Whenever I walk into a studio space the first thing I do is look down while I walk around the room. Not because I’m sad; it isn’t some weird prep ritual before class; no, it is because I want to assess and absorb the feel and effect the floor has on my body. Paired with gravity, the dance floor is usually the only tool I use to train my dancers. Simply a room that already provides everything I need to do my job properly and safely. My classes can be difficult. By even the most well-trained dancers I have been told my classes are “the hardest classes they have ever taken”. Producing results, in my opinion, can only come from training that provides the closest environment to their performance environment. We can’t drag mats on stage. Dancers can’t stop and grab a yoga ball to correct their alignment. No – they have to rely on their senses and training to create the best performance outcomes. The sooner you provide them the training that emulates this, the sooner they become the masters of their own body. I will discuss why this type of training is among the safest, fastest and most effective way to train a dancer.
Our body has a keen sense of knowing how far to go and what is safe and comfortable for it if it is allowed to concentrate on the messages being sent to the brain during training. To illustrate how gadgets/props may interfere with these messages I will discuss overusing mats. Mats have a purpose – to help facilitate the initial attempt of skills after basic progressions are executed on the floor that have the hips above the head. However I see dancers training on them for entire classes and are used during warm-ups. Exercises that you would safely give them on the floor like skips and rock and rolls should be executed on the floor. If they aren’t, these dancers are over developing and under developing certain muscles and coping skills because of the spring and boost in confidence provided by the mat. We jump on a floor. We roll on a floor. We even aerial on a floor. When we do primary progressions of these things on the floor the dancers have a really neat way of employing their own safe practice by trying things more slowly, taking note of the subtle ways their body responds to the floor and develops their dancer’s utility for the dance floor right from the start. The amount of times I have seen a dancer slam themselves on the floor in skills in a dance is astounding because teachers have allowed their students to develop that skill on a mat without the lessons provided by the hard floor. They simply say “It’s ok! You only have to do it once in your dance.” And that one time can be the time they develop an injury because that dancer was not given proper training based on the effects of gravity paired with the hard dance floor and how that would impact their skills. Is it as fun as bouncing around on a mat all day? To a kid, probably not. Will it take them longer to get high-level skills? Sure will. Will it almost completely eliminate terrible acro and damaging knee drops? Definitely. Will the students understand their TRUE ability to execute skills safely? You bet your career it will. So, I don’t take into consideration a child’s need to rush through their dance journey when I am training them. I take extra steps to educate them on how their body ACTUALLY functions on a dance floor. My students will thank me when they are 30 and 40 years old. Most already do!
We hear a lot about muscle memory but I feel as though many don’t actually understand its true role in dance training. It is basically the same as memory recall in that it only takes a couple times to form a memory. Your muscles will learn the process of a motion quite quickly, but the coordination to be able to execute it more quickly, more precisely, with more force and to various tempos takes time to develop as you have many muscles working together. Rarely do you do the exact same motion twice, so your muscles are gaining a sense of minor differences in the circumstances of the motion as well, like a tennis player adjusting for wind, which takes time to perfect. By changing the floor and utilizing tools like yoga blocks you are essentially creating great variances in change as opposed to the more gentle alignment changes that come with teaching techniques like pedagogy or trial and error. Take rises for example. Many use yoga blocks to fix ankle alignment however, for many students that shift in alignment is quite large compared to their natural anatomy. So although it appears that their alignment is fixed you will often see greater instability due to a lack of actual change in the supporting muscles. What I’m trying to say is that even though you have created memory in the way of alignment, you haven’t created a memory in every muscle that supports that change hence why the rate of injury in dancers has increased at such alarming rates. So, unless you plan to keep that block between their ankles class after class until every muscle working together is ready to support that alignment than you really need to think about why you are employing such techniques. No matter what ability your dancer has for establishing muscle memory, the main influence for creating muscle memory is repetition. I can’t make this up people. It’s the science that tells us that every time you change the environment to such great degrees you have to start all over again.
Speed of training
As mentioned before, everything feels different on a mat then it would on a floor. The first way this interferes with their senses is by their sense of security. They are more confident on a mat and therefore will often try things they are not ready for while on a mat. So, when learning the progressions of a front roll they are doing things like rock and rolls on a mat and are less likely to understand the rounding of the back because they haven’t had the opportunity to feel the floor. I often see front rolls that are dangerous because they have learned the front roll in an environment that was far too comfortable. This is an example of when the speed of their training progresses far faster than their body’s and mind. We tend to forget about the role the mind plays in training and how perception is everything. When we are not realistic about our bodies we tend to skip steps which can have disastrous outcomes.
Perception VS Reality:
But Ashley, look at the skill level of children today?! How can you deny that these programs work if they are producing such fantastic results? Well, I simply look at the turned in knees, lifted shoulder, lifted hips, weight distribution on hands or feet, placement and legs bouncing off their heads as indicators of partial skills development. What we don’t know is whether that child is in pain? Whether they are consistent in the execution of their skill? If they can competently do the progressions that come before the skill (turns are a great example of this)? What their joints look like on the inside? How their landings are effecting their bones, ligaments and tendons? So as you can see, what I see is very different from what so many others see and I cringe when I witness the online adoration of millions of overstretched, overworked and underdeveloped artists.
The flat line
The flat line is the ideal dance line, When in a split on the floor the body creates a flat line. Why is there such a need to grind a child’s hips in order to create strange, un dance like shape that goes beyond this?Seriously, why? Flat jetes..beautiful; flat ponches…beautiful; L shaped side layovers…WHY? The floor teaches a dancer where to stop. You can’t go further than the floor. When dancers are overly flexible we compromise so many things including strength, development and control. By maintaining ideal alignment using the floor our body is able to teach our muscles to remember that alignment and will thus be able to achieve the ideal line faster.
My job is centered around producing a dancer with even muscle development, right and left utility, a strong understanding of foundation dance concepts, multi-discipline dance ability and competency to execute choreography in each genre with the intended feeling and quality while always ensuring balanced training in strength and flexibility. So instead of prolonging progress, which can be like watching hair grow, I prefer to create and maintain the environment that makes dance….dance. When students are focused on foundation training and safe progressions they avoid spending time on skills that are total time wasters. Why are we trying to kick things in the air while jumping? Has anyone looked at their bodies when they are doing that? Not very attractive if you ask me. Where are the beautiful lines and strong upper bodies??? Learning skills before body development and foundation concepts means dancers are riddled with bad habits that take even more time to correct. I have spent more time fixing students than teaching new skills because of all the time wasted on the skill using unrealistic settings instead of training the dancer to develop the body to execute skills with ease. I have heard more injury stories then I’d like to admit. And, I’ve consoled way too many mothers who are dealing with children in pain out of vanity, lack of education and or the need for acceptance from the dance community by ‘keeping up’ with the very dangerous trends. I know this blog will be controversial to some but I implore you to think about what I’m saying and what it means to prepare children for not only the working world of dance, where not a single scorpion will be found, but also a body that is healthy and a mind that is ready to be trainable.
Live Love Dance