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Archive for the ‘Movement’ Category

In Defense of the Rotator Cuff

This post is being written at the request of a lovely Aussie follower who has suffered multiple rotator cuff tears in the course of her dance life. While not all dancers suffer from rotator tears, it’s a fair bet that almost every dance will run afoul of their shoulders at some point. The following ideas should help you minimize your chances of injury in those moments of potential crisis. Note that while I will give some specific lead or follow examples, all of these should hold mechanically true for both leading and following.

A quick note before anyone jumps up to tell me that their instructor told them to do it differently, I’m speaking here from a biomechanical and injury-proofing standpoint, not an aesthetic or stylistic standpoint. I personally find that solid body mechanics tends to translate to great aesthetics for me, and I try to base my dancing first and foremost on things that I think will allow me to keep dancing for the rest of my life. These are the best safe & effectively connecting body mechanics that I have come up with in 11 years and if I develop or encounter a better idea, I’ll definitely post about it.

Anatomy Time!

rotator cuffThe rotator cuff is the group of muscles connecting the top of the upper arm bone (humerus) to the shoulder blade (scapula).  The reason these are important is that the shoulder blade is a relatively mobile and therefore unstable joint. The surface of the shoulder joint (glenoid fossa) is essentially a very shallow bowl that has been overfilled with the head of the humerus. This makes the joint very mobile, but also vulnerable to sliding around or out of the socket (one of the reasons shoulder dislocations are far more common than, say, hip dislocations). The muscles of the rotator cuff are all oriented closely around the joint to rotate the humerus in the joint, provide stability, and protect against injuries like dislocations.

Dancing Based on Natural Angle

Based partly on the rigors of modern life, most of us have become habituated to some less-than-natural positions for our arms. The arms-straight-ahead position that most of us spend a lot of time in (driving, typing, etc.) rolls the shoulder in a way that compresses the front of the joint and, over time, tends to make the shoulders stick forward even when our arms are at our side. Many people, either by instruction or habit from daily life, learn to dance with their arms straight in front of them, reinforcing this compression, and putting the shoulder in an unstable position to deal with strong pushes or pulls. I feel that opening the shoulder up to a neutral and balanced position makes it both more stable and far more functional at handling the demands of swing dancing.

To reacquaint yourself with this position, first hold your arms up around belly button height then slowly move them from reaching straight ahead to straight out to the side. As you swing through this range, you should notice that the level of tension in the shoulder lessens as you move towards the middle of the arc, hits a point of minimal tension, and then the tension starts to increase as you continue towards the end of the arc. You should also notice the position of tensions shift as you pass to either side of that middle point. This point of minimal tension is what I refer to in classes as the natural angle of the shoulder. It is the angle at which the rotator cuff is most relaxed and therefore most able to react to various forces. The exact angle varies from person to person but typically falls somewhere between 30-60 degrees from straight out front and places the hands in a position wider than the shoulders.

When I’m dancing, part of protecting my shoulder is that I consider this angle to be home base for how I orient to my partner. I remember as a newbie being taught things like spotlighting or to “square off” to my partner and it always felt a bit forced. I have found orienting myself to my partner based on the natural angle of my shoulder to be far more connected and comfortable and consequently safer for my shoulder. My hand and arm move to follow or lead my partner and I adjust the angle of my body to keep my shoulder in an open, relaxed and ready position. It can be counter-intuitive to the way many of us orient to our hands, but once you get used to it, it should make a lot of sense for your body.

Chest Up, Shoulders Down

The other typical position that can compromise the rotator cuff is the overhead lift of leading and following turns. Many dancers don’t just bring the hand and forearm up when they turn, they also raise the shoulder blade. Lifting the shoulder blade off the ribs puts the shoulder in a vulnerable position by disconnecting it from the support of the ribs. Without the support of the ribs, it becomes much easier for a pull at the wrong time to bend the shoulder into an angle that will injure it. I have found the next two concepts to be exceptionally helpful in keeping the shoulder in a safe position during spins and turns.

Paint the Fence (aka NO ROTATION)

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????A common stressor that many dancers put on their shoulder is trying to rotate it out as they lift. While I realize it is a fairly common cue, I find the “checking your watch” method of leading turns does not make kinesthetic sense to me. Rotating the arm to look at your wrist forces the elbow above the shoulder blade which then pulls the shoulder up with it. The more the elbow flairs away from the body, the more the shoulder separates from the ribs, reducing both stability and connection.

A far more effective method of raising the arm comes in an approximation of Mr. Miyagi’s paint the fence exercise from The Karate Kid (the original, not the remake). Keeping with the natural angle of the shoulder, the motion of the arm is basically just “Uuuup…, Dooown…” and the torso moves to create the turn.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R37pbIySnjg]

Unlike Daniel-san, for dance purposes you’ll want to let your elbow be loose, relaxed, and weighted so that it stays low as your arm comes up. But notice in the motion of the movie that this is a whole body motion. You can see the muscles of the chest flex and relax with the motion and you should be able to feel them activating. If you try to same “look at your watch” motion, and feel your pecs, you’ll notice they have almost no activation. Keeping the arm rising and falling and making adjustments with the torso rather than the shoulder rotation will put you in a much safer position and typically keep you more connected to your partner (which also helps you be safer). By maintaining the connection of the arm to the torso, you can also effectively lead turns by initiating small rotations from the chest and spine rather than large motions from the arm.

Scapula as Counterweight (or Turns and Trebuchets)

The other issue I often see putting shoulders in harm’s way is the tendency to think that everything needs to go up. People become so focused on their hand that they forget there is a wrist, elbow, shoulder, and ultimately, spine attached to that hand. So if your only awareness is the hand needs to go up, everything else in that chain tends to go with it. Again, the shoulder rises and you are suddenly in the vulnerable position of having your hand above your head with only your rotator cuff actively holding the shoulder in the socket.

trebuchetWhat has served me best is to bring an awareness of my shoulder blade and to think of it as a counterweight to the arm, similar to but not quite as unbalanced as the counterweighting found in a trebuchet. When I want my arm to rise, I don’t think about taking my hand up, but rather, I think about initiating by allowing the scapula to slide down (inferior) my back and away from my head. This serves to stabilize the shoulder in several ways. One, it insures that my arm does not come up without my scapula being solidly in touch with my ribs and it additionally eases some of the effort of lifting my arm, meaning my hand goes up with less muscular effort and I have more freedom to adjust in case of emergency. One of the easiest ways to experience this is to stand with your back against the wall and try both lifting your shoulder blade as your arm rises or letting it slide downward as your arm rises. With the downward slide, you should feel more of the engagement in your chest and back and your arm should feel much lighter and floaty than when you lift the shoulder blade with it.

incline_pulleyThe counterweight idea is not only useful for turns, but can also be applied to protecting the shoulder from collapsing forward when stretching out in swingouts, tossouts, rocksteps, etc. In a stretch where the arm is not going to come up above shoulder level, think of the shoulder blade as a counterweight to the front of the chest and allow the chest to rise and open as the shoulder blade descends. In the inclined pulley illustration, think of M as the shoulder blade and m as the arm. So long as M is weighty enough, it will resist being pulled up and over the top by m. But if the force of m wins out, then the shoulder blade (M) will be pulled up over the top of the pulley and it will all tumble down the slope. By letting your shoulder blade remain weighty when stretching (at a natural angle) it will prevent a lot of potential strains and sprains that can occur from collapsing and hyper-extending the shoulder.

Keep it Personal

There is no one right way to do this. There is a great deal more variability in human anatomy that a typical textbook will not show and as such, there is a great deal of variability in function as well. The safest angle for one dancer may feel very unstable for another and so on. The more you can create ease in your body, the more ready your muscles will be to keep itself in safe and comfortable positioning. Similar to the non-Newtonian frame concept, the more you are in a fluid, rather than rigid, state to start, the more readily you will be able to react both to potential threats and to communications from your partner. In addition, the safer your body position feels, the more it will free up your attention to try more awesome things. Use the above as suggestions to play with your own angles and ways of conceiving of motion and use whether it feels more tense or less tense as the metric for more vulnerable or less vulnerable.

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Making Better Use of Your Lats

It’s another one of those often used, but tough to execute, pieces of advice, “use your lats.” I hear it a lot in the swing dance world and in the fitness world and while it seems to be a simple idea, many people struggle with it. Often, the issue is not that the lats aren’t active, but that other muscles are preventing the lats from fully activating. So here’s a quick run-down on how you can gain better access to this muscle.

lat-extensionWhat are Lats?

Just a quick definition for those of you unfamiliar with them, your lats, or latissimus dorsi, are the main power muscle involved in retracting the arm from an extended postion.  So if you are is out in front or above you (flexion) and you want to pull it into back towards a neutral position by your side (extension), that’s the job of the lats. The lats are also used for a few other movements but pulling in (extending from flexion) is a primary issue in dance and athletics.

Extending to Activate

When attempting to engage their lats, most people (and most of their instructors, coaches, trainers, etc.) try to go at it directly. “Find your lats and squeeze them” can work, but most people struggle with this version. I have found that taking a more 3-dimensional, indirect approach helps many people to more effectively engage their lats, allowing them to get greater power and range of motion out of the muscle.

The basic idea is to think about expanding the muscles of the anterior (front) chest and sides (pectoralis major, pectoralis minor, and serratus anterior). Instead of focusing on your back and trying to squeeze from there, put your attention on the front of the body and allow the chest muscles to expand as you pull. Rather than initiating from the back, imagine the force starting from the chest and wrapping around and under the armpit and through to the low back. As you do this, be aware of the head and neck which have a tendency to push forward in response; keeping the head upright will help the chest to expand, enhancing the engagement of the lats.

wide-lapels-bow-tieIt also helps to work on keeping the space around the clavicles (collar bones) spacious and wide.  Imagine wearing a jacket with extra wide lapels that extend into the space of the shoulders.  The more the shoulders settle wide and back, the more it will help you to engage the lats when using your arms.

Why Extension Helps

The rigors of modern life (computers, driving, etc.) frequently put us in an arms forward position for extended periods of time. This means that their chest muscles are often stuck in a contracted position. As a result, many people become habituated to a posture that involves some level of collapsing in at the chest.  So when they attempt something like a lat pull or retracting in from extension, the anterior chest muscles tend to stay contracted.

metal-pulleyThis contraction of the front muscles causes an inhibitory effect in the lats. This response, known as reciprocal inhibition, causes muscles with opposing actions to be prevented from contracting at the same time. Similar to how you can only move a pulley rope by pulling on one end at a time and allowing the other end to move, a joint only moves effectively when muscles on one side expand, giving the opposing muscles room to contract. By focusing on expanding the chest, you allow room for the lats to contract and prevent the reciprocal inhibitory effect.

Beyond Just Lats

This expansion tactic can be used to aid in movements throughout the body. By lengthening the antagonist muscle to a movement, you can provide more space for the acting muscle to contract, adding to both potential for power and mobility. The more you work with activating your body in a 3-dimensional fashion this way, rather than isolated muscles, the more freely you will be able to move across all your joints. So the next time you are having trouble executing a motion, try finding the opposing muscles and allowing them to expand, using space over effort to move.

This Music Sucks: Personal Movement Style in Dance Music Appreciation

SwingSucksAlbumCoverI recently DJ’d a 20’s themed holiday party where my partner and I had been hired to teach a Charleston lesson and follow up with 20’s music, eventually transitioning into modern pop music. Due to a  few delays, and performances running long, we were eventually asked to scrub the lesson and move straight into playing music. Within the first song or two of 20’s music we immediately had people coming up to not-so-subtly ask when we would start playing modern music. The subtext of the request was pretty clear “We think this music sucks.”  We scrambled a little bit, threw on some club type music and the once empty floor was suddenly packed.

The variety of perceptions people have for the same tune was always been intriguing to me. It amazes me that someone could love the Cupid Shuffle or hate Jumpin’ at the Woodside. I was aware that I started dancing liking Neo-Swing but as my dancing grew I started to prefer first groove, then vintage, but I didn’t have a solid reason why. I’ve heard some great talks on this subject, from a musical perspective, by DJ and historian, Kyle Smith, and I’m in absolute agreement that there are a lot of factors to how we perceive music. For this post, I wanted to pick out one that I see as a particularly strong influence in what people will or won’t dance to: their own default movement.

All of us have our comfort zone and at the center of that comfort zone is our default. If we count ourselves off, we each tend to count off at a certain speed, syncopate a certain way, use a particular energy, etc.  If every song sounded the way that default song does, we would kill it every time we hit the dance floor.

Of course, not every song fits our comfort zone.  The vast variety of music defies our comfort zone, falling somewhere away from our default towards uncomfortable, or even inaccessible territory.  And this is where I think a breakdown occurs for a lot of people.  When the music no longer supports the way your body wants to dance, you have two choices, recognize the limitations of your body or blame the music.  I think the common “I don’t like this music,” is often an indication of people choosing the latter.

This isn’t to say that all music preferences are based in this, but whether or not the music supports your movement is something I don’t see many people pay attention to.  So in an out of sight, out of mind sort of way, it makes it easy for our comfort zone to flavor a lot of our stated musical tastes.  If your movement and the music don’t have a common thread to them, it begins to make dancing feel like an inappropriately soundtracked movie scene.

From the musical side, this is how I tend to approach things when I am DJing and want to fill the floor regardless of what music it takes (as opposed to wanting to play within certain genres).  I watch the way people move, particularly when they aren’t dancing, and try to figure out what would make an appropriate soundtrack.  I think most DJs do this to some extent when they talk about reading the floor.  Coming up with someone’s soundtrack is just one of the ways I conceive it and a way I have found translates well when helping new DJs develop their own feel for the floor.

Sometimes the music is just bad.  But most of the time, I try not to be like this guy.

Sometimes the music is just bad. But most of the time, I try not to be like this guy.

As a dancer, I certainly have the option to just stick to my guns that X music sucks and not dance to it.  But I would prefer to dance more and dance better to the music I already like.  So from that perspective, my goal becomes expanding my movement repertoire and getting better at moving based on the music rather than moving based purely on my preexisting habits.  It can be a challenging process at times, but I find a great deal has opened up in my dancing as I developed a willingness to move with the music and move to more types of music.  Here are a few things that helped for me:

Stop and Listen

One of the things that locks us into old patterns is jumping the gun because we feel like we have to move immediately.  When they connect with a partner, most people will start in dancing almost immediately because waiting could create the dance equivalent of an uncomfortable silence.  Starting simply with pulsing to the music and letting the music fill that silence does a lot, both for the musicality of the dance and for making the partnership feel like you are on the same page.

Move By Yourself

In dance classes, when I put on a swing song and ask people to move on their own, inevitably, some percentage of the class will start doing nothing but 6 and 8-count footwork in place.  The whole of the music is there for the taking but they have become so deeply patterned that the first instinct is to do something completely by rote.  As you spend time just getting used to moving alone, you can put more focus on deepening the relationship between your body movement and the music.  The stronger that relationship gets, the more you will be able to take it back into a partnership.  This tends to involve a lot of trial and error and may be uncomfortable at times, but the dance rewards are well worth the effort.

Find Transitions

If I’m DJing a mixed genre night and I want to go from funk to charleston, it would be a rather jarring transition in most cases to do so in one song.  If I find an intermediary song or two that allows me to shift the genre over time rather than a straight change, the energy of the night can be maintained and dancers are better primed for the genre I’m heading towards.  The same goes for your body and your own dance development.  Knowing where you are and working towards other styles of movement piece-by-piece allows you to make use of the resources you already have.  If you like dancing to neo-swing and want to get a feel for vintage, try starting with neo, moving to more modern swing bands, and then working your way back to vintage music.  Whether or not your dancing “feels right” to the music or feels jarring will be a good indicator of when you’ve got it and are in a solid position to expand your comfort zone further.

So the next time you think the music sucks, take a minute and consider how your dancing may or may not line up with the music.  You certainly don’t have to like anything you don’t want to, but if you are willing to step outside of your comfort zone you might find that you can enjoy dancing to something that didn’t grab you at first.  And if you’re of the “I’ll dance to anything” variety, you can use the same tools to deepen your connection with a variety of musical genres and find deeper inspiration in the music.  Whatever your choices, just keep in mind that your musical taste is often as much or more about how the music makes you feel than it is about the music itself.  And whatever makes you feel like you want to dance, start there, and you can use it to grow beyond.

When “Relax” Doesn’t Work (and 3 simple things that do)

tight stone fist

“relax”

“Relax”

“RELAX”

I cringed a little watching this exchange between a massage therapist and a client. The massage therapist was trying to get her client to release tension in her arm. The woman on the table was having trouble relaxing and the massage therapist was becoming frustrated by the client’s lack of response. The client, not too surprisingly, seemed less and less relaxed as the therapist became louder and more insistent.

I have seen similar situations play out in dance classes where well-meaning instructors have created traumatic situations for students by pushing them to relax. I have talked to students who were reduced to tears after a private lesson where they were just told over and over to relax. And I recently had a student who really needed to relax thank me for finding more active release-oriented ways to cue her because a previous ballroom teacher had essentially beaten her over the head with the word “relax” to the point where she hated/feared hearing it.

“Relax” can be an extremely difficult instruction to execute. It seems a great many instructors, students, and people in general don’t have alternative strategies to try when “relax” isn’t effective. So when “relax” doesn’t work, they don’t have a backup wording and just keep saying the same thing that didn’t work the first time. Then they go on repeating “relax” like a mantra until they give up or manage or contort themselves into something that looks close enough that they can move on.

What makes “relax” so hard?

For starters, context. People typically get told to relax in situations where they are already tense, meaning they are under some sort of stress or sense of danger. Telling someone to relax in such a situation is essentially asking them to turn off a defense mechanism when they feel threatened. Frequently, people who are tense because of some fear of judgement end up tensing even more when told to relax because they fear being unable to comply and being judged further.

Relax is also a fairly complex concept, when you think about it. Not only does it involve a change in physical state, but also a mental/emotional shift. And for relaxing to make sense to your nervous system, you need to view your current surroundings as non-threatening. If any of these tensions are habitual, it can even be difficult to tell that you are tense in the first place. With all these factors involved, relax becomes more a state of being than a simple action.

Many people seem to conceptualize relax as the absence of doing something. In the US, the tendency to fill our lives with doing things can make the idea of relaxing seem to equal doing nothing or even being viewed as a negative. Rather than viewing relaxation as a lack of doing, it can be far more productive to approach it as an active releasing of tension. The following few ways can help you to physically and mentally achieve relaxation more effectively than just thinking “relax.”

Breathe

breathelungsOne of my first cues anytime I find myself tense is to extend my breathing. Taking a longer breath, and particularly a longer exhale, activates the relaxation response. Under the sort of duress that causes tension, most of us will shorten or even hold our breath, reinforcing the tension. Deep, slow breathing helps to settle the nervous system and bring it back to a state of ease, leading the muscles to relax without direct, conscious effort.

You can also direct breath towards particular areas that need help relaxing. Shoulder tense? Try focusing on the area in your chest near that shoulder and imagine directing your breath to it. The expansion of the lungs is a great way to passively expand muscle groups and give them more space to settle into more comfortable and relaxed positions.

Think Down

The body responds much better to simple directional ideas than it does to complex concepts like “relax.” The end goal of relaxing can often be achieved by thinking about letting the arms (or whatever body part) sink down.

melting_womanIn many dance contexts I’ve seen teachers repeatedly asking students to relax their arms, often with minimal to moderate success. Often, this arm tension is based on the idea that someone needs to hold their own arms up. So a great deal of tension is a result of fighting gravity to keep the arms at some specific height. By thinking about allowing the arms to sink down, the body can surrender to the effects of gravity and work with it, rather than constantly fighting it. I often use the idea of melting like candle wax to enhance this effect in relaxing. Because a relaxed arm will more effectively transfer motion, this sort of release is integral to creating natural connection in dancing.

ghostbusters-floating-danaI see the same effect on my Rolfing® table where many people’s bodies tense away from the table almost as if they could levitate themselves by sheer force of will. When I prompt them to recognize that the table can support their weight and to let themselves sink into that support, their bodies relax and their mental state follows suit shortly after. In standing, a similar effect is achievable by becoming aware of the bones in your body and allowing weight to carry through bones rather than be held up by muscle.

Tense & Release

One of the more counter-intuitive moves for relaxation is to tense up first. Most of us, when told to relax, will aim to go directly towards some sort of relaxing attempt. stress ballHowever, it can end up more effective to tense muscles first, hold that tension for a few seconds, and then allow them to relax. In essence, taking yourself into greater tension allows for a better release.

Because many of us carry constant tensions, it can be easy for the brain to begin filtering out these sensations. I often hear people remark that they had no idea they were tense in so many places. By creating a conscious tension in the muscle first, the difference between tense and relaxed can become more apparent, which helps you feel yourself relax. This technique is also used by some physical therapists, terming it Progressive Muscle Relaxation, to treat general anxiety issues.

The 3 ideas above are just starter ideas, feel free to modify them or come up with your own. The more tools you have, the more you can help someone else relax or have options to try when someone tells you to relax.

In any case, keep in mind that attempting to produce a relaxed state involves physical, mental, and emotional aspects. Shifting any one aspect can help to shift the whole.  So when you are having trouble relaxing, focus on a simpler version of it, releasing a part of the body, slowing your breathing, calming your thoughts, instead of trying to do everything at once. And just like working out a muscle, the more you work with these ideas, the stronger they become and the more readily they will help you to achieve relaxation.

Contrasting Up and Down Orientation – Part 1: Fred and Gene

It’s Gene Kelly’s 100th birthday today and it seemed like a good time to write a post that has been bouncing around in my head for a long time now. Lots of media outlets are already talking about Gene in eloquent glowing terms, so I’ll forgo that in favor of talking about one of the things that I believe made Gene an iconic dancer, his orientation to the ground.

Every one of us falls naturally somewhere on a sliding scale of orienting more to the moving up or moving down. Some of this is natural orientation, some influenced by culture, some influenced by training. You can particularly see it in yourself and others in how which direction we resource in a moment of stress. When suddenly forced to avoid someone on the street, do you tend more to duck (down) or jump (up). We all have some ability to access both but in almost all cases, we have a preferred orientation that we use more than the other.

I think at first, the concept of how up and down preference affects movement can be difficult to discern, so I’d like to present one of my favorite bits of contrasting film for this. “The Babbitt and the Bromide” from the film Ziegfield Follies features the film icons of up and down orientation, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, dancing together. Dancing side by side, you can start to see how they use the ground differently or rise differently. They even tend to shake hands in different ways (Fred reaching over top, Gene reaching from closer to the waist). I recommend watching this at least once before reading on to form your own impressions first.

Obviously both men are incredible dancers, but if you look for it, you can begin to see how their up or down orientation leadsthem to look better performing certain motions or moving in certain ways. Fred tends to float through the top of his leaps where Gene may not float as much but seems to land more solidly. Towards the end when they perform the ballroom and lindy-ish sections you can see each out of his element contrasted to the other in his. Gene doesn’t float through a waltz the way Fred can and Fred does’t achieve the athletic look that Gene does in the next section. Gene’s legs hold him up and drive him around the floor where Fred’s almost seem to hang from his body at times.

This is not to say that one or the other is correct, but rather to illustrate that both orientations have their uses, their pluses and minuses. As dancers I believe a great goal is to develop the use of both, to be “human being suspended between earth and sky” in the words of Hubert Godard. Fred and Gene are both incredible dancers because they can use both up and down in their dancing, but at the same time, their preferences to use one more than the other helps to make them unique, intriguing, and iconic.

Continues in Part 2: Cultural Differences

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