Posture and alignment are two of the concepts I speak about most in my dance science educational workshops. Alignment can give us valuable information on the body, it can (but not always) contribute to pain and dysfunction, and it can be a fabulous place to start when looking at how to optimize performance.
For a long time I heard clients tell me that they felt great after our sessions together but as the night went on their old postural habits started to creep back and by the next morning they found the magic from our sessions had left. This lead me to do some more digging into how I, as a movement practitioner could go about creating alignment changes that stuck. Many different factors can influence a person’s alignment, some physical (skeletal structure), emotional and psychological (self esteem or how you view yourself in the world), or habitual (your occupation). It’s important to recognize that for many people, alignment patterns can be deep rooted and thus trying to change alignment is not always as easy as it may seem.
‘Ideal alignment’ is one is which the body segments are stacked in a position where force falls directly through the centre of each joint and the least amount of stress is placed on each joint. In this position, the muscles are in a balanced state and are able to work most efficiently. When we start movement from a place of good alignment, the muscles can focus on the task at hand (running, walking, dancing) and not use up all their energy just holding the body upright.
A great example of this is to stand up and try to feel the weight evenly distributed between the balls of your feet and your heels. Gently start to rock yourself forward until most of your weight is on the balls of your feet. Go as far as you can being careful not to fall over and then start to shift the weight backwards into your heels. As you move from both extreme positions notice how the muscles in your lower leg, and then kinetically up the chain, your thighs, bum, maybe even abdominals react to these alternating positions. As your rock forward you will likely feel the toes curl under and the calf muscles activate to avoid you falling forward. As you shift your weight backwards you will likely feel your toes lift up to the ceiling, and your shin muscles grasp on for dear life to avoid you falling backwards. Now come to settle in a position between these two extremes. Feel the weight evenly distributed between the ball of your big toe, the ball of your baby toe and your heel. Feel this ‘tripod’ of support and how the weight is evenly balanced between your right and left feet.
When the body is stacked in good alignment we create efficient and balanced muscle use, allow for the correct balance between stability and mobility at the joints and create the least amount of ‘wear and tear’ on our body.
The challenge is, how do we go about changing poor alignment?
With any deviation from ‘ideal’ alignment, one side of the joint will come into a shortened position while the other side will come into a lengthened position. If we want to look at the body from purely a biomechanical point of view, our fist first step would be to attempt to shorten what is long and lengthen what is short.
For example, a very common alignment deviation I see with dancers is lifted and protruding ribs resulting in extension of the thoracic spine. This ‘puffed up’ chest position is often caused from a misunderstanding of the cue ‘pull up’. The primary problem with this alignment deviation is the effect it has on our breathing mechanics.
The diaphragm, which is the primary muscle for respiration, is nestled underneath the ribs in a a dome like shape, separating the thoracic cavity from the abdominal cavity. When we breathe in the ribs lift and expand 3 dimensionally while the diaphragm contracts and draws downward. This creates a pressure imbalance and thus air rushes in. The abdominals lengthen and thoracic spine moves into a slight extension. When we breathe out, the diaphragm relaxes and lifts while the ribs move downwards and inwards increasing the pressure in the thoracic cavity and forcing air to rush out. The abdominals contract and shorten.
When a dancer adopts a position where the ribs are lifted, the diaphragm is stuck in a depressed position and thus they are being held in a constant state of inhalation (how many dancers hold their breath while dancing???). Additionally, because the diaphragm is interwoven within the fibres of the transversus abdominis (one of the deep core muscles important in spinal stability) during exhalation the diaphragm draws on the TvA which contracts. When the diaphragm is ‘stuck’ in a depressed position the deep core muscles aren’t able to fire as well. Lastly, this position will lift the centre of gravity effecting the ability to balance effectively. Ultimately, it is an inefficient holding pattern.
In this position of lifted ribs and extended thoracic spine, the muscles on the back of the spine (thoracic extensors) are in a shortened position and the muscles on the front of the body (the abdominals) are in a lengthened position. Any muscle that is either shortened or lengthened will be less efficient at producing force. To go about correcting this imbalance a first step might be to do some strengthening exercises to the abdominals especially the obliques in an attempt to draw the ribs down towards the pelvis. You may also do some lengthening work to the thoracic extensors like emphasizing the cat in the exercise cat/cow.
When unsure of what to do with an alignment deviation, addressing what is short and what is long is a great place to start however unfortunately, making lasting changes in alignment and having those changes transfer over to your dancing is more complex.
Creating Meaningful Change
When the body is held in a position for a long period of time, the tissue surrounding the joint can begin to adapt to these new changes. When soft tissue is held in a shortened state for a long time this is known as ‘contracture’ and it may adapt to the point that you can’t actually get out of the position. In this case some sort of mechanical altering of the tissue through stretching or soft tissue work will be necessary.
The nervous system however, can adapt in a similar way.
Within our muscles we have something called muscle spindles. These fibres are not actually able to produce force but they do have a sensory component to them that regulates stretch. When a muscle is stretched, the muscle spindles are put under tension and will send a signal to the brain to contract that muscle as a protective mechanism. It’s a fantastic reflex our body is capable of and ultimately protects muscles from being overstretched. When the body is in a position for an extended period of time, the brain will start to consider this new position as ‘normal’ and the reflex system will adapt accordingly.
So let’s take our example from above. If a dancer habitually has adopted this ‘lifted chest’ posture, her reflex system has set this new position as normal. Assuming there is no contracture and this dancer is able to move out of this position, strengthening and lengthening can help her voluntarily override her natural alignment and come into a more ‘ideal’ alignment. However, as soon as her attention is directed towards more complicated choreography, like chainé turns across the floor, she will subconsciously refer back to her habitually alignment.
Thus correcting the mechanical issues is only half the battle. What we must do, is find a way to actually change this dancers’ neuro-patterning on a subconscious level, changing her 'normal'. One of the best ways to do this is through the use of imagery.
In their book ‘Motor Learning and Control for Dance’, Donna Krasnow and Virginia Wilmerding outline three ways in which imagery is an effective tool for changing alignment on a subconscious level.
Ultimately, if tissue has adapted over time to the point that it can no longer reach this position no amount of imagery is going to get it there. In this situation a combination of soft tissue work, stretching or strengthening will be necessary. However ultimately it is the combination of both mechanical change and neuromuscular change that will lead to lasting changes in alignment.
“Body therapies agree on the same fundamental belief that changes in alignment need to occur at the subconscious, subcortical level of the brain. Imagery and visualization are common tools used in these practices” Eric Franklin
In Safe Dance Practice Module 1, we go through all the segments of the body (spine, pelvis, knees, lower legs, feet and shoulder complex) and discuss the anatomy of the joint, common postural deviations and how to go about optimizing alignment using both mechanical and neuromuscular approaches. Once we understand that changes in alignment happen both at the physical and neurological level, we can start to make meaningful changes that stick.
Haas, J. (2010). Dance anatomy. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Krasnow, D. H. & Wilmerding, M.V. (2015). Motor Learning and Control for Dance. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Quin, E., Rafferty, S., Tomlinson, C. (2015). Safe dance practice: An applied dance science perspective: Champaign: Human Kinetics
Hi, I'm Hannah. I'm a dance science consultant, Movement specialist and Registered Massage Therapist residing in Toronto. I am a Registered Provider for Safe in Dance International and teach workshops and courses related to Safe Dance Practice. Here is what I have to say about all things health and movement related.