Body Alignment & Posture: Chapter 1

(Susan has been bugging me to do this for a couple of years. Here we go. The next post will be about dressmaker fitting issues with misaligned dancers.

With as much as I write in some of these posts, I should just get on with it and write a book! This is a long one!)

Before we begin, some humor that will have relevance later…

I laughed when I was 5, and I laugh still!

There are so many ways to approach the discussion on body alignment & posture, so many points of view, so many approaches for so MANY, MANY movement techniques…but what it comes down to, what all we “experts” in our various fields can agree on is that the human skeleton is:
#1 – put together in a very particular way that
#2 – dictates the biomechanics / how it moves;
#3 – that each skeleton has different flexibilities and restrictions that are determined by the bony and ligamentous formations and structures;
#4 – and that how we THINK we move has an effect on HOW we move.

It is a rare human being that has a perfect skeleton, a body that is perfectly suited to being the kind of mover that the owner of the skeleton wants to be. They do exist and are wonders to behold…no matter the movement form (dance, sports, martial arts, etc.) those bodies make us stop in our tracks to marvel at the grace, the strength, the power, the art with which they move. These bodies do not get the injuries the rest of us get…their injuries are usually from over-use because they can be pushed so hard for so long! And the owners of the bodies may not even really know how they do the beautiful things they do, may not really understand how it is they do what they do. Why bother when it all works so well! But I can guarantee you that the basis for it all (along with the beneficial genes) is correct alignment of the entire body, whether natural or learned.

The rest of us mere mortals, movement artists or not, do benefit from understanding how the body is put together. Why? Because we each posess a “body map,” a way of thinking about our own bodies. “How” we think we are put together dictates how we move. “Where” we think movement originates in our skeleton affects how we move. “What” we think produces the motion in our bodies limits or frees up our movement. When our map jives with reality, we move well and easily. When the map is faulty, so is our movement because we are out of alignment. When we are out of alignment, we develop bad habits both posturally and technically which both over- and under-develop necessary muscles which all leads to injury.

In every class or workshop I have ever taught, with dancers and teachers and actors and athletes and physical therapists and yoga practitioners and musicians and artists of all kinds, for each person there comes an “Aha!” moment as one piece of information re-arranges their body map and their movement is forever altered. I lived for that moment. Why? Because I knew and still know the thrill of that moment of discovery. I may not be a dancer anymore, but give me an anatomy book and I am in heaven! As my body has recovered from illness and has changed, I have learned more.

I feel it is imperative that all dance teachers, movement teachers in all disciplines, understand the instrument that they are using and training and that they pass that understanding on to their students. Period. How can you truly train something you do not understand?

Why is alignment of the body so important? A body in alignment moves easier and has a longer dancing life. A body in alignment does not put excess demands on muscles which causes overdevelopment which in turn strains other weaker muscles leading to injury. A body in alignment kicks & jumps higher, turns faster and longer, moves with more precision, performs better.

So, let’s look at the body from the perspective of alignment of all its parts.

First, the parts…

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The shin is comprised of 2 bones: the tibia and the fibula. The tibia is the weight bearing bone, hence it is thicker. It articulates with the femur to create the knee joint and the talus to create the ankle joint. The fibula is thinner because it is not weight bearing. The lower end of the bone articulates with the outside of the talus to create the outside (lateral side) of the ankle.
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The knee from the side…notice the central location of the bone in the thigh.
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The leg from the outside.
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The pelvis…identify on your body where you think your hips sockets are. Now look at this photo…what we feel on the side of our leg is not the hip socket. That bony protrusion is called the greater trochanter and it serves as a place for muscle attachments. Notice where the ball of the femur (thigh bone) articulates with the acetabulum (hip socket). Is your hip socket closer to your center than you thought?
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The torso from the front.
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The torso from the back.
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The arm, shoulder socket and scapula from the back.
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When I ask folks if they can touch their spine, they say yes and touch the bumps on their backs and neck. That is not the spine…those are called the spinous processes and they are there as muscle attachments. The spine is inside the body. And notice how curved it is. (the left side of the pic is the front of the spine.)
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There are four curves: the cervical (neck), thoracic (upper back), lumbar (lower back), and sacral (the fused vertebrae of the sacrum that connect with your pelvic bones).

Notice how far inside the body the spine actually is.
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And now, what is to me the most important bony connection in the entire body (more on that in a moment)…the spine connecting to/into the skull. Think about where you think the neck attaches to the skull…is your connection at the back of your head? Now look at this…
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If your head were a ball and your neck a stick, the ball would be centrally balanced on the stick! Is that what you thought? The implications of understanding this head/neck alignment are huge. When this connection is balanced, not only do your neck and shoulders relax, but your entire body will actually relax into balanced alignment! Woohoo! Is this easily accomplished after a life-time of imbalance? Not really as our bodies do fight to hold onto habitual postures, but if you want to change it, you can.

When I teach kinesiology, I start at the foot and work up. Makes sense to understand the body first from the weight-bearing perspective, from the foundation on up to the top. But once we are done with learning the bones, ligaments, tendons, and muscles, in order to understand the dynamics of correct alignment of all the body parts, I then start at the head as the position of the head has repercussions throughout the entire body. This way of thinking is central to the Alexander Technique. My introduction to AT was over 25 years ago and it changed my approach to teaching forever.

There is absolutely no way to effectively communicate the precepts of the Alexander Technique in writing. It takes a hands-on experience with an AT teacher to even begin to understand (a process that actually never ends!). But as you sit there reading all of this, try to relax your neck and shoulders…what happens when you do? Being aware of our tensions/habits is the beginning of understanding our own alignment.

The following pics are various diagrams I found. When thinking about correct alignment, one should imagine a plumb line that falls from the center of the top of the skull through the body, like this one. Notice that the plumb line through a balanced body (as seen from the side) falls through the center of the ear, the chest,the pelvis and hip socket, the knee and the ankle. It does NOT fall through the center of the spine…the plumb line falls through the center of various vertebrae of the spine, but notice how the curves of the thoracic spine and the sacrum move away from the plumb line.
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This is from this website – APTA posture info

This flyer cracks me up! This has been around since I was a kid, maybe longer!
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Neither one of these is balanced alignment.
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Now for the dance posture. Yes, the dancer posture is purposely exaggerated, but HOW should it be exaggerated? What gets said to the dancer?

Chin up!
Shoulders back!
Stomach in!
Chest up!
Butt under!

Just like Lucy above, it is a wonder sometimes that a dancer can dance!

The “exaggerated” dance posture really should only be a gentle lengthening upwards of the spine and hence the whole body. It is truly that simple. When all is in alignment to begin with, this simple lengthening is all it takes to create that dancer posture. A small tilt up of the chin by rocking the entire skull on the top vertebrae of the spine as opposed to jutting the chin forward and up, completes the look. A body in alignment does not need to pinch the shoulders back, jut the chest forward, suck in the gut, and tuck the butt. Those movement instructions are haphazardly thrown at students to correct PARTS of the body that are out of alignment…but if one part is mis-aligned, the whole body is mis-aligned! Instead, the focus should be on addressing why the chin is dropped, the chest is sunken, the shoulders are slumping, the tummy is hanging, the butt is sticking out…in other words, aligning the whole body will address each of those issues.

I asked middle diva Maggie to be my model for a few pics. She has always been as straight as a stick. This summer she has finally started to grow a bit faster and she is learning the teenage slump, but she was amenable to my alignment ministrations. She thinks this is funny. Here she is in a nice lengthened posture. Notice her relaxed, wide shoulders…
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…broad back…
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…and lengthened back and middle. There is a bit of a new tilt to her pelvis that I noticed for the first time in taking these pics. Since she has been growing rather fast, this is not a surprise…bones grow first, muscles grow second which means the tilt in her pelvis is probably caused by her relatively short hip flexors at the moment. It will lengthen out again.
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Now we have the schlump. Notice the face that goes with it…
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…round shoulders, thickened waist…
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…jutting chin, pooching belly.
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Now let’s apply the “Lucy School of Ballet” corrections for Irish dancers!

Chin up, shoulders back, chest out…notice the tension across her collar bone…she is yelling here that this hurts!
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Shoulders back and pinched.
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In response, Maggie’s chin is dropped, her head pulled back to counter-balance her chest thrust forward which is also counter-balanced by her butt sticking out the back which also means her hips are even more flexed which means that sooner rather than later she will develop big thighs and a bubble butt!!!! Look at her face…this is hard work.
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To counteract the chin, I told her to lift her chin. Posture now in full melt down. She yelled at me after this one.
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One argument I heard a lot when new students were first dealing with my approach to alignment was that unless they pulled their shoulders back, their chests would not be broad. Wrong. Besides the obvious misalignment caused by pulling the shoulders back which causes the shoulder blades to pinch, they are actually narrowing their width, not broadening. Compare the width of Maggie’s shoulders in these 2 rear view pics.
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You may get the measuring tape to tell you that there is more width across the chest when you do this, but you are NOT broadening the width of your shoulders. Instead, this action narrows your width, forces the entire spine out of whack, strains the neck and lumbar spine, and impedes the breath. Why do it?

Here is a lovely example of the ballet posture. There is a bit of lower rib jutting, but considering the ease with which she is standing here, this may simply be the way her rib cage is constructed. You can see here that she is not pinching her shoulders back….
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…and here how wide she is from the front. There is no overdevelopment of any kind on this body.
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Now on to an example of overdevelopment due to misalignment. (I purchased these pics from a royalty-free stock photo site…I did not search the net for someone to malign. Still, I have blanked her face.)

This young lady obviously has an enviable figure, complete with the type of round booty that is in fashion at the moment. However, the size and shape of her thighs and behind are caused by overdevelopment which in turn is caused by… can you see it?! This young lady moves with her pelvis tipped forward which keeps her hips in flexion which causes her quadriceps, hamstrings, and gluteals to not only work too hard and inefficiently as she is dancing/working out, but if she actually stands this way all the time, she never lets her muscles rest! Constant tension builds bulk.
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Here is a better pic of the overdevelopment. I know, I know, some of you may be thinking that this is a terrifically sexy shape, but all I see is misalignment.
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Here you see her in action…chin dropped to counter balance the chest jutting forward and the shoulders pinching back and up which is all counterbalancing her pelvic tilt which is causing her lower back to sway (on its way to an injury) all of which essentially makes this stretch useless.
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I had a dancer once, from Jamaica, who was very proud of her booty. I found this out one day as I was working with her to align her pelvis correctly. I thought I was appealing to her vanity when I told her that when she aligned her whole torso, she would eventually lose some of the bulk in her thighs and behind…this vanity ploy ALWAYS worked. But this time, this young lady was aghast that she might lose anything in that area! No way! But when I told her that it would definitely help her knee and lower back trouble and help the flexibility in her legs, she listened and worked on it. A year later, she told me that her pain was gone and her leg work was higher and freer…and that it was ok that her booty was a little smaller!

One last thing about arm placement for Irish dancers…if pinching the shoulders back is not a good thing, then how do Irish dancers get their arms in the correct place? By moving and rotating the arm in the shoulder socket instead of pinching the shoulder blades together. You might need to stretch the pectoral muscles if this is hard to do.

Body Alignment & Posture: Chapter 2

Click for more kinesiology info: Dance Kinesiology

9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Dancers' mom
    Aug 17, 2007 @ 17:08:00

    Ann,
    Your posts are amazing! I have learned sooo much from them. Thank you for all the effort you put into these. They are clear, well-written, informative, helpful. Well done and keep ’em comin’!
    Brooke
    Irishdancemoms.blogspot.com

  2. Ann
    Aug 17, 2007 @ 17:38:00

    You are so welcome, Brooke. Thank YOU once again for your support!

  3. Peggy
    Aug 18, 2007 @ 01:11:00

    Thank you thank you Ann!
    Why isn’t every dancer taught this stuff? Heck, ever person that moves should be taught this stuff!

    It was a revelation to me learning (just a few weeks ago) that there is a correct way to stand for ballet. Shoulders over the hips, torso fully supported… The difference in freedom of movement is amazing.

  4. GailV
    Aug 18, 2007 @ 11:58:00

    I’ve been inspired by these posts to learn more about movement. Right now I’m reading Eric Franklin’s _Conditioning_for_Dance_. Any chance of a list of suggested resources for further information — things like websites, books, videos that the layman could use and that have reliable info?

    Thanks for the link to Alexander Technique. It reminded me that about 15 years ago while living in a small Midwestern town I dearly wanted to learn more about things like AT, Feldenkrais, and Pilates (which no one much had heard of back then). Now that I’m in the Big City, I have access to these things. Woohoo!

  5. Ann
    Aug 18, 2007 @ 12:25:00

    Good idea, Gail. I will work on a resource list.

  6. Stephanie
    Aug 18, 2007 @ 15:34:00

    Ann, I sooo wish this had been available when I was trying to explain to Maddie about the line through the body, because posture was always her bete noire. I don’t know if she’s dancing anymore (I really doubt it) , but if she is, I’ll be sure to show her this. Don’t know how you have the time to turn out such beautiful dresses and such helpful information. Thanks so much from all of us out here profiting from your years of teaching.

    Stephanie B.

    BTW, I haven’t had time to figure out the software on that camera. You’ve published things way more elaborate and beautiful than what I did, but I promise to get around to it.

  7. Anonymous
    Oct 24, 2007 @ 14:45:00

    I found this really useful, thankyou. And i thought i’d leave a comment to say that i found it really interesting. I don’t tend to read that much but i couldn’t stop reading this. Thankyou 🙂

  8. Trackback: Fitting issues: Dancer mis-alignment « Taoknitter
  9. Trackback: Alignment response « Taoknitter

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