Guest author: Quintessa Raynor (dancer, musician, artist)
“Dance is a performance art form consisting of purposefully selected sequences of human movement that have aesthetic and symbolic value, and that are acknowledged as ‘dance’ by performers and observers within a particular culture.” Wikipedia.
Unlike most other sports and activities that are typically goal-oriented – their purpose to score a basket, get a touchdown, hit a home run, etc. – and/or that involve paying particular attention to the mechanics of the body and its physical capabilities (run fast, jump high, endure longer, etc.) in order to achieve these goals, dance is a little different.
Yes, dancers are also subject to the rigorous physicality of it all – form is extremely important, after all – yet the act itself (dancing per se) is done with a greater intent. There is no end “goal”, rather the entirety of the piece is created to be aesthetically pleasing, to look effortless, and to make the audience feel something. In doing so, every single movement down to the smallest detail must be taken into account. Dance is about the exploration of the body and how it moves, and how to make it move to look beautiful and effortless.
For dancers, a mind/body connection is key. Of course, most athletes work on their mind/body connection as well – at least the good ones do – but for dancers, it is an integral part of their process, hence the reason why dance is considered an “art” and not so much a sport. Dancers who cannot feel and then convey the emotional part are missing something.
But here is the cross over – the best athletes make what they do look effortless. They are beauty in motion. They have that “je ne sais quoi” quality about them – that very same quality that is at the very core of dance, that makes it what it is.
How can learning dance techniques help others, both athletes and non-athletes? Doing so would force you to be in the moment, to really pay attention to the smallest intricacies of movement and the functioning of your body, to master that mind/body connection, and to learn how to connect breath to movement, as it is what drives all movement in dance, and all admirable, beautiful – and hence most EFFICIENT – movement in general. And what person wouldn’t want to be able to do that?
Every movement in dance, begins with good posture.
It is the basis for all good movement whether you are a dancer or not. How to achieve it? Imagine there is a pole running from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet. Now turn every muscle in your body “on”, including the ones in your feet as they remain firmly planted on the ground.
Neutral dance posture should include: the chest lifted, the shoulder blades “gently open” (note: they are NOT fully protracted, nor are they retracted), the spine is elongated, the tailbone tucked slightly under, the core is braced, the chin is lifted so that your gaze would look out over the top of an imaginary audience, the thighs are squeezed together, the feet firmly planted with most of your weight resting on the balls of your feet rather than your heels, legs may or may not be turned out depending on the dance style. If turned out, the line of your foot should be in line with your knee in order to prevent injury.
Movement begins with a single breath.
As mentioned earlier, matching breath to movement is an integral part of dance. Learning to do both together – to move AND breath – in conjunction with each other, and in specified ways, takes practice. Try this simple exercise to begin: with your back straight and tailbone relaxed, begin by releasing any remaining tension from your body, coming to a standing neutral position. Inhale through the abdomen 1, 2, 3, hold, and release 1, 2, 3, rest. Repeat a few times.
Note that taking a full breath does NOT mean you are just puffing out your chest. Focus instead on widening the ribcage through your sides and back. You should be able to feel the expansion happening under your armpits and throughout your diaphragm. Almost like a puppet, as your ribcage fills with air, the oxygen and energy then travel out through your shoulder, through the upper arm, elbow, forearm, wrist, and finally, right out to the tips of your fingers.
As you exhale, the energy travels back along the same path, bringing you once again, to an engaged neutral position. The whole process should make you feel like you have wings.
Make sure you aren’t just going through the motions here. Really try to feel the breath getting to every bone and muscle.
THE THIRD EYE
A dancer’s third eye is located in the middle of the sternum and helps direct focus upward and outward. Envisioning that every movement starts from this spot will help you connect with your breath, while amplifying the power and feeling behind it.
Either from a neutral standing or a neutral sitting position (legs crossed), contract your core muscles to create a hollow “C” shape in the middle of your torso, like someone has punched you in the stomach. Now release back to neutral. During this exercise, do not allow the neck or shoulders to move. You want to isolate only the core muscles without sacrificing posture.
First Position Plié: Hands on hips, stand with feet turned out on a forty-five degree angle, or as rotated as your thighs and knees allow, with heels together. Now, bend the knees until you can not bend any further without raising your heels off the ground. Pause, then come back up by squeezing the tops of the thighs and the glutes together. Make sure your tailbone stays tucked under the entire time. You may hold onto something for support, but the support should be at level with the bottom of your rib cage. No higher, or it will cause your arms and shoulders to raise, sacrificing proper posture.
Second Position Plié: Hands on hips, stand with your feet slightly wider than hip width this time, feet still turned out, repeat the plié. Take your time with these – the slower the plié, the more effective the exercise.
*POINTING THE FOOT* – To avoid what dancers refer to as “sicklin” the foot, when putting weight on the foot, press the heel and ankle forward. This will work turn-out and strengthen the arch of the foot, as well as the ankle, thus preventing injury.
Tondue: From 1st position, keep thighs engaged, and with one leg, allow your inner ankle/heel to guide the foot forward until the leg is fully extended. The ball of the foot should be pushing through the floor during the movement (however small), but once the leg is fully extended, the toes come to a point.
The heel will be raised off the floor. Now reverse the toe-ball-heel sequence to lower and close the leg, bringing it back to first position with the thighs pulling together. Weight should remain on the supporting leg the entire time.
Glissé: Repeat steps from the tondue slightly faster. At the end of the extension, allow the toes to press through the floor, point and sweep off of it about two inches. Hold for a split second, keeping the heel forward in the air. Then lower the leg and close, the thighs squeezing together to do so.
Battement: Repeat the steps from the glissé, but allow the leg to kick as high as possible without raising the hip or sacrificing posture. Really contract the quads to help in getting the leg higher while maintaining control. Focus as well on the hip flexor working when your leg is raised. These muscles plays a crucial role in jumping, leaping, and landing safely.
When putting weight on the foot, place most of the weight on the balls of the foot under the big toe, as the inner side can naturally handle more pressure than the outer side. Rarely do dancers put all their weight on their heels; this creates a “light as a feather effect”.
PREPARING TO JUMP
The explosive power of a jump or leap is the result of pushing energy through the floor. A safe landing requires reabsorbing that energy through the foot.
Elevé: Hold onto something for support, and stand with your heels together in first position. Push into the ground through the balls of your feet, allowing your weight to be evenly distributed between both legs. Take most of your bodyweight on the ball of your foot under your big toe. All of your toes should be spread out so that you can grip the floor. Rather than curling them under, pretend they are like “suction cups”.
Now raise your heels completely off the floor, and balance.
Focus on the sensation of being light on your feet, as if you were being lifted from a string attached to the top of your head – legs remain straight and muscles engaged the whole time. Keep your inner ankles and heel pushing forward to allow your weight to remain distributed safely throughout the foot. Hold for 10 seconds, then lower slowly, still remembering that string pulling you up. Do NOT clunk down, both the rise and lower should be graceful and light.
Relevé: From a standing neutral, combine the plié and the élevé to perform a proper rélevé. Bend as you would in a normal plié, but instead of stretching before the élevé, spring upward to the position reached at the top of the élevé, with the heels forward and the weight on the balls of your feet beneath your big toes.
Keep your tailbone tucked, your shoulders down, and your core tight. This is a preparatory move for jumps, and will help you to become familiarize with the beginnings of “explosive power” before it really comes into play.
Note that for both the elevé and relevé, you can strengthen your calves more by putting one foot behind with your heel touching the bottom of your calf. Then raise, hold, and lower as described above. Repeat on the other foot.
Sauté: Similar to a relevé, plié first, and spring upwards but instead of stopping the moment to balance on the balls of your feet, allow your feet to follow the same “ground releasing” pattern from the glissé, and jump off the floor.
Note that you must hit the position of the fully stretched leg before jumping off the floor, heels forward and toes pointed. The same “toe-ball-heel” pattern will be used to land properly, and cushion your feet on impact. It’s crucial to know how to position your feet on both the take-off and the landing to avoid injury. The plié is used to prepare your body for a light, controlled, yet explosive jump.
Learning to move body parts individually will help you with control when you are asked to move everything together. Perfect one before adding another. The muscle memory needed to do combinations of things must be solidified first in single areas.
For the following exercises, try not to move any body part except for the one you are working.
Hips: Place hands on hips and feet slightly wider than shoulder width apart. Isolate the hips, moving them to the right and then the left.
Now, try moving them front and back.
Next, try circling your hips in both directions.
For a challenge, move your hips in a figure 8.
Ribs: Standing in a neutral position, place your hands on your hips. Stick out your ribcage, without allowing you elbows to fall behind you. Then pull your ribcage back, hollowing out the front of your chest. Alternate from front to back.
Now, try moving your ribcage to the left and right without tilting your entire body.
For a challenge, move your ribs in a figure 8.
Ankle Rolls: Holding something for support and on the ball of the foot, roll your ankle slowly in one direction, then the other. Repeat on both sides.
Head: Focusing on your chin, stick out your head forward and then pull in back. As if your ear was being pulled, try moving the head to each side without allowing it to also tilt in the opposite direction. Think “move like a chicken”!
This is the ‘letting go’ of formal technique. It is dance as a form of self-expression, during which we allow the body to move without overthinking it too much. Do not be fooled however. A solid foundation in ballet technique is helpful to making a good modern dancer. It’s like an expressionist painter cannot take liberties with form if they do not know the basics of conventional art in the first place. Same with dance. One cannot be free if a certain level of physical literacy is not met to begin with.
Triplets: From a neutral standing position, take one step forward on a bent leg with a flat foot, followed by two steps with straight legs on the rise, with the weight on the balls of your feet.
This sequence follows a DOWN, UP, UP, DOWN, UP, UP, DOWN, UP, UP pattern.
Note that this is a travelling step, and you want to focus on moving through space, cutting through the air, rather than bouncing up and down. Imagine you are balancing a plate on top of your head the entire time.
Spirals: Standing tall, feet shoulder-width apart, in a neutral position, place both arms straight out to the side. Then twist from the spine, curving both arms into an S-shape around your body. Feel the twist in your body as you look over the shoulder of the front arm.
Sweeping of the arms: Stand in a neutral position and raise your arms above your head. Bend and release arms to one side of your body, allowing the body to twist and the arms to sweep down, behind and around, bringing them back above your head. Repeat to the other side.
Note that this is meant to be a continuous movement, repeated multiple times on each side.
Pay attention to breath; release and exhale while the arms sweep down. Inhale while they swing back up above the head.
Sit Rolls & Suspension: From a wide kneeling position, sit and cross the lower leg underneath you, rolling on your buttocks to the other side, using your hands for support. Extend the other leg coming out of the roll to kneel on the other side.
The purpose of this exercise is to feel the dynamic change when your body gives in to gravity during the roll versus the brief suspension of the kneel. The back knee during the suspension can come off the ground in order for your body to really feel the weightlessness during that “high point”. Arms during the suspension should naturally swing forward to aid your body off the ground.
Don’t think of technique or posture, rather allow your body to suspend for a moment, and then release all of the energy into the ground.
(Think: UP! DOOOOOOOWN, UP!)
S Runs: Maintaining that spiral shape, follow the body’s natural urge to fall backwards, catching yourself with your feet. Continue running while looking over that shoulder, completing one side of the S. Then, switch directions without breaking the running pattern.
Allow the arms to swing to the other side and twist the body and head to look over the other shoulder, completing the other side of the S.
Note that his is a travelling step and should take up as much space as possible.
Modern Balances: Start from a standing position with one foot firmly grounded and the other resting lightly behind on the ball of your foot. Bending the legs, step the back leg to the side, then step the other foot behind with both legs still bent. With the weight still on that foot, rock backwards releasing the front foot from the ground very slightly and then lower. Repeat to the other side.
During the wide open step, the arms swing forward, once the feet cross, the arm opposite in the direction of movement crosses over the chest.
Note that his is a continuous movement, meant to be repeated multiple times without stopping.
Bounces/Rebound Effect: Standing in a relaxed manner, simply allow your knees to bounce. Feel the rebound as legs bend, straighten slightly, rebend, then straighten fully.
Now extend the arms in front of you to prepare, and allow the body to release forward, dropping down as you bend your knees. During the peak of the rebound, scoop the arms into a C shape behind you on each side of your body and hollow the abdomen. Stretch and swing the arms back up to their starting position.
Next, try adding a hop during the peak of the rebound.
Body Roll: Starting from a standing neutral position, scoop the neck forward and up (like you are drawing the letter “J” with your face) until you feel the movement in between your shoulder blades. Continue the movement through the chest, moving the roll downwards through the body, ribs, stomach, hips and knees. Finally, release the body roll out your tailbone.
A dancer moves best when the muscles are limber and warm. These are just a FEW of the many, many exercises we use to work on flexibility.
Frog: Lying down on your stomach, bring your heels together. Try to keep your buttocks and hips as close to the ground as possible. Hold for one to two minutes at a time.
Butterfly: In a neutral sitting position, with your back straight and abs braced, bring your heels together and toward your body, and allow your knees to gently bounce up and down at first, and then hold them down, staying that way for one to two minutes.
Straddle: In a neutral sitting position, extend your legs to either side as wide as possible. Keep your back straight, abdominals tight, toes pointed, and knees facing the ceiling.
To work the straddle, bring one arm in front, the other over to one side, lengthening your muscles along the side of the body while trying to touch your toes. Execute gentle bounces while opening up the side of the ribcage.
Repeat on the other side.
Twist so that your chest is facing one leg, and try to bring your belly to your knee, bending from the hip. Execute gentle bounces with keeping your back as straight as you can, bending from the hip. Repeat on the other side.
Raise both arms above your head, and tilt forward slightly from your pelvis, keeping knees tracking straight up, and toes pointed. Hold for ten seconds, then tilt another 20 degrees forward. Hold for another ten seconds. Remember to keep your back straight, and watch those knees don’t start rotating forward toward the floor. Once you cannot come forward any further without rounding your back, put your arms out to the sides and “hover” for another ten seconds.
Release the tension now, allowing back to curve, and hold for the last ten seconds.
Place one hand on the opposite shoulder and allow the body to twist naturally. While sweeping the arms down and across the floor release the upper body, allowing it to follow the movement. Making sure to move through these positions:
- hand to leg
- body open w/ both hands on legs
- other hand on leg
- other hand back up to shoulder
Head Roll: Tilt your head to one side, bringing your ear toward that shoulder. Slowly allow your head to roll forward, feeling the lengthening of your spine, allowing your head to hang to the front for a brief moment. Continue by rolling the head to the other side – ear to the shoulder again.
Full Body: Gently pulse or simply hold each of the following positions for eight counts.
- Stand with your legs slightly wider than shoulder width apart, toes pointing out at a forty-five degree angle. Reach up and over to one side. Hold or gentle pulse.
- Now turn body so chest comes parallel to the floor out over that same leg. Stay in that flat back position with arms out to the slide. Hold or gently pulse.
- Continuing on that same side, reach down toward foot, bringing chest to knee, bending from the hip. Relax the neck. Hold or gently pulse.
- Still hanging down, bring the body to the middle and hold both legs to pull the stretch further. Bend and straighten the legs, each time, pulling your body deeper into the stretch.
On the last bend, roll your body up to a standing neutral position, feeling each vertebrae in your spine as you do so. Now you are going to do the same sequence, but on the opposite side of the body.
Point/Flex:Sitting in a neutral position, extend one leg forward and point the foot. Move through the foot, feeling the balls of your feet initiate and complete the point, allowing the toes to spread with energy, before even pointing themselves. The toes should be the last thing to move in a pointed foot; if you feel cramps, your working the right muscles!
To flex, allow the toes to release and pull back first, before pulling the balls of the feet out of a pointed position. The flexed foot should almost bring your heels right off the ground.
There should be energy working in the whole leg and foot during the entirety of this movement!
That’s it for now. There is so much more to learn from the world of dance. These are just a few of the basics. We hope you enjoyed this introduction. Now go practice some of these things – move more to live better! #masteryourmachine #movementismedicine