A three-part interview with LISA HOWELL
How is it that dancers often come to be defined, or self-define early in their dance careers as either a “turner”, “jumper” or best at adage? Is it due to their genetics, their DNA? Or is it environmental; the space they’re working in, a particular teaching emphasis or unconscious bias, or the micro culture of their particular class?
To delve into this question, I reached out to one of Australia’s foremost authorities on dancer health, physiotherapist and founder of The Ballet Blog, Lisa Howell. With her expert assessment and deep experience, we explore what most likely drives a dancer toward being either good at turning, jumping or adage.
Lisa’s thoughts on this subject will be fascinating to every teacher moulding the bodies and lives of young students, as well as to every dancer.
MARIANELA NUNEZ, ROYAL BALLET
Many dancers quickly come to see themselves as good at turning. Their bodies seem to place more effortlessly in a turn, holding the rotational forces without being thrown off to careen into a nearby student. Such dancers appear as more comfortable with risk taking, happier to push into a turn and flow through it. Others, seem less sure of their positioning, perhaps never quite hitting a clean position and remain rigid through the turn as though gripping against the centrifugal forces only to come away with their head still spinning and their balance compromised.
Why? What are the most likely reasons one young child might struggle to turn, while another seems to revel in the experience?
Starting at the head and working her way methodically down the body toward the feet, Lisa explains the many and complicated reasons this might be the case and offers her thoughts on how a teacher’s guidance might intervene to help.
it never occurred to me until Lisa explained it, but our relative peripheral vision or the relative strength balance between our eyes can affect our feeling for turns. If a young dancer has less peripheral vision in one eye this may impact on their turns as they will be more likely to feel comfortable turning toward their good eye. If this goes unassessed, as is likely the case, then a child may quickly develop a confidence for turns in one direction more than the other. In addition, the bias of a teacher who prefers to demonstrate and turn more to one side than the other will often play a role, as one side gets practised more and the bias subtly gets passed on.
The Inner Ear
Efficient functioning of the Vestibular system, the fluid filled canals in our inner ears, is critical to our balance and helps us orient to where we are in space (this is why we spot in turns: to reduce the movement of fluid in these canals). Yet the villi in our inner ears, the tiny, wavy hairs that record and transmit information as the fluid sloshes past them can develop at different times in children. A child whose villi has developed early will be more likely to feel comfortable in turns than someone whose villi are perhaps still developing, impaired by an infection or blocked sinuses etc. The child whose villi have developed their sensitivity early will often cope better with perturbations, whereas the child whose villi have not yet developed might feel uncomfortable with the same movement. Factors that may impact this include dynamic play, challenge in spinning, hanging upside down, tumbling, rumble and play, rolling down hills and playing multiple sports. Frequent balance perturbations may assist in the efficient development of the inner ear and lead to associated positive feeling for turns. Of course, the opposite is true for those children whose play is perhaps kept more tightly controlled, due to the proverbial “Helicopter” parent.
“Our bodies develop in response to exposure. If you never give your system the chance to be disturbed, will never learn to recalibrate.”
Rotational stability of the neck
Lisa explains that orthodontic treatment, such as having braces – though this would typically be older students – can affect the position of the jaw and tone in the upper neck and may impact someone’s ability to turn. Following adjustments of their braces many teens report tension in the muscles of the jaw and base of the skull which will impact their posture and balance as well as potentially increasing neural tension.
If stylistically a student is taught to over-depress the shoulder carriage to create the look of a long neck line, it can create neural tension through the cervical plexus and brachial plexus, giving aching or tingling into the arms. Tension in the neck muscles resulting from excessive shoulder depression will also limit their range of rotation in the neck which can impact the flow of the turns. Therefore, a shoulder placement and position that is slightly more relaxed and neutral is recommended, as it will allow the head to move and spot more freely.
The impact of breathing on the functional capacity of a dancer is an area that fascinates Lisa and one that forms a large part of the foundation of her work, as it relates to almost every aspect of functional movement. The effect of breathing on rib mobility and effective dynamic core stability plays a role in turns because if a dancer habitually locks their thoracic area to try and maintain their core, then they’re likely to throw themselves off centre in turns. If the breath is not prepared for turns it can also impact the dynamic muscular interplay and timing, leading to instability in turns.
Activation of core
Natural, spontaneous, pre-conscious activation of core – though it sounds like the beginning of a medical journal, bear with me as this is hugely important. Lisa explains:
In the presence of abdominal pain, whether this is due to period pain, food intolerances, or even nervousness, the deepest stabilising muscles in the stomach, back and pelvic floor can get inhibited. If you do an EMG study [inserting needles to register electrical muscular activation] on someone who has never had back pain and ask them to move their arm, their muscles will switch on subconsciously before movement. However, in the person who has had back pain, some core muscles won’t come on until after the movement has already started, and will tend to work more than necessary, creating excessive tension. The dancers who turn well don’t stabilise consciously. They don’t think, “OK, I’m now going to switch on my pelvic floor and multifidus”. It all happens subconsciously, as part of a healthy system.
Obviously growth spurts affect the body’s ability to turn, particularly due to altered proprioception, as limbs change length so quickly. This is especially relevant throughout puberty.
The Hip Joint
Hip centring and positioning in the socket also affects a dancer’s ability to turn.
As an example: if you have a dancer that likes to stand with their feet wide apart and allows the ball of the hip to sit forward in the socket, they’re going to struggle to turn, as it will be harder to centre their pelvis on their leg. For the dancer whose default standing position is a little more centred, it’s just one less thing they have to think about.
Hyper Extended Knees
Most people involved in dance are aware that a dancer with very swayed back legs will sometimes find it harder to find a placement leading to consistent turns than someone with straighter alignment. Hyperextension in the knees requires a much greater pointe range to be able to correctly place the foot for turns, especially when en pointe.
The technique for turns is different for each of us. Some dancers snap onto demi-pointe, bringing the ball of the foot under where the arch was, while some dancers move toward to their foot and rise onto their demi-pointe. Lisa’s working hypothesis here is:
People who are more facially bound, can successfully turn by rising onto the foot. It’s easier for them to transfer their whole weight as their body is able to move as a whole. Hypermobile people in contrast, seem to turn better by moving the foot under the body so that they’re not having to move their centre of mass. Those with uncontrolled hypermobility may demonstrate a kind of undulating body-wave if trying to rise into the turn as the movement is too fast for the body to reorganise itself.
Look out for Part 2 next week, where Lisa explores the fascinating world of fascia explaining; what it is, how it impacts our movement potential and what we can do to change its responsiveness to improve our jumps, turns or adage and potentially help us to become better all-round dancers.
Articby Josef Brown