This post will be part of a series of ruminations on dance technique, healthfulness, and dancing with disabilities.
Of course, as with everything, it is up to your own personal discretion to figure out what works with your body. I give advice based on what I have learned and experienced.
I grew-up dancing, taking mostly modern and ballet classes, and we always did a similar series of stretches and warm-up movements. I’ve since seen the influence of these warm up movements in belly dance classes as well. There is always the assumption that these movements are good for you, when in fact they are often just what that that teacher learned from her teacher, who learned from her teacher and they may or may not actually be good for you. I think as dance teachers, we have the responsibility to study the body and know why we do what we do.
I didn’t start to question these traditional warm-up exercises till I took a Kinesiology class at Mills College several years ago. There I learn about the bio-mechanics of the body and how movement can positively or negatively effect it.
Everyone knows bending over is bad for your back, so why is it when we do it in dance it’s okay?
One exercise my Kinesiology professor had a serious beef with, was the “roll through the spine” movement. This is something I had done everywhere, from jazz, modern, ballet, yoga, belly dance, and even acting classes. All of these very skilled instructors were using this movement, so how could it be bad? Now, this, like most things, is certainly still up for debate. But, as someone who had dealt with serve back issues in my life as a dancer, I tend to listen when I hear a particular movement is unhealthy for the spine.
Here is an example of the movement:
The spine is made up of vertebrae and discs, essentially. When you bend over and curve your back, the curved section of your spine is putting the weight of your entire upper body on that squishy disc (the “jelly doughnut” as my professor called it) at the hinge point. Repeated performance of this can cause wear on the doughnut, then leading to a herniated disc (of which I actually have had several).
Here is a lovely illustration of this that I found in an article published by Olga Cabel, a yoga teacher who is also not a fan of rolling through the spine:
The only dance teacher I have heard speak of not doing roll down movements was actually Rachel Brice. I give her mad props for that.
Now, this is not to say that you need to always keep your back straight as a board and never flex your vertebrae. Not at all. Experts advise only doing dramatic spine flexion movements where you can successfully engage your core muscles to protect the spine. Also, try to avoid doing movements where the entire weight of your upper body (your top half and especially your head are HEAVY) is not hinged on your curved back.
Also, NEVER feel like you have to do everything that the teacher does. Modify it if you need to, it’s your body, and it’s your job to keep it healthy.
Whenever teachers do the roll-through-the-spine thing, I always go down with a flat back, do a deep bend in my knees, so my thighs support my lower back, drape myself there for a bit, and then rise with a flat back.
Always remember your health is number one in any dance class. You don’t need to push yourself over your limit to impress the teacher or other students.
Also, on a totally different note, I had my first performance with Black Magdalene the other night! I will post more about it soon, hopefully when photos are in. It was fun, sweaty, an exercise in endurance and mind-over-nerves, and we looked fabulous. This weekend I’m performing at Cues and Tattoos with Red Moon Rising. So many good things happening.