By Dominika Borovansky Gaines with Lisa Thorngren
Our bodies are shaped by every movement we make and, in particular, by those we do repeatedly. Those who sit repeatedly have short hip flexors, those who play the piano have increased mobility and control in their fingers, those who run marathons have leg muscles that have adapted to endurance use. Those of us who are dancers know the importance of daily technique class for building the skills necessary for performance, but, like everyone else, dancers’ bodies adapt to the techniques and styles they practice. We are all familiar with a typical “ballet-body” with its duck-like walk, upright spine and ethereal tendency. In contrast, consider the appearance of a dancer from Paul Taylor’s company (Google them, if you need a visual); they are more likely to walk in parallel, have a more muscular frame, and a more grounded look. Some of these differences in appearance are due to the culture of each dance style but a lot of it is due to the specific muscular development required.
One of the wonderful things about traditional Western dance techniques — ballet and modern — is that they typically involve repeating exercises on both the right and left sides. This has a positive effect of teaching you to be adaptable for the demands of choreography and also develops a relatively balanced musculature. And, your brain is enhanced by the use of both right and left hemispheres. (On a side note: I find it interesting that many contemporary dance classes now teach long pieces of choreography that are not repeated on both sides. I am curious why repetition has fallen from favor?)
But think now about how many other one-sided activities you do throughout your day – do you repeat any of them on both sides of the body? And even if you do repeat them, do the sides feel the same? Do you use both hands for stirring a pot on the stove, only to find that your dominant side creates a nice circle, whereas the non-dominant side can only manage a triangle? But if you’ve ever had any Western dance training, you’ve experienced what it is like to repeat and try to master one-sided movement on both sides of the body (as an aside, perhaps this is a good time to try using your mouse with the other hand just to vary your movement).
Choreography, like daily living, however, tends to be a one-sided event. While a dance may be “symmetrical” from the audience perspective, it is rarely so for the dancers, who will perform movements repeatedly and often on just one side. This will very likely create a certain amount of stress in the body – especially during the learning process and especially if the choreographer is making a new piece and working it out as they go. A ballerina dancing the principal role in Sleeping Beauty has to perform numerous hops en pointe on one side. A modern dancer falls to the floor over and over — on one side. And even more stress-creating is the dancer who is working in a new genre and must adapt quickly to new movement demands. (Which is not unlike when you spend a weekend helping a friend to move into their new home: lifting, twisting, bending much more than your usual amount.) I understand that it is not feasible financially, but I always thought it would be reasonable for dancers switching styles to have technique classes in their new style for at least 2-3 weeks; instead, their bodies are immediately challenged to perform (at high levels of ability) movements and positions that are unique and new to their joints and muscles.
Oftentimes these new movements leave an impression in the body: a sore hip, a tight shoulder. It is not typical to receive physical therapy unless the movement actually leads to an injury (stress fracture, torn ligament, etc.) But I propose that this would be useful on every occasion where stress has been induced as a way to undo the impression that has been created through these repetitive movements. We need a mechanical and neural re-set to insure that we continue to function at optimal levels – for everyone who does repetitive movement, not just dancers!
There are a number of ways to do this. Many professional dancers with lengthy careers have built relationships with physical therapists, chiropractors, massage therapists, Pilates and GYROTONIC(R) instructors, yoga teachers, etc., who have helped them maintain and improve their health, and such modalities are helpful to all movers (read: all humans). Additionally dancers likely cross-train regularly and will up the ante in specific areas when they know that particular demands will be placed on them.
If you don’t have the means to pursue these avenues, there are a few simple things that you can do daily to reset your nervous system and unwind the patterns that are leading to stress. I highly recommend investigating Restorative Exercise (RE) and Z-Health. RE places an emphasis on biomechanical alignment and release exercises to return the tissues back to a more optimal, natural length — which may be quite different from the length of your tissues as demanded by your dance technique or other repetitive movement. Z-Health has a tremendous neural, visual and vestibular component along with movement drillsthat reset your brain. RE has several options for video classes online and via YouTube and Z-Health has numerous YouTube videos and a Vision program available digitally or in hard copy. And, of course, follow our blog and follow us on Facebook, where we share with you various articles on health and well-being.
So here’s to having as little lasting damage as possible so you may live a long, pain-free life.