For most people new to social dance there is a general need to work on physicality. This is especially the case if you have come to dance at an older age. And by older I am really talking about post-teens – it’s amazing how much physical ability we lose once we can drive a car and work in an office 8 hours a day.
Dance can require a lot of different types of movement, and if you have not worked your body in a certain way for a few years you can find yourself lacking some elements of physicality for dance. Engaging in activities outside of dance class that can improve your movement will allow you to spend much more time in class learning steps instead of trying to get your body to move right with repeated tries. If you have time, then consider taking on a complimentary hobby.
Some ideal hobbies include yoga, boxing or martial arts. Each of these will work your whole body, which is what you really need for dance. You might also want to consider aerobics, especially if it is the comprehensive and more traditional type, which intentionally works the entire body and a diversity of attributes such as strength, flexibility, cardio, and balance. If however, you do not have such time, then the following exercises will give a quick improvement in your freedom of movement so that you can dance better.
1. Claves – smooth foot placement
If your calves do not have freedom of motion, then you will find foot placement harder. This basic exercise will have a noticeable effect upon your gate and dance. This a good exercise to try each morning or just before class.
Note the twist caused by bringing the arm around, you will feel this in your calf. Also turn you back foot inwards. This will stretch it even further. Move in and out of this position (taking the free hand back to the side and then twisting again) 10 times. Do both sides and then walk to feel the difference.
2. Hamstrings – natural hip alignment and posture
Tight hamstrings will pull on your pelvis and put your back out. With your pelvis and back out, there is little chance of moving, or dancing, well. Few people are aware of how much your hamstrings can affect the rest of the body. This is another exercise that you can do daily or at least before class.
Take each of the positions shown above one at a time. You can use a chair or a bed instead of a bench seat. While holding the position, twist your leg (the one on the chair) from one side to the other (like a windscreen wiper). Twist all the way up to the hip – you should feel a crunch in the side or your core as you do this. You want to feel it in your core and hamstring. Once you have done 10 twists (one side and then the other per twist) in each of the above positions, swap legs and repeat.
After you have done this, you should feel better around your hips and lower back when you walk (and dance).
3. Core – strong complex dance movement
The core (back, stomach sides and hips) are essential to dance. Actually, they are pretty much essential to all physical activity. You will notice the core dynamically when doing Latin dances (especially cha cha) and modern dances like waltz where the upper body needs to be strong. The trouble is that it takes a while to build strength in this area. You can consider any type of abbs classes or exercises to build strength. It will take a while, but it will be worth it.
There is also another problem. More than strength is required. Your core needs to move naturally so that you can call upon it when dancing. What makes dance look good is when the top part of your body contrasts the bottom part – either via position or movement. This contrast is only possible with a core that is both strong and responsive.
Some people have very strong core muscles, and can show this by doing many abb crunches; however, once they stand up, their stomach actually hangs a bit. This means that their core is not responsive; it’s not helping them move. The following is designed to turn your core on so that it naturally works as you want it to.
To tell if you need to turn your core on:
• Stand up
• Put your hands up above your head and clasp your hands
• Lean back as much as you can (arching you back)
• Go as far as you can
• Note where you feel the stretch/pain
If you feel it in your lower back, then you need to turn you abbs on, and need this exercise. If you feel it in your stomach, then you’re probably ok.
Core 1 – feel what your core should do
Take a sturdy chair and place one foot on the seat of it as shown in the image below. Note also how the foot on the floor is turned inward.
Now lean to the position shown in the image below. This should stretch your abdominal muscles. Now take a deep breath into your stomach and imagine it stretching your stomach further.
If you do not feel a real stretch in the abdomen, then double check the foot on the ground, try breathing more deeply and try leaning more.
Take in a breath, hold it and then exhale. Do this five times. Then take the position shown below (twisting away from the supporting leg) and repeat the process.
Now do it in the positions shown below (leaning away from the supporting leg).
Now swap side and do the above exercises again.
After this, your stomach should feel more active as you move. This alone will help you dance better and make you feel better in general. I have also noticed that if you’re doing abb exercises, then this is a really good exercise at the start of your workout. It makes the abbs work better, and you get much more from the workout.
Note: I know someone who was a horse rider and found that when they did a lot of jumping with the horse (and needed to keep themselves firm in the saddle) their core muscles not only strengthened, but naturally activated as they moved when doing other things. This was because jumping had the jolting effect that is really needed for the core. The above exercise is trying emulate this with a stretch. If you still feel your core is not activating, then try the next exercise or engage in something that will have this effect upon your core (martial arts and boxing will be ideal and of course horse riding – especially with jumping).
Core 2 – turn your core on for better a pelvis position and superior dance
Social dance often needs the pelvis brought forward. The trouble with doing this is that you will probably then crunch and bring your shoulders forward, which is not what’s required. Your shoulders still need to be back. It can be difficult to keep your shoulders back, your spine upright and your pelvis forward all at the same time. The following exercise relies on your imaging (which I will talk more about later) to help you get your body to move as you need it to.
1. Stand up – arms to the side.
2. Pull your shoulders to a position that fit with a dance posture (back straight and maybe with a slight pinch between your shoulder blades).
3. If you used your arms to take this position, then let them now hang, but keep your shoulders back.
4. If required, imagine a string connected to the top of your head pulling you up and straightening your spine (this should make you a touch taller).
5. Now notice you pelvis: is it retracted, and pushing your buttocks out, or pointed forward, and tucking your buttocks under you? Your pelvis should be forward.
6. While keeping your shoulders back, use your stomach muscles to lift your pelvis at the front and pull it forward. Imagine your stomach muscles pulling between your rib cage and your pelvis.
7. Release the tension on your stomach to feel your pelvis move back. Reapply the tension in your stomach to pull the pelvis back. Repeat this a few times.
8. Note the feeling – it is like your shoulders are held up and back by you back muscles and your pelvis is then pulled forward by the stomach muscles connected to your rib cage.
9. Once you feel that you can do this while standing, try doing it while walking.
Walk like this once a day, at least (say from the car to work), and whenever you think to. It’s handy to have one specific time when you do this, but the more often you do it the better (it would be excellent if this became a habit so try for that). The more you do this the more natural it will become, and you will notice that your stomach muscles will automatically activate as you walk, and dance. It is certainly ideal if your stomach muscles start working automatically; you will naturally pull your pelvis into the right position when you’re dancing. However, if you do this exercise once a day, then you will at least find it much easier to hold this position when you are dancing. A bonus also is that you will also likely find your lower back pain (if you have any) reduces.
Note: Many dances require you to push your hips forward. I will talk about some psychological reasons why this might be hard later on, but for now focus on the basic exercise that will move your hips forward.
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