Dance Detour

The parallels between ballet and yoga (particularly Ashtanga) and the role they’ve both played in my life have been undeniable.

I gravitated to ballet because I had the body for it – lanky and bendy.

Years later, I gravitated to yoga because it offered much of what I was no longer getting from ballet – a structured, regimented technique built around a set sequence of postures and movements.

If I ever left a dance class feeling crappy, it was because I pushed my body to do things before it was ready. Instead of learning my lesson, I went on to practice yoga in a way that perpetuated the same habits, asking more from my body than what it was prepared to deliver.

Now that things have come full circle, I walk into a dance class the same way I would a yoga class—without expectations. When the teacher asks us to do something that I just can’t figure out, I try to unpack it in the same way that I’ve deconstructed postures from my yoga practice. If something doesn’t feel right, I know it’s for a reason—and it’s not because I’m a useless idiot which is what I would have told myself a few years ago.

When I see other dancers struggling with pain, or telling the teacher there are certain moves they don’t do because of their [knee/back/hip/ankle/fill-in-the-blank] issue, it’s like I’m back in an Ashtanga class watching people try their best to make the practice work for them even though it’s clear their body is asking for something completely different.

Fortunately, I’m not the only one noticing the need for a Detour in the dance community. This article popped up in the Detour Alumni Facebook group a little while ago, talking about how the Australian Ballet Company is swapping stretching for progressive strength-building exercises. And the title alone of this one makes it clear that change is on the horizon. It talks about how:

“Many ballet dancers have an almost superstitious need to practice the same steps in the same order every day.”

(Sound familiar Ashtangis?)

It goes on to say:

“…ballet classes focus on skill acquisition rather than general physiological development, such as strength and stamina. That means that most dancers need to supplement their daily class with all manner of cross-training—Pilates, yoga, Gyrotonic, spinning, swimming—to gain the aerobic fitness and power they need for performance, and to avoid injury.”

But just like yoga practitioners want to believe that yoga is the panacea for all their bodies’ movement needs, dancers often fail to see the gaps in their own training.

And let me tell you – DANCE CLASSES ARE FULL OF GAPS.

Just like most yoga classes.

Ballet classes that only focus on ballet movements are doing people the same disservice as yoga classes that only include yoga postures.

Just like it feels way better to do wrist prep and other joint mobilization before sun salutations, it would be a hell of a lot more productive to prep the feet, ankles, knees, and hips before taking them through all manners of flexion, extension, and rotation at the barre.

When people complain of pain during jumps and opt out of them, it’s no different than someone labeling certain yoga poses as problematic and worthy of the trash heap. Anyone who has practiced with me knows that it’s not a question of movements being problematic – it’s a question of how well prepared we are to do them.

Classes should prepare us for the movements we want to do well, not just show us what we can’t do and make us feel like we’d be better off sitting out.

So, what would Detour-informed dance classes look like?

– Joint isolation would come first with particular attention paid to the ankles, knees, hips and spine. These areas would be addressed in simple movements before you’re asked to perform anything complex like a grand plié. And I’m talking about more than one exercise. This work would occupy the first 15-20 minutes of class. At minimum.

– Next: isometric activations. Get the hamstrings engaged concentrically (so they can contribute to those grand pliés) and eccentrically (showing them how to stay engaged even when they’re in a stretched position). This type of work can be easily integrated into conventional barre routines.

– WE’D USE OUR HIP FLEXORS. I kid you not – every dance teacher I’ve had up until this day is still saying things like “engage the core so you’re not relying on the hip flexors” during a leg lift.

People. This is what hip flexors do. They lift your leg. Let’s train them to do their job.

– Expanding our range of motion would begin with small movements. No one is tossing their leg into the air in a grand battement before they can hold it there for at least 10 seconds without compensating somewhere else. Introducing this type of work in every class would result in quad cramps far and wide, but also in stronger bodies capable of doing more things.

– Complex movements would be shelved (temporarily) in favour of isolated activations. Want to do a pirouette? First, balance on one foot, knee extended, and perform 10 clean heels raises while maintaining your balance. Not happening? Then let’s spend time on the necessary components here (ankle stability, hip stability, proprioception) before we start spinning.

– There would still be the same emphasis on coordination and musicality while leaving space for unconventional ballet exercises. In the same way that my students have become accustomed to letting some of the standing postures go during class simply because we don’t have time for it all, dancers would get used to leaving things out here and there in favour of the stuff their bodies are actually asking for. And that stuff can still be done to music, on an eight-count. No problemo.

Because here’s the thing: taking a class is supposed to be an educational training experience. If every class is a performance, when do people actually learn to do the things they struggle with?

Sure, in a professional dance school or company, people can dedicate most of every day to all manners of physical training. Similarly, those who have the privilege of attending 1-2 daily movement classes instead of sitting at a desk for 8+ hours will likely get the exposure they need to varied training inputs, especially if they’re also working with a coach or getting private lessons.

But what about everyone else?

When do they learn how to bend their knee past their toes in a way that doesn’t make them nervous about hurting themselves?

When will they experience the isolated work required to train hip rotation (external AND internal) rather than just expecting their leg to go there when they ask it to?

How will they learn to strengthen their muscles through a full range of motion that lets them walk out of every class feeling good rather than overstretched?

This is why it’s important to rethink what we’re teaching in our classes.

If you’re ready to fill the gaps but have no idea what to fill them with I have three words for you:

Detour. Method. Online.

Right now, this course is geared toward yoga practitioners and teachers but if you teach dance, you’ll still gain a tonne from it. Sometime later this year I’ll be revisiting DMO to make it more specific and applicable to the dance world – I just can’t guarantee when that’ll be ready for public consumption so if you’d rather get a start sooner than later, get on this list now.

Happy Detouring,

Cecily

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