Health & Body

The Pelvic Floor: Help Your Dancers Understand This Core Muscle Group

Ashley Wegman, Atlanta Ballet; courtesy of the author

Working as the physical therapist for the Atlanta Ballet, Amanda Blackmon often sees dancers who report hip pain, high hamstring strain or sacroiliac sensitivity and soreness. And while there are a host of reasons for such pains, including the often discussed gripped glute and hip flexor muscles, there is one overlooked culprit: dysfunction in the pelvic floor muscles. Though pelvic floor health has become a hot topic for women postpartum who often need to strengthen weakened and compromised muscles, there is a different set of concerns when it comes to athletes and dancers. "I often see a hypertonic pelvic floor," says Blackmon, "meaning the muscles are overactive or gripped and tight. Also, the obturator internus muscle is an external rotator that is also part of the pelvic floor. When that is gripped (particularly in turnout), it can refer pain to several places around the hip and high hamstring."


A healthy pelvic floor can both contract and relax

The pelvic floor muscles form a figure eight underneath the pelvis, supporting the bladder, bowels and uterus in addition to working as part of your core muscles alongside the diaphragm, abdominal and spinal stabilizers. A healthy pelvic floor is able to both contract and relax, moving in tandem with the diaphragm as you breathe. "The pelvic floor should naturally turn on when a dancer lands a jump, to protect from downward pressure that could otherwise result in incontinence," says Blackmon. "Instead, a lot of dancers are just turning on the glutes and overworking their abdominals and adductor muscles."

Imagine a balloon

One reason for this may be the prevalence of "squeezing" or "in and up" cues in dance and movement modalities. Another reason just might be a lack of awareness of how these muscles best function and what it really feels like when they are working. Blackmon prefers that dancers think of an image of a balloon to understand how their diaphragm, abdominal muscles, pelvic floor and spinal stabilizers create the full container that is their core. The diaphragm and pelvic floor muscles should move in the same way at the same time as dancers breathe, while the spinal stabilizers and abdominal muscles ideally provide posture and balance for the front and back of the body. And like a balloon, too much pressure from any side will cause an imbalance. In dancers, Blackmon usually sees imbalance coming from a few places: a gripped or overactive pelvic floor that is not able to properly contract when needed; a diaphragm that is stuck, due to held breath; and an overactive rectus abdominis, which can exert too much downward pressure on the pelvic floor, making it impossible to engage or lift up.

The solution, in any case, is to learn how to fully relax and fully contract the pelvic floor without overcompensating with bigger, stronger muscles. While Blackmon does not always discuss these highly intimate muscles with younger dancers, she does offer the following exercises as a way to help dancers find more awareness. Identifying how to contract and release these muscles, as well as orienting the ribcage and pelvis in the most advantageous alignment for proper posture, can help keep the "balloon" balanced and maintain the integrity and functionality of a dancer's pelvic floor.

Happy Baby

Ashley Wegman, Atlanta Ballet; courtesy of the author

Breathing in this abducted position allows a dancer to find their pelvic floor muscles without being confused by overactive adductor, gluteus or abdominal muscles. The diaphragm is like a plunger that resides right underneath your lungs. When you breathe in, your lungs expand, and the diaphragm and pelvic floor both drop downward (this is when the pelvic floor should relax). When you exhale, they both lift up (this is when the pelvic floor should contract).

1. Lie on your back with your legs apart in the air, knees bent at a 90-degree angle. Hold onto the outside edges of your feet.

2. Aim to reach your sitz bones away from your head so you can find a lengthened spine and the most neutral pelvis possible.

3. As you exhale, feel a gentle pulling of the navel to spine and a relaxation of your pelvic floor. Your pelvis should stay stable and neutral during the contraction of this muscle.

4. As you inhale, allow your belly to rise gently. You can try bearing down during the inhale to drop your pelvic floor muscles (just as you would when you need to relieve bladder or bowels). Take 10 complete breaths, alternating between releasing and contracting.

Deep Sumo Squat

Ashley Wegman, Atlanta Ballet; courtesy of the author

This supported squat is a nice stretch for dancers and allows any gripped pelvic floor muscles the chance to release and can help relieve constipation caused by such gripping. "In Asian cultures, this is a posture for naturally relaxing in order to go to the bathroom," says Blackmon.

1. In a wider than hip-width stance, feet and knees slightly turned out, hold on to a door frame or other stable surface at hip level.

2. Allow your knees to bend and your hips to sink into a deep squat.

3. Take a few deep breaths here and think of dropping or lowering the pelvic floor.

4. To stand up, send your weight back into your heels as you stretch your knees (creating a sort of flat back, hamstring stretch position) before bringing your torso up over your legs. This works to prevent gripping to stand up.

5. Repeat 5–10 times.

Roll Downs on the Wall

Ashley Wegman, Atlanta Ballet; courtesy of the author

A healthy pelvic floor works in tandem with the diaphragm in a pumping action. For dancers, inhaling also enables spinal extension (aka arabesque) and quite often a dysfunctional pattern can arise where the ribcage becomes stuck in extension if the pelvic floor is gripped and not working properly. Therefore, finding flexion in the thoracic spine can help get the diaphragm and pelvic floor moving functionally again between contraction and release.

1. Stand with your back against a wall, feet about 10 inches away in front of you. Allow negative space for your cervical and lumbar curves away from the wall.

2. On an exhale, begin rolling your head forward and down toward the ground, peeling your spine off the wall. Keep your hips and the lowest part of your ribcage connected to the wall.

3. On an inhale, press down through your feet and restack your spine tall against the wall. Repeat 5–10 times, taking care not to overtuck your chin or your hips so that you can focus on curling through your ribcage.

The Mind/Body Connection

"There is a personality component," says Blackmon. "A gripper is a gripper, and this kind of anxiety-prone, Type A personality can exhibit itself in holding the breath, clenching the jaw and gripping the pelvic floor." In addition to the exercises, finding ways to relax the mind and manage stress may be key to a healthy and functioning pelvic floor.

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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