Health & Body

The Flexion Connection: Coaching Dancers With Poor Spinal Flexion

Model Lizzie Villareal. Photos by Emily Giacalone

As a young competition dancer, Lauren Saglimbene struggled with spinal flexion, or the curving of the spine that contracts the front of the body and elongates the back. “My modern teachers were constantly correcting me because they thought I didn't understand what a contraction was supposed to look like," she says. “It took a long time for them to figure out my spine just didn't move that way."


Competition judges may ooh and ahh at a ridiculous back-bend, and ballet teachers fawn over the girl whose arabesque leg stretches far beyond 90 degrees. But that exquisite arch, known as the back's extension, is only half of the equation. Flexion is equally important, and for some dancers, the motion poses a little-understood challenge that can leave teachers at a loss for how to help. Without mastering flexion as well as extension, students may be setting themselves up for failure.

A certified strength and conditioning coach, Saglimbene notes that all rotation or spiraling of the spine is half extension and half flexion, so even a small issue with flexion can limit the spine's overall ability to move. For example, ballet dancers with poor spinal flexion can have difficulty achieving full épaulement and keeping their shoulders square in arabesque. Additionally, she warns that those with spinal imbalances will often experience back and neck injuries down the road—from arthritis (which she suffers from) to herniated discs to sciatica.

The good news is there are steps you can take to prevent this outcome. For younger dancers or those whose problem is only minor, she suggests exercises to lengthen hip flexors and psoas into students' pre-class warm-up. (For extreme cases, where dancers can barely contract their spines at all, Saglimbene suggests referring students to a physical therapist, because correcting a lifelong imbalance is no easy feat.) “Often, dancers are sitting at a desk for the majority of the day, so the hip flexors and the psoas muscles start to get short. This creates a natural arch in the lower and middle back—the opposite of a contraction," she says. “Core strength is a great place to start, but until those muscles are released and reset, it's hard to improve on a contraction. You'll be working against the resistance of very strong muscles."

Saglimbene suggests three exercises to increase flexion—two stretches to help create movement in the spine and pelvis, and one exercise to teach dancers to use that extra movement correctly. They are rooted in sports science, designed to strengthen and stabilize muscles while avoiding overstretching.

Supine hip flexor release

1. Lie on your back with a yoga bolster supporting your head and extending to just below your shoulder blades.

2. Let your legs relax at hip width. If legs flare drastically to the sides, tie a belt or towel around the knees.

3. Relax, letting the spine drop toward the floor. On students with limited flexion, the rib cage will be extended. Over time, this section of the body should relax.

* The longer you can stay in this position, the better. Start with a minute, breathing deeply and focusing on letting go of tension in the pelvis. Saglimbene recommends imagining your body is an ice cube melting in the sun.


4. Try the “bottoms up" approach. Put the bolster beneath your hips (not under the vertebrae), so they're lifted in a bridge, and let the lower back hang down. Arms and legs should be relaxed. Take deep breaths for at least a minute.

Rabbit pose

1. Kneel on a yoga mat with your hips on your heels.

2. Fold forward so the top of your head is on the mat, and reach back to grab your heels with your thumbs on the outside. The head should bear only a little weight.

3. Lift the hips. Keep the top of your head on the ground, and don't look side to side. Your spine should make a C curve.

4. Exhale while pulling your heels and continuing to lift the hips. You should feel every vertebra stretching apart. The ultimate goal is to get your forehead to touch your knees.

Rolling with elbow on knee

1. Lying on your back, extend your left arm above your head as you bring the right elbow to touch left knee. The spine will naturally form a gentle curve.

2. Maintaining the connection of elbow to knee, turn your head to the left and roll slowly onto your left side. Try not to let your extended leg lift off the floor.

3. Then, look to the right to initiate the roll back onto your back. Repeat 6 to 12 times, then switch sides.

* This exercise promotes stability and coordination between the nervous system and muscles. You should feel it on the front side of the abdomen, not in the neck.





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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.

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Annika Abel Photography, courtesy Griffith

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"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."

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Studio Owners
Courtesy Tonawanda Dance Arts

If you're considering starting a summer program this year, you're likely not alone. Summer camp and class options are a tried-and-true method for paying your overhead costs past June—and, done well, could be a vehicle for making up for lost 2020 profits.

Plus, they might take on extra appeal for your studio families this year. Those struggling financially due to the pandemic will be in search of an affordable local programming option rather than an expensive, out-of-town intensive. And with summer travel still likely in question this spring as July and August plans are being made, your studio's local summer training option remains a safe bet.

The keys to profitable summer programming? Figuring out what type of structure will appeal most to your studio clientele, keeping start-up costs low—and, ideally, converting new summer students into new year-round students.


Find a formula that works for your studio

For Melanie Boniszewski, owner of Tonawanda Dance Arts in upstate New York, the answer to profitable summer programming lies in drop-in classes.

"We're in a cold-weather climate, so summer is actually really hard to attract people—everyone wants to be outside, and no one wants to commit to a full season," she says.

Tonawanda Dance Arts offers a children's program in which every class is à la carte: 30-minute, $15 drop-in classes are offered approximately two times a week in the evenings, over six weeks, for different age groups. And two years ago, she created her Stay Strong All Summer Long program for older students, which offers 12 classes throughout the summer and a four-day summer camp. Students don't know what type of class they're attending until they show up. "If you say you're going to do a hip-hop class, you could get 30 kids, but if you do ballet, it could be only 10," she says. "We tell them to bring all of their shoes and be ready for anything."

Start-up costs are minimal—just payroll and advertising (which she starts in April). For older age groups, Boniszewski focuses on bringing in her studio clientele, rather than marketing externally. In the 1- to 6-year-old age group, though, around 50 percent of summer students tend to be new ones—98 percent of whom she's been able to convert to year-round classes.

A group of elementary school aged- girls stands in around a dance studio. A teacher, a young black man, stands in front of the studio, talking to them

An East County Performing Arts Center summer class from several years ago. Photo courtesy ECPAC

East County Performing Arts Center owner Nina Koch knows that themed, weeklong camps are the way to go for younger dancers, as her Brentwood, California students are on a modified year-round academic school calendar, and parents are usually looking for short-term daycare solutions to fill their abbreviated summer break.

Koch keeps her weekly camps light on dance: "When we do our advertising for Frozen Friends camp, for example, it's: 'Come dance, tumble, play games, craft and have fun!'"

Though Koch treats her campers as studio-year enrollment leads, she acknowledges that these weeklong camps naturally function as a way for families who aren't ready for a long-term commitment to still participate in dance. "Those who aren't enrolled for the full season will be put into a sales nurture campaign," she says. "We do see a lot of campers come to subsequent camps, including our one-day camps that we hold once a month throughout our regular season."

Serve your serious dancers

One dilemma studio owners may face: what to do about your most serious dancers, who may be juggling outside intensives with any summer programming that you offer.

Consider making their participation flexible. For Boniszweski's summer program, competitive dancers must take six of the 12 classes offered over a six-week period, as well as the four-day summer camp, which takes place in mid-August. "This past summer, because of COVID, they paid for six but were able to take all 12 if they wanted," she says. "Lots of people took advantage of that."

For Koch, it didn't make sense to require her intensive dancers to participate in summer programming, partly because she earned more revenue catering to younger students and partly because her older students often made outside summer-training plans. "That's how you build a well-rounded dancer—you want them to go off and get experience from teachers you might not be able to bring in," she says.

Another option: Offering private lessons. Your more serious dancers can take advantage of flexible one-on-one training, and you can charge higher fees for individualized instruction. Consider including a financial incentive to get this kind of programming up and running. "Five years ago, we saw that some kids were asking for private lessons, so we created packages: If you bought five lessons, you'd get one for free—to get people in the door," says Boniszewksi. "After two years, once that program took off, we got rid of the discount. People will sign up for as many as 12 private lessons."

A large group of students stretch in a convention-style space with large windows. They follow a teacher at the front of the room in leaning over their right leg for a hamstring stretch

Koch's summer convention experience several years ago. Photo courtesy East County Performing Arts Center

Bring the (big) opportunities to your students

If you do decide to target older, more serious dancers for your summer programming, you may need to inject some dance glamour to compete with fancier outside intensives.

Bring dancers opportunities they wouldn't have as often during the school year. For Boniszewski, that means offering virtual master classes with big-name teachers, like Misha Gabriel and Briar Nolet. For Koch, it's bringing the full convention experience to her students—and opening it up to the community at large. In past years, she's rented her local community center for a weekend-long in-house convention and brought in professional ballet, jazz, musical theater and contemporary guest teachers.

In 2019, the convention was "nicely profitable" while still an affordable $180 per student, and attracted 120 dancers, a mix of her dancers and dancers from other studios. "It was less expensive than going to a big national convention, because parents didn't have to worry about lodging or travel," Koch says. "We wanted it to be financially attainable for families to experience something like this in our sleepy little town."

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