness doesn’t have to involve the added expense of devoting an entire class to the method and hiring a certified instructor or becoming certified yourself. You can get started by integrating a few simple Pilates-based movements into your warm-up or cool-down. Three experts share the most effective exercises to incorporate into your technique class. Note: Though you don’t need  certification to introduce these basic movements, you should have a sound knowledge of core conditioning. Take a mat class to brush up on the fundamentals, and be sure to go over these movements slowly for students who are unfamiliar with the fitness method.

 

 

THE ROLL-DOWN (pictured)

According to Gina Danene Thompson, artistic director of (PURe) Dance Ensemble, the roll-down exercise is three times more beneficial than a traditional sit-up. She recommends conducting a few repetitions during warm-up and cool-down to help students increase their center strength and improve balance.

1. Begin seated with the knees bent and feet flat on the floor, hip-distance apart. Keep the back straight and shoulders aligned with hips. Extend the arms outward, parallel to the floor.

 

 

 

2. Inhale, lifting the base of the spine upward. When exhaling, tuck the pelvis under, pulling the navel inward so that the lower back creates a curve.

 

 

 

 

3. Using the center, begin to roll the spine down, one vertebra at a time until lying flat. Pay attention to pelvic-navel-spine alignment. Let the arms float overhead.

 

 

 

4. Slowly roll up into a C curve, stacking the spine back together. Tuck the chin to keep the head in line with the spine and the shoulders dropped to lengthen the neck. Reach the arms forward, and relax in starting position.

 

 

Technique Tip:

Make sure feet remain on the floor at all times during this exercise to prevent forcing the workload onto the lower back.

 

 

THE FROG

James Harren of Pilates Houston and Houston Ballet uses the frog movement to help students understand the effect turnout has on pelvic alignment, and to stretch the glutes, abdominals and inner thighs. This move is traditionally done on the reformer, but it can be conducted on the floor with a Thera-Band.

  1. Lie flat on your back and bend the knees in toward the chest. Keep the heels together and the toes a few spaces apart. The base of the spine should be in contact with the floor.

 

 

 

2. Place the exercise band across the balls of the feet; grip it near the knees. Keep the head down (this will mimic the proper spinal placement needed for executing pliés correctly) and use the abs to curl the upper body off the floor. The chest and shoulders should remain wide. Release tension on the band if tugging is felt. Do not tuck the pelvis or let the tailbone roll up.

 

 

 

 

3. Inhale; extend the legs toward the ceiling. Flex the feet, like a plié in first position. Starting at 90 degrees (i.e., perpendicular to the floor), progressively bend the legs down into a diamond shape. Do not drop the knees, or push the stretching limit. Go as far as possible without losing pelvic position or changing turnout.

 

 

 

4. Exhale; return to starting position. Do six to eight extensions.

Technique Tip:

To troubleshoot keeping the heels together, try holding a pad in place between the heels while doing the exercise. When getting familiar with this movement, it’s okay to omit lifting the head or involving the neck and shoulders, especially if straining is felt.

 

THE SWIMMING

Franklin Method teacher Jan Dunn of Denver Dance Medicine advises using the extension-based swimming exercise to properly work the back muscles. 

1. Lie on your stomach with the arms extended above the head and legs straight out. Keep the abdominals engaged and the low back comfortable at all times. Place a pillow under the stomach for extra lower back support. 

2. First, practice raising the arms and upper torso, initially with both arms side by side, then the more advanced swimming motion, where arms alternate extending higher toward the ceiling

with each movement. Avoid hyperextending the cervical spine. Keep the neck and spine long. Do not hold the shoulders down; this will lock the surrounding joint muscles and result in a lesser range of motion. Gaze will be directly at the floor, or slightly out in front. Repeat five times. 

3. Next, practice just raising the legs off the floor, initially side by side, then ease into the advanced swimming motion of one leg at a time. Extend one leg higher toward the ceiling than the other with each alternating movement. Repeat five times. 

4. Put the arm and leg movements together, and slowly transition into the alternating swimming motion. Repeat five times. 

Technique tip:

To help grasp the basic shoulder-girdle anatomy used in this exercise, visualize the shoulder blades sliding down and out the side, widening the upper back as the arms are raised.

 

 

A guild-certified Feldenkrais teacher, Nancy Wozny reports on arts and health from Houston, TX. She is a 2010 scholar in residence at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.

 

Photo: Fitness model Jamie Dowd is a dancer, certified Pilates instructor and personal trainer. She teaches Pilates at Dance New Amsterdam in New York City.

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.

Keep reading... Show less
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.

Keep reading... Show less

Get Dance Business Weekly in your inbox

Sign Up Used in accordance with our Privacy Policy.