Dance, Muscle Memory & Neural Pathways

"The hard must become habit. 
                 The habit must become easy.  
                         The easy must become beautiful." 
                                                                          - Doug Henning

You walk into the dance studio, the teacher says, “Let’s begin with two demi pliés and a grand plié in each position,” the accompanist begins and you execute the exercise.  You don’t think: plié means to bend, demi means halfway, grand means big, I slowly separate my thighs while holding my turnout, I bend my knees, I bend my ankles while I keep my chest lifted and my chin high, and I hold my abdominal muscles strong.  You simply do the pliés.

 If you have been dancing a long time, you don’t have to think about how to complete this exercise any more than you would think about how to pick up a pencil.  Your body simply completes the task.  Did you ever wonder how that is possible?

Thanks to the body’s nervous system, humans have something called muscle memory.  Although it implies that we are able to store memories in our different muscles, that is not what it means.  When we do an exercise for the first time, we create a new neural pathway.  This pathway is the route that a message travels on to go from the brain to the muscle and back to the brain again.  The second time an exercise is performed, it becomes easier because the messages are travelling across a familiar pathway.  Eventually, after the movement is practiced several times, it becomes almost automatic because the pathway is no longer new but is well travelled.  This ability allows for well-rehearsed dances to be executed without the dancer thinking of what step comes next or how it should be done and gives the dancer the freedom to concentrate on performing.

Muscle memory, however, is also the reason that bad habits are difficult to break.  When a dancer learns to do a plié with forced turnout and pronating feet, and then tries to correct it, he/she is forced to stop the body from using the old pathway and then create a new pathway.

Fortunately, the nervous system never stops growing and developing, and it is always possible to change bad habits and learn new things.  The ability to learn new things, create new neural pathways, and reorganize the nervous system through physical activity is exactly what makes dance valuable for many different populations, including the elderly and the differently abled…  

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Stretching Part 3 - Ballistic, Dynamic & Static Stretching: Which is Most Effective?

“Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape.”
     Author Unknown

Truth Number 1 – Dancers must be flexible.
Truth Number 2 – In order to increase and maintain flexibility, dancers must stretch.

So….what is the most effective stretching method for a dancer to use?  Is it ballistic stretching, static stretching, dynamic stretching or some combination of different methods?

Ballistic stretching is characterized by bouncing movements.  The problem with ballistic stretching is that the movement never allows the muscle to pause in a lengthened position.  The constant bouncing moves the muscle between a contracted position and a lengthened position quickly and abruptly.  As the muscle lengthens quickly, the body activates the stretch-reflex.  This reflex is a safety mechanism that protects the body from injury.  The muscle sends a message that it is being forcefully lengthened.  As a result, the reflex mechanism begins to contract the muscle in an effort to prevent tearing.  This lack of lengthening, therefore, does not effectively stretch the muscle or increase flexibility.

Dynamic stretching is a type of stretching that keeps the body constantly moving.  A lot of dynamic stretching exercises are already built into a ballet barre.  These exercises gradually increase in range of motion until the muscle has reached its maximum length.  A gradual fondu exercise that begins with an extension to tendu and progresses to a full extension en l’air would be an example of a dynamic stretch.  Research studies conducted within the last decade show that dynamic stretches increase flexibility and in some cases even improve muscular strength and agility.

Static stretches are very familiar to dancers.  Static stretches are held for certain amounts of time like splits or barre stretches.  Research has shown that for static stretches to be effective at increasing flexibility, they must be held for 30-60 seconds.  These stretches are just as effective at increasing flexibility as dynamic stretches, but they also have an immediate negative effect on muscular strength, power and endurance.  This negative effect has been shown to be present for up to an hour after the stretch is performed.  Executing this type of stretch during class could have a negative effect on exercises like grand battement and jumps.

            Flexibility is a necessity for dancers and all of the research states that both dynamic and static stretching are effective at increasing and maintaining that flexibility.  However, research also indicates that in order for a dancer to have the necessary strength and power to execute center work, dynamic stretches should be done at the beginning of class and static stretches should be saved for after class and rehearsal and used as a cool-down.

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Stretching Part 2 - Working With Your Body Type

“You’ve got your body for life, you might as well learn to get along with it."                      – Sandy Kunskov

Taking care of our bodies requires that we understand that our bodies are different and, therefore, parts of our training regimens must also differ.

            Way back in 1954, William Sheldon wrote The Atlas of Men which documented differences in body types, or somatotypes.  He divided somatotypes into the categories of ectomorph, mesomorph and endomorph.

            The ectomorph has a long and lithe body with wide hips, the mesomorph has a solid square body with broad shoulders and the endomorph is recognized by its rounded body shape.

            The ectomorph’s muscles, tendons and ligaments tend to be loose.  The ectomorphs are the dancers who can drop down into a split every day without fail.  They may stretch at home but truly do not have to do much to maintain their naturally high levels of flexibility.

            Mesomorphs have an extremely dense muscular system.  Flexibility does not come naturally to them.  These are the dancers who must stretch daily and work extremely hard at achieving and maintaining the necessary flexibility for dancing.

            The endomorph’s muscular structure falls in between that of the loose ectomorph and the dense mesomorph.  These dancers have a natural potential to be flexible and can maintain that flexibility as long as they remember to stretch a few times per week.

            The potential to be flexible is available to everyone.  A body type can never be used as an excuse, but it is important for a dancer to have an understanding of his/her somatotype.  This small bit of knowledge can help a dancer improve his/her flexibility by simply acknowledging natural tendencies and working with them.

Stretching Part 1 - When Not To Do It!!

Dance is the only art of which we ourselves are the stuff of which it is made. ~Ted Shawn

            When we consider everything that happens in every system of the body on a daily basis, we begin to realize that the human body is truly a miraculous creation.

            My students hear me repeat daily that we are only given one body, and it is our job to take care of it.

            If I had a dime for each time I have heard a dance teacher tell his/her students to go into the studio and start stretching to warm up, I would be rich.  Yet, every time I hear it, I cringe.

            Stretching is certainly an important part of a dancer’s training but should never be done at the beginning of a class or rehearsal.  Time in the studio should always begin with a cardiovascular warm up.  The warm-up should include the entire body and could consist of rapid walking or jogging, prances, small jumps or full body circles.  I have been known to spend the first 5-10 minutes of class having my students move through circuits that included jogging, jump roping and jumping jacks.

            This type of warm-up does exactly what it claims to do; it creates heat in the body.  These large movements increase the heart rate, which increases the blood flow to the muscles.  The blood, therefore, is able to quickly carry oxygen and “fuel”, in the form of glucose, to the muscles.  The heat combined with the increased oxygen and glucose delivery, increases the speed of muscular contractions and increases the speed of messages, or impulses, that are carried along nerve pathways between our brains and muscles.

            Additionally, warming up the different joints of the body releases something called synovial fluid, which acts as oil would in a car engine, lubricating all the bones that move against each other.

            Beginning a class or a rehearsal without a cardiovascular warm-up increases every dancer’s risk for injury.  All dancers are aware of how difficult it can be to heal from an injury and how quickly technique begins to deteriorate when a dancer must take time off to heal.  Taking care of our bodies takes a little bit of knowledge and some effort, but the payoff of having a body that continues to function optimally is well worth it.

            We are only given one body.  A musician has an instrument to use to create his/her art and a dancer has his/her body.  Musicians respect their instruments and take great care to protect and keep them working well.  Shouldn’t we do the same?

More Than Just The Body

"Socrates learned to dance when he was 70 because he felt that an essential part of himself had been neglected." - Michel de Montaigne

Dancers might be happy but is that the reason that parents rush to sign their children up for classes every September?  

Surely, parents realize that only a very few of these young ones who chaîné down marley-clad floors will become professionals, yet they are willing to drive them to and from classes and pay for them to learn this art.

The answer lies in the fact that we are complete beings - not only body - but also mind and spirit.  Dance serves to educate all three.

Dance is one on the few physical activities that is both an individual and a team sport.  Dancers learn to compete with themselves to accomplish their own personal bests.  They learn to work hard to train their individual bodies and to improve upon their technique.  At the same time, they learn to share space, they learn to be responsible to their classmates, to respect others and to move in unison with others.

Students learn very early that there will always be someone in class, as well as in life, who is better than they are and someone who is not performing quite as well.

         Dancers learn to create something of their own.  They learn how to make themselves seem larger than life.  They learn how to establish where they are and how to send their energy out into the universe.  They learn lessons in self-confidence and how to build their own self-esteem.

Dancers learn that there is a payoff for hard work.  They learn that there will be days of failure and disappointment as well as days of success and elation.  They learn to turn their failures and disappointments into successes.  They learn to share in the disappointment of others and to applaud other’s accomplishments.

Dancers know that the art form involves discipline.  They know that they should only enter a studio wearing the proper attire, with their hair up and jewelry removed.  They learn to respect their teachers and to applaud for everyone at the end of class.  They learn to talk less and observe more.

Dancers learn that a dance studio is a place unlike any other and they carry their training with them wherever they go, and illustrate what Martha Graham meant when she said, “Wherever a dancer stands is holy ground.”