Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Technique On A Tuesday; Rib Wrap/ Shoulder Press Down/ Plum Line {and the Pilates neck pull}.

Recently I have taken on teaching three one hour mat Pilates classes a week while the regular instructor is on a break. I'm grateful for the opportunity, especially since Pilates is somewhat in my wheelhouse and the classes are scheduled during school hours. Working three evenings a week as it is is enough for me and my family.

Outside of subbing mat Pilates on and off over the last year and a half I haven't really been doing classes that much. I sort of forgot how intense mat Pilates can be. How it can encompass the whole body. There are even movements that focus on upper body strength and form.

Mat Pilates ties in very nicely to some of the other formats that I teach; classical ballet technique and Balletone (a combination of fitness, ballet technique, yoga inspired movements and pilates).

One of the things that I love about Balletone is the teaching methodology that is an important part of the program. One major aspect of the methodology is placing focus on a specific part of a movement in a series of movements. It might be the quality of the movement (sharp or slow) or range of movement (low or wide) or applying extra focus on something technical. As was the case in what I focused on last week through much of what I taught.

The relationship between the rib cage and the shoulders as well as the center or what I like to refer to as the plum line of the body.

For Balletone I cued throughout the various movements for my students to imagine the muscles of the rib cage wrapping around the front of the ribs. Much like a corset. Then to imagine the shoulders as the plunger handle for a TNT detonator.

 I know it sounds kind of crazy, but I'm really into visuals. Sometimes the more cartoony the better.
Just think about it, a plunger on a detonator has a certain amount of resistance or hydraulics to it. It's that feeling I'm trying to illustrate. A controlled amount of downward pressure in conjunction with the wrapping of the rib cage muscles. Then, while all that is going on, think about the plum line of the body as a pole drilling up through the center of the body to the sky.

There is the wrapping of the ribs coming in from the sides, the sustained downward pressure or resistance of the shoulder complex, and then the ascending energy of the plum line "pole".

By shifting the focus to this trio of muscle controls on the posture of the body revealed new layers to movements we had done many times before in Balletone.

For one of the mat Pilates classes I wanted to apply this trio to breaking down the Pilates neck pull exercise.
I have done the neck pull a few times in the past. It is a rather advanced move, that despite its name, does not involve any pulling on the neck. Rather a sustained amount of pressure of the interwoven fingers against the back of the skull to create a lengthening effect.
I was a little intimidated to whip it out, so I made sure to prepare modifications for participants who were not quite ready for the full neck pull. I wanted to make sure everyone had something to work on. I also included builder exercises in the warm up that would pertain to the actual neck pull exercise.
When applying the rib cage/shoulder press-down/plum line lengthening, well, it made the exercise pretty intense. At least I thought so.

One long time student of Pilates mentioned after class that while doing the side line (a set of exercises done while balancing on the side of the body) portion of the class she felt exhausted. She usually found the side line portion of class very doable, but that day's class was really giving her run for her money. Aha! One of the great things about shifting the focus to a specific part of the body. Breaking out of the norm every now and again;
When shifting intense focus to just one or two parts of the body, other parts fire up in ways you never thought possible. Example; focusing on the rib wrap and shoulder set through various exercises made it less noticeable that the glutes and quads were working like crazy to support what you were asking of the ribs and shoulders. This becomes especially apparent when you shift back to focusing on what you would normally focus on. The muscles of the legs were probably working much harder and in a different way when we had our focus on the ribs and shoulders.

One of the first things I fell in love with about Pilates is that once you concur one challenge there is another one eagerly awaiting your efforts. Ballet technique is very similar. There is always something to improve upon. Pilates and ballet technique can often be like peeling back the layers of an infinity onion. No matter how many layers you peel back there is another one waiting to be peeled. And they might make you cry.

Simple exercise to engage the rib wrap/ shoulder press.  

Start by laying on your back on the floor, using a mat if you need extra cushioning. Knees bent, feet flat on the floor, legs hips width apart. Make sure hips, knees and ankles are all tracking.

Inhale. As you exhale feel the front of the ribs knit together as you pull the belly button towards the spine. Repeat 2-3 more times.

Next, inhale. As you exhale feel the backs of the shoulder blades slide down the back, as if you are trying to slide them into your back pockets. Repeat 2-3 more times.

Finally, inhale. As you exhale combine the rib wrap/shoulder press down as you pull the belly button towards the spine. Repeat 2-3 more times.

You can challenge this in a sitting position and while standing with feet in parallel.

Thanks for hanging out.

Enjoy the dance that is life!


Monday, September 16, 2013

Ballet Technique and Training; What To Work On This Year.

Image credit.

The middle of August marked the start of a new Fall semester of dance classes at the studio I teach at.

While a handful of dance students take during the summer, our schedule gets scaled way back (usually a welcome break for me). So the focus during the short summer break is mainly fun and maintenance.

Each year I try to decide what I want to focus on in the skill building and refined movement departments. As well as working on the basics of perfecting the various steps, how they connect to one another, balance and transitions, strength and speed, sustained movement, grace and articulation.

It won't be until about mid-October that I have to worry about setting choreography for any performance opportunities around the holidays. After we return from winter break in January I will have to put a great deal more focus into choreography for our annual show in June.

For now though, here is a list of the things I want to focus on, lest I forget as the weeks roll by. Some of them are things that can be applied to other formats that I teach in the fitness world, namely Balletone and Mat Pilates.

Cleaner and sharper arm movements.

Our arms start from the back because they were once wings.
~Martha Graham
Often, the arms are the last part of the body to settle into strong technique. And no wonder, what with all the complexities of what the legs, feet and torso must do in such a large movement vocabulary as classical ballet. Even a torso well aligned with strong legs and feet under it can struggle through many complex movements, like pirouette turns, fouette turns and arabesques. Those, as well as many other steps, can be undone by the arms. This can be due to arm movements that are not well timed, or arms that "fly out" because the muscles surrounding the rib cage have released and the muscles of the shoulders and upper back are not properly engaged.

Here is a post about shoulder stability during a leg movement.
Another post; A New Way To Think About How Limbs Are Connected.

Locking in the proper placement of the shoulder in arabesque.

Image credit.

Image credit.
Above are some beautiful examples of arabesques where the dancers' shoulders are engaged and properly placed. Clean and efficient.
Once a clean and efficient line is mastered, then a dancer can add more dramatic versions to their movement vocabularies. Always with the clean and efficient line as a home base. I like to tell my dancers, "Get the clean line. Then you have some place to go to."

Image credit.

Image credit.

More articulate footwork.
 I don't promote cranking turnout through the feet (forcing the feet to be turned out more than what is realistically in the hips), because it is false turnout and very damaging to the ankles, knees, hips and back. I do promote clean foot positions. When a step is executed and finished in a clean position it usually means that the dancer has all the right muscles fired up.
Erg. The picture below is a no-no. The dancer has her feet cranked out and forced, the biggest clue being that there is a significant collapse of the insteps. I guarantee the knees are collapsed and rounded forward as well.

Some young dancers are naturally very flexible in their hips for turnout, and often they are naturally flexible through all the joints of their legs. For those students it's important for them to make the lifting up of their insteps second nature. This will help to make proper alignment through the torso, lower back and legs second nature as well.

"Don't let the glutes ruin your turnout party."
The leg has some isolated mobility inside the hip joint. You can rotate the leg inwardly and outwardly while at the same time not moving the hip, or rather, your butt. There are about six deep lateral rotator hip muscles responsible for this action, as well as other actions like adduction of the leg.

  1. Piriformis
  2. Gemellus Superior
  3. Obturator Internus
  4. Gemellus Inferior
  5. Obturator Externus
  6. Quadratus Femoris
Maintaining a turned out position of the leg or legs is very dependent on this group of muscles. For overall sustaining of a well aligned "ballet" posture, many muscles must work in unison. But not necessarily at the same intensities at the same times. Just standing in a first position is doable enough. What about when the leg must be lifted, whether for a quick move or sustained in the air? Those six small muscles can easily get bullied by a much large group of muscles. A group of muscles like the glutes, which are necessary for leg movements that require hip flexion and hip extension. To keep the glutes from taking over and thus tamping down the effectiveness of the internal rotator muscles, I like my students to think of the glutes as engaging and wrapping around the back of the hips. As opposed to being the main muscle to operate the leg, especially in moves requiring the leg to be lifted to the side of the body.
Nobody likes a bossy bully at their party.

Adding the nuance of the head and shoulders into movements.
Most dance forms, especially ballet, are dependent upon the use of the mirror. The mirror can be a valuable tool, issues of body image aside. As a dancer becomes more and more advanced they must learn to balance the utility of the mirror versus the habit of dancing to the mirror. At a certain level of accomplishment it is not enough to save dancing past the mirror to the "fourth wall". It is something that must be practiced in the classroom as well. Many nuanced movements of the head and/or shoulders require a dancer to lose eye contact with the mirror, while upping their reliance of their peripheral sight.On a more emotional and artistic note; it can be a blessing on those days that nothings "looks" right, and to just give way to the dance. Forget the mirror!

Keep your plies like warm taffy.
I am again blessed this year to be working with a few different levels. While the studio's oldest group of dancers has quite a repertoire of jumps in their movement vocab, the groups below will be learning some new steps, including jumps. The only safe way to execute all of these jumping steps (really any jump at all), is to start with a plie and end with a plie (whether on one leg or both legs). Bending the knees is not enough when one is talking about ballet technique. The quality of the plie becomes critical. A jerky, choppy or stifled plie can make a step more difficult to execute, and more importantly, cause injury to the dancer. I have been working on the concept of likening the muscles of the legs to taffy. If you have ever seen or handled cold or frozen taffy you will know what I mean. Difficult to move and even prone to shattering. Hot taffy becomes a hot mess! The plie should be like warm taffy. Pliable yet connected. It can still be manipulated and controlled.

Image credit.

I think that's a pretty good list to start with.

Thanks for hanging out and reading. Feel free to share your thoughts. If you are interested in more from Miss Erin's DanceFit subscribe at the top of the page!

Enjoy the dance that is life!


Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Thrill The World; It's Coming!

Last year was the first year I have ever done the international sensation Thrill The World, a day when, all over the world people dress up like zombies and collectively dance to Michael Jackson's iconic "Thriller".

This year will be the city of Chico's 5th year for participating in the event.

For me how it all started was I just wanted to learn the dance. The song and video came out in 1982. I was twelve years old. All these years have gone by and I had never learned the dance.

I thought it might be fun to make it something that my morning Zumba class could learn too. Learn it just for fun. Nothing more.

So for about 6 to 8 weeks, a couple of mornings a week anyone who was at the gym fifteen or so minutes before class joined me to learn it bit by bit.

Then came talk of performing it with the rest of the TTW zombies in our downtown plaza.

Some of my Zumba goers kiddos joined in the fun. Even more amazing was that people, who in their whole lives, had never done anything like TTW got "their zombie on" and joined in the dance. That, to me, is magic!

Saturday, October 26th 2013 marks this years TTW event. So it's time to get crack'in! So starting this Friday morning...

Zombie March

(forward) right left right left
(take-it-back) right left right left
(to-the-front) right left right left
(take-it-back) right left right left

Last year I scheduled a 2 hour block on a Sunday afternoon to really dig in to the choreography and to give people who weren't necessarily part of the Zumba crew to learn the dance. I'm hoping to do at least two this year. Dang! I better start planning this out!

Although, just like with last year, learning the dance doesn't mean you have to perform it. Learn it just for fun. Be part of the camaraderie. You can always come out and watch your fellows zombs. Plus, you can whip the dance out at parties!

Last year my family showed their love and support by coming out to the event location, which had a huge audience. Maybe this year I can talk a few of them into participating. 

One of the great things about TTW in Chico is that there are practices scheduled in our city's beautiful park, as well as a couple of other locations. Many groups coming together. Click here to find out more about those practices. To find out about locations all over the world, click here.

Most TTW organizations raise money for a local cause. To find out more about Chico's (Arts For All), click here.

Have you ever done the Thrill The World event? Got any favorite tips to "get one's zombie on"?

Thanks for hanging out and reading.

Enjoy the dance that is life!