LETTING BALANCE TAKE CARE OF ITSELF

Abstract
Issues relating to balance and alignment in dance training, in particular ballet, are "core-issues." Balancing becomes easy and effortless when the body is aligned: alignment and balance share a common ground. Under the autonomic nervous system's control, balance is in the realm of the unconscious; we do not need to be consciously aware of how our kinetic sense (proprioception) monitors our movement through space in an upright position. The fact that kinetic awareness improves technique is well known, but the subtle, silent workings of the core-muscles responsible for our balance and alignment are not easily felt. Poor alignment jeopardizes core-muscle function, as balancing becomes hazardous when superficial muscle fibers take on a weight-bearing role. This can lead to a loss of flexibility, core-muscle compression, and core-muscle dysfunction.

This movement session uses simple postural exercises and a balance ball to awaken the nervous system’s sense of balance and unbalance. Learning to accept these two conditions prepares dancers to distinguish and develop their core-muscles, and to appreciate their importance. Improving alignment and balance, this strong core-muscle warm-up helps dancers feel “up,” that much sought after sensation in ballet technique.

Introduction
Sayings associated with dance training like “It should hurt” and “You must work hard” actually interfere with the equilibrium work of the core muscles required for balanced and aligned movements. Balance takes care of itself as soon as we learn to trust it, and the dynamic body efficiently supporting itself against gravity is necessarily aligned. We can balance perfectly well while misaligned, but only the body with symmetrical muscular strength gives the superficial muscles the rest they need when the body passes through the balance point.

The subconscious kinetic sense controlling balance makes alignment as difficult to feel as balance, which cannot be consciously controlled, while alignment can. When Mabel E. Todd (in The Thinking Body) asks “Why hold our bony parts when we can let them hang or sit” she gives the essence of equilibrium and alignment, but "confidently ignorant as to what goes on under our skin…” we do not feel the muscular activity keeping us upright and aligned while letting our bony parts “sit and hang.” The perception of “what goes on under our skin” can be trained; kinetic body awareness can be learned by challenging the core muscles with activities and exercises that build balance reflexes.

Balance is a more important factor than movement, because fully controlled movements, alignment, and artistic expression can only occur after balance has been established.

Purpose
The purpose of this movement session is to increase the dancer’s and dance educator’s awareness of the core muscles and their role in balance and alignment.

Practice Methods and Exercises
In this 60 minute workshop we will focus on how the body feels before and after sitting and standing on an Overball™. A vibrating or shaking surface is excellent for working balance reflexes and strengthening core-muscles. Lacking more elaborate and expensive equipment, the Overball™ provides a good substitute. Its smooth and flexible surface adapts to the slightest lack of equilibrium of the body, and the amount of air it contains can be easily altered, changing its shape to adapt to different exercises. Readily carried in the dance bag, it might well be the obligatory core-muscle warm up tool before any dance class.

The first set of exercises are passive, the second active. Keywords are "relax" and "enjoy" the lack of equilibrium. For maximal efficiently and kinetic awareness the eyes have to be closed. The time factor is essential in the active exercisers, and the keyword is "slowly, very slowly."

Testing   

  1. Walk and observe your body. If possible close your eyes.

1.1. Sit in Graham's first position, eyes closed. Get a clear image of how your body feels. From the Sitz Beine (iliac bones) touching the floor travel up the pelvic floor, scrutinize the inside of the sacral bone, and visit each vertebrae, all the way to the atlas, which is carrying the head. Memorize these images.  

Passive sitting

2. Sit on the Overball™ in Graham's first position, eyes closed. Put your thumbs on the sartorial muscles to make sure your legs are relaxed. (Since this will be the participants’ first experience of this sort we will spend five minutes letting balance take care of itself, but once familiar with the exercises a few minutes are enough to warm up the core muscles of the pelvis and spine, even with the eyes open and chatting.)

2.1. Sit on the Overball™ with straight legs, heels together.

2.2. Sit on the Overball™ with one leg on top of the other. Then change legs.

Testing  

3. Sit in Graham's first position, eyes closed. Revisit the memorized images of 1.1 and notice any differences.

Active sitting

4. Sit on the Overball™ with straight legs, heels together, and relax (eyes still closed as much as possible). Bend one knee (retire/passé) and observe the choice your nervous system makes. Does your weight shift from side to side like on rails, or do you become like "the tower of Pisa"?

4.1. Sit on the Overball™ in Graham's first position. Autograndissement. To begin with, let your weight sink into the ball, feeling the Sitz Beine, the sacral bone, and each vertebrae one by one being pulled down by gravity. Now (this is the difficult part) wait and try to perceive a signal, as though the spine on its own starts lengthening again. Feel and observe how the pelvis and the sacral bone in coordination with the sternum and the neck move together. (Dancers like to make this into a stretching-the-spine exercise [see 4.2].  It is not, and the head remains balanced on the spine no matter how rounded it becomes.) There should be no effort at any moment. The spine is aligned from the bottom to the top of the movement, and the purpose is to become aware of the "up" feeling, verticality, stopping before the movement becomes a back bend.

4.2. Sit on the Overball™ while relaxing in Graham's first position. Imagine the sternum bone travelling in a straight line backwards; the pelvis will "tuck under" and the neck will bend. Wait for the signal for the sternum to travel forwards and go. (This reminds us of the traditional spine stretch, but as this is a core-muscle exercise the roundness of the spine has to be accompanied by movement in a straight line backwards and forwards.)

4.3. Sit on the Overball™ in any position you prefer. Without turning the head, the eyes closed, look to the right, then to the left, up, and down (slowly). Feel the contraction of the core-muscles and observe the choice of your nervous system: Do you fall off the ball or does the body/mind counterbalance?

4.4. Sit on the Overball™ in any position you prefer. With eyes closed look right and left. Feel the contraction of the core-muscles in the neck, and let that be a signal to turn the head. Let the movement go as far as it wants; do not force it. Arriving at the optimal movement stop and observe before you look to the other side, and let the core-muscles start the movement in that direction (this movement can be developed to a complete spiral, and can also start with the coccyx).

4.5. Sit on the Overball™ in the same position as 4.4. Relax. Be quiet. Has this movement session so far made you approach the "still point," or has it on the contrary started a revolution?

Testing

5. Get up and walk. Notice any differences from 1. Balance in any chosen position.

5.1 Stand with parallel feet, eyes closed. Observe standing. At the center of alignment the pelvis constantly adjusts to movements above and below, and it is important, at this point, to become aware of any changes in the alignment of your posture that you might want to get used to in the future.

5.2 Stand with parallel feet, eyes closed. Get a clear image of your feet: how much and where the weight is distributed. Plié, and observe how your feet sink into the floor and push away from it.

5.3 Stand turned out (1st position). Repeat the rest of 5.2. (If time allows the class should be divided in half for better observation. We often see what we cannot feel).

Passive standing

6. Stand with straight legs on the Overball™. Balancing on this highly movable surface is so difficult that holding onto a barre, wall, or partner with a slight touch of the middle fingers is allowed. (Relax the feet!… and all the rest.)


6.1. Stand with bend at the knees.

Active standing

7. Plié (slowly)

Testing

8. Stand with parallel feet, then turn out, eyes closed. Plié and observe any differences.