I have a dancer who has a very tight back. She can't even touch her toes. She says it doesn't hurt, but she feels no stretch. I am able to push her back down further (with no pain for her), but she just can't do it on her own. How can I help her? —Anna
Deborah Vogel is a neuromuscular educator and director of The Body Series. Here, she works with Mariah Aivazis. Photo by Jim Lafferty
Turnout—the outward rotation of the hips that dancers are constantly striving to improve. Yet few actually have the 180-degree outward rotation that is so idealized. In her 40-plus years of working as a movement analyst, Deborah Vogel has only come across a handful of dancers who have it. "That's structural," she says. "They have a shallow hip socket, so the head of the thighbone can move in a greater range. The rotation at the hip for the general population, though, is 90 degrees—about 45 degrees in each direction."
Although a dancer's range of motion depends on her structure, Vogel says she can still improve her turnout. "They're not going to get to 180. But if they have good muscle balance, they can improve their ability to stand in greater than 90-degree turnout."
I have, according my dance teachers, the "perfect dancer body." My legs are hyperextended and I have perfect turnout. If I have the "perfect dancer body," then why does my body hurt so much while I dance?
When I am lying down on my back with my feet together and knees apart and press down on my knees, my hips pop. It feels really good. However, now when my hips don't pop, they hurt, and my lower back starts to hurt as well. What do I do to get them to pop, and is it even healthy?
Photo by Jim Lafferty; modeled by Sydney Magruder, courtesy of Broadway Dance Center
"If you don't have strong abdominal muscles, you sag into your lower back, your pelvis usually tips and you're hanging out and slumped into your hip joints," says Deborah Vogel, movement analyst, neuromuscular expert and co-founder of the Center for Dance Medicine in New York City. "It just has this whole chain reaction."
The effects of poor core strength can be dire for dancers: from weak and tight hip flexors, which negatively impact extensions, to lower-back discomfort and misaligned shoulders and necks. "Having well-toned abdominals for your posture is the primary reason why you should do stabilizing exercises," says Vogel. "It will allow you to bring your pelvis into correct alignment and good posture."
One of my dancers has knee pain that is baffling me. She dances 5–6 hours a week and has had the pain for a few months. She says it doesn't hurt until she starts dancing, and certain strenuous movements make it worse. She says the pain is at the bottom of her kneecap and mentioned that her locker at school is on the bottom (which means 4–5 grand pliés a day). I have been encouraging her to see a doctor and wondered if you had any thoughts on this?
Having pain at the bottom of the kneecap, especially if it is between the kneecap and the tendon attachment on the top front of the shinbone, is often diagnosed as jumper's knee or tendinitis of the quadriceps tendon. You are right in thinking that a deep squat or grand plié would put extra stress on that tendon. Couple that with potential growth spurts and you've got problems. Encourage her to focus more on stretching and releasing the quadriceps muscles and see if that helps.
Going to a doctor is a smart move. She will test the knee for ligament laxity and watch whether the patella, or kneecap, moves straight and smooth as your student bends and straightens her knees. Pain underneath the kneecap can come from cartilage or meniscal problems.
Good luck with getting a proper diagnosis. She's lucky to have you as her teacher!