I am so lucky that my child hood dance training was appropriate and safe while still very much capable of producing impressive results. Not only do I feel that dance lines have been completely contorted but certain types of dance training has become dangerous and unnecessary. There is a general lack of understanding as to what is acceptable, pleasing and safe for today’s dancers. This blog will discuss the science behind the most talked about and most overused joint in this generation of dancer: The hip joint.
The straight line
One of the most sought after skills throughout dance history is a straight line. Square shoulders and hips are the vegetables of dance. They are completely and totally necessary for the functional execution of a large portion of dance based skills. Once that is mastered a dancer aims to achieve flat lines. This is the pinnacle of dance excellence. Some are born more or less flexible than others. It is not impressive to be on either side of that ideal flat line. It is when an entire group of dancers are trained to have control in order to collectively produce the flat line that true dance skill is achieved. So, to all those dancers, teachers and parents that get excited when their student or child has a line that goes past a flat line, it is important to understand that this simply means that they are not being taught control; and this my friends is one of the staples of good dance training.
There is something really special about our joints; They have specific functions that are inherent to their design that will determine their overall function. One of these very important designs is called articular cartilage. Articular cartilage lubricates all joints, including the hips, to allow for articulation of those joints without breaking down the bone matter within that region. What makes it particularly susceptible to damage is that it does not have blood vessels, lymphatics or nerves that can help with healing, removing debris or transmitting immediate signals to the brain during periods of damage. The one thing that keeps our hips moving is also one of the most delicate components of its structure as well as the most reported injury in dancers to date. Thus injury of the articular cartilage is a cause of significant musculoskeletal morbidity and makes treatment and repair or restoration of the defects challenging. Because of this the preservation and health of articular cartilage is paramount to hip joint health. Since the hips are one of the body’s largest joints and is covered with articular cartilage, it is critical that training methods employ safe, muscle force methods to ensure that hip function and health are maintained.
What are muscle force methods:
I have discussed in some of my other blogs how my dancers are all trained by using cross-discipline, multifunctional warm up methods to ensure that every exercise includes a stretching, strengthening and stabilising component. Muscle force methods are exercises that ensure the muscles surrounding the main stretching area as well as the key anatomical structures are being employed to ensure their protection and correct alignment.
Let me explain using a traditional split exercise. Below are pictures of beginners. In the first I asked everyone to move through to a gentle middle split. Then I asked them to reach forward. The first picture is the result. Some teachers will see that the knees are rolling and the legs are not engaged. But what about their spine? By rounding the back and hanging the head the children are shortening their neck muscles and straining their spine by fighting its natural curvature as well as creating a rounding in their shoulders. Why does this matter? When the children stand up they will not be able to achieve the correct anatomical positions that will allow joints like their hips to move freely. So, in order to preserve the hips we need to address the entire body. We need to teach them to use their muscles to create the desired placement within each position.
In the second picture they are asked to engage the following muscles in this order:
* Pointing over the toes to prevent shortening of the tibialis which will become prevalent when kicking and jumping with the inability to finish their lines properly. Note: pointing over the toes means that the top of the foot where the ankle and foot meet is the highest point of the leg line. Toes and knees should ideally be below this point. If the toes are higher then more metatarsal work is needed. If the knees are higher more low impact muscles development around the knee is needed.
* Squeezing their knees to protect the knee joint. Ideally the heels have subsequently lifted off the floor while maintaining their feet.
*Using their hip muscles to align their knees and ankles with their hips.
* Sitting upright having their head lift to the ceiling.
* Engaging their hands in front by pressing out of the floor while lifting the chest and engaging the back muscles. If they are struggling to understand how to engage their shoulders you can describe it as a pinching between the two shoulder blades.
* Lastly, have them lift their chin to where the mirror and wall meet.
Now its time to push the boundaries – SAFELY! Have them walk out as far as they can leading with their chin. This should prevent the rounding in the lower spin.
Now you have a safe exercise that will stretch the appropriate tendons, ligaments and muscles without causing injury to the hips. It will create foundation technique that will eliminate A LOT of the issues that are experienced when learning certain skills. For example, middle split jumps will most likely have lifted upper bodies and correct placement due to key anatomical positions being achieved PRIOR to learning skills.
Drinking water can help
Water is the most abundant component of articular cartilage contributing up to 80%. This fluid maintains articular cartilage health by transporting nutrients and maintaining lubrication. Simply pulling the legs, sitting in splits or over stretching to achieve flexibility not only damages these delicate structures but it cuts off the flow of fluids to these regions. This is why it is so important to use muscular force to bring various body parts in to anatomical positions. We need to maintain the path ways through the joints and across the articular surface to allow the transport of these vital nutrients and to achieve optimal joint movement.
If limbs are constantly being pulled and thrown using a variety of unnecessary methods than what you will find is that the yin and yang of a dancer’s body has been greatly disturupted. We need muscle control to compliment the desired flexibility in order to not only create beautiful lines but also to maintain long term body health. It’s all about preservation folks; because once this delicate and highly necessary structure is damaged it will forever change the course of your students body function. And in dance hips are everything!