How Clinical Somatics Prevents Injuries and Enhances Training for Ballet Dancers
Ballet dancers make their movements look effortless, but in reality, ballet is just as physically, mentally, and psychologically demanding as American football. It takes thousands of hours of rigorous training to develop the strength, stamina, finely-tuned muscular control and artistry necessary to perform ballet at a professional level.
One of the aspects of ballet that makes it so challenging is turnout. Ballet dancers must perform all of their movements with their legs turned out from the hips, so that their toes point outward. Turnout creates the graceful, aesthetically pleasing lines of ballet movements and the streamlined, sculpted muscles of the dancers’ bodies.
Unfortunately, since we evolved to move with our legs in parallel and our toes pointing forward, forcing the body to move with the hips turned out can lead to chronic muscle tension, pain, and recurring injuries. Our muscles and skeleton are simply not naturally designed to move while maintaining turned-out positions. We are capable of it because the hip joint is a ball-and-socket joint that allows for substantial external (lateral) rotation; but, it takes extensive training to develop the specific type of strength and muscular control needed to keep the hips turned out while safely extending the legs, balancing, jumping, and turning.
On top of the physical problems that can result from turnout, dancers are all individuals with unique patterns of muscle tension that they develop outside of the studio. Stress, daily habits, injuries, other types of physical training, and even personality can cause dancers to adopt poor posture or imbalances in their muscle tension and alignment that can affect their dance technique.
Another aspect of ballet (and other artistic physical practices like gymnastics and ice skating) that causes physical problems is the fact that dancers must achieve positions and movements from an aesthetic point of view. This causes dancers to force their body into certain positions and muscle their way through movements that their body isn’t quite capable of doing correctly. Forcing and muscling through leads to improper alignment and the buildup of excess muscle tension. Dancers can only get away with this for so long before their body starts to break down with recurring injuries, as I experienced firsthand when I was a ballet dancer.
In order to prevent injuries and lengthen the performing lives of dancers, young dancers should be taught at an early age to 1) gradually train their alignment and movement correctly instead of forcing themselves into positions that their muscles haven’t been properly trained to do yet, and 2) put equal importance on their internal sense of how they’re using their bodies and what they see in the mirror.
Common Patterns of Tension and Injuries in Dancers
Lower back pain and injuries: When dancers aren’t able to attain full turnout from their hips, they typically tip their pelvis forward in order to gain more external hip rotation. This results in an arched lower back. Over time, the lower back muscles become extremely tight and prone to spasm, and the lumbar vertebrae, discs, and potentially the sciatic nerve are compressed.
Chronic tightness in gluteal muscles: The gluteal muscles are external hip rotators, so ballet dancers use their glutes all the time to help them stay turned out. The glutes are also powerful muscles used in jumping. Chronic muscle tension in the gluteal muscles can lead to piriformis syndrome and limited hip mobility.
Knee and ankle pain and injuries: If a dancer is not able to attain full turnout from their hips, they will often force their toes to point outward and end up rolling inward at their knee and ankle joints. This puts a great deal of strain on the knees and ankles, and can lead to chronic pain, tendon and ligament injuries, and wearing away of cartilage.
Bunions: A bunion is a bony, often painful bump that forms on the joint at the base of the big toe. Ballet dancers may develop bunions due to forcing their turnout and rolling inward on their feet (pronation), which puts a great deal of pressure on the big toe joint. Female ballet dancers may also develop bunions from dancing en pointe, which puts the weight of the entire body on the toes.
Psoas syndrome: The psoas major is a deep core muscle that is used extensively in dance. The psoas helps to externally rotate the hips, flex the hips (lifting up the legs), adduct the hips (bring the legs in toward each other), and laterally flex the spine (bending the spine to either side). The psoas often becomes chronically tight in ballet dancers, causing hip and lower back pain, postural imbalances, and internal snapping hip syndrome.
Shin splints and stress fractures: Jumping and pointework, especially when practiced excessively or on hard or un-sprung flooring, can lead to shin splints developing in the tibia and stress fractures developing anywhere in the lower leg, ankle, or foot. Once a stress fracture has developed, dancers must be extremely careful to let it heal so that they do not fully break the bone.
Achilles tendinitis and plantar fasciitis: Dancers are constantly pointing their feet, which contracts the calf muscles and muscles on the bottom of the feet, and shortens the Achilles tendon. As a result, the painful conditions of Achilles tendinitis and plantar fasciitis are common among dancers. Rupture of the Achilles tendon can also occur if sudden strain is put on an Achilles tendon that is already short and tight.
Muscle strains: Dancers are prone to muscle strains because they can develop a great deal of tension in their muscles. Suddenly stretching a tight muscle during a leg extension or a jump can easily result in a muscle strain, which can take anywhere from a few days to several months to fully heal depending on the severity of the strain.
How Pandiculation Can Transform Your Dance Training
Dancers begin developing learned muscular patterns—aka muscle memory—as soon as they begin their dance training. Deeply learned muscular patterns are necessary in order for dancers to move quickly and effortlessly. But if young dancers aren’t trained correctly, or if they increase the difficulty or intensity of their training too quickly, they can easily develop compensatory muscular patterns that become damaging to their body over time.
The more we repeat a posture or movement, the more deeply learned it becomes by our nervous system. As we commit a muscular pattern to our muscle memory, the muscles involved in that pattern tend to build up more and more chronic tension. For example, the more often we tip our pelvis forward and arch our lower back, the tighter our lower back muscles become.
Just as muscle memory is initially trained, it can be retrained. So, dancers are not stuck with their damaging muscular patterns for life. Unfortunately, most dancers do not know how to reduce the level of tension in their muscles so that they can effectively retrain their muscle memory. Dancers are taught to stretch, stretch, and stretch some more to lengthen their muscles—but the effect of stretching on muscle length is temporary, and it does not allow for the retraining of muscle memory. Stretching also tends to lengthen tendons and ligaments, leading to unstable joints and giving the illusion of flexibility.
If you want to learn more about why stretching doesn’t work:
Watch Why Stretching Doesn’t Work
Read What is the Stretch Reflex (Myotatic Reflex)?
Read Why Stretching Doesn’t Work
Read The Pain Relief Secret
Pandiculation is the nervous system’s natural way of releasing built-up muscle tension, and it is far more effective than static stretching. Pandiculation involves gently contracting a muscle or muscle group, then releasing extremely slowly against gravity or resistance provided by a practitioner. The extremely slow release against resistance sends accurate biofeedback to the nervous system about how much tension is being held in the muscle. As a result, the gamma loop (a feedback loop in the nervous system that regulates the level of tension in muscles) is reset, and the baseline level of tension in the muscles being pandiculated is reduced.
As a former dancer who suffered recurring injuries and was addicted to stretching for many years, I can tell you that my life changed when I stopped static stretching and started pandiculating my muscles instead. My muscles felt truly relaxed—a very different feeling than I ever had after stretching—and I felt completely comfortable in my body for the first time that I could remember. I can only imagine that I could have kept dancing for many more years if I’d discovered Clinical Somatics at a younger age.
Pandiculation releases the chronic tension in muscles that has built up due to overuse. As the chronically tight muscles relax and lengthen, dancers are freed from the prison of their deeply learned muscular patterns, and become able to retrain their bodies to move correctly and safely.
Clinical Somatics exercises also develop finely tuned muscular control and proprioception (internal sense of body position) so that dancers are able to sense when their posture or movement is the slightest bit off and correct it before any damage is done.
In an ideal world, dancers would be taught Clinical Somatics exercises at a young age, and would practice the exercises as their daily self-care routine instead of static stretching. This would allow them to learn ballet technique safely and correctly, without developing damaging compensatory patterns, and would give them the sensory awareness to avoid injuries as they get older.
If you’re a teenage or adult dancer and you have chronically tight muscles, pain, or recurring injuries that are affecting your training or career, you can incorporate Clinical Somatics exercises into your daily routine to release your chronic muscle tension, relieve your pain, and prevent future injuries. You can use the exercises to gently release tight muscles throughout your entire body. Once you start practicing the exercises daily and feel the effects that they have on your body, you’ll wonder how you ever danced without them!
You can learn Clinical Somatics exercises in the online Level One & Two Courses. The courses teach 40 exercises for the entire body, one-by-one through video demonstrations, audio classes, and written notes. By the end of the courses you’ll be self-sufficient, able to lie down and practice the exercises that your body needs each day.
The Pain Relief Secret: How to Retrain Your Nervous System, Heal Your Body, and Overcome Chronic Pain by Sarah Warren, CSE
Somatics: Reawakening the Mind’s Control of Movement, Flexibility and Health by Thomas Hanna