Technique: Hypermobility, Proprioception, and Balances
Third in a series of posts on the details of technique that focuses primarily on steps and aspects of dance that I’m struggling with. Take it with a grain of salt.
I find it helpful to write things out in an effort to get a grip on them. These aren’t so much instructions (though if they work for you, awesome!) as observations.
I’ve written a bit before about the often-ridiculous relationship between hypermobility, proprioception, and one’s extremities. In this post, I’ll take a closer look at that relationship—and especially on how it pertains to balances (rather than to balancés).
To sum things up, proprioception(1) is the vastly under-celebrated sixth sense that tells us, among other things, where in space our body parts are relative to one-another. It depends in part on stretch receptors that hang out in the muscles and joint capsules.
- Wikipedia actually has a pretty good article explaining what proprioception does, why it’s important, and how it works.
Hypermobility, meanwhile, is a catch-all term for conditions in which one’s connective tissues are more elastic than average. In dance, this is both a blessing (see: Woot! Extensions!) and a curse (see: OMG WHERE EVEN IS MY BODY RIGHT NOW?!).
This, of course, makes perfect sense if you think about it. Dance demands both a huge range of motion and highly-developed proprioceptive faculties. Hypermobility enhances range of motion(2), but it reduces proprioception(3).
Moar behind the cut, because this is really long!
- Over time, however, hypermobility can actually reduce ROM through recurring minor and major joint injuries.
- Fortunately, proprioception can be trained.
In the photo above, I don’t feel much of a stretch, if any, in my wrist(2). Meanwhile, less-flexible people in the audience might feel vaguely nauseated when looking at that shot.
- My right pinkie, by the way, is a lie: years ago, I severely dislocated it at the middle joint and damaged the join capsule. It’s now the only one of my fingers that doesn’t bend backwards at the middle joint; in fact, I can’t even straighten it(4).
Almost every joint in my body hyperextends to a greater or lesser degree—which has its pros and cons in every single case.
Take my feet. To bastardize a famous line from Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a
single mandance student in possession of a good fortuneballet class must be in want of a wifegood feet.
—Not Jane Austen
If I had five dollars for every time I’d heard someone say, “OMG! You have beautiful feet!” or “I wish I had your feet!” I would have, I dunno, probably fifty bucks(3), because we don’t talk much in ballet class, right?
- Actually, I wouldn’t even have fifty bucks, because I would have used it to buy some of those floofy booties that keep your ankles warm.
But, like my right pinkie finger, my feet are kind of a lie. They’re pretty less because they’re super-strong and awesome than because the bones are quite loosely connected, which makes it really easy to turn them into dolphins or bananas or whatever we’re calling good feet this week.
The downside of this is constant work to strengthen the muscles under my arch, because beautiful feet that turn into biscuits when you stand on them never did anyone any good.
Fortunately, demi-pointe work accomplishes a lot of this.
On the other
foot biscuit banana dolphin hand, my feet taper in length pretty dramatically from the medial side to the lateral side, so the lateral portions of my feet are disproportionately weak.
In short, my smallest two toes make no contact at all with the floor during demi-pointe work, etc., so the only way to strengthen the outsides of my feet is through separate exercises. Until very recently, it didn’t occur to me that I needed to do that. Now, basically, if I’m sitting down, I’m trying to work the outside two toes of my feet without working the insides so much. It’s, um, challenging.
By now, you might be quietly thinking, “Yeah, but … what does all this have to do with balances?”
Glad you asked!
As dancers, we tend to be extremely aware of hypermobility in our limbs and in the joints that connect our limbs to our torsos.
We’re not, however, always as aware of hypermobility in our torsos, even though we’re forever raving about dancers whose trunk mobility is just plain ridonculous. 6:00 penché, anyone? (There’s an awesome photo at the bottom of the linked tumblr post, btw.)
Turns out (HA! :V) that this can, in fact, screw up our balances rather nicely.
Check out the photo at right. I remember holding that pose specifically because it really didn’t feel like much of anything at the time. When I saw Mas’ photo a few weeks later, it was actually a bit of a shock.
Basically, I had literally no idea that I was folded up like a cobra about to strike, because holding that pose is pretty much effortless(6).
- You can also make out a slight hyperextension in my right elbow, which felt like it was perfectly straight, and the fact that in an effort to counter-act my tendency to hyperextend my wrists, I’ve over-corrected and flexed them. Regarding which: oy to the vey. If it’s not one thing, it’s another.
It’s effortless because of two things: first, overdeveloped back muscles; second, a torso made primarily of silly putty.
Though, in fact, when I say “overdeveloped back muscles,” what I really mean is “back muscles that are significantly stronger than they need to be to counteract the strength of my anterior core.”
My back muscles aren’t hypertrophic. They’re actually pretty gracile. But they are hella strong, and the connective tissue throughout my torso is hella lax.
Likewise, because I am a lazy human being and I can’t find a regular Pilates or dance-conditioning class that fits into my schedule, my anterior core isn’t as strong as it should be.
In short, my anterior core—while almost certainly quite a bit stronger than the average American’s—still isn’t strong enough to balance out the strength of my back, given the overall laxity of my connective tissue.
When combined with the wonky proprioception inherent in system-wide hypermobility, this imbalance results in … erm, well … unbalanced balances.
This, by the way, is why I can usually counter-balance like a boss (consider arabesques, but also attitude balances and, to a lesser extent, passé/retiré), but I tend to fall apart (or, more accurately, fall over) in coupé balances.
Basically, in one case, it doesn’t really matter if I know where my upper back is, because the balance takes care of itself; in the other, if I don’t know where my upper back is, the whole teeter-totter gonna tip over.
Here’s a shot of a not-entirely-horrible first (that is, open/open) arabesque. Please ignore the Disco Hands (to my hands: WTF, guys?) and please forgive the unsquare shoulders and broken eye and neck lines; I was looking at myself in a mirror. Stupid mirrors.
This wasn’t a piqué Arabesque in the usual sense, by the way. This was a function of the slow-pique exercise I’m using to work on balances. It’s pique Arabesque (or any piqué balance) in slow motion, comme ça:
- Load your weight into demi-pliè on the leg that will be the working leg.
- Push (rather than spring) onto a straight supporting leg with the foot and ankle fully pointed so yo’ll be in your highest demi-pointe immediately.
- When the working leg is extended, raise it very, very slowly without losing turnout or engagement.
- Yes, I’m planning on making a video about this 😛
Anyway, in the photo above, you can see that my upper back, once again, is in Cobra-Preparing-To-Strike Mode.
In arabesques and other counter-balanced balances, this works beautifully. It keeps everything connected through the core, and the extended working leg and arm keep the whole thing from teetering over in one direction or another. This shot is at right around 90º, but I can manage 110° pretty easily before I really have to start working hard and thinking about things(7).
- Interestingly, beyond 110° the challenge is once again anterior core strength. At that point, the back has to work pretty hard, and my lower anterior core just says, “Heck this heckin’ bamboozlery.” To which I reply: PILATES, my friend. Pilates.
So what do you think would happen if I tried to lower my working leg into sus-sous without adjusting the placement of my upper back?
If you answered, “As your lower torso approached the vertical, your weight would shift too far back, and you’d fall over and everyone would try really hard not to laugh,” you’re exactly right.
Most often, my problem in coupé or passé/retiré balances is that I start to tip over backwards. In passé, I often compensate for this by bringing my arms from first to fifty-third*.
This works because it redistributes weight. As one lifts one’s arms from first (or from en bas through first) to en haut, their weight shifts the center of mass just slightly. In ballet, often all that’s required is a tiny correction in center of mass, so
throwing bringing the arms (or even one arm) en haut can save a failing balance … provided, of course, that one places the arms correctly and doesn’t, then, just shift even more mass to the wrong place.
This is also why my passé balance is usually better than my coupé balance: usually, we do passé with arms en haut, but not coupé.
One of the first corrections that I got when I started dancing again—and one that I continue to hear from time to time—boils down to, “Your arms are too far back!” This fault results from wonky proprioception, and as a result I’ve made a study of little cues, both visual and proprioceptive, that I can use to tell if my arms are placed appropriately en haut.
It wasn’t until I started working on the slow-motion piqué balance exercise, though, that I realized that the placement of the arms themselves is only half the equation. You’re not just placing the arms to place the arms; you’re also using them to guide your upper back. (Edit: Technically speaking, you should really place your back first. But that can be hard if you can’t feel where your back is.)
Ideally, if you’re working with your ribs knitted and your shoulder-blades appropriately attached, placing the arms should do a pretty fair job of placing the back. If you’re me, though, you can knit your ribs, attach your shoulder-blades, and then just sort of push the arms forward in their sockets without actually bringing the back along.
I know. Dumb.
Anyway, when you place the arms correctly en haut, they should really help bring the whole body to plumb (qv: aplomb)—but, of course, we don’t normally do our coupé balances with our arms en haut, do we?
So we must, instead, rely on our proprioception to tell us accurately where all our various body parts are in space.
In my case, that results in this horse-hockey:
The slomo-piqué exercise has allowed me to work on feeling which part of my body is throwing the balance off.
The result? Better and better (and longer) balances, even at coupé.
When I’m plumb, it still feels like I’m leaning forward—but that’s because my proprioceptive and vestibular(8) senses are confused about what “plumb” means. When I feel like I’m straight up and down, I’m really leaning slightly backwards.
- The vestibular sense is responsible for equilibrium.
Over time, as I work on consciously adjusting the placement of my back, my proprioceptive and vestibular senses will adjust themselves accordingly. Just as sailors acclimate to life on the bounding main, I’ll eventually stop feeling as if:
| = /
Thanks to my wonky proprioceptive faculties, this will probably take a little longer for me than it would for someone who isn’t hypermobile. That’s okay, though; until it becomes automatic, habit-building will do the work for me (so much of ballet is just habit-building, you guys).
This also explains why JP keeps re-explaining to me that if I fix my back before I fix my arms, my balances will go better. Up to this point, I’ve been like, “But … I did fix my back?”
Of course, Because Ballet, I didn’t say it out loud.
Perhaps I should have, because then JP might’ve said, “Um, no, you’re as swaybacked as a 30-year-old saddleseat horse, there, boy-o.”
So, there you have it. Another long post resulting directly from slow piqués (and, I hope, in longer balances).
You may have noticed that I only have pictures of arabesque balances right now. I’ll work on fixing that.
If your turnout is basically good, but starts to fall apart when you’re in a wobbly balance, it might just be a factor of the “tuck and roll” reflex. Brains be like, “CENTRAL COMMAND TO BODY, CENTRAL COMMAND TO BODY ,WE ARE FALLING, I REPEAT, WE ARE FALLING—PROTECT THE VITALS!!!!!!!”.
If you’re wondering what happens to your penché when you let go of your back, here:
Posted on 2017/01/03, in balllet, it is a silly place, it's neuroscience!, technical notes, uggghhh...technique and tagged applied neuroscience for dancers, balances, fix your back first, foot biscuit banana dolphin?, hypermobility and ballet, penché. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.