Part 2 of 3 with LISA HOWELL
If you haven’t yet read PART 1 of this three-part interview, I recommend you do so first as there’s much in there that leads into Part 2.
Building on Part 1, Lisa covers the role that fascia plays in becoming good at turns, jumps or at adage and offers her thoughts on what teachers and dancers can do to improve the areas they may not see themselves as so “naturally” good at.
“Fascia helps conduct force. It’s basically the organ of movement. If you think of your muscle fibres contracting, they can’t really do anything until that force is transferred through the body.”
Fascia – the web that is us
Understanding fascia, what it is and how it impacts on our ability to move is potentially the most crucial to the overall feeling of the turn, jump and adage and as such we’re going to cover this in some detail.
Fascial Tension and Integrity
The right fascial tension is an area that is integral to every aspect of the dancer. To summarise (and please contact Lisa directly for more detailed information: her contact is at the bottom) Lisa explains fascia as;
One of the most important organs of the human body. It’s not merely the sausage-like skin around a muscle, but instead wraps in and around every bundle of muscle fibres and every individual myofibril. It’s in and around your eyeballs, in and around your brain, in and around your small intestine; connecting everything to everything. If you were to dissolve away every other cell of the body except the fascia, you’d be left with a spider-web-like shape of a human.
Thomas Myers (Anatomy Trains) dissected out nine main lines throughout the body where fascia is continuous across extended areas. The organisation and development of these lines is extremely helpful in dancing. If you see someone who has beautiful line and creates beautiful, effortless shapes, they’ve often trained their fascial system well (often subconsciously) so that they are able to use the least amount of muscle yet get beautiful suspension along a line.
Fascia helps conduct force. It’s basically the organ of movement. If you think of your muscle fibres contracting, they can’t really do anything until that force is transferred through the body. So, the fascia is what transmits the force from one area to another to create movement.
Too much fascial tension and we’ll feel tight and restricted. Not enough and we’ll be too languid, lack buoyancy and resilience, and fast movements will feel more difficult and less spring-like. As we move, fascia constantly stores and releases kinetic energy from our movement. Harnessing its natural potential can make movement feel lighter and less muscled. And while we’re all born with a particular genetic predisposition to a certain fascial tension there is also a lot we can do either increase that tension, or release it and this will have a huge impact on our ability to turn, jump and be good at adage.
I wondered about the genetic reasons someone might be born with particularly tight or loose fascia and Lisa explained:
At the extreme end, if we’re looking at Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, and similar connective tissue disorders, there is a genetic mutation of a specific gene involved in the production of collagen and other proteins. This often manifests as slow wound healing, joint hypermobility, and excessive tissue scarring. As there is a fault in the making of one of the proteins, the body struggles making collagen and so the connective tissues are looser.
This loose connective tissue can often be the defining characteristic which means some see themselves as “stretchy-flexy” dancers. Lisa again:
With the bouncier people, the little pocket rockets, their fascia is often more effectively formed, so when they land, they store energy in the tissues and are actually bouncing on their fascia and are therefore using less muscular effort.
When we land the whole body is storing energy, “especially the foot, ankle, knee, hip and spine” and then we get the benefit of recoil on take-off when the fascial system is working well. Fascinated by this talk of fascia and its ability to store energy in recoil for take-off, I wondered what we could do to change the fascial tension we’re born with. Lisa:
Simply changing the thought of your jumps can help make for better jumps and the involvement of stored tension in the fascial system. Many dancers have been taught to always get their heels down in allegro, however I’ll often suggest an exercise to bounce like a ball instead, which seems counter to what we’ve all been taught. The instant change in how it feels in the body is amazing. Fascia responds to load that’s put on it. If we put it on a slow, sustained stretch it will ooze and lengthen, yet if we traction it with speed, it will stiffen. Bouncing more naturally allows the natural storage and release of energy in the fascial tissue, which can get lost with forcefully grounding the heels.
For those needing a tighter, more spring-like quality to their fascia, if you bounce on the jumps a little more the body will lay down more fascia where it’s needed and in time this will make you a better jumper. In short: your fascia responds to the load that’s put on it. You need to load it in ways that are gentle and safe at first to kickstart it into responding and then increase the challenge over time, and always with optimal alignment.
Lisa explains that when she’s treating and performing massage, if she eases in slowly the fascia will give and become more malleable, yet if she pushes too fast the fascia will resist and recoil. I’m sure many of us have experienced this during treatments. It’s for this reason that Lisa explains that it’s important for a manual therapist to be “in tune” with the ability of those being treated to relax, rather than simply trying to force the muscle into submission.
Eccentric loaded training is also very helpful in laying down more fascial tissue where it is needed. Eccentric training is where a muscle is loaded yet lengthening. Take a bicep curl as an example: in the concentric phase of the movement the muscle is contracting, and the bicep is getting shorter to lift the weight away from gravity. In contrast, in the eccentric phase of movement the arm extends, and the muscle slowly lengthens as you return the weight toward gravity i.e. lengthening under load.
I started to wonder; can someone who isn’t “naturally” a jumper, whose collagen is looser ever achieve the same degree of jumping prowess and ease as someone whose fascia is naturally more densely packed and springy? Lisa believes they can, yet there is a significant BUT in there. While it’s possible even for people with loose fascia to become good at jumping to a professional level, it will always take more work for them to keep those fibres tighter and more dense, as there will remain a natural tendency of the body to want to revert to a conditioning that is more loose.
I further began to wonder if there was a chance of this “bouncing” leading to the ailment commonly known as Shin Splints, which is often thought caused by not getting our heels down in jumps.
Lisa is actually not a fan of the term “Shin Splints”, because it’s actually a general term for at least three different injuries. To understand this better head to The Ballet Blog section on this: https://www.theballetblog.com/portfolio/shin-splints-2/
Not getting your heels down is not actually what causes shin pain or any of the various conditions that often get referred to as ‘shin splints’. The cause is usually a lack of deceleration and shock absorption. If a student is struggling with the depth of their plié then that is definitely something we want to work on, but you can’t ask them to work on it by asking them to get their heels down while jumping. We want to make sure they have access to a good depth of plié, but a huge part of that is the foot having the ability to deform in fondue. So many of us were taught, “lift your arches, don’t roll”, yet this is completely against our functional anatomy. We want the foot to lengthen and pronate slightly on landing, to assists with deceleration and spread the load of the landing forces. Alongside that, there’s a kinetic energy that gets stored in all three arches of the foot [two longitudinal arches and one transverse] which assists as a spring for take-off. If you are bracing the foot, to actively prevent any pronation, you don’t get that spring or dispersal of landing forces.
This lack of give in the foot could be due to a number of things; tension being consciously held during jumps and landing, a general lack of mobility in the mid-foot or it could simply be that a dancer’s shoes are too tight and are restricting movement, or of course, a combination of any of the above.
Lisa goes on to explain that it’s about trying to develop the right balance of tension in the foot, and control in the hip, that means the foot doesn’t completely collapse on landing, while not holding it so rigidly that we impede the foot from expanding into the floor upon landing.The optimal foot for injury avoidance is a foot that can pronate and supinate, so it has equal mobility either way, spontaneously deforming and recoiling. It needs to be able to respond instinctively to its environment i.e. you don’t have to think it through.
In short, mobility of the foot is critical, as is training the foot to respond subconsciously as the reaction times required can’t possibly be done by thinking it through.
Understanding the importance of these good motor patterns and establishing the balance of mobility and stability is the product of many years of training and why Lisa recommends that the most experienced teachers need to be teaching the youngest dancers.
If a student gets bad patterns when they’re 5 years of age they’ll be likely to carry those through to when they’re 15 or 25.
Those with a nice robust fascial system tend to quickly self-identify as being good at jumps as part of a positive feedback loop from friends and teachers, which means they focus more on jumps and as such get even better. While there are of course some clear positives to this, it might also be at the expense of working on other areas that might not come so easily. This is of course also true of those with a looser fascia who are more likely to identify with their languid movement, or for their extensions and ability to move into splits etc. The positive feedback loop means they’re now more likely to spend time before and after class stretching, wanting to get even more flexible, when this is in fact likely to be detrimental to their development over the long term.
Having covered fascia in some detail, in our final instalment, we’ll look at other areas of why some dancers specifically come to be more associated with being good at jumping or adage.
MIKHAIL BARYSHNIKOV, LE CORSAIRE VARIATION