It's About The Butt!
Well, that’s quite the refrain, isn’t it? Just a bit of an anecdote to lead into a song of praise for the powerhouse we sit on (those of us who actually do sit on our butt, and not on our poor tailbone). A few years ago, my Pilates trainer , a former dancer, was working at the rehab center of the Christ Hospital here in Cincinnati. One of the athletic trainers, a self proclaimed “total jock”, always looked down his nose a bit as she worked with dancers. She focused a lot on the plié, turnout, and of course, proper utilization and strengthening of that all important derriere. She was floored one day when he came to her, excited and sincere, “It’s all about the butt, isn’t it?? That’s where the power is! You need to show me what you’re doing!” She looked at him in amazement, thinking he HAD to know that, but had been skeptical of her methods, but in fact, he didn’t really “know”. He finally really woke up to the power of the plié in dance, the squat from which the football player explodes, the advantageous angles of the pelvis and legs from where the tennis player springs.
I’m reminded of the book that many of us have read through the advise of our teachers, a great book for anyone attempting to learn any skill, and a must read for coaches, “The Inner Game of Tennis”, (Tim Gallwey’s classic guide to the mental side of peak performance). A similar story of sudden enlightenment is relayed. A student seeks out a new coach, having heard from many that his backhand is too high. He says, “ I need to correct my backhand, it’s too high”. The coach asks him to observe himself in the window reflection and relay what he sees. The student miraculously exclaims, “Why…my backhand’s too high!!”
This is an interesting phenomenon having to do with the way our intelligence is applied to our physicality. We say we “know”, but when we become truly enlightened in the “mind/body” experience, then we realize we really “know”. At this point we can actually learn.
F. M. Alexander, in his research, discovered a very important key to correcting and enhancing our ability to facilitate movement and to learn new patterns. He found that humans absolutely move in harmony with their actual knowledge, or lack thereof, of the body structure. His investigation found that the head/spine relationship is primary to ease of movement. In addition, when the reality of structure is understood, we need only to think in the direction of creating space where the joints are, and that space will release. If we can learn the method of directing our bodies through release and intention the body can lengthen without unnecessary tension. This seems logical, but it is surprising how much attention is required to facilitate this ease. Most dancers have gone through a phase of too much tension and most of us have certainly worked hard, often fighting with our bodies as we attempt to get more speed, more power, stand up, lengthen, etc. We’ve all heard the phrase “perception is reality”. Of course reality is truly what “is”, but the meaning of the phrase is that we act in accordance with what we perceive as true. This is absolutely demonstrated in the human approach to movement. If a person perceives that his head balances on a “neck”, (which is also a different concept in different individuals), somewhere in line with the chin, then the highest cervical joints will not articulate, resulting in strain and discomfort in moving the head.
William Conable, now retired professor of cello at the Ohio State University, developed the “body mapping” concept as an effective way of teaching and visualizing how to use the Alexander technique. If the choice is between the reality of structure and the mind’s “body map”, the perception of where movement occurs, the map will always win. The violinist whose map says that the wrist itself rotates, who may not understand the rotation of the lower arm, will attempt to play with this restriction which has been mentally imposed, to the detriment of the body and the music.
As young children we still move in harmony with our perfect design, much as animals do. An animal, which has not been injured, will instinctively articulate at the joint spaces, sequentially and with the appropriate muscular effort, no more or less than required. Our advanced brain is then both our enemy and our friend, as we learn to move in heavy, inefficient ways through the many cultural, physical, emotional, and psychological forces we meet in our daily lives. The good news is that when we learn the reality of the body structure, we can release the instinctive reflexes, which allow ease in movement. An animal will display the grace of natural movement, but does not have the advanced brain of the human, who can take this knowledge and invoke emotion through intentional movement. So we pay for our gift, perhaps, by having to rediscover instinct and use our minds in this fascinating way.
Alexander discovered that core movement in vertebrates is initiated by the freeing of the neck, and the head moving up and forward, the spine following in sequence. The center of gravity in the head is located more forward than we might picture. Watch the way a cat activates its spine by lifting or rotating its head at the joint where it articulates with the spine. This is the first key to free movement, but I have found in teaching that the student often cannot “float up” and allow the spine to follow, because they have not mapped the pelvis as part of the spine. Unconsciously they believe that the spine stops at the “waist”. Therefore the entire spine will be inhibited and the body will feel heavy. The effort toward moving up creates strain and tightening of neck muscles.
The misunderstanding of the pelvis and its relationship to the spine and to the legs, seems to be a very common handicap, particularly in adult students. Years of sitting at desk jobs and "C" shaped chairs, among other factors, can cause shortening of the hip flexors, causing the pelvis to roll under. As muscles shorten, the resulting posture feels “right” after a time. This posture is often also seen in children and teens who frequently have already developed postural abnormalities. Fashion, poor alignment role models, poorly designed seating, overuse of electronics, and cultural patterns can create aged looking bodies in our youth.
All elite dancers and most children who learn dancing at early ages do not normally display these restrictions. Many dancers who articulate beautifully do not even know how they do it because it is as natural to them as breathing. Those who become coaches will need to enhance their awareness to be effective trainers. Most people who begin dancing as adults will have some erroneous concepts about this area in particular. Though they may think they have no idea at all, the brain certainly has formed a concept of the posture, and that is what we see.
Some students may take years to accept the idea that allows the pelvis to be free of the leg and to bend effortlessly at the hip joint. They are so convinced that the release of this important joint means that their “butt is sticking out”, that the mental shackles will not let go. In addition, the forces of habit are so strong that even when a person believes he is making a change, the body may stubbornly resist. Therefore, the student will go to practice and the old familiar ways will persist and of course, in the stress of performing, the old ways come back with a vengeance. Patience and persistence!
Let’s look at the details of the relationship of the pelvis
to the legs. Physiologically, the upper body and lower body
are divided at the pelvic floor, not at the “waist”. The
pelvis is part of the spine in movement. Look at the
relationship of the lower spine, the five lumbar vertebrae,
the sacrum, and the pelvis . The pelvis connects
with the lowest part of the spine at the sacroiliac joints.
The iliac crest refers to the top of the pelvis, the sacrum
is the portion of the spine creating the curve you see
behind the line of gravity. Note that the line of gravity is
central to the large lumbar vertebrae and the body’s
center of gravity is located close to these large bones and
at the area where the sacrum begins to curve behind the line of gravity. Note that the lumbar-sacral curve is not the unhealthy curve of a sway back. The pelvis serves as a distribution center for the body weight, which passes through the sacrum, into the pelvis, out to the top of the femur at the hip joints, and on through the leg bones, through the feet, and into the floor.
When the perception is that the pelvis belongs to the lower body, instead of the lower torso, the tendency is to restrict the natural swing of the leg from the hip joint. Usually this is compounded by tilting the crest of the pelvis backward (retroversion of the pelvis), jamming the hip joints and resulting in multiple stresses throughout the kinetic chain. The lower back is compromised as the wedge shaped lumbar-sacral disc is compressed anteriorly, forcing the posterior portion into the spinal nerves. The large gluteal muscles (buttocks) are inhibited and unable to do the functional work of moving the legs. The quadriceps (anterior thigh muscles) are therefore overused. The hamstrings will be shortened and underused. The imbalance of muscular activity and the inability of the hip joint to function properly cause additional stresses to manifest in the vulnerable knee joint as it carries more load than it is designed to carry. The compromised muscles are not able to properly support the knee. The tissues supporting the ankle and foot will strain as gripping takes place as the ankle struggles with impingement and the foot is unable to distribute weight through the appropriate bony structures.
Sense the head moving up and forward by freeing the
neck and lifting it at the highest joint located higher than
where you may think. Nodding the head gently is a good
place to start. The head articulates on the upper spine
very close to where your ears are located. Allow the spine
to also move up with the head. This can be aided by sensing
the neck muscles releasing upward, rather than pulling
down, rocking the chin gently downward to lengthen the
extensor muscles along the back of the spine. Remember the
center of gravity in the head is not central but is located slightly
more forward than most of us imagine and the extensor
muscles in the back of the neck tend to pull down. Our head
balance is more easily disturbed than that of a cat for instance. The horizontal structure allows for gravity to work on the cat’s head in a way than lengthens the neck muscles. Notice lightness in the pelvis as it also moves up and back in relation to the legs. Do not strain to lift the head as if it is not related to the entire spine. The biggest error here is lifting the chin and rocking the head back which pinches the neck joints. We mistake our chin lifting as “head up” when it is really pushing the head down. This is what Alexander called the "downward pull".
Look again at the spine to see the sacral curve behind the line of gravity, enabling the buttocks to produce power. The weight of the buttocks is felt in the large heel bone. The center of the head aligns over the ankle joint. The foot now effectively delivers weight efficiently through the arches, both backward and forward in the foot and outward to the four corners of the foot. The toes will work as levers and helpers, as your fingers add articulation to the supporting structure of your hands. Rock the weight forward, backward. and in circles sensing how the joints in the feet are free. Allow the ankle, knee and hip to move in response to the directing of weight over the feet.
As the dancer prepares to move and to lower (plie"), it is important to understand the harmonious releasing of the ankle and the hip joints, as well as the knee. Many dancers struggle to get more depth by attempting to increase the angle of the knee while holding at the ankle and the hip. The result of this action is knee pain, ankle impingement, and excessive gripping in the front of the thigh.
For most performers the first exposure to the Alexander method is at the university level. The artist has certainly achieved a degree of success to be accepted into a performing program and has many habits and methods, which have brought them this far. Often there is resistance to new approaches even though the resulting ease is apparent. Some may say, “It can’t be right, it’s too easy!” Of course the reality is that “feeling right” means feeling familiar or habitual, and the grasp of habit is like iron! It seems as though we love our mistakes because we hold onto them so tightly!
Much material is available on the Alexander technique for those who wish to investigate further. A great deal is written with the musician in mind, but this is also of great benefit to the dancer. The musician who utilizes the technique will grow deeply as they feel how the music flows out of the free facility of the body through the instrument and the voice. As dancers, we also truly ARE the instruments of the music and great musical, artistic, and efficient dancers heighten the sound experience by expressing it in visual space.
In this photograph of Jill and Gene
you can observe the clear
separation of Jill's thigh from her
pelvis and the intact curve of her
sacral spine. With this relationship
intact her head is balanced over
her foot creating an elegant body
line. Both Gene and Jill have
elegant presentation through
the upper back, neck and head,
supported by correct positioning
of the pelvis. The head is carried in
a normal conversational poise
so that the necks are not strained
or pinched in the posterior
The gluteal muscles are able to
leverage and work efficiently with
this relationship of leg and pelvis.
The dancer with great body intelligence can continue to grow in deep and musical ways. All students can work toward the full facility they are capable of, no matter your age or physique. Understanding your structure and keeping an open mind for new ways of feeling, working with your body instead of fighting against it, will pay healthy dividends for the span of your dance life!
originally published in "Dance Notes"
Photos & illustrations by Bonita Brockert
Observe the location of the
hip joint and the integrity of
the pelvis/spine/leg relationship.
Here the spine is seen in length
with the flexion and leg swing occurring at the hip joint. If this relationship is misunderstood
the dancer may "walk" from the
crest of the pelvis. Muscularly
there is a sense of the leg swing initiating from the entire lumbar
spine but the joint articulation
is much lower at the junction of
thigh bone and pelvis.
by Bonita Brockert
center of gravity
Note the central articulation of
the head and neck. The neck
vertebrae are providing central
support. The bumps you feel
on the back are the spinous
processes which protrude
posteriorly and provide
attachment points for muscles