Focus on Fundamentals
In my last post, I talked about the importance of consistently drilling the fundamentals of dance movement, alignment and muscle engagement, no matter how long you’ve been dancing, to continue to make progress in your skills and abilities. If you missed it, check out “The Biggest Mistake Experienced Dancers Make.”
In this post, I address the why and how of dance fundamentals to help prevent injury, aid in recovery from injuries and maintain physical fitness and wellness as we age.
Now that you know the fundamentals are crucial in your dance advancement, consistent and intentional practice of fundamentals also helps prevent injuries and can aid in your recovery if you do get injured. The key is to develop strong and flexible core muscles, engage them correctly, and align the joints with the spine properly. Then, you can get creative with layering, dynamic body positions and weight changes.
Being competent and accomplished in cultural dance doesn’t mean you have to break your body to excel. Belly dance in its pure and authentic form is derived from folk and social dances of everyday people. While there are performance elements that require stronger skills, the essence of the dance is that it is designed for the everyday body. The biggest difference is that those who learned it in culture were born into it, and those who didn’t have to learn the language of the dance, which is referred to as the fundamental movement vocabulary.
The fundamental movement vocabulary of belly dance, and in particular the Egyptian-style belly dance that I am drawn to, is very unique, in that it is largely core-based in the body, even while every part of the body is used to express ideas and emotions. I find this fundamental principle so powerful and useful, that I have applied it to my practice of Persian dance, which is often thought of as having only an upper body focus, specifically the arms and hands. I have found that fundamental core-based muscle-focused movement is key to not only preventing injury, it is a powerful and concise strategy for understanding technique as well as cultural aesthetics.
When any of my students reports an injury, it is always associated with something that happened outside of dance class…a fall, yard-work, or an accident, are some examples. While they have been advised to take-it easy, they are almost always prescribed physical therapy. They report that many of the physical therapy exercises resemble the basic dance movements they know. It is extremely important to return to dance with a focus on fundamentals to rebuild and recondition your body. After an injury or any kind of absence from dance, your body is going to move differently. Not only do you need to retrain your muscles, you need to rebuild your skills. And it needs to be a gentle, intentional and gradual process to avoid re-injury.
Bodies are made to move. I hurt when I don’t move. But it’s not just any movement that is therapeutic. Correct muscle engagement and conditioning from the inside out is the key. Conditioning and training the bigger and more internal muscles first, takes pressure off the knees, hips and shoulders. Joints with smaller surrounding muscles are more susceptible to injury. Similarly, weak muscles around the joints also make them more susceptible to injuries. Keeping the body conditioned and maintained becomes even more important to health and well-being as we age.
Here are my tips for preventing injury, dancing after an injury, and maintaining body conditioning for health and wellness:
- Build core strength and flexibility. I recommend plank and push-up exercises for strength. You can do them on the floor or against a wall. There are a variety of positions to suite all levels. Find the right one for you and you will enjoy the benefits of these exercises right away. For core flexibility, I recommend big chest lifts by engaging the abdominals. Hip slides, chest slides, belly expansion, abdominal contraction (lengthening the back), and torso bends stretch all the core muscles in a variety of directions.
- Develop your glutes and legs for strength, endurance and control. I recommend glute contractions in the standing straddle (public toilet position) for strength and endurance. Make sure you are holding your weight in your heels and your knees stay behind the toes. For control and technique, the sitting straddle position is best to concentration on muscle engagement and musical timing, and builds flexibility as well.
- Avoid overuse injuries by drilling the basic movements and concepts of dance in a variety of ways. For example, practice a basic hip circle in both directions (clockwise and anti-clockwise) with weight only on the right, then only on the left. Next change the position of the feet. I use five positions: basic (feet under hip bones, weight evenly distributed), Arabesque (weight shifted to one side, leg extend to side), extend one leg forward, extend leg to rear. This is just one of the ways you can vary your practice of basic dance movements.
- Practice shimmies for technique and endurance. Build your shimmy practice to up to 20 or 30 minutes. Start slow to perfect your form and technique. As you build speed, work your way up to maintaining a non-stop shimmy. Practice in a variety of positions, dynamics and intensity of different musical forms.
- Work on one set of moves, or a concept, such as snaky arms, for at least 30 minutes. To advance your skills, improve your technique, develop strength and endurance, you need to put in the time that it takes to deepen body knowledge, build muscle memory, and sharpen the mental focus that sparks creativity so that you can get into the flow of the next level of your development. Anything less than 30 minutes is just a warm-up.
Speaking of warm-up…it is essential that you begin any dance class or practice with a proper and complete warm-up.
- Cross-train the same way. If you choose another activity or dance form to cross-train, remember the same principles of muscle engagement and body alignment still apply. While styling and movement vocabulary may differ, safe movement principles are universal. Remember that your dance training is great background for a variety of sports and activities.
I hope you have found this post helpful and that you are inspired to apply these principles in your own practice and teaching.
For a deeper understanding of my format, join my classes online at my virtual studio.