The knee is one of the most commonly injured areas of the body in athletes and dancers.
The reasons are many and in dancing the opportunities for misalignment and misuse are as
varied as the movements we perform. For the sake of brevity in this article I have addressed
just one possibility. Because it is so fundamental to ballroom dancing and so frequently
cheated in its development, I will look at the weaknesses in the backward walk.
The Backward Walk
There are two danger spots in the back walk where knee and ankle injury can result. Usually these are repetitive stress/strain injuries rather than singular incidents, like an impact or strong twist, resulting in an immediate disability to the dancer.
The supporting leg is the vulnerable one as the weight is loading to send the body backward, or as it receives weight into the foot as the backward walk is accomplished. If the dancer allows the knee of the standing leg to move forward past the toes and does not commence the backward movement of the body center properly through the heel bone, the knee joint is compromised as it takes too much load in a vulnerable orientation. Because this fault creates heaviness in the dancer, the person moving forward will add his or her weight to the partner's body in the attempt to move, putting even more demand on the knee.
Ladies often set up this chain of events by "waiting" to be "led" or by putting body contact ahead of proper movement on their priority list. If students learn the appropriate mechanics of the walk and how to shape the body atop a competent action body contact will develop in time without the threat of injury.
The man can also force the lady into this situation by holding her too tightly so that she cannot stand on her own feet, or by presenting in a back weighted stance which forces the lady's weight to remain forward in the foot. Many men stand flat footed and stick the leg out in front of them without releasing the weight to move, preventing the lady from moving her own body backward safely and creating stress in her neck, back, knees, and ankles. He may also push into the lady’s space rather than inviting her to move through breath in the body and sending his intention ahead of his actual weight. Imagining the weight advancing in front of the body initiates the forward progression in a subtle way which invites the lady to open the door and commence her own movement which the man can then follow.
The man inhibits his own backward movement as well if he pulls his
partner as she moves forward. The man may not feel he is actually pulling
or squeezing his partner but that is indeed the result if there is no breath
in the body and frame. Once again the man must invite his partner to
move toward him by moving his spine back and cushioning her with
his body poise, sensing her moving from her own balance and base, and
allowing his frame to soften as needed. Partners must sense the moving
weight of each individual and time the bodies together. The desired body
contact will be achieved as the dancers raise their skill in the walk and
in the quality of weight transfer. Often the dancer will only move back from
the head and shoulders, losing balance and pulling their partner out of
Stress on the leg receiving weight occurs when the heel of the extending leg drops
to the floor too quickly, the knee hyperflexes, and the forward leg is locked, forcing all
the weight to the backward leg while the knee is well forward of the safety zone. It is
difficult to learn the back walk without making this mistake at least some of the time,
but it needs to be addressed with consistancy in the training. Care should be taken
that the effort to "drag the heel" is not overzealous, as this encourages the locking
of the forward leg and the resulting strain to the knee of the leg which is absorbing
the body weight. The drawing of the heel on the floor should be a light action with
a timely reflexive knee release rather than a heavy assault to the floor. The image of
“striking a match” is a good picture of the lightness needed on the heel contact,
followed by the natural relaxation of the foot and ankle as the leg tracks under
the body. So the heel will stroke the floor as the foot closes but without a hard and locked
leg and a deep groove dug into the floor.
In these two cartoons we can see the loss of the triangle shape we should see from
the front foot to the back foot with the body centered in relation to the feet. The dancer
should momentarily achieve a poise between the ball of the back foot and the heel of the
I have to say that I see more of the first error described in this discussion, where the dancer's weight never releases back through the heel. In that case the back heel is dropped too soon and the toes of the forward foot are still in contact with the floor, putting the knee through even more punishment. A heavy rocking action from foot to foot results. This is particularly injurious to the lady dancers who often dance years with this poor quality of weight transfer and attempt to top it off with advanced body shapes and topline. Because of the imbalance in the walk they will assume a back weighted presentation in an effort to create that topline. It is not only students who make this error. Sadly while judging I recently saw several ladies in the professional divisions making this mistake in the feather finish resulting in a heavy dropping of weight in the following steps. The man, having been blocked, also loses control of his body as he moves forward.
In closing, remember that the walk is the first element in dancing ( next to simply standing on your feet! ) and that walking backward is not natural to us. It requires correct practice with awareness and commitment. The proper technique not only supports pleasurable and balanced dancing, but prevents injury as well. Moving backward can become easy and natural if you give it the attention needed in your training.
Happy pain free dancing!
Photos and illustrations by Bonita Brockert
We could draw a triangle shape from Jill's front foot to her head and then to her back foot in this balanced back walk. Although Gene's front foot is not visible it is easy to see from his poise and open stride that this triangle is also accomplished.
Protecting The Knee Through Proper Technique in The Backward Walk
by Bonita Brockert
originally published in "Dance Notes"
Note the balance between heel of the front foot and ball of the back foot.