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Break your bad habits: the core muscles.

"Core strength" is a popular workout buzz phrase. But it doesn't require thousands of crunches or six-pack abs. True core power comes with awareness and co-contractions of several deep, internal muscle groups: the pelvic floor, or low abdominal muscles that provide the base of core support; the transversus abdominus (TVA), or innermost abdominal muscle, which runs like a corset between ribs and pelvis; and the deep spinal extensors (lumbar multifidus), which lace up between vertebrae. For opinions on how to stabilize (without overworking) the core muscles, Dance Magazine spoke with BalletMet physical therapist Hope Davis; Sean Gallagher, founder of Performing Arts Physical Therapy and The New York Pilates Studio; and Teri Steele, Pilates instructor at Dance New Amsterdam in NYC.

HABIT: Underused pelvic floor and transversus abdominus Many dancers overlook these deep, subtle stabilizing muscles in favor of working on big-scale movers like quads and glutes--or have little awareness of them to begin with. But it's essential to strengthen muscles that keep the body still, so that extremities can move freely.

[right arrow] BREAK IT: To hone awareness of the pelvic floor and TVA, Davis has dancers lie on their backs, knees bent with feet flat on the floor in a neutral pelvis (front hip bones and pubic bone in the same plane). "We work on TVA and pelvic floor sensing and contracting, which is the foundation for a stable pelvis," Davis says. For pelvic floor contractions, imagine one of these sensations: stopping the flow of urination; drawing the pubic bone and tailbone closer together; or the two sitz bones narrowing. Drawing the navel toward the spine while exhaling helps initiate a pelvic floor contraction and deepening of the TVA corset, while also engaging the multifidus. Maintain contractions for 5 to 10 seconds, breathing evenly. Repeat 8 times without contracting larger abdominal muscles or squeezing the glutes.

HABIT: Overly constricted core Overusing the core muscles is particularly common among ballet dancers, since so many steps in ballet require an upright spine. This habit creates "thoracic spine fixation," a condition in which the middle spine is not mobile enough, Davis explains. The breath and diaphragm also constrict from muscular tension.

[right arrow] BREAK IT: Diaphragmatic breathing exercises unlock this habit. "If the core contracts too much, how can the diaphragm move?" asks Gallagher. Start lying on your back, knees bent, and hands on top of the ribcage. Slowly deepen the breath, imagining air filling the back of the lungs and ribcage. The front of the ribs stay relaxed and quiet, while the back expands into the floor. Doing a cat/cow stretch before class also helps to mobilize the thoracic spine. Focus on creating a continuous curve and lengthened arch, so that the entire spine is moving, rather than just the lumbar.

HABIT: Hypermobile lumbar spine Students don't always learn how to arabesque or arch safely. Instead they're often taught to force high, long lines without proper abdominal support, at the expense of the integrity of the lower spine. This can lead to swayback (lordotic) posture and to compressed vertebral discs.

[right arrow] BREAK IT: "During any back bending or arabesque, lengthen through the entire spine, while lifting through the front," advises Gallagher. The cobra pose in yoga is one exercise that can retrain supported back extension. A willingness to "do less" is also key. Even if you practice Pilates or yoga regularly, a strong core is beneficial only if the principles apply while dancing. "It's not enough to just learn Pilates," says Steele. "You have to be willing to go to smaller ranges of motion when dancing, to identify what is stabilizing and what is moving." Once you build this awareness, you can extend the leg higher or go for deeper backbends. The payback is greater depth of movement and a longer dance career.

Jen Peters is a Pilates instructor, a dancer with Jennifer Muller/The Works, and a frequent contributor to DM.
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Title Annotation:teach-learn: connection
Author:Peters, Jen
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2010
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