The back is the structure that keeps us upright, protects the spinal cord and internal organs and supports the brain. It is a truly marvelous piece of machinery. It is important for everyone to keep the back and surrounding areas healthy, but for dancers it is imperative that the muscles supporting the back are constantly worked on and strengthened.

The back is the structure that keeps us upright, protects the spinal cord and internal organs and supports the brain. It is a truly marvelous piece of machinery. It is important for everyone to keep the back and surrounding areas healthy, but for dancers it is imperative that the muscles supporting the back are constantly worked on and strengthened.

 

Back problems can stem from any of several deficiencies including weak stomach muscles and hip flexors and back muscles that are too tight. There are some simple tests that can be done with your students to pinpoint any areas that need special attention.

 

Strength Tests

 

The back muscle test. Having a strong back is important for every dancer, and you will notice with dancers’ arabesque positions whether or not they are able to hold the leg from the back and not just by lifting the leg. By strengthening this area not only will the dancers’ lines improve, but they will also be less prone to injury.

 

To assess back muscles, have your student lie face down on the floor. Place one of your hands against his or her lower back and the other one on the back of the ankles; this will keep them steady while they lift their chest off the floor. Have the student take the chest as far back as possible and then hold for ten counts. If the dancer is unable to hold that position, you can be sure that they need to work on strengthening the lower back muscles.

 

Next, with the dancer still lying face down with the arms under the head, slowly lift the legs off the ground and hold for a count of ten. If the dancer has difficulty and is unable to maintain the position, this is also a sure sign of lower back weakness.

 

The hip flexor test. Many young dancers experience a weakness in their hip flexors. A simple test to determine if there is a weakness in the area is to have the dancer lie on the floor, face up with the hands behind the neck, legs straight. Making sure that the knees are tight, have them lift the legs about ten inches off the floor and hold for a slow count of ten. If the dancer has to drop the legs before the count of ten is over you will know that their hip flexors need additional work.

 

The abs test. Abdominal muscles work in conjunction with the hip flexors. Ask your student to lie on the floor, hands behind the neck, legs straight. Hold the ankles with both hands and have them do a single sit up. If they experience difficulty with this you will know for sure that the abdominals require extra work.

 

Many times students are given abdominal work in their classes, but unless you pay close attention to them, they are probably modifying the movements to do them in a way that is comfortable to them. Making sure that they are paying attention to the details will help the dancers not only do the exercises correctly in class, but also when they are practicing them on their own.                                            

 

Next Steps

 

Once you have identified weaknesses, you can make a definite plan to strengthen those areas, and your students will benefit in a number of ways. First and foremost, they will be healthy. Second, they will find that they are able to control their movements in a much better way. Third, their bodies will feel stronger, which will build their confidence and enable them to be at a better level technically.

 

Most Jazz and Modern classes incorporate specific abdominal work and if you have not yet included it in your classes, I would highly recommend that you do.

 

The hip flexors can be strengthened with knee raises. An efficient way is to stand at the barre holding with one hand, then lift one knee so that the quadriceps is in a straight line from hip to knee, foot hanging down to the floor; hold for 10 seconds and lower. Start by repeating this movement 5 times and then switch to the other side.

 

Another good way to do this exercise is to have the student sit on a chair, lift the leg with a bent knee and then gently press down on the thigh as they hold the position for 10 seconds, giving the leg a gentle resistance.

 

Once these strengthening exercises have been done, it is important that the dancer takes the time to fully stretch out the area. I have found that lunges are a simple but effective way to stretch the hip flexor muscles. They can be done facing the barre or in the center. Another safe way is to start on the knees and then step forward onto one foot, slowly stretching the back leg out, supporting the body with the hands on the floor; hold for 10 seconds and then switch legs.

 

For abdominal strengthening, I like to use crunches both straight and with a rotation. Another exercise that I have found to work very well is to have the student start on all fours, keeping the back absolutely flat. Slowly tighten and lift the stomach muscles without moving the back, then slowly release them, again without moving the back; repeat 10 times. You can start off slowly and then increase the speed until the student is using a pulsing motion. The great thing about this exercise is that, because the back remains stationary, the student is not able to use any other muscle area to assist the movement and is really able to focus on the abdominals.

 

Understanding the back and how important it is to keep the surrounding muscles strong will be beneficial to all of your students and keep them both healthy and happy.