Dancers Health and Safety

The use of imagery for posture and alignment control in dance

By Tania Huddart 

© DANZ 2010 www.danz.org.nz


Correcting alignmentPhoto: Andrew Ivory

Proper body alignment and posture are essential to dancers as it makes them appear more elegant and confident. It also improves overall balance and body control.

Dancing with correct alignment makes dancing more comfortable. Good posture can be described as the most mechanically efficient positioning for the body and reduces the risk of strain or overuse problems, like backache and muscular pain.

There are many benefits to working towards achieving good posture. One of the most
convincing reasons is that it keeps bones and joints in the correct alignment so that muscles are used properly. It also helps decrease the normal wearing of joint surfaces and reduces stress on the ligaments holding the joints of the spine together. This prevents the spine from becoming fixed in abnormal positions and lessens fatigue because muscles are being used more efficiently, allowing the body to use less energy.

Due to the very complex nature of dance technique, every dancer is likely to have muscular imbalances that will affect good alignment. These imbalances are mostly addressed by stretching and strengthening the body correctly, but it is also useful to
explore the use of mental imagery to assist in this process.

Imagery is one of the best tools to help in the exploration of postural alignment. For example a common problem is when the weight of the body is carried too far backward. Common ‘corrections’ used in dance like ‘ pull up through your spine’ can often contribute
to this incorrect placement of the body. Tension in the neck and lower back becomes apparent as the ribs open to the front, disturbing the balanced relationship between the pelvis, ribcage and head. This imbalance compromises balance control, especially during jumping and turning actions.

How can imagery help my posture?

The body responds to the way we think, feel and act. When we are stressed, anxious or upset, the body may try to tell us something is not right through physical sensations or changes like high blood pressure, back pain or headaches. This mindbody connection is a great tool to use when dancing as the dancer can more easily integrate thought, emotion and action when processing nformation. The body is able to interpret the images we form in our minds and uses our five senses and our emotions as pathways for experiencing a ‘thinking body’.

The link between image, thought and movement has been well documented for decades. Imagery helps humans to become more spatially aware. Spatial awareness involves the ability to imagine movement and to think about spatial relations in terms of body
orientation.

Imagery techniques can be incorporated at any stage of dance training. They not only increase postural awareness but can also be used to improve the technical execution of dance movements or to inspire a greater emotional connection with the physical
representations of a choreographic piece. Using imagery can also establish a sense of positive wellbeing and help to release tension.

Using imagery effectively is a skill, like reading, that over time will become ‘automatic’. In acquiring this new skill the initial learning is often a struggle and it takes time to become integrated with your dance technique. It is not always how much you do but rather how much benefit you can derive from your time spent practicing both physically and mentally. In many cases less effort will bring more reward if what you are working on is done carefully and with full attention to your own body and how it is aligned before, during and after a movement or movement sequence.

There are many ways of explaining and exploring correct postural alignment, but in general the body is aligned using the concept of a plumb line around which the head, ribcage and pelvis is arranged vertically. Practicing a movement with incorrect alignment
only strengthens the incorrect alignment, resulting in wasted time and energy. It is possible to dance well with these relationships placed incorrectly, but over time it will result in injury. You may also find that complex movements can be done well only at times
and not every time you try and do the movement.

Always check your weight and body placement before practicing a movement to get the most benefit out of your efforts. Bringing the weight forward will initially feel strange; as if you are standing on an incline. This is a normal reaction to a change in spatial awareness. 

In time and with careful practice this ‘new’ alignment will become second nature and increase your overall control and balance of your body.

Imagery and dance training for technique or performance

Imagery training combined with dance training creates the capacity to enhance learning skills and performance. The dancer may choose to use imagery to improve a dance performance or an aspect of their technical (turns or jumps), psychological (anxiety, self
confidence) or physiological (intensity) performance.

Imagery can be used to reflect on a new dance step and how to execute it or to prepare for a performance. ‘Thinking’ the dance step or performance before trying to do it can help to improve movement execution and performance.

You may choose to take an internal or external view; meaning that you can imagine actually doing the movement internal view, or you can imagine watching yourself performing the movement external view. You should use the view that best suits your personality or the situation.

Imagery training must be set in realistic conditions, be clear and be ‘performed’ at the correct speed to enhance performance. If there are errors in the imagined performance, then it will be useful to slow the image speed down until the errors are corrected.

In order for dance imagery to be effective you must develop, and consistently use, a systematic programme both in class and outside the studio. A dance imagery programme should include the following:

  • Set achievable imagery goals in order of importance. It helps to write these down in an imagery diary.
  • Practice situation-specific imagery.
  • Use the imagery in class after receiving feedback, before doing the next exercise or to prepare for a performance.
  • Practice imagery outside class 34 times a week for about 10 minutes at a time.
  • Be patient, as results may take 68 weeks to become apparent.

Physical exploration of imagery for postural alignment

It is useful to have a full length mirror as you try and to establish your alignment. You can refer to points or landmarks on your body to help find your postural placement. Try to stack each of the points, one on top of the other to bring them into a vertical line. Start
the exploration from your feet and slowly work your way up to your head.

Your feet form a ‘tripod of support’ below your body with more weight placed over the balls of your feet than on your heels. Think of your toes lengthening along the floor like gecko toes and your heels resting on spongy marshmallows.

Try to balance the side of the ankle, where the ankle bone sticks out, below the points at the side of the knee and the side of your hip directly over it. Imagine three building blocks in bright colours being stacked directly on top of each other. Be aware not to lock back into your knees. Alternatively, you can imagine sucking double thick milkshakes up the centre of each leg, connecting the centre of the heel with the centre of the sitting bone of each leg.

Float your pelvis squarely above your two thigh bones. Your hip bones should not tip forward or backward. Imagine you have a long dinosaur tail dropping down toward the floor. This will help to lift the front of your pelvis, lengthening your thigh muscles.

Now balance the side of the rib cage, shoulder girdle and head as your imaginary line continues up through the mid line of the ear. The line is like a seam in a full body suit running up the side of your body. Make sure your seam is as straight as possible.

The back of your ribcage should be full and wide like the sails of a beautiful sailing boat gliding across the waves. The front of your ribcage should be wide and soft. Now focus on your spine. It should feel lengthened with an awareness of your entire spinal column from the tailbone (dinosaur tail) to the base of your skull. Float the skull on top of an imaginary feather pillow. Imagine champagne bubbles floating your vertebrae apart but keeping them joyful and happy as they follow the curves of your spine. Breathe deeply and relax but keep that sense of effortless ease in your well aligned body.

Rise onto the balls of your feet and gently draw in your abdominal muscles while keeping the shoulders relaxed, away from your ears to help your balance. Lower your heels (think marshmallows) slowly keeping most of your weight balanced over the balls of your feet (gecko toes) and stay lengthened through your spine (champagne bubbles). If you started your rise by swaying forwards your weight is probably too far back.

If you carry your weight too far back it can put a lot of extra pressure on your lower back and may over time result in pain and compromise balance control, especially when working on the ball of the foot or en pointe. Try to keep your lower back lengthened by imagining your dinosaur tail and the full sails at the back of your ribcage. You should still be able to breathe easily, without effort. Trying too hard will just make you tense and create more discomfort.

When the weight is carried too far back the cue to ‘pull up’ will often result in tension as well as encouraging you to move your ribcage backward and popping your ribs out in front in an effort to gain more length. This adjustment may make it hard for you to move with full control of your alignment, especially when jumping, turning or changing direction.

Bringing the weight forward will initially feel strange; as if you are standing on an incline. This is a normal reaction to a change in spatial awareness. In time, and with careful practice, this new alignment will become second nature and increase your overall control and balance of your body.

Examples of Images
Here are some more images that may be of use to you:

Imagery for spinal alignment

Champagne bottle/Fizzy drink
Think of the torso as a champagne bottle with the cork sitting on the crown of the head and the base in your pelvis. Feel the champagne bubbles rising up through your spine lengthening the three main body weights away from each other effortlessly. Take care to relax the tension out of your shoulders by imagining that your shoulders are like the condensation forming on the champagne bottle and gently rolling down toward the base of the bottle.

Hot air balloon
Your pelvis is the basket of a hot air balloon, your abdominals are the ropes that keep the basket and balloon apart and your rib cage and head form the brightly coloured silk balloon. Your breath is the flame that lifts you into the air. Your feet will resemble gravity trying to pull you back down to earth.

Boat and anchor

Your head is a boat gently bobbing on the waves and your tailbone is the anchor resting on the seabed. A chain linking the boat to the anchor resembles your spine ready for movement with the currents in the water.

Imagery for ribcage placement

Sailing ship
The ribcage is wider at the back than the front and the lower ribs sit just above the waist line. When the ribs are aligned correctly the front part of the ribcage 'disappears' into the body but take care not to compress the the ribs down toward the abdomen. The back of the ribcage should feel light and free, just like a the sails of a sailing ship filling with air.Imagine the air being blown into the tummy and up under the ribcage helping the body to glide across the waves.

Imagery for foot and leg alignment

Gecko toes, marshmallow heels and double thick milk shakes
Your toes resemble the suckers on a geckos toes that spread and 'suction' onto the floor. Your heels should feel light and fluffy and slightly bouncy to encourage the weight of your body to shift forward slightly. Now think of straws connecting the centre of the foot to the sitting bones on each side of the body and imagine 'sucking' a double thick milkshake up each leg. In dance this action is often referred to as 'pulling up the legs'. However this will often result in a student locking back into their knees to counter this action you can think of keeping the straw straight and not bending it at the knee. The milkshake will not be able to come all the way up to the sitting bone if the straw bends. You should feel the back of your thighs (hamstrings) and the lower part of your bottom (lower gluteal muscles) very gently contract to support your leg alignment. If you lock back in your knees you will reduce the power you have available for jumping and balance control and increase the risk of injury

 
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