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Audition Tips

With many of you preparing for upcoming auditions I have written this post to offer some Wednesday Wisdom that promotes psychological wellbeing for your audition preparation.

We all know how important auditions are, and as dancers we are very good at preparing ourselves physically and technically, but it’s equally important to prepare yourself psychologically in order to promote wellbeing. If the experience is a positive one you will be able to achieve your best, be responsive and in the moment, and believe it or not, enjoy taking part!

Here are my top 5 tips to follow:

1. Don’t compare yourself with others on the day – everyone has something unique to offer – have confidence in presenting yourself, your talents and your strengths.

2. Engage in positive self-talk that is motivational, inspires self-confidence, increases effort and generates a positive mood. Reframe any negative thoughts into challenging, instructional, motivational yet realistic challenges. So instead of thinking “I am not very good at picking things up and remembering” you could instead acknowledge this positively and decide to focus attention on mastering and remembering the beginning of the sequence and the end; challenge yourself to attend to these sections, committing the detail to memory. Goal setting that is realistic and achievable is a great tool, and this could become your goal; then anything you remember in the rest of the sequence is a bonus to be proud of.

3. Combine self-talk with positive imagery – imagine the audition day ahead of time – mentally rehearse yourself performing movement really well, enjoying yourself, attending to and refining technical elements and enhancing performance qualities. If , for example, you’ve been working on keeping the weight forwards in pirouettes, imagine executing this weight placement perfectly during your turns.

4. Choose to interpret any feelings of anxiety as excitement, for in truth the body doesn’t know the difference between these physical states, it’s how the mind interprets the heightened sensations that reveals a difference, informing you of whether you should be enjoying the sensation or not. It’s like turning a trip to the dentist into Christmas Day! Turn audition day nerves into the excitement of performing for a panel who are keen to see you at your best. Show them what you can do, how much you enjoy dancing and that you are happy to be taking part.

5. Stress and anxiety are a necessary component of audition preparations and you should want these feelings to present themselves in your audition in order for you to do your best; the key is in managing them effectively, for this has the potential to enhance your performance, and also help to avoid injury.

Here are 3 simple tips to calm your nerves

1 Focus on your breathing - breathe slowly and deeply.

2 Engage in positive self-talk as explained above.

3 Frame your thinking positively, avoiding “what if” scenarios. 

Denise Horsley MSc - Blommaert Ballet School Dance Science Advisor

 
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Understanding the different stretching techniques

All dancers know that flexibility is extremely important, particularly for ballet, and that the best way to improve your flexibility is to engage in a regular stretching programme; but there are many different stretching techniques! Which type of stretching should you do and when should you do it? This post will point you in the right direction in making these choices, based on the evidence from Dance Science Research.

Static Stretching: This technique involves adopting a stretching position and holding it still for a period of time. It is probably the most frequently used technique. If your placement is correct it is considered the safest way to stretch and one of the best techniques to achieve long-term flexibility improvement. However, research has found that static stretching of longer than 10 seconds has the potential to reduce your strength and power capabilities, affecting things such as your jump height (Morrin & Redding, 2013; Quin et al., 2015). Static stretching is best used when the muscles are warm and not as part of your warm-up. Wyon (2010) suggests that if you experience shakes and spasms of the muscle it is likely the stretch is too intense – take care and ease the stretch – build up safely over time, and please do refer to the intensity and duration information supplied by Wyon and detailed under a separate section below.

Dynamic Stretching: This technique involves stretching performed whilst moving – ideal for your warm-up. It’s best to gradually elevate your heart rate first, to ensure increased blood flow to the working muscles and increase the lubrication of the joints. Your Range of Motion (ROM) should start small and get progressively bigger and bigger until you reach your full ROM. With this technique the limb is never held for a prolonged period, but moves through a full ROM from full contraction to full extension at a controlled, slow to moderate pace, such as performing a plié or a fondu. Whilst Dynamic Stretching doesn’t bring long-term gains in flexibility it is good for supporting the pliability of the muscles through maintaining body temperature.


Active Stretching: This technique involves contracting one muscle (the agonist) as a means of stretching an opposing muscle (the antagonist). Sometimes referred to as Static Active Stretching because you hold the end position of the stretch for a period of time, however the stretch is not held manually, for example through the use of a prop such as a strap,  but is simply held using your muscular strength, hence Static Active Stretching. This technique closely replicates dance movement yet is probably the most under-utilized method within the dance community (Wyon, 2010). The intensity and duration of the stretch will depend upon the strength of the agonist muscle. This stretching technique is beneficial in that it builds strength and flexibility at the same time. 


PNF Stretching: PNF stands for Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation and was developed from physiotherapy techniques as a form of rehabilitation. The simplest way to explain PNF methods is to say they involve a contract-relax (CR) stretch; the muscle to be stretched is first contracted isometrically, meaning the muscle length remains the same. Other PNF methods progress from here, often by contracting the opposite muscle during the stretch phase in order to move the limb into a greater ROM, allowing the muscle being stretched to relax. PNF stretching should only be done when the muscles are warm and prepared for this type of activity; it is not suitable therefore for warm-up activity. Quin and associates (2015) suggest this type of stretching “must only be performed with experienced individuals” (p. 84). Some Dance Science literature even suggests this type of stretching should only be performed with the supervision of a medical professional (Critchfield & IADMS, 2011). So, whilst research finds PNF stretching to be the “most effective type of stretch for increasing muscular length” (Quin, 2015, p. 84), and effective in increasing muscle strength (Deighan, 2005), it is clear that care must be taken to ensure that the technique is fully understood and carried out proficiently and safely. It would not be recommended for vulnerable bodies, such as adolescents undergoing growth spurts.

Ballistic Stretching: Whist this type of stretching is the most controversial and least popular/recommended within the dance community, it is a technique that does most closely replicate dance movement. Wyon (2010) offers an interesting perspective by stating: “It’s important to remember that it isn’t the technique that is contra-indicated, but how the stretch is executed” (p. 10). He suggests that in order to carry out this type of stretching safely, the muscle needs to be conditioned/trained beforehand, and must already have a good ROM; the dancer must be willing to introduce PNF stretching gradually. To begin with, mid-range movements should be executed at a controlled/moderate speed. Over time, both the speed and the ROM can be gradually and safely increased. This technique has the potential to prepare muscles for rapid movements and could therefore be used by dancers in preparing for allegro and jump sequences.

Microstretching®: This technique was developed by, and is the trademark of, Apostolopoulos (2004). It uses low intensity stretching, suggesting a self-perceived rating of 3/10. Low intensity stretching does not damage muscle fibres; the effect of which, Apostolopoulos suggests, can lead to the formation of fibrous tissue that could limit your ROM. He suggests this type of stretching be carried out a couple of hours post-exercise, once muscles have returned to their normal temperature. You’d be forgiven for thinking that more intense stretching techniques yield greater results, but actually research suggests you’d be mistaken. Wyon (2015) carried out a six-week intervention, comparing the results of Microstretching® with the result of more intense stretching (a self-perceived rating of 8/10), and found that the Microstretching® group improved significantly more in both active and passive ROM than the other group.

Intensity and Duration of Stretching: In personal correspondence with BBS in relation to this post we are extremely grateful to Matt Wyon for highlighting the importance of attending to both the intensity and the duration of your stretching. To be clear, high intensity stretching has the potential to cause muscle damage. He suggests that the ideal intensity is 5-8/10 for a duration of 60 seconds.

General Guidance on Stretching: Remember that correct technique and alignment is essential in order for stretching to be effective and safe! You should always avoid overstretching as this could damage muscle tissue, and one of the best ways to do this is to include periods of rest and recovery in your stretching programme. Wyon (2010) warns against stretching stabilizing muscles such as the peroneus longus and brevis in the ankle, particularly during your warm-up phase, as this could increase the instability of joints and lead to injury. He suggests priming and targeting the appropriate muscles for the movement you are about to do, rather than trying to prepare all muscles, relevant to the activity or not. Muscles need to be moved through the anticipated ROM at the required speed. He suggests achieving this through dynamic stretching first, possibly moving on to ballistic stretching (if appropriate) once the muscles are warm. Wyon also reminds dancers that stretching is but one component of the warm-up, and obviously should never be the sole aspect.

Don’t forget, that in order to maximise any gains in flexibility, you need to incorporate strength training into your practice; not much good having an excellent passive ROM if you have a poor active ROM – in other words having great flexibility but lacking the strength to use it. Quin and associates (2015) advise that stretching just once a week will result in flexibility gains only lasting for the short-term. In order for long-term maintenance of flexibility gains to occur the dancer should consider incorporating stretching into their programme a minimum of three times a week.



References:


Apostolopoulos, N. (2004). Microstretching®: A new recovery regeneration technique. New Studies in Athletics, 19(4), 47-56. https://www.worldathletics.org


Deighan, M. (2005). Flexibility in dance. Journal of Dance Medicine & Science, 9(1), 13-17. http://www.jmichaelryan.com


Critchfield, B., & the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science (IADMS). (2011). Stretching for dancers. http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.iadms.org/resource/resmgr/resource_papers/stretching.pdf


Morrin, N., & Redding, E. (2013). Acute effects of warm-up stretch protocols on balance, vertical jump height, and range of motion in dancers. Journal of Dance Medicine & Science, 17(1), 34-40. https://doi.org/10.12678/1089-313x.17.1.34 


Quin, E., Rafferty, S., & Tomlinson, C. (2015). Safe dance practice. Human Kinetics.


Wyon, M. (2010). Stretching for dance. IADMS. 2(1), 9-12. https://iadms.org

Denise Horsley MSc - Blommaert Ballet School Dance Science Advisor

 
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Let’s Consider Hydration for Dancers

Water is essential to all life forms, and for dancers is a vital performance enhancing component. Water accounts for between 40 and 70% of our body mass (McArdle et al., 2015), with 60-65% of this water contained within cells (intracellular), the remainder outside (extracellular) (Koutedakis & Craig Sharp, 1999).  In terms of body composition, of which we are all very individual, water accounts for approximately 65-75% of the weight of muscle tissue but only about 10% of the weight of fat (McArdle et al., 2015). It follows that two individuals might weigh the same but owing to different body compositions will have differing total body water percentages.


Fluid requirements differ from dancer to dancer according to different factors that might include amongst others your body size, your genetics, your current level of fitness and the intensity and duration of the exercise performed. Mastin & One Dance UK (n.d.), advise that ‘it is very difficult to recommend a general fluid requirement that meets the needs of all dancers’, and advise that the best way to estimate fluid requirements is to weigh oneself before and after exercise, with each kilogram of weight loss accounting for approximately 1.2-1.5 litres of fluid, remembering to account for any fluids consumed during the session.


During exercise the muscles produce heat as a by-product, in fact 75% of the energy we put into dance is converted into heat (Koutedakis & Craig Sharp, 1999). This heat has to be dissipated in order to maintain the body temperature with safe limits and avoid overheating. Water is carried from the hot muscles to the skin’s surface via the capillaries where it evaporates as sweat. The amount of water in the body is balanced by very delicate systems, and all water losses need to be replaced by an equivalent water intake. Water is not only required to cool the body via sweat production, it is required by the body to transport nutrients around the body. It is also essential for the maintenance of adequate blood volume and essential for the optimal functioning of the heart. Water is an excellent source of certain minerals. Electrolytes are minerals that facilitate the neural impulses that control muscle activity (amongst other vital intracellular metabolic activities). When the body sweats excessively it loses electrolytes through sweat production and this impairs one’s maximal physical performance. This is mainly due to decreases in plasma volume which affects the body’s ability to utilize carbohydrates.


If fluid losses are not adequately replaced the dancer can become dehydrated and this can lead to electrolyte deficits and dancers are likely to experience muscle cramps and muscle fatigue. Mastin, on behalf of One Dance UK (n.d.) suggests that greater levels of dehydration affect the dancers’ strength, their ability to concentrate, and increases the potential for injury. An easy way to recognise dehydration is the pee test, with darker, lesser quantities of urine indicating dehydration. Koutedakis & Craig Sharp (1999) suggest that a 2% loss of fluid in terms of body weight  reduces one’s capacity for maximal exercise by 15%; at 5% this capacity decreases by an astonishing 30%, and 9-12% has the potential to be fatal.


Should dancers only drink water? Should they consider sports drinks and fluid replacement drinks? Fluid replacement drinks often contain electrolytes such as sodium as well as carbohydrates. This content assists in replacing fluids quicker than plain water. Energy drinks often contain greater amounts of carbohydrates in order to boost energy losses. Such drinks are often classified as hypotonic (low osmolality), isotonic (normal osmolality), or hypertonic (high osmolality). If we consider the first one; a hypotonic drink, as the name suggests, will contain fewer electrolyte and carbohydrate particles than the body’s own fluids, and will therefore be absorbed by the body faster than plain water. This would therefore be beneficial in hot environments. Isotonic drinks contain the same amounts of electrolytes and carbohydrates as the body and will therefore be absorbed as fast as plain water, which is appropriate for exercise in normal temperatures. Hypertonic drinks contain more electrolytes and carbohydrates than the bodies fluids and will therefore be absorbed slower than plain water and could therefore be consumed post-workout in order to supplement losses of carbohydrates etc. In a factsheet for dancers, Mastin & One Dance UK suggest drinking plain water for low to moderate levels of intensity of less than an hour’s duration; for moderate to high level intensity, lasting less than an hour, they suggest either water or a hypotonic drink; and for high intensity activity lasting longer than an hour they suggest a hypotonic or isotonic drink.


So, always try to begin your class/performance in a hydrated state. Drinking small amounts frequently rather than a large amount in one go is likely to be preferable to avoid bloating. Getting into the habit of carrying a water bottle with you for this purpose becomes part of good practice. Don’t rely on your thirst as an indicator of the need to replace fluids for at this stage it is likely you are already dehydrated; and be aware that some drinks, such as tea and coffee, may actually have a dehydrating effect. If you do experience muscle cramps Mastin & One Dance UK (n.d.) suggest a consuming a hypotonic or isotonic drink rather than plain water.


Koutedakis, Y., & Sharp, N. C. Craig Sharp. (1999). The fit and healthy dancer. Wiley.


Mastin, Z. & One Dance UK. (n.d.). 15: Fluid for dancers. https://www.onedanceuk.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/DUK-Info-Sheet-15-Fluid-for-dancers.pdf


McArdle, W. D., Katch, F. I., & Katch, V. L. (2015). Exercise physiology: Nutrition, energy, and human performance. Wolters Kluwer.

Denise Horsley MSc - Blommaert Ballet School Dance Science Advisor

 

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Wednesday Turnout Wisdom; Part 1

  

Which muscles are responsible for effective turnout?


Although the large gluteal muscles do act as both hip extensors (extending the leg to the back, as we do in an arabesque) and external rotators, it is to the six deep lateral rotators that we turn our attention as these are essential for effective turnout. These muscles are: piriformis, internal obturator, external obturator, inferior gemellus, superior gemellus, and the quadratus femoris. Together they form a group of muscles that are responsible for rotating the thigh bone in the hip socket. To be clear, turnout is a movement that must be practised and understood; it is not advisable to think of it as the attainment of a ‘position’.


Developing an awareness of any over-tensing of the gluteus maximus during turnout is useful as this should be avoided for its potential to hinder the activation of the deep rotator muscles. The gluteus maximus is both large and superficial; it is therefore much easier to sense contraction and effort here, and as with any large muscle, any continuous over-use beyond its functional need will stimulate growth resulting in aesthetic changes. 


Once the leg has been turned out via the primary external rotators and the femur extended, the adductors are then able to play a significant and contributory role in turnout. In using the adductors in this way, as outward rotators, the engagement of the hamstrings then plays an essential role. A hamstring that is insufficiently engaged could result in the adductor engagement producing inward rotation rather than outward, which has the potential to affect the attainment of the correct alignment of the pelvis. A balance must be found between the adductors and the hamstrings.


Wilmerding, Krasnow & IADMS have produced a fantastic resource paper entitled Turnout for Dancers: Hip Anatomy and Factors Affecting Turnout. Interestingly they advise that ‘It is from ideas or images of movement tasks that the dancer can achieve the most efficient dynamic movement, and not by trying to coordinate and control individual muscle activation, or to achieve some ideal of perfection that is anatomically unrealistic’ (2011, p. 1). Blommaert Ballet School recommends this informative and factual paper to all dancers as it not only discusses the muscles involved but gives a comprehensive understanding of the bones and structure of the hip joint and the factors that affect turnout. Please see the reference below and have a read!


For those interested in the use of imagery in dance practice, Blommaert Ballet School suggest investing time in the work of Eric Franklin (2012; 2014; 2019).



References


Figure 1: 

Pett, J., & Pett, S. (2011). 4 things you didn’t know about deep hip external rotator muscles overload. Retrieved from https://sportsinjury.online/deep-hip-rotator-overload/


Franklin, E. (2012). Dynamic alignment through imagery (2nd ed.). Human Kinetics.


Franklin, E. (2014). Dance imagery for technique and performance (2nd ed.). Human Kinetics.


Franklin, E. (2019). Conditioning for dance: Training for whole-body coordination and efficiency (2nd ed.). Human Kinetics.


Wilmerding, V., Krasnow, D., & the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science (IADMS). (2011). Turnout for dancers: Hip anatomy and factors affecting turnout. https://iadms.org/media/3597/iadms-resource-paper-turnout-anatomy.pdf

Denise Horsley MSc - Blommaert Ballet School Dance Science Advisor

 
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Strategies for coping with audition disappointment.

It’s the audition season, and many students will have recently attended auditions with many having already received a response in terms of outcome. Having put in a lot of hard work and commitment, in terms of preparation, a disappointing outcome can be difficult to deal with; yet this is likely to be the reality for many students at this time. This post is written to help students deal with such disappointment constructively and help keep things in perspective.


Artists working within the field of performing arts do have to deal with ‘ups and downs’ frequently and most importantly use these experiences, from both ends of this spectrum, constructively. Taylor and Estanol suggest the dancer should, ‘…keep the ups and downs in perspective by acknowledging that they’re a natural and expected part of the art form’ (2015, p.7). They suggest attending to the way in which you measure success and failure, for small changes to your mindset here have the potential to assist in dealing positively with disappointment. If your definition of success is defined in very narrow terms, such as fixed only upon gaining a place in a school or gaining a particular role in a performance, this is not a very constructive way of measuring success and will make failure in these narrow terms difficult to deal with. If you can define success more broadly and positively this can facilitate progression in a positive way. Your definition of success could be performing at your best, really enjoying the experience of performing, perhaps achieving goals you had set for yourself. Taylor and Estanol make a crucial point in identifying that such a definition of success “…lies entirely within your control, you have the power and to pursue and achieve success at will” (2015, p.9); it is not dependent upon an external factor.


A ‘failure’ in these terms can be viewed positively as an opportunity to learn more about yourself and your practice. You can learn how you perform under pressure, perhaps for the first time as only these experiences can offer this, and you may be able to identify more easily areas that require further attention in order to find improvement – again these factors are all within your control and could be used to inform your current and future goals, keeping you motivated and inspired.


Research suggests it might also be helpful to give yourself some breathing space after a disappointment. The strategy of taking time off from performance-related concerns and emotions is known as mental detachment, and research suggests it is effective in the process of recovery (Sonnetag & Fritz, 2014; Balk et al., 2018). We all know how easy it is to dwell upon particular incidents or experiences to the point that such attention affects our wellbeing significantly causing fatigue and even playing a factor in a higher susceptibility to injury (Noh et al., 2009; Balk et al., 2018).


If we truly keep the audition disappointment in perspective, we can see that it is but one negative which actually has the potential to bring about so many positives that might otherwise have been missed - opportunities for the growth and development of you as an artist. Coping with adversity is also a valuable lesson for life, not only for dance. It is through dealing with such setbacks that we learn about ourselves, perhaps learn about humility, and gain an appreciation of what it takes to achieve our goals.


References:


Balk, Y. A., de Jonge, J., van Rijn, R., Stubbe, J. (2018). “Leave it all behind”: The role of mental demands and mental detachment in relation to dance students’ health and well-being. Medical Problems of Performing Artists, 33(4), 258-264. https://doi.org/10.21091/mppa.2018.4038 



Noh, Y. E., Morris, T., & Andersen, M. B. (2009). Occupational stress and coping strategies of professional ballet dancers in Korea. Medical Problems of Performing Artists, 24(3), 124-134. https://doi.org/10.21091/mppa.2009.3027 



Sonnetag, S., & Fritz C. (2014). Recovery from job stress: The stressor-detachment model as an integrative framework. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 36(S1),  S72-S103. https://doi.org/10.1002/job.1924 



Taylor, J. & Estanol, E. (2015). Dance psychology for artistic and performance excellence. Human Kinetics.

Denise Horsley MSc - Blommaert Ballet School Dance Science Advisor

 
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The Benefits of Rest

As the festive season approaches and schools and studios close their doors for a brief time, it’s understandable that dancers may feel slightly anxious about taking a break from their training. You’ve been working consistently hard, making good progress; don’t want to lose what you have achieved, be this in terms of flexibility, strength, co-ordination, or worse still fall backwards, right? Well, this post is written, not only to counter these fears, but to help you to appreciate just how essential rest and recovery is to a dancer’s continued progress, playing an essential role, in performance enhancement and technical accomplishment, and a vital role in dancer health and wellbeing. You may have auditions coming up in January but it’s still important to take rest.


When we talk of rest, we may be referring to complete rest which, when combined with good quality sleep habits “helps repair damaged tissue and improves efficiency and performance output” (Quin et al., 2015, p. 94-95). It could be a complete day off from dance and physical activity, or it could be a longer period of time away from training, such as over the Christmas break. With complete rest significant repair and recovery can take place, including repair to the soft-tissues (muscle, tendons, ligaments and fascia). An example of active rest could refer to the dancer taking a break from their dance training but remaining physically active, perhaps engaging in another form of physical activity; but this is likely to be at a lower intensity and less strenuous than their normal training. Active rest can offer an opportunity to pursue other interests and genres, perhaps in a less pressured way, and has the potential to bring about both psychological and physical recovery and repair.


So why refer to rest and recovery? When we speak of recovery to what are we referring? Adequate nutrition and hydration are the components to which we refer for they, alongside rest, are essential in the development of effective recovery.


Research around distributed practice (providing longer rest periods within the dancers training schedule) suggests that, contrary perhaps to our commonly held fears, rest actually enhances learning (Batson & Schwartz, 2007) particularly in relation to acquiring and retaining motor skills (Schmidt & Lee, 1999). It has the potential to contribute towards the improvement of many areas of physical fitness, including cardiorespiratory gains, whilst also reducing fatigue and improving one’s mood profile (Koutedakis et al., 1990).


So, don’t feel anxious about taking a break over the festive period; perhaps take time to evaluate the benefits of rest within your practice. At BBS we wish you all a very Merry and restful Christmas, and look forward to seeing you in the New Year!



References:


Batson, G., & Schwartz, R. E. (2007). Revisiting the value of somatic education in dance training through an inquiry into practice schedules. Journal of Dance Education, 7(2), 47-56. https://doi.org/10.1080/15290824.2007.10387334 


Koutedakis, Y., Budgett, R., & Faulmann, L. (1990). Rest in underperforming elite competitors. The British Journal of Sports Medicine, 24(4), 248-252. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsm.24.4.248 


Quin, E., Rafferty, S., & Tomlinson, C. (2015). Safe dance practice. Human Kinetics.


Schmidt, R. A., & Lee, T. D. (1999). Motor control and learning: A behavioural emphasis, 3rd edition. Human Kinetics.

 
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The Foot

Today’s Wednesday Wisdom is dedicated to the foot. When considering our technique there’s no better place to start than from the bottom up, for any problems here are likely to affect everything above, in significant and potentially exacerbating ways. 


The comprehensive findings of Kadel (2006) reported injury incidence rates of the lower extremities, based on multiple previous studies, of 67% to 95% among professional ballet dancers, with the foot and ankle accounting for 34% to 62% of all injuries reported. It is therefore of prime importance for dancers to have as much knowledge of the foot from an anatomical and biomechanical perspective as possible in order to compliment and inform the physical development and application of technique.


Simmel, whose fantastic chapter about the foot in Dance Medicine in Practice has informed this post, advocates that, ‘A combination of stable statics, great flexibility and dynamic muscular strength…’ are essential for a dancer’s healthy feet (2014, p. 123). Each foot contains 26 separate bones, 33 joints, and over a hundred muscles, tendons and ligaments; of the muscles, 19 are intrinsic and 10 extrinsic. What do these terms mean? Usually one end of a muscle is fixed in its position whilst the other end will move when the muscle contracts. The origin is the attachment site which doesn’t move, whilst the insertion is the attachment site which does. The intrinsic muscles have both their origin and insertion in the foot; which essentially means these muscles have no action on movements within the ankle joint, instead they stabilize and support the three-dimensional structure of the foot, created through the joints and the arches. The extrinsic muscles originate outside of the foot, in the lower leg, but cross the ankle joint as tendons that then have their insertion on the bones of the foot.


The foot is a segmented structure, and as such is only able to bear weight if it is arched. There are three arches in the foot which give it a three-dimensional structure; the medial longitudinal arch, the lateral longitudinal arch (both of which run lengthways down the foot, the first on the inside, the second on the outside), and the transverse arch which runs from one side of the foot to the other, extending across between the metatarsals. The two longitudinal arches act like pillars for the transverse arch, and these arches account for the incredible strength of the foot. The interlocking shapes of the bones assist the maintenance of the arches as do the strong ligaments and the tendons that provide tension during muscular activity. The ligaments and tendons provide a springiness, for the arches tend to yield as they bear weight and spring back once the weight is removed. Exposure to this continued strain brings about strength.


Regular exercise and dance training build muscular strength and coordination; weight bearing activities promote circulation and work progressively and continuously to build and maintain strength.


The arches of the foot provide the stability, flexibility and elasticity required through a spiralling action, with the forefoot spiralling inwards (we want the big toe connecting with the floor, allowing a horizontal positioning) and the hindfoot spiralling outwards, which allows the calcaneus (heel bone) to be held vertically. It’s interesting to note how often we identify a spiralling action within the placing and alignment of the body in relation to the classical ballet technique. Only this week during a Body Conditioning class focused upon attending to this spiralling action of the foot and support of the transverse arch did one of my younger students reflect upon and draw parallels between this and the spiralling action we had spoken about previously in relation to ports de bras; the spiralling of the upper arm in an opposing direction to the lower, generating an effective dynamic to work with. Well done to Florence; perceptive and pertinent!


The talus bone in the hind foot is very important in that it transfers the body’s weight to the foot and conversely absorbs impact from the foot that is then transmitted upwards. The shape of the talus bone – broader at the front – leads to an increase in joint mobility when we as dancers stand on demi-point, hence the need to cultivate strength within our technique to maximise this safely. By contrast, during a deep plie the construction of the foot actually affords greater bony stability.

There are three lateral ligaments that stabilise the ankle joint, and interestingly these contain numerous receptors, responsible for balance and stability. Hinging of the ankle joint (movement up and down) takes place in the upper ankle joint, whist sideways movement takes place in the lower ankle joint. Together these joints form a functional unitpermitting mobility in all directions. Interestingly, Simmel (2014) points out that the axis of the ankle joint (located between the medial and lateral malleolus – the bony protuberances on either side of the ankle) - is turned slightly outwards in relation to the axis of the knee, which goes some way towards explaining any tendencies towards sickling as we extend the leg and point the foot; whereas during the plie the tibia turns inwards on the talus, which has the potential to contribute to and exacerbate tendencies towards the rolling in of the foot. As dancers we have to work hard through the development of our technique to counteract both of these tendencies arising from these biomechanical factors.

The Achilles tendon is the strongest tendon in the body. You will find no greater source of inspiration and respect for both the human body and the contributions made from dance and medical science, than the Royal Ballet’s principal dancer, Steven McRae, who underwent a full Achilles reconstruction, having to first learn to walk again before returning to the stage to dance after 2 years. His indomitable will was witnessed and celebrated by the ballet world, including the team at BBS who would not have missed his highly emotive return debut on 19th October 2021 for anything.





References


Kadel, N. J. (2006). Foot and ankle injuries in dance. Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Clinics of North America, 17(1), 813-826. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pmr.2006.06.006 


Simmel, L. (2014). Dance medicine in practice. Routledge.

 
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What are the factors that affect turnout from the hip?

Wednesday Turnout Wisdom; Part 2


What are the factors that affect turnout from the hip?


I’m sure most ballet dancers in training would agree that working on turnout presents an ongoing challenge of the utmost importance. “Perfect” turnout is defined as 180-degree angle between the longitudinal axes of the feet, and this is something we all admire and perhaps aspire to achieve through our training. But experts in the field strongly advise that ‘dancers at all levels should remember that the notion of the perfect 180 degrees of turnout traditionally recommended (in ballet) is anatomically and biomechanically uncommon’ (Quin et al, p. 44).


Whist we can all look in the same anatomy books at the same pictures, the crucial thing to remember is that we are all individuals. All our anatomical structures, our bones and joints, our ligaments and muscles, are all highly unique. We are not only very different from the text books, but we are very different from one another, and may even have differences between one side of our body and the other! Unfortunately, we can’t just open up our bodies, x-ray style, and take a good look. So, in order for us to work safely, correctly and effectively with our bodies we need to understand and appreciate the mechanisms at work as we strive towards achieving turnout, and this will include considering possible limitations.


Researchers and educators in the field agree that in order to work safely, and to guard against poor alignment decisions which carry significant potential for injury, turnout should come from the hip, with particular attention given to maintaining correct pelvic alignment.


Leading researchers in the field, Wilmerding and Krasnow, writing on behalf of IADMS (2011), have identified five main factors that affect turnout at the hip, and it is these five factors that form the foundation on which I have built and organised this article, with a focus on building clarity of understanding for the reader as I proceed:

  1. Angle of femoral anteversion

This refers to the angle between the neck of your femur and its main shaft. The hip is a ball and socket joint with the round head of the femur inserting into the hip socket. The head of the femur has a neck before it extends into the main shaft/length of the bone. 

Understanding the terminology used by Wilmerding and Krasnow can be a bit challenging here as their explanations refer in the first instance to anterior angulation, known as femoral anteversion. A normal hip is identified as having the neck of the femur angled forwards of the shaft of the femur by 15 degrees. An increase in anterior angulation, (anterior meaning front/forwards; neck and shaft angled towards each other), essentially means a reduction of this angle (as the neck and shaft will be angled closer together) – hence the confusion – increase indicating reduction in this sense. Femoral anteversion can therefore cause the toes to turn in when walking (pigeon toed) and the knees to face inward – in the ballet class, even as the legs are rotated from the hip to turnout the knees may still face the front, making turnout difficult. 

A decrease in anterior angulation essentially means an increase in this angle, (the neck and shaft, will be angled further apart) and this is known as femoral retroversion. Here the knees and feet tend to face outwards meaning the potential for turnout is likely to be greater and easier.

2. Orientation of the acetabulum.

The acetabulum is the hip socket, and where the hip socket is located, and how it is orientated in your pelvis will have an impact on your ability to turnout. Generally speaking, hip sockets face the side with a slight forward orientation. The more the hip sockets face to the side in an individual the greater the capacity for turnout, and the less forwards orientation there is (more sideways) the greater the potential for turnout will be.

3. Shape of the femoral neck.

The less contact there is between the femoral neck and the acetabulum the better in terms of turnout potential. A long and concave neck is less likely to have contact with the outer edge of the acetabulum than one that is short and less concave.

4. Elasticity of iliofemoral or Y ligament.

The Y-ligament is the strongest ligament in the body, and it has only minimal elastic properties. The main role of this ligament in terms of our everyday functioning and wellbeing, is to stabilize the hip, and in doing this it opposes extension of the hip (taking the leg to the back) and limits how much the femur can rotate externally (turnout). Grossman and colleagues suggest that “usually the Y ligament will limit hip extension before the foot comes off the floor in tendu back” (2005, p. 16). This knowledge helps us to appreciate the difficulty frequently experienced in relation to maintaining turnout whilst performing movements such as an arabesque or a penche. Grossman and colleagues suggest “the less hip extension a dancer has, the more contribution from the lumbar spine is required for all posterior movements of the femur” (2011, p. 17). The importance of pelvic alignment in relation to turnout has already been emphasised, and Wilmerding and Krasnow highlight the common tendency of dancers to tilt the pelvis forwards, thereby creating some laxity in the ligaments of the hip in an effort to increase hip rotation. But this they suggest is not only ‘aesthetically undesirable’ but ‘potentially damaging’ (2011, p. 5). Effective pelvic alignment requires the muscles of the hip flexors and the abdominal muscles to work together cooperatively. The abdominal muscles attach at both the ribs and the pelvic brim and therefore control the raising (contraction) and controlled lowering of the pelvis. Even if your abdominals are strong they may not be able to maintain the correct level of the pelvic brim if your hip flexors are extremely tight; and by the same token, if your hip flexors happen not to be tight and are able to stretch, they will be unable to prevent your pelvis from tipping forwards into an anterior tilt if your abdominal muscles are weak. Grossman and colleagues highlight the importance of the length-tension relationship of muscle which “means that muscles are strongest at their resting or mid-range and weaker when elongated or shortened” (2005, p. 17). One can see from the above description that an anterior pelvic tilt is actually counterproductive because the hip flexor muscles are shortened and the hip extensors and abdominals lengthened: “these muscle groups are at a mechanical advantage for maximal strength when neutral pelvic alignment is maintained” (2005, p. 17). An anterior pelvic tilt also means the ability to engage the six deep rotator muscles, referred to in Part 1 of our Turnout Wednesday Wisdom  series as crucial for effective turnout from the hip, will be compromised and therefore far less effective.

5. Flexibility and strength of the muscle-tendon unit.

Finally, Wilmerding and Krasnow (2011) advise that the muscles and tendons that surround the hip may be unnaturally tight in some people, which has the potential to restrict turnout; though stretching techniques may offer the potential for improvement here.



One can appreciate that only some of the factors highlighted here that affect turnout at the hip can be addressed through training, and those that cannot must serve to promote our understanding of our individuality and uniqueness, and enhance our appreciation of both the body with it’s capabilities and limitations, and the aesthetic of ballet that requires us, in the presence of the findings from eminent researchers in the field, not only to work hard but to be knowledgeable in relation to grounding our expectations of turnout in factual knowledge of the body, and prioritise the application of correct technique.


Whist I have endeavoured to make the findings of leading researchers and educators in this field accessible, and I hope easier to understand, I acknowledge that this drive for simplicity and clarity has the potential to lack the essential richness of detail that the original articles contain in abundance. I would therefore encourage all dancers inspired to find out more, to visit the original articles listed below in the references in order to maximise and increase their understanding.




References:


Grossman, G., Krasnow, D., & Welsh, T. M. (2005). Effective use of turnout: Biomechanical, neuromuscular, and behavioural considerations. Journal of Dance Education, 5(1), 15-27. https://doi.org/10.1080/15290824.2005.10387279 


Quin, E., Rafferty, S., & Tomlinson, C. (2015). Safe dance practice. Human Kinetics.


Wilmerding, V., Krasnow, D., & the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science (IADMS). (2011). Turnout for dancers: Hip anatomy and factors affecting turnout. https://iadms.org/media/3597/iadms-resource-paper-turnout-anatomy.pdf





 Denise Horsley, MSc. – Blommaert Ballet School Dance Science Advisor

 
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Goal Setting

Goal Setting


“Motivation without goals is like wanting to get somewhere without knowing where to go”  (Taylor & Estanol, 2015, p. 142).


Most dancers have plenty of motivation for dancing, and for improving their dance practice, but motivation alone may not be as effective as we would expect in our quest to find improvement and achieve our aims and ambitions. Goal setting as a practice is an effective tool that can be used to achieve our aspirations and more importantly facilitate continued progress.


Where to begin?

 Maybe start by thinking about what is important to you as a dancer; the ability to really know oneself, and to be self-reflective about where we are right now, what we want to achieve, and where our strengths and weaknesses lie in this respect can all make good starting points. Engaging in Performance Profiling (Butler & Hardy, 1992) can be beneficial; during this process one would list the qualities and attributes you consider to be important to you as a dancer and then self-evaluate your current level of achievement on a simple scale of 1 to 10 and thereby identify where attention is required and energies best channelled.


Types of Goals

Quin and associates (2015) identify three different types of goals; those that are process orientated, such as the learning of a new skill; those that are performance orientated, such as a desire to improve one’s core strength; and those that are outcome orientated such as successfully auditioning for a particular school. Performance and process orientated goals are closely related, with the former being an overarching concern and the latter a more specific aspect related to this. Emphasis should really be placed upon process and performance goals as these are founded upon intrinsic motivation – that is, a desire to engage in something for its inherent satisfaction; whereas extrinsically motivated goals and behaviours are those that are driven by external rewards, such as pleasing someone. Striving towards intrinsically motivated goals is an activity that is within your control, whereas striving towards extrinsic goals often depends upon, and is subject to the will of others and not really within our control.

Goals may also be long-term, such as what you want to achieve by the end of your training, or short-term, such as what you want to achieve this term; and then of course timescales of everything in between, for example yearly goals, can be considered. It’s good to set a range, and use your short-term goals as a means to identify how you will achieve and work towards long-term goals – what are the steps needed in order to get there. 


Set ‘SMART’ goals

Using the acronym SMART can assist you in developing and identifying effective goals. ‘S’ is for specific. Being specific will enable you to identify exactly which steps are needed in order to achieve your goal. Avoid making non-specific, broad statements, such as wanting to improve one’s strength or flexibility – where exactly do you want to build strength, gain flexibility? Which part of the body? Which muscle or group of muscles? For what purpose? Being specific has the potential to facilitate the next aspect of this acronym.

‘M’ stands for measurable. It’s essential to be able to track the progress you are making towards your goal and to be able to clarify exactly how you will measure and recognise success and achievement. Improving flexibility of the hamstring, for example, appears quite straightforward in this respect, but something like improving one’s confidence levels might require more thought and self-reflection during the process. You will want to recognise small, incremental achievement along the way in this respect – perhaps keeping a journal and identifying how you felt at particular times during your day will assist in the measurement and recognition of your progress.

‘A’ is for achievable. Simply put, you want to make sure that you set goals that are appropriately challenging, in order to bring about greater progress and improvement, without being too far beyond your current capabilities and therefore something of an impossibility to achieve. 

‘R’ is for realistic. Setting unrealistic goals has the potential to bring about feelings of failure  and disappointment if they really cannot be attained, which has the potential to hinder progression and improvement. If you are new to ballet, for example, it’s probably rather unrealistic to set yourself the goal of performing 32 fouette’s by the end of the term; improving particular aspects of a single or double pirouette, on the other hand, might make a more realistic and achievable goal for you that will facilitate plenty of improvement and progression within your technique.

‘T’ is for time frame – a reminder to always consider and set an appropriate time frame for the achievement of your goal and also identify apt and timely moments to check in and monitor your progress. Perhaps you hope to achieve your goal by the end of the term and you decide to check in on your progress at half-term, making any amendments, clarifications or adaptions as necessary.


Reviewing your progress at regular intervals will enable you to recognise progress, recognise when something has been achieved and facilitate the development of further goals that build upon the progress you have made in this respect.


Make sure your goals are self-determined – that is to say, they are goals that you yourself have identified as important to you; things that you really want to work on and improve. This will foster commitment and sustain focus, making progress personally fulfilling and satisfying. This is not to say that you will not be influenced by your teacher’s advice on that which requires attention in your technique, but the ultimate choice, identification and definition of the goal resides with you.


Research suggests that keeping a journal and taking time to reflect on your progress and to elaborate on your goals by writing at length about the aspects that you want to improve on can really be very effective (Morisano et al., 2010; Travers, 2013). Writing facilitates self-reflection and the means to internalise and assess progress and achievement, and identify additional, but nonetheless relevant, needs that may arise in the process. Keeping the process of goal setting fluid and dynamic enough to make changes and adjustments as you go will be beneficial, and help avoid any unhelpful tendencies towards perfectionism, providing a means to work through and address any negative thought processes that arise. Framing your goals positively is always constructive and effective.



References:


Butler, J., & Hardy, L. (1992). The performance profile: Theory and application. The Sport Psychologist, 6(3), 253-264.  https://doi.org/10.1123/tsp.6.3.253


Morisano, D., Hirsh, J. B., Peterson, J. B., Pihl, R. O., & Shore, B. M. J. (2010). Setting, elaborating, and reflecting on personal goals improves academic performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(2), 255-264. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0018478



Taylor, J., and Estanol, E. (2015). Dance psychology for artistic and performance excellence. Human Kinetics.


Travers, C. (2013). Using goal setting theory to promote personal development. In E. A. Locke & G. P. Lantham (Eds.), New developments in goal setting and task performance (pp. 603-619). Routledge.


Quin, E., Rafferty, S., & Tomlinson, C. (2015). Safe dance practice. Human Kinetics.






Denise Horsley, MSc. – Blommaert Ballet School Dance Science Advisor

 
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Eating Disorders and Dance

Eating Disorders and Dance


In response to supporting Eating Disorders Awareness Week (EDAW) 2022, a national, annual campaign that aims to educate people on the realities of eating disorders, this weeks’ offering for Wednesday Wisdom is less about offering wisdom and more a reflection on the prevalence of eating disorders amongst dancers and the need to consider the impact this has both on their bodies (physically and psychologically) and on their dance training. 


Research suggests that dancers have a three times higher risk of suffering from an eating disorder than the general population (Arcelus, Witcomb & Mitchell, 2013). Dancers are, by virtue of their training and the art form, very body conscious and body aware; spending long hours practicing, most often either in front of mirrors or in front of others, and thereby routinely scrutinised by both self and others. A link between perfectionism and eating disorders has been consistently found in dance research (Anshel, 2004; Neumarker et al., 2000; Thomas et al., 2005), with Penniment & Egan (2011) finding perfectionism and exposure to both thinness related learning (TRL) and thinness and restrictive expectancies (TRE) to be risk factors in relation to eating disorders. One can see that if dancers apply high levels of perfectionism both to their dance practice and to a drive for the ideal body shape/image, it’s easy to follow how this, combined with the additional sociocultural pressures of thinness inherent in the dance profession, has the potential to create an ideal breeding ground for eating disorders to emerge. In response to these findings and assertions from research, we at Blommaert Ballet School know we are not alone, and indeed believe there is mounting support in the sector, towards promoting the athletic physique within all ballet contexts.


There have been two national inquiries into dancers’ health and injury in the UK, Fit to Dance? And Fit to Dance 2; the first carried out in 1993 and the second in 2002, the aim of which was to present a comprehensive picture and ‘raise awareness of the key factors affecting dancers’ health, and bring together views and recommendations from the worlds of dance, sports and medicine’ (Laws & Dance UK, 2005, p.6). In 1993 15% of respondents reported being on a diet, compared to 23% specifying a ‘weight-reducing diet’ in 2002. Reports of having had an eating problem in the last 12 months dropped in 2002 to 16%, compared to 21% previously, leading the researchers to question whether dancers were dieting more responsibly or whether they were simply ignoring potential problems in line with body image becoming more of an issue in society in general. The 2002 report found:


Where people have given details of eating problems, a large number of these were of anorexic (30 specific mentions) or bulimic experiences (29 specific mentions) during their teenage years, often while training. Other dancers specified over- or comfort eating and some said they were bingeing or restricting their diet in an effort to control weight. Several dancers admitted to an obsession with food and weight, and experimenting with ‘fad’ diets.

(Laws & Dance UK, 2005, p. 39)


Taylor and Estanol advise that eating disorders ‘lie along a continuum made up of varying degrees of unhealthy behaviour related to body weight and appearance’ and these behaviours have the potential to ‘threaten your psychological, emotional and physical health’ (2015, p. 244, 245). Eating disorders are often accompanied by low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive thoughts and behaviours, and ‘an eerie detachment from reality, and, in extreme cases, dissociative disorders’ (2015, p. 245).


The daily energy requirement for everyone is the sum of two factors: the basal metabolic rate and the active metabolic rate. The first refers to the energy required for every day vital functions, the latter is that which is required for physical activity and exertion. Simmel advises that ‘depending on the intensity and the dancer’s age, gender and physical condition, one hour of dance burns between 250 and 600kcal. If the quantity of energy consumed by one’s diet corresponds to the energy required, body weight will remain constant: input and output are balanced’ (2014, p.189).


The effects of eating disorders on one’s body and dance training can be significant in the extreme. If the body lacks adequate nutrients required for energy and repair in extreme cases it will switch to catabolic metabolism where the energy deficit causes the body to feed off muscle and fat stores in order to fuel the critical metabolic and cellular processes. Simmel describes it as ‘removing material instead of building it up – effectively, the body shuts down and energy levels sink close to zero’. She also advises that ‘the physiological consequences remain visible for years to come’ (2014, p. 190). A lack of adequate nutrients also has an effect on bone health; the body must take minerals from the bones in order to meet the body’s needs; resulting in the bones becoming thin and susceptible to osteoporosis, stress fractures and injury. A lack of oestrogen often results from extreme weight loss and this is also a contributing factor in relation to osteoporosis. In female dancers this may also cause amenorrhea (the absence of periods). Dancers may experience dizziness, nausea and suffer from low blood pressure as both heartbeat and breathing become slower. The potential for injury becomes critical.


The work of Taylor and Estanol (2015) (listed below in the references) provides an excellent resource to help dancers develop the psychological skills and resilience necessary to work towards overcoming unhealthy behaviours. They advocate developing a balanced and realistic perspective of your dance practice, and advocate using positive self-talk, mental imagery and relaxation techniques in order to reduce anxiety and the potential for depression and eating disorders. Appropriate goal setting and working within a healthy and supportive task-based (as opposed to ego-oriented) climate can all be beneficial. Supportive relationships are essential in cultivating optimism, good self-esteem, and the ability to recognise, accept and work within one’s limits.


Should you, or someone you know require help and support it is essential to reach out and not to struggle alone. Below are details of sources of support:


BEAT (beatingeatingdisorders.org.uk) is the UK’s leading Eating Disorder Charity. Should you require help and support in relation to eating disorders you can call the BEAT helpline on 0808 801 0677.


You can also gain more information about disordered eating by visiting the BEAT website: www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk

There you will find excellent links to their online resources: https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/get-information-and-support/get-help-for-myself/downloads-resources/

These include a GP First Steps Leaflet, designed to help get a quick referral to an eating disorder specialist; A Guide for Friends and Family, offering guidance as to how to approach discussing the subject and supporting someone with an eating disorder; and a Tips Poster to help with spotting the first signs of symptoms of an eating disorder.

References:


Anshel, M./ H. (2004). Sources of disordered eating patterns between ballet dancers and non-dancers. Journal of Sport Behavior, 27(2), 115-133. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2004-14513-001



Arcelus, J., Witcomb, G. L., & Mitchell, A. (2013). Prevalence of eating disorders amongst dancers: A systematic review and meta-analysis. European Eating Disorders Review, 22(2), 92-101 https://doi.org/10.1002/erv.2271


Laws, H., & Dance UK. (2005). Fit to dance 2: Report of the second national inquiry into dancers’ health and injury in the UK. www.danceuk.org


Neumarker, K., Bettle, N., Neumarker, U., & Bettle, O. (2000). Age- and gender-related psychological characteristics of adolescent ballet dancers. Psychopathology, 33(3), 137-142. https://doi.org/10.1159/000029135


Penniment, K. J., & Egan, S. J. (2011). Perfectionism and learning experiences in dance class as risk factors for eating disorders in dancers. European Eating Disorders Review, 20(1), 13-22 https://doi.org/10.1002/erv.1089


Simmel, L. (2014). Dance medicine in practice. Routledge.


Taylor, J., and Estanol, E. (2015). Dance psychology for artistic and performance excellence. Human Kinetics.


Thomas, J. J., Keel, P. K., & Heatherton, T. F. (2005). Disordered eating attitudes and behaviours in ballet students: Examination of environmental and individual risk factors. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 38(3), 263-268. https://doi.org/10.1002/eat.20185



Denise Horsley, MSc. – Blommaert Ballet School Dance Science Advisor

 
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Preparing For Pointe Work

Preparing for Pointe Work


When can a dancer begin pointe work? How can you tell that a dancer is ready? What milestones should be achieved in preparation? Is the age of the dancer the main and most reliable factor? 12 years is mentioned so frequently; is this the recommended age/guideline? Is having strong feet the main consideration?


Our opening paragraph contains some of the main myths associated with preparing for pointe work. Leading researchers, practitioners and educators in the field all agree that, despite a widespread, established belief, considering chronological age alone as a main and somewhat arbitrary criterion for pointe work commencement constitutes an unsuitable means for establishing physical maturity; and it is the latter that must be established in order to promote the health and wellbeing of the dancer. There are many other more critical factors to consider in relation to evaluating the physical maturity required to safely begin pointe work. Growth and development progress differently from individual to individual, and children will often be at very different stages at a given chronological age; the 12-year mark widely advocated historically being a good example. Bone growth tends to complete slightly earlier in the foot that the leg. The epiphyses, or growth plates, in the foot tend to close on average at approximately age 16 years for boys, and 14 years for girls; so, one can see that previous thinking around the promotion of age 12 is somewhat misguided given that bone growth is very unlikely to be complete at that age (Weiss et al., 2019). 


Current research suggests one should consider all of the following factors carefully in relation to beginning pointe work:

  • Ankle plantar flexion range of motion. Research suggests that it is a ‘supernormal range of ankle joint motion’ that is required for pointe work (Richardson et al., 2010). One study, comparing professional female ballet dancers with the general population, found that the former had an average of 113 degrees of plantar flexion, compared with a mere 48 degrees among the latter (Hamilton & Hamilton, 1992). The Pencil Test (Novella, 1995) is a recognised  method for determining the overall degree of plantar flexion in  the ankle-foot complex. The dancer assumes a long-sit position and a pencil is placed along the top of the dorsal talar neck. In order to ‘pass’ the test, plantar flexion must be greater than, or equal to, 90 degrees; the straight edge of the pencil must clear the distal most part of the tibia, which is just proximal to the malleoli. Weiss and associates and the IADMS Dance Educators Committee of 2019 suggest that attempting point work in the presence of insufficient anatomical facility and range of motion in this regard has the potential to ‘place excessive stresses not only on the foot and ankle,  but also on the leg, pelvic girdle, and trunk’. They also recommend being aware of the fact that ‘insufficient range of motion may not improve with time, and children with these restrictions may never obtain sufficient flexibility for pointe work’ (2019, p.3).

  • Years of training, and type of training; a dance training that consists of a class once a week in recreational setting is clearly very different from a dancer in a vocational school who trains for several hours a day, week in, week out. Weiss and associates and the IADMS Dance Educators Committee (2019) suggest that for students who are taking a ballet class at least twice a week, pointe work should not be initiated until the fourth year of training. One line of current thinking suggests that if a student is not truly pre-professional, pointe work should be discouraged, unless all other criteria detailed here can be met.

  • Skill acquisition has been identified as a crucial factor in relation to beginning pointe work; competent mastery and correct technical execution of all preparatory actions, that would include plié and relevé, is essential. Richardson and associates report that ‘the ability to control proper alignment and balance during dynamic tasks, such as turning and jumping, plays a critical role in prevention of lower extremity injury’ (2010). Their research is founded upon several studies which evidence the fact that poor alignment and impaired balance performance are known risk factors in relation in relation to traumatic lower extremity injury.

  • Lower extremity strength and neuromuscular control. Although strength in the foot is important, research finds pelvic and trunk stability, achieved through the activation of core musculature, crucial. Quin and associates (2015) suggest that any postural instabilities or alignment issues must be identified, along with any muscular imbalances. They also recommend considering the dancers current and past injury history in relation to the lower limb, the pelvis and the trunk, as this could indicate potential weaknesses which must be addressed through strength training and training that promotes proprioceptive awareness. Any hypermobility of the lower extremity will likewise require attention through such training prior to beginning pointe work. The research of Richardson and associates suggests that muscular strength and endurance of the hip abductors is an important consideration in relation to safe participation in pointe work. The hip abductors and external rotators, in combination with the aforementioned trunk control, assist in ‘maintaining a level pelvis and preventing femoral adduction and internal rotation during single leg stance. As the base of support narrows, for example during relevé en pointe, the dancer will rely increasingly on proximal control to maintain proper vertical alignment and balance’ (2010).

Ankle strength is essential in order to control the required range of motion at the ankle. One can use the performance of single leg heel rises as an objective measure to assist in establishing the degree of ankle strength. The test, first established by Lunsford & Perry (1995) and then applied in dance context by Thomas & Parcell (2004), suggests a dancer should be able to perform at least 25 repetitions.


There are a range of simple functional motor tests and dance specific tests that can be performed in order to assist in ascertaining a dancer’s readiness for pointe (Shah, 2009; Richardson et al., 2010; Quin et al., 2015). Research suggests the ‘Airplane’ test, (Liederbach, 2007, as cited in Richardson et al. 2010) the Sauté test, and the ‘Topple’ test (Lopez-Ortiz, 1994, as cited in Richardson et al. 2010; Liederbach, 1997, as cited in Richardson et al. 2010) to be particularly pertinent in relation to gauging pointe readiness, with one study finding the Sauté test to be ‘the strongest predictor of pointe-readiness classification overall’ (Richardson et al., 2010). The ‘Airplane’ test, (Liederbach, 2007, as cited in Richardson et al. 2010) requires the dancer to stand on one leg, with the trunk pitched forward, the non-support leg extended to the back, and the pelvis kept square to the ground. The dancer then performs five controlled plies whilst extended the arms down to touch the floor each time. Dancers must maintain neutral lower extremity alignment on at least 4 out of the five repetitions in order to pass the test. The single leg sauté test requires the dancer to perform 16 consecutive single leg sautés or hops. The dancer’s knee must be fully extended in the air, with the foot fully pointed; with good use of the plié in evidence along with proper toe-heel landings. The aim of this test is to maintain a neutral pelvic position, a stable trunk and evidence neutral lower limb alignment, thereby evidencing dynamic trunk control and good lower extremity alignment. At least 8 out of the 16 hops/sautés must be executed correctly to ‘pass’. The ‘Topple’ test (Lopez-Ortiz, 1994, as cited in Richardson et al. 2010; Liederbach, 1997, as cited in Richardson et al. 2010) looks at the dancer’s ability to perform a single en dehors pirouette from fourth position with the gesture leg in full retire, the supporting leg fully extended, the maintenance of a vertical trunk throughout, and the demonstration of a controlled, decelerated landing.


Quin and associates suggest that when pointe work begins it should only consist of approximately 15 minutes duration, and should take place after class and before cool-down. The extensive literature review conducted by Altmann and associates (2019) reveals a trend towards pre-pointe training, whereby dancers undertake a range of activities and methods in order to enhance their preparation for pointe work and ensure as smooth and safe a transition as possible. These activities included body conditioning classes, extra technique classes, and specific pre-pointe exercises; as well as education and support around the use and care of pointe shoes themselves. All such activity contributes towards a commitment to safe practice and can only be beneficial for the dancer.


So, in determining readiness for pointe a whole range of factors should all be taken into consideration, as each one offers its own crucial and significant contribution to this very critical assessment. It goes without saying that if any aspect raises concern, it is advisable for the wellbeing of the dancer to wait and address the concern first.



References:


Altmann, C., Roberts, J., Scharfbillig, R., & Jones, S. (2019). Readiness for en pointe work in young ballet dancers: Are there proven screening tools and training protocols for a population at increased risk of injury? Journal of Dance Medicine & Science, 23(1), 40-45. https://doi.org/10.12678/1089-313x.23.1.40 


Hamilton, W. G., & Hamilton, L. H. (1992). A profile of the musculoskeletal characteristics of elite professional ballet dancers. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 20(3), 267-273. https://doi.org/10.1177/036354659202000306 


Lunsford B. R., & Perry, J.(1995). The standing heel-rise test for ankle plantar flexion: Criterion for normal. Physical Therapy, 75(8), 694-698. https://doi.org/10.1093/ptj/75.8.694 


Novella, T. M. (1995). An easy way to quantify plantar flexion in the ankle. Journal of Back and Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation, 5(3), 191-199. https://doi.org/10.3233/bmr-1995-5304 


Quin, E., Rafferty, S., & Tomlinson, C. (2015). Safe dance practice. Human Kinetics.


Richardson, M., Liederbach,  M., & Sandow, E. (2010). Functional criteria for assessing pointe-readiness. Journal of Dance Medicine & Science, 14(3), 82-88. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21067685/


Shah, S. (2009). Determining a young dancer’s readiness for dancing on pointe. Current Sports Medicine Reports, 8(6), 295-299. https://doi.org/10.1249/jsr.0b013e3181c1ddf1 


Thomas K. S., & Parcell, A. C. (2004). Functional characteristics of the plantar flexors in ballet dancer, folk dancer, and non-dancer populations. Journal of Dance Medicine & Science, 8(3), 73-77. https://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/jmrp/jdms


Weiss, D. S., Rist, R. A., & Grossman, G. & the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science (IADMS) Dance Educators’ Committee. (2019). Guidelines for initiating pointe training. https://iadms.org/media/5779/iadms-resource-paper-guidelines-for-initiating-pointe-training.pdf








 Denise Horsley, MSc. – Blommaert Ballet School Dance Science Advisor

 
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If you were to buy one book to start your ballet library, we have a recommendation for you…

Classical Ballet Technique

By Gretchen Ward Warren

Published by the University Press of Florida


As a student or teacher of ballet technique, if you were to buy only one book for your subject  that would help consolidate your understanding and advance your practice, this would have to be the one! An impressive 395 pages of pure indulgence and immersion in the detail and factual know-how of the classical technique.


Warren has experience as both dancer and teacher, and she draws upon her years of experience working with many different teachers over the course of her career. In the introduction she states that the book “grew out of my desire to document material passed on to me by many remarkable teachers, as well as to share valuable information distilled from my own twenty years of teaching in the professional ballet world” (Warren, p. 1). It was her intention to “define and clarify the entire vocabulary of classical ballet and to comment in detail upon the manner in which it ought to be taught” (Warren, p. 1). Warren has succeeded in achieving this intention and creating a valuable comprehensive resource that every ballet dancer should have at their disposal for reference and to enhance their professional and artistic development. 


Both Sander and I have this book in our own personal collections, and a while back Sander chose this book for his ballet giveaway prize on Instagram. So why do we love this book so much?


This resource has everything you would want or need. A comprehensive description of each section of the ballet class, with collections of steps grouped together, beyond mere barre-work or allegro; for example, the section entitled Traditional Transfer of Weight Movements that includes both Pas de Basque and Temps lié. I really appreciate Warren’s dividing of the book into two parts; the first part dealing with Theory and Tradition, including basic concepts and detailed notes for teachers; and the second part entitled The Movement of Classical Ballet. Each chapter here distinguishes a type of movement that is distinct from the other movements contained within other chapters. Each step within these movement categories is beautifully photographed with precision, capturing near perfect execution by a professional dancer. The photographs appear in a chronological sequence so that one can follow the execution from left to right; from start to finish; into the air and back. Warren details how a step is usually executed, such as on page 338 where we are informed that Brisé volés are most often executed in a series, just like the famous Bluebird variation from Act III of the Sleeping Beauty.



Indeed, Warren’s book often details where in the classical repertoire a step features, often with prominence and choreographic renown, so that a student might broaden their knowledge and appreciation of the artform as well as inform their technical execution. Another example of this can be found on page 335 with an image of the New York City Ballet dancers executing Petit jetés battus in the finale of Balanchine’s Symphony in C. Here we are also informed that they are performed in the Balanchine style; indeed, Warren frequently distinguishes between styles and schools of thought, housing them together, both for comparative reasons, and to then bring out the merits , strengths and defining features of one or other. In Warren’s resource we are informed of the Vaganova method, the Soviet System, of Balanchine, Bournonville and Cecchetti.


Warren is not afraid to detail and document common faults and discuss incorrect executions, which I’m sure many a student will identify with; for example, on page 352 a photograph  evidences the incorrect execution of an Échappé in 4thposition. One can clearly see that the desired crossed effect of croisé is lost with this incorrect execution.


Warren often discusses ports de bras variations, along with detailed notes on the direction of the body. Musical counts are even given, where necessary to convey the correct execution of the step; one such example of this appears on page 166 with the documentation of Pas de basque à Terre. Even speed of execution is referenced where necessary; for example, Développé d’ici-delà on page 127.


Often, images of dancers practicing serves as a source of inspiration, for example the image of students from the Vaganova School in Leningrad, USSR, striving for the perfect 5th position demi-pliés as they land from their jumps.


No aspect of balletic practice escapes without a mention; we even have descriptions and discussions concerning walking and running, and the correct way to hold the barre. As one would expect with a resource such as this, there is a comprehensive Glossary and a Pronunciation Guide.


If you want to advance your knowledge and enhance your practice you will be in safe hands with Warren. This book will grace your bookshelf, with frequent handling  and referencing,  as apposed to living there, gathering dust.

Denise Horsley, MSc.