April 24, 2008

Dancing Smart Newsletter: 4/24/08

Greetings! Hope everyone is enjoying the spring weather. Let's jump right into the questions!

My name is Samantha, I'm 12 and I just started ballet around 1 and half years ago. I'm in grade 5 and I have really bad technique, but what I am most concerned about are my knees. Whenever I pull my knees up in my exercises, the teacher says they're not pulled up enough and I have to pull them up more, but they're already as pulled up as they can be. One day she told me to sit on the floor in pike and flex my feet, she said to me that the skin under my knee that pokes out is meant to be touching the floor because it wasn't. She gave me some exercises to do to help me fix it but I don't think they're working because whenever I do the exercise it just feels like she wants me to have hyperextended knees.

I was wondering if you had any other exercises or something for me to do to get the skin under my knee to touch the floor. Thank you!

You are correct, Samantha that pressing the skin behind your knees onto the floor is putting you into hyperextension – and you don't want that! Knees (and legs) come in all shapes and sizes. Depending on the shape of your muscles and the structure of your joints – you may have more or less space between your knees and the floor.

Proper leg alignment means the center of the hip, knee and ankle joints will be in a line. Pushing your knee into hyperextension puts pressure and rotation on the delicate tissues of the knee joint.

Pulling up the knee is a phrase that is often misused. When you pull the kneecap up you are engaging the quadriceps. This is appropriate when you are straightening the knee or flexing the hip joint. It is not appropriate to have your knees pulled up all the time! Constantly contracting a muscle even when it isn't necessary will only build tension and bulk!

If you have tightness in your calf or hamstring muscles, by all means stretch them consistently – that would be a much better exercise over practicing hyperextension!

I applaud your desire to understand your body better!

Next question

I am a 20-year-old dance student from Estonia.
I have been reading your newsletter for a while now; actually, as dance medicine is in the very early development stages in my country, it was the first information I received about dance injuries and injury prevention. So thank you for that.

My question is:

I have been experiencing pain in front of my ankle (on both ankles, more on the right one) when I go into a deep demi plié. My ankles also crack a lot when I do ankle circles.

I talked about this with some my dance teachers, but they didn't really know what causes the pain. Also as I said- dance medicine isn't very developed in Estonia, so most doctors would probably not know what to do with me, probably tell me to take some anti-inflammatory pills.

I have done some research myself and what I came up with was Anterior Impingement Syndrome. Is it a good guess?

The pain isn't very strong and I haven't had any swelling, but naturally I don't want it to get any worse. Can you help me? What can I do to get rid of the pain or at least keep it from getting worse? Are there any helpful exercises?

Best wishes, Triin

Good research, Triin! I agree that anterior impingement syndrome might be what you have. Since you may not be able to have that diagnosis confirmed by a physician with x-rays, let's talk about what you can do to release as much muscular tension around the ankle joint.

First, be very aware of the weight on your feet as you lower into the plié. Make sure you aren't shifting forward over the front of the foot, but continue to keep even weight between the pads of the toes and the heel.

Next, I would look to decrease tension in the soleus muscle, which is the calf muscle underneath the gastrocnemius. When the soleus is tight it can decrease the depth of the plié. Here is a picture of my favorite way to stretch the soleus. Hold an easy stretch for a minute. The stretch shouldn't be too strong, keep it in a comfortable range.

Notice that my left knee is bent – this brings the stretch into the soleus. If I wanted to stretch the gastrocnemius, I would keep the left knee straight. Do both ways!

Third, become more aware of when you are moving into pain. See if you can teach yourself not to 'push' into the demi plié. Don't feel like it must look a certain way. I remember working with a ballet dancer who had an incredibly shallow demi plié – but boy could she jump! The shallow demi plié was more noticeable when she was at the barre, but put her in center, and you didn't notice it. You must work within your own structure and see if the pain and discomfort is alleviated.

I'm hoping your ankles are only bothering you at the bottom of the demi plié – if they are bothering you while walking you might need to pull back from class until the inflammation has calmed down. You will never go wrong by listening carefully to your body's messages!

Warm regards,

Deborah Vogel

"Education is the key to injury prevention"

April 18, 2008

Dancing Smart Newsletter: 4/18/08

I have not fallen off the face of the earth – but life has gotten in the way of regular posts. My plan is to remedy that, beginning with this posting – so….onto the questions!

Dear Deb, I was having a vivid conversation with a few friends and colleagues or mine on the subject of tucking under and when to emphasize it and when not to in the execution of the pelvic tilt on the reformer. Our answers varied and at times were totally opposite. We would like to get your opinion on the matter as to which cases one would emphasize the tucking under and when not. Thanks!

Good question! My answer would be to say the focus of the pelvic tilt is to bring the pelvis into correct alignment. I often think so many people emphasize it because they are starting from a swayback position – and need to engage the deep abdominals and the hamstrings to bring the pelvis to neutral. This is my focus always for the pelvic tilt.

Too often a pelvic tilt becomes a press your lower back into the floor – and of course – that isn't what you want. When you properly engage the deep abdominals and high hamstrings the erector spinae muscles that are the large muscles along the spine should release and relax. I will often place my hand underneath the students lower back as they are on the reformer so I can monitor how they are initiating and following through on the pelvic tilt. That will tell me more than anything else about their muscle usage.

That would be my one size fits all answer. Whenever the pelvis is in a swayed position I would utilize the action of the pelvic tilt. If you have someone who always tucks under – too much so – you will have to focus them into the action of the deep abdominals and release of the hamstrings to bring the small lumbar curve back that everyone has!

Another one…..

Hi! I’m 13 years old and I’m a dancer I’ve been dancing forever sense I was three, and last week I was doing switch and center leaps. I’m not sure if you are familiar with them, but as I was doing them my left hip popped and then I landed on it wrong! Now I have pain in my groin when I stretch, I’m not sure what I did. I explained to my dad what I did and he said I might of hype extended my hip! Is that even possible? Or is my dad crazy and doesn’t know what he is talking about?! Should I see a doctor? What exercises should I do? How long do I have to sit out from dance?

If your hip is continuing to hurt you should see a doctor to rule out anything serious or severe. It is quite possible that you strained your iliopsoas muscle and it is going to take some time to heal as it is a very deep muscle. Take it easy for a few days and spend some extra time gently stretching the hip flexors through doing the runners lunge stretch.

While you probably didn't injure the hip joint your dad is correct in that a switch leap requires the leg to go into a very fast extension – and when you aren't properly warmed up or stretched out enough – sometimes you can get a deep pop as you are extending the leg. Switch leaps are hard! You need massive strength and flexibility for this movement!

Last one…

Hi Deborah, I have recently returned to the ballet classroom after many years with much hesitancy. At 40 years old, I now know my body and my mind much better than I did in my teens. I also know now what my ballet teachers should and should not have told me. I don't know if you want to address this issue in your forum, but I feel strongly that it should be addressed somewhere, somehow.

I am noticing psychological 'games' if you will, that some ballet teachers tend to play with their students. (I haven't noticed it as much in other disciplines.) I didn't recognize them at all when I was younger, but as an adult I realize now they set me up for many psychological issues in and outside of the dance studio.

My first example is how they address individual students in front of the class. They announce something that is clearly addressed to one student as if it were a correction intended for everyone. This serves to isolate the student who knows they are being directly addressed. I was the only person removing my hand from the barre during barre exercises, and as if I were not old enough to make my own decisions, my teacher announced to the class that this is incorrect and we should not do this - as it will not help us at all. The same teacher announced there is no such position as 'third position' and that it is only for children and old ladies. I continued to remove my hand from the barre and work from third position because I knew it was best for me, however, I know from experience that younger students might not be willing or able to 'disobey' the instructor the way I do. I am still looking for a ballet teacher that will let me work slowly and gently on the anatomical principles I am learning from you.

Second, I have benefited from working with yoga and Pilates instructors that encourage me to work with my body 'as it exists in the moment', and not get upset if my body doesn't do what I want it to or expect it to all the time, and allowed me to 'feel what it feels like today'. This contradicted what I learned from my ballet training, which was I should perform better every day and at least as well as the day before. There was very little leniency for changes in mood, environment, etc. I learned to ignore what my body was telling me.

I am still reading through all of your newsletters and books, so perhaps you have addressed this already. I think it is vital to teach not only technique, but a psychological 'tenderness' towards your instrument, your body. And to be faithful to what you know is right for you and your body, even if it goes against what your instructor tells you. (Until you can find a better teacher)

Thanks for listening!

What rich observations! You brought up some very important points and quite eloquently, too! It is so true that in any profession there are going to be teachers and trainers who excel at what they do, and many who are not as qualified. It's unfortunate that you have found one of the latter. To say that there is not such thing as third position is not only laughable it is a dangerous premise. Through the years of testing anatomical turnout I will say with confidence that third position is more appropriate than fifth for probably 50% of dancers. A bold statement – for sure – but one that is backed up by the injuries to the hips, knee and ankle joints that I so often see.

I am grateful for another point that you make – which is our bodies are changing and are different from day to day. So true – when you learn to listen lovingly to the messages you are receiving from your body it makes a huge difference. You are able to improve because as you listen to the day when you're slightly sick, or have muscles strain or fatigue that you become aware of – then you adapt your workout and technique appropriately, It is what smart dancers do – and we must encourage our young dancers to learn to listen and to translate what our bodies are saying. This is quite hard if you have a dancer who tells you that 'good dancers' should expect to feel pain – it means you're working hard!

I teach a 13 week course on somatics where the focus is on becoming aware of your thoughts, feelings and actions in response to your life. It is so gratifying to watch young adults become more confident with their choices and decisions because they have taken the time to listen and think about what is happening – what their results are. If we could only do the same thing for our dance students it would empower them to realize they and they alone are ultimately responsible for what is happening in dance class. It's not that teachers are not also important – they are – of course! But no one knows how something feels in another persons body and if we teach them to disregard potentially important physical symptoms we are remiss in our responsibility as a teacher. Simply – everyone knows when something feels good – or not – or even the different between something that is uncomfortable because it might be a new skill – and something that is painful.

Thank you for your email, and good luck on finding a new ballet teacher!

Until next time,

Warm regards,


"Education is the key to injury prevention.