I teach Anatomy and Kinesiology for dancers at George Mason University. Recently I had the dancers do a movement lab to work on discovering their own movement/alignment as it relates to the pelvis. These are students who have been dancing virtually all their lives, looking to become professionals. You would think they would know how their pelvis effects their movement, right? Wrong! It is surprising to me how little dancers understand what tilting the pelvis front and back can do to their whole body alignment. But think about it, did your dancer teacher ever teach you how to control this? I mean really, truly how to use certain muscles and movements to allow yourself to be positioned correctly during each technique in a way that you actually understood? Probably not. That's where I come in. Your dance teacher is certainly not wrong, but sometimes you need a different perspective on what is actually happening anatomically so it makes more sense (and you should understand the anatomy behind it all anyway). I have come to accept my responsibility as an interpreter. I combine what your dance teacher tells you with my knowledge of anatomy and movement and interpret it so you actually understand it in a practical way to use every day in dance. So let me do a little interpreting of your pelvis....
Your pelvis is made up of 2 bones: a right and left "ischium". As a whole, the pelvis connects the trunk to the legs, which is useful for transferring forces with all weight bearing activities.
The pelvis does not move in isolation, it is very closely related to the low back (lumbar spine) and hip movement. When one area moves so do the others, however, not always in the same direction. There are multiple muscles that connect to the pelvis, which are what produce the different types/directions of movement. As dancers, we hear most about our hip flexors, but there are multiple muscles that play a vital role in proper movement and alignment at the pelvis. We cannot forget about the abdominals for one. The back muscles, gluts, and hamstrings also play their roles as well. In short, there is a lot going on at the pelvis, but lets keep it focused. Lets start with learning a bit about anterior pelvic tilt. It is one of the first things I correct when working with a dancer, so why not discuss it first here as well.
Think of a bowl filled with water. There are strings tied to the bowl and anchored to the ground, ceiling, and walls to keep it suspended. If you pull on the front strings and tip the bowl forward what happens? Right, the water spills. If you pull on some other strings and tip it to any other direction the same will occur. We must learn to find a neutral position where the water can stay in the bowl without risk of making a mess. Essentially that means that all the strings need to have just the right amount of tension placed on them to keep the bowl evenly suspended. Now the bowl is your pelvis and the strings are your muscles. The same thing occurs: if we pull to much on the front "strings," in this case the hip flexor muscles, our pelvis will tilt forward (and the water spills over the front edge of the bowl). This is called an anterior pelvic tilt. It is KEY to have muscle balance to prevent this. That is where all those other muscles like the abdominals, back, gluts, and hamstrings come into play. They are the other strings, and they all require just the right amount of tension in them to keep your pelvis sitting "neutral".
So why does it matter if you have an anterior pelvic tilt? Well, remember when I said that the pelvis does not move in isolation from the lower spine? When you tilt your pelvis forward, or anteriorly, it causes your low back to arch. This creates a position in the low back called an increased lumbar lordosis. It also influences what is occurring at other joints in the trunk and legs, and can put you at an increased risk for developing pain.
Try this: Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and hands on your hips. Thinking of that bowl of water, allow the front of the pelvis to tilt forward and feel what happens to your alignment. You should be noticing the lower back arches and the abdominal muscles relax. But there are some other things you might feel as well. Pay attention to your hips, knees and feet. What happens? Does your weight shift forward or back? I challenge your to play around with it a little because everyone will notice slightly different sensations. But they are ALL important. You must understand how your own body moves so you can take steps to correct it. Creating awareness creates smarter dancers!
Many dancers tend to have increased anterior pelvic tilt and lordosis for a few reasons:
1. Short/Tight hip flexors. Like I previously mentioned, the hip flexors are involved in many dance movements which can result in increased stiffness in the muscle. This tugs on the front side of the pelvis and pulls it forward.
2. A weak core. The abdominal muscles help control the tilt of the pelvis and must be well balanced. I am not saying all dancers have weak core, but I can say from experience that most dancers don't know how to properly use their core. But that is a discussion for another day!
3. Forced turnout. As I have discussed in previous posts, dancers tend to force their turnout from the wrong areas instead of using their deep external rotators. When you arch your low back, it can give the appearance that you are turned out farther than your hips will actually allow. It may not look pretty, but it does work, and dancers are great at cheating movement for their turnout!
So now you have a bit of information on the pelvis, but how do you actually put it to use. (Because lets face it, learning the information is only half the battle!) I am a firm believer in being able to apply new information directly to you're dancing, so here are my tips:
Don't be afraid to spend time "playing" with your movement. Practice something like a plie or tendu with a neutral pelvis, anterior or posterior pelvic tilt so you can see/feel the difference between right and wrong.
Use a mirror so you can see what the different pelvic positions look like on your body.
Allow yourself time to practice barre/technical work ALONE. Thats right, just you and your body. No competition or teachers you are trying to impress. It is ok to practice simple techniques to re-learn how to do them properly. No one can shame you for wanting to be better.
Core stability exercises-not crunches or planks but the good kind where you practice using the deep muscles and your pelvic movements together. **stay tuned for future blogs posts with ideas of how to do this, because I have plenty!**
Hopefully this has you thinking a bit, and by the time I post my next blog you will have already improved your pelvic awareness. Give it a try and let me know how it goes, I would love to hear what you discover about your movement!