Rolfer, Dancer, Teacher

Archive for April, 2014

Keyboarding for Happy Shoulders (and Necks and Backs)

In my Rolfing® practice, I see many clients with desk jobs who have concerns about their posture at work.  I see a variety of strategies for how to position feet, butts, and backs, but very few people seem to be considering what their hands are doing.  The keyboarding position most people use puts a significant strain on posture in such a way that it is often overlooked.  While many people work hard to sit upright at their desks, I think it is generally impossible to achieve a fully upright and relaxed posture while using a standard keyboard.

The typical keyboard (even most ergonomically designed ones) place the hands inside shoulder width for the average adult.  Where the hands go, the shoulders tend to follow.  With the hands placed near the center of the body, the shoulders roll forward to follow them, often creeping over top of the ribs and driving the head and neck forward as well.  Over time, more of the body can follow this hunching, leading to the creation of images like this:

Front_view_hands_close_and_openSide_view_hands_close_and_openIf we examine this positioning in contrast, you can see how the different positions of the hands affect closing or opening in the shoulders and chest.  With the hands inside shoulder width, the chest collapses and the shoulders round forward (if you have trouble seeing this, consider the wrinkling in the front of the shirt).  You can also see from the profile view how the shoulders slide forward significantly when the hands are placed close together.  You can also try these positions yourself and feel the difference.  Most people find the open position to be more relaxed and free but don’t think about it in daily life because they have habituated to the standard keyboard position.

While it made sense in the age of mechanical typewriters to set the keys as close as possible, the digital age offers a wider range of options with which we can adapt technology to fit our bodies rather than the other way around.  There are options available now that can allow us to type while maintaining an open and comfortable hand and shoulder position, what I refer to in dance classes as a “natural shoulder angle”.  The closer you can get your shoulders to this open position, the more room it will allow for full breathing, a relaxed neck, and for the shoulders to settle onto the back.  To that end, I have been experimenting with the following options that allow for a fully open posture when using a computer.  In all cases I found they produced a much more comfortable and engaged sitting position and often improved the flow of my writing once I had acclimated to the new position.

Dual Keyboards

Dual_KeyboardsThis is the cheap, easy, and accessible setup I suggest to people first trying out a wider hand position.  The basic idea is that with the advent of USB keyboards, most computers can now accept input from multiple USB keyboards at one time.  So, you can simply set up two keyboards and, assuming you can touch type, place your left hand on the left hand keys on the left keyboard and the right on the right keyboard.  While it is not the most elegant solution, it gives you a lot of room to experiment and is a particularly cheap “tester” option which I usually recommend before committing to more pricey equipment.

Split Keyboard

Kinesis_KeyboardThis is the keyboard I primarily recommend as a long-term solution.  The Kinesis Freestyle2 keyboard is a fully split keyboard with a cord between the two halves.  They offer a 9 inch cord or 20 inch cord option, I highly recommend the 20 inch as the 9 inch option is not enough to get my hands wider than shoulder width.  While it can take a bit of getting used to, I found it relatively easy and intuitive to make the switch from touch typing with a regular keyboard and it is much easier to orient my hands to the two smaller halves versus trying to find the right position with the dual keyboard setup.  I also find that I feel more productive and creative when typing on this for an extended period of time and experience a lot less fatigue in my neck and upper back.  It also provides a lot of versatility for users of various shapes and if you get tired of the open position, you can readily slide the two halves together for use like a normal keyboard.

Keyboard and Laptop

Keyboard_and_LaptopAt this point, many people I know don’t even have a desktop computer and do most of their computer work from a laptop.  If you are constantly travelling or working from various places with a laptop, you can cut down on clutter by using the laptop keyboard plus a single portable keyboard.  Similar to the dual keyboard setup above, but with less desk usage and higher portability.  While I used a hard keyboard for the photo, you could also readily use something more portable like folding or rollable keyboard.  It does add a little bit of strain turning the head towards the screen, but it can easily be balanced by switching sides with the spare keyboard.

Whatever options you choose to use, my general suggestions are to think first about what positions your body feels ideal in and then look for ways to adjust your work environment to support those positions.  Too often I see people struggle to maintain a comfortable posture simply because the tools they are using necessitate a more cramped position.  The more you set up your environment to support good posture, the healthier your positioning will tend to be without always having to think about sitting up straight.


First On The Floor

The last two nights, I taught a pre-concert beginner lesson for Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra which was playing for a 2-night series of Duke Performances shows.  The band was fabulous, both nights were a packed house, and both nights the new dancers were enthusiastic, creative, and happily socializing with each other.  But a curious effect emerged the second night.  Where the floor had almost always had at least 2 or 3 couples on it Friday night, it ended up being completely empty of dancers for most of the Saturday show.

It got me thinking about the TED talk below from Derek Sivers.  One of the things I have been working on with beginners is how to present getting on the floor in a way that makes it easier to make that leap.  Particularly in a hall full of seated non-dancers, people can feel awfully intimidated stepping into the space between and audience and a band.  The Friday night dance had enough experienced dancers on hand that usually at least one or two couples were willing to brave the floor and others would follow.

On Saturday night, there were few experienced dancers on hand.  With the lack of experienced dancers to get the floor started, it never seemed to really build momentum.  It got me wondering if there are better ways to help new dancers feel comfortable enough to be the first on the floor.  I haven’t had a chance to try all of these ideas out yet, but I have a rare free morning, so I figured I’d write them down and see what people think.  I’d also be interested to hear other’s experience with getting dancers to brave the floor at not-exclusively-dance events.

Use the Buddy System

One thought that I haven’t tried yet is to suggest that several couples take to the floor at once.  It seems to me that being that it isn’t really until you’ve got 3 couples out on the floor that it gets easier for more people to go out.  So what if rather than trying to go out as a solo dancer or couple, one gathered a few people off the floor to go out at once.  Imagine it as the difference between someone trying to start a solo Charleston jam on their own versus putting on a T’aint What You Do and having multiple dancers descend on the floor at once for a Shim Sham.

Have the Band Invite People to Dance

Jazz musicians as a whole don’t always have the best reputation for liking dancers.  I’ve been a shows before where it wasn’t clear if a band was open to dancers or not and it definitely has opened the door when someone in the band says something like “the dance floor is open”.  My experience has been that lots of people are just waiting to be given permission to be creative, try something new, or just get on the floor.  I try to make this explicit in the beginner lessons, but I think permission from the band might carry more weight once the show starts.

Get Them Chair Dancing First

Perhaps another thing that keeps people off the floor is the way that they sit and watch a band.  I find most jazz concerts people sit very quietly as if listening to a lecture.  For me, if I’m feeling intimidated about getting out there or I’m not feeling terribly creative, sometimes it helps to just take a song or two first to bounce in my chair, let myself connect with the music, and let it draw me in more as I start to move in bits and pieces.  I haven’t tried this with a beginner class yet, but maybe it could help to have them sit and chair dance for a little bit before getting up to find a partner.

Ultimately, Let Whatever Happens Happen

In the end, I’m not going to try and force dancers on the floor.  I do think it is interesting though how people can be having a great time in a lesson and then never make it out for a dance that night.  I tend to think it is less an issue of desire and more one of confidence and the more I can lower that barrier for my students, the more they can enjoy the night and add something special that only that combination of music and dance can provide.  I’d love to hear about it if anyone tries any of the ideas above and I’d be grateful to hear anyone else’s thoughts on things they’ve tried to help new dancers get on the floor more easily at concerts like this.

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