PUSHING-OFF FROM GRAVITY IS THE SECRET OF ALIGNMENT AND EFFORTLESS BALLET TECHNIQUE

 Abstract

This movement session proposes specific exercises for becoming aware of the importance of the core muscles in the vertical alignment of ballet. The focus is to push-off from gravity.

The inherent reality of what happens in the erect body is often non-present in our conscious mind. Creating habits of verticality by using terms like "lengthen the spine", "feel the head like a balloon"… proposing the idea of lifting ourselves off the ground, like Baron Münchhausen, are counter productive. Working against nature's laws of gravity, these images create inappropriate efforts in the superficial muscles and inhibit the work of the core muscles; the alignment muscles close to the centerline of the body. To find the vertical line between earth and heaven, with all its curves and spirals, we have to learn to relax, let our bony parts sit and hang like Mabel Todd proposed. Only then can we learn to take advantage of the "wonders" of pushing-off from gravity.

Alignment is intimately connected to balancing and balancing is intimately connected to pushing-off from gravity: Learning to push-off the floor with the feet aligns the knees. Pushing-off from the top of the femurs using the six deep rotators of the hip joints aligns the pelvis. Pushing-off the sacral bone against the iliac bones aligns the spine…. Pushing-off using the third lumbar vertebra can be enough to align the upper body.

Alignment, verticality and balance become effortless when the core muscles take care of dance technique. Dancers become less injury prone when strong core muscles provide the necessary support for the explosive movements of dancing.

Introduction. From tradition to evolution.
The secret paths of the dancer’s body landscape have undergone many changes since ballet first came to being.  Evolution, for better or worse, constantly poses new challenges to dancers and their teachers/trainers. The past few generations of ballet dancers have experienced bigger transformations in body structure and technical demands than most of the preceding ones throughout ballet history. From dancing within the body’s natural movement patterns, with bodies that look like “you and me”, the need for ballet dancers to satisfy the long, slim “Barbie Doll” dream of the fifties has formed. With extreme flexibility, amazing insteps and swayback legs, ballet dancers today master a multitude of movement patterns and styles their teachers could not have dreamed. Helping the new generation acquire necessary mastery in the marvelous art of dancing with personal know-how and experience is not enough anymore. Swayback knees and amazing insteps can bring teachers face to face with problems they have never faced before. Another challenge is moving the gesture leg around the ears, a style that came into fashion with Sylvie Guillem in the eighties. It changed the way the turn-out (of the gesture leg) has to be taught to a way that requires more logic for the body (using the psoas group of muscles instead of the quadriceps), and brings me to confront the many unsuccessful evolutions in ballet training. Accepted as unquestionable truths,  movement patterns like pushing the heels forward, tucking under, forcing an erect, military way of holding the spine, pulling up… all have become “corrections” we, with the weight of tradition take as absolute facts. Nevertheless, it is enough to watch films and pictures from the time our grandmothers danced to realize how much ballet dancing has changed.

The individual’s role in creating ballet evolution
“Aesthetics without ethics is cosmetics” (Rémy Zaugg, Swiss painter). Focusing on the outside image of the art form, ballet easily forgets ethics and leaves us with cosmetics.
But, sad as it might seem, ducks do not become swans by the mere influence of make-up (of training), and valuing the “Barbie Doll” look has become a source of controversy. Nevertheless, I do not wish to discuss why only the long and slim make it to the ballet-scene today, nor whether the habits of pushing the heels forward, tucking under, holding in the ribcage, the bellybutton, pushing the knees backward, pulling up… came to being to change ballet dancer’s aesthetics, or to “improve” technique. I only state the fact that these training methods are body unfriendly and cause excessive stress on the body’s structures. When we admit that it is unethical to force a body into positions that are impossible to move in, much less dance in, evolution in ballet teaching has reached a point we must not pursue. We should admit that a movement is ethical only when the search for the “right” feeling, a basic notion of bodily wellness with no superfluous muscular contractions, is reached. We should also acknowledge that it is a personal experience and its rightfulness has to be felt by the person doing the movement.

“How do we change ballet training?” This is an important, if not crucial question that needs to be explored. Another is, “How do we adapt alternative movement techniques to ballet, and train it as an art form, not just as a technique?” And, “How does one convince the ballet dance population that we need to change habits that are a central part of ballet teaching?” That tradition is not a dead weight, it has evolved, and can still evolve! Sayings like “I have always done it like this!” show us that we have to learn how to teach the old dog new tricks! Ballet dancers, when they become teachers need to ‘rethink the Sylf’. They often have a larger population of dancers to teach/coach/give advice to than they met while dancing. To satisfy amateur dancers and the more broadminded contemporary dance-scene, which accepts all kinds of body shapes and forms but often is nevertheless a keen costumer of ballet training, is a multiple, difficult but possible task. Teaching ballet to dancers who do not wish to acquire ballet aesthetics demands a curious and new look at the basic movement patterns and alignment. It can help us evolve in a healthier direction.

Alignment – The perfect line between heaven and earth
Alignment is at the core of healthy movement patterns. “Structure governs function” wrote Dr. A. Taylor in 1874. How true; unless the body’s structure (the bones) is aligned, the muscular system has to perform superfluous efforts and movement cannot be harmonious, effortless, ethical... As we move within the field of gravity, and ever since man aspired to the upright position our neuromuscular system has sought answers to resolve this particular issue of alignment. Being a fairly new term in ballet vocabulary, alignment can change our ideas about placement. Alignment, contrary to placement, invites us to take the “bodymind” into consideration, to revise teaching devices and feel the body instead of placing it according to ballet aesthetics (with the mirror as a witness!). Alignment is the body’s natural capacity to look for balance. Along with circus artists, and all others who have made an art out of impressing audiences with their balance acts, ballet dancers need to be aware of the body’s inherent reaction to gravity. And this, our search for the perfect line between heaven and earth, is based upon pushing-off from gravity.

Dream and reality – aesthetics, ethics and kinaesthesia
Dream and reality come true in Newton’s 3rd law of force: "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." As our structural parts push down against the structures below, they are being supported by the upward forces provided in return. This intrinsic capacity of the body’s core or alignment muscles to push-off from gravity is automatic, we are unaware of their efforts. In acknowledging the body’s intelligence to know what is right, we understand the necessity to establish a conscious dialogue with our inner body landscape. Introducing specific exercises to consciously use “autograndissement” as the French say, we have to become aware of our kinesthetic sense, which according to Jean Pierre et Régine Roll (Laboratoire de Neurobiologie Humaine, Marseille) is our sixth sense. They write: "… assurent une véritable vie intérieure, source même de la connaissance du corps ". When we consciously use the imperceptible contraction and pre-movement of the core muscles as they maximally participate in pushing-off from gravity aesthetics, kinaesthesia and ethics become one. But not only core muscles play a part in balancing the body. We also need to acknowledge that the bones, the skeleton, through the nervous system’s connection to the connective tissue (fascia), “know” how to balance. Surrounding and separating every part of the body, the connective tissue, together with the muscular sense informs the brain of our whereabouts in space and our relationship to gravity. But, only the bones are close enough to the centerline to tell the real story of effortless balance.

Pushing-off from gravity
The body has its own logic (bodylogic). In light of adapting technique training to bodylogic, pushing-off from gravity is the first and probably most important change we need to make.
This requires the process of relearning. I believe the Russian ballerinas (whether it was conscious or not) used to push-off the floor to master the romantic ballets’ greatest challenges. They gave the impression of being as light as a feather and flying off into the wings after a long balance, creating the notion of endless elevation. Sky high jumps and effortless pirouettes are a result of allowing the body to push-off from gravity. Even today we see many dancers doing it unconsciously. Without questioning technique, they know it works. Unconsciously they have understood that alignment is intimately connected to balancing, that balancing is a dynamic action which is intimately connected to pushing-off from gravity, and that pushing-off from gravity is intimately connected to the core muscles. They use core muscles as the source of dance technique and artistic expression, and make dancing effortless.

Real and imaginary tools to effortless balance and technique
Our relationship to gravity forms our physical (posture) and physiological relationship to ourselves and our environment. Constructed as we grow, early age ballet training shapes bones and articulations to our demands. Elongating bones and muscles by pushing-off may not be enough to make a swan out of a duck but, maybe a duck with long legs, at least seen from the duck’s point of view… There certainly is no harm in creating more space in the articulation, contrary to the harm we can cause by asking children to tuck under, push the heels forward… By consciously pushing-off from gravity as we train, the body is aligned within individual bodylogic, and the above mentioned unsuccessful postures cease. To augment the perception of our kinesthetic sense (proprioceptive awareness, the muscular sense) and increase the neuromuscular memory we can turn to PNF training (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation). Visualization, imagery and specific exercises (with or without specific tools like the air-ex madras, balls…) are indispensable in understanding the subtle play of the underlying neuromuscular processes in antigravity. Visualizing the mechanical side of muscular action and the different platforms of the articulations demands knowledge of certain parts of the body. The bones are well known to most of us while fewer are aware of all the different diaphragms of the body. The body breathes from the bottom of the feet to the top of the head. The sole of the feet, the pelvic diaphragm, the breathing diaphragm, the arch of the mouth (the sphenoid-ethmoid palate) along with the tongue and the cranial layering (coat of the brain) all actively participate in pushing-off from gravity. Imagery is required to discover the body’s interaction of dynamic forces. Investigating the different body parts that can be used to push-off from gravity, we must keep in mind that they are part of a whole and that changes occur all along the muscular chains. But before we become more aware of the whole, we must be aware of its different components. Aware of the feet pushing-off the floor, we can place our attention on how this fact aligns the knees. Carry on to learn how pushing-off from the top of the femurs using the six deep rotators of the hip joints aligns the pelvis (the six deep rotators of the hip joint also take care of getting on top of our legs and turn-out. Three of ballet’s main problems taken care of by one concept and one exercise! See IADMS Proceedings 2005, The two Sides of the Turnout Coin.) Pushing-off the sacral bone against the iliac bones, aligns in turn the lower spine. Pushing-off using the third lumbar vertebra can be enough to align the upper body (and bring the bodyweight forward). Pushing the occipital bone off the neck aligns the head. Only when these patterns are conscious bodymemory should we learn to use the body’s capacity to lengthen ourselves with the sensation of pushing away the heaven with the top of our head. Visualizing all the above mentioned diaphragms in “autograndissement” changes the perception of the body and is another way of becoming aware of the body’s muscular and structural elasticity. This is particularly clear in the spine where its accordion function shows the curves and spirals our upright position thrives upon. The development of this natural elasticity is the answer to the above mentioned Newton’s 3rd law of force: "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction".

Purpose
To theoretically know what happens in the body is very useful when we train to master a specific technique. Yet, without the real experience, it only remains theory. This workshop proposes to explore specific exercises which teach how to align the body within its own logic by pushing-off from gravity.