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Body work basics: finding the right therapy means asking yourself a few key questions ...

IF YOU'RE A DANCER, CHANCES are you're training more than your body these days. The mind-body connection is the basis for many therapeutic techniques, and there's something for everyone--but the choices can be confusing. They range from active therapies, where the dancer is led in a movement form (Pilates, Yoga, Gyrotonics[R], Body-Mind Centering[R], Alexander Technique[R], or Zena Rommett Floor-Barre Technique[R]) to the passive forms, where a bodyworker treats a dancer by using physical touch (Myofascial Release, The Trager Approach, and Cranio Sacral Therapy).

As a dance physical therapist and Pilates trainer, I'm often asked which therapy approach is best. While a "magic bullet," all-purpose therapy doesn't exist, some guidelines can help you choose which one is best for you.

Your physical needs will vary throughout your dance career. Rarely have I met a dancer who never had a career crisis, so plan ahead. Learn about therapeutic techniques and find bodyworkers you trust before that eleventh-hour emergency hits.

Increasingly, academies and dance studios are exposing young students to body therapies earlier in their dancing lives. Some have annual physical therapy screenings for dancers. Your dance studio may be a good place to get recommendations for the right class or bodyworker for you.

But first, take some time to think about what you want from the therapy. Is it flexibility? Or is your body type the loose-ligamented "noodle" that needs muscle toning? At what stage are you in your career? lf you're starting out, you may want slower, dance-focused training. More experienced dancers may want to vary their physical experience in order to prevent overuse injuries such as tendinitis. Do you need guidance working through or recovering from an injury?

Once you've defined your goal, think about the practicalities. Do you need individual attention, or can you experiment and be a part of a class? Generally, starting in a class is best, because you can see the movement style of the therapy form and the teaching style of the instructor. Does the instructor observe carefully and give individual corrections? Do the participants move with control; are they able to follow the directions? Will the instructors let you modify the technique to suit your needs, or would they prefer a full commitment to their movement form? Also, be sure to ask permission to observe before doing so.

How full is your dance schedule? The more hours you dance, the more you may need "other hands" to help you. For instance, passive therapies such as Myofascial Release and Trager can relieve the aches an overworked student or Nutcracker dancer experiences at the end of a tough season.


Knowing which therapies imitate your dance form can help you in your focus. Pilates, Gyrotonics/Gyrokinesis, and Floor-Barre tend to concentrate on toning and conditioning for dancers. Each in its own way strengthens and emphasizes core connection through dynamic movement. Floor exercises take away the verticality of standing up so that different muscles can come into play. This way dancers learn not to stand on their ligaments. Floor work and mat exercises also lend themselves well to the use of imagery, which is so helpful in mind-body therapies--it allows action to follow imagination.

The Pilates apparatus can be set up to practice precise positions that are useful in developing ballet technique. In Pilates lingo we prefer to forgo the use of the term "equipment" because we remain centered and create movements within the apparatus versus equipment acting upon us, as in a traditional weight-training environment. Within the apparatus we fine-tune our movements, especially spinal articulation, and develop better line. Gyrotonics and gyrokinesis take movement one step further in terms of stimulating of the body. The first emphasizes expanding the range of motion and giving in to the freedom that expanded range allows. Indeed it is named the "expansion" system. Gyrokinesis is the closest to taking a modern dance class on a stool.

However, consider where you are in your dance training. Yoga is especially good for beginning and intermediate dancers because of its emphasis on flexibility, relaxation, and breathing. Its emphasis on calm and breathing helps settle dancers. It creates a mental and emotional balance for dancers because of its direct spiritual link; yoga was originally meant to be a preparation for meditation. Its strengthening power comes from the endurance needed to hold static positions. More advanced dancers can also benefit from yoga because they can challenge themselves to hold large end-range positions with their musculature instead of their ligaments.


Former San Francisco Ballet dancer and Pilates trainer Sara Sessions says it is very important that injured elite ballet dancers choose body-therapy movements that do not strictly imitate dance movements. In this way, they can expand their movement vocabulary and break the cycle of chronic injury. She also advocates an environment where advanced dancers feel safe to fail as they experiment with new ways to move. Former San Francisco Ballet soloist Kathleen Mitchell, now an SFB School instructor, favors the cross-training of Swiss-ball and swimming. In this way, other motor patterns and muscle groups can give a balancing effect and ward off injuries.

One benefit applies to all the mind and body therapies, whether active or passive: A stillness, quietness, or rhythmicity helps create a flow, a centering effect, and a sense of calm. This counters the fight-or-flight response of the sympathetic nervous system, or even the overstimulation caused by a long performance season.

Mind-body therapy experience can enhance your internal focus, optimizing your physical expression and healing potential. Movement guidance and the hands of others can not only help you work through a physical problem but also lead you down a path of self-discovery. The body follows where the mind leads.

Suzanne Martin has a private practice in physical therapy and Pilates, is the lead physical therapist for Smuin Ballets/SF, and conducts nutrition seminars at the San Francisco Ballet School.

Portions of this article first appeared in DANCE MAGAZINE, October 2002.

Some Somatic Practices

The Alexander Technique(TM) teaches how excessive tension may cause stress in dancers' bodies. With gentle hands-on guidance, dancers can learn to relieve pain, prevent injury, and enhance performance,

Body-Mind Centering[R] is an integrated approach to transformative experience through movement reeducation and repatterning. Movement, touch, and voice are used.

The Feldenkrais Method[R] uses gentle movement sequences and hands-on work to improve habitual patterns of movement and to minimize effort. It offers increased flexibility and balance. Lessons are adapted to the specific needs of each person.

Gyrotonic[R] Expansion System[TM] combines the benefits of swimming, gymnastics, yoga, and dance in one system of movement. A specially designed machine, called a pulley tower, helps develop the strength necessary to perform this type of "moving yoga."
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Article Details
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Author:Martin, Suzanne
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2004
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