Spine Health: Making sure your back bend is not a back break
A healthy body is essential for healthy dancing. Spine health is not only important for injury prevention, but also important for improving your technique, strength, endurance, and quality of dance.
Your core protects the spine and keeps your back healthy. Many dancers think of the core as the abdominal muscles (“abs”). The abs are one part of the core. The core also includes the back muscles, the abdominal muscles that wrap around the side of your waist, your hip muscles, and your buttock muscles. All of these muscles contribute to your core. Importantly, strengthening these muscles helps with your control. This means your extensions are able to be held higher and longer, your balance is better, your turns increase, and your artistry improves.
Outer Hip Leg Lift
One of my favorite core exercises focuses on the outside hip muscles. No matter what physical activity you do, you will tend to have muscle imbalances. Dancers work their turnout, so often times the other hip muscles are under-trained. You lie on your side, controlling your waist so you are not arching or tucking. Then, lift the top leg. It is best if you can bring the leg behind you in extension a few inches and turn it in just a little. I think of touching the toes of the moving leg to the arch or heel of the grounded leg. You should feel this working the muscles in the outside of your buttock/hip. You should not feel it working the muscles in your groin or hip flexor area – that means your leg is coming too far in front. Make sure to do both sides evenly.
Another favorite core exercise is planks. This is essentially a push up position that is held in place. It can be held either on the hands or the elbows/arms. Keeping a straight spine without arching or tucking under and not allowing your pelvis to move upward (which makes it easier) is important. Your body should be in a straight line. Ninety seconds is a good goal for a plank. Once you feel confident with your plank, add a side plank. Again, make sure your body is in a straight line and exercise both sides evenly.
A bridge (also known as a half bridge) can also help strengthen your core muscles. Lie on your back with your feet on the ground and your knees bent up, arms by your side. Press your feet into the floor or exercise matt, lifting the hips upward so your weight is on your feet and shoulders. You are now in the bridge position. You then roll down from that position as you exhale and contract.
A strong core leads to a healthy spine. A healthy spine also comes from correct technique. At a young age, when they have less core development, dancers often arch their backs. This is for many reasons, but it can lead to injury. Teachers help their dancers correct this technique error, but sometimes dancers over correct an arching issue and end up tucking. Similar to a contraction, the dancer tilts the pelvis forward, often at the bottom of a demi or grand plié.
The correct alignment is to keep the spine neutral through a plié without arching or tucking. A correct plié influences a neutral spine just as the converse is true: a properly aligned spine produces a quality plié. Teachers at auditions may look for spine alignment and correct use of the core muscles. This is because how dancers use their spine can reveal potential information about their level of control, movement quality, and core strength.
Core cross training helps protect the spine, but it also helps your quality of dance. It is difficult, if not impossible, to maintain the positions required in dance technique without strength. While dance technique alone builds strength, it also builds imbalances, like any other physical activity. Adding a few core exercises can improve your health and your artistry. Happy, healthy dancing!
by: Dr. Kathleen L. Davenport, M.D.