When I started teaching children, I immediately realized how little of the instruction I gave them remained in their memory over a full dance season. They usually come up to me at the end of the year and exclaim that the moment they will miss the most is playing the game “Freeze Dance” at the end of every class. Indeed, children that are three to five years old will enjoy having the artistic freedom to dance however they want, and I am not expecting them to remember every correction that I have for them. Most of the time they are put in my class so that a parent can drink a coffee in peace. Nonetheless, my inner critic that has the immense desire to train young children itches at me to do better with my teaching abilities, so that I can provide the most effective lessons. If I want to deliver a class where children are invested in new discoveries and are on a path to noticeable growth, I need to look further into what I plan for my classes, specifically in ballet. I see far too many postural habits that result in pain for my students when we stretch our hamstrings. In addition, I feel I am not reaching them in a way that will speed up improvement. As I work with young children to spark their interest in music and physical exercise, my ballet classes must be geared toward proper development of the spine and hamstring flexibility as to avoid future injuries or muscle imbalances.
In this report, I want to explore more of how children understand concepts in ballet dancing, and how to guide them to learn correct posture right from their first introduction to dance. By using imagery, conditioning from an anatomical point of view, and exercises that keep the body balanced, I will discuss particular exercises that cater to an average child in a ballet class. To narrow down my thoughts, I will refrain from discussing spinal deformities that involve surgery or other medical treatments, and I will only be including children between the age of three and five years.
Curving the Spine
The natural curvature of the spine often presents difficulties when toddlers start to grow taller and wider. Once the fetus has reached the third week of gestation, the spine starts its intricate expansion and each region blooms at different paces depending on the child’s physical activity (Akbarnia et al. 3). At birth, the lumbar spine is smaller in size to the thoracic and cervical sections due to the baby spending most of its time lying down however, after the age of three, the lumbosacral vertebrae and discs will grow more rapidly than the other vertebrae as the muscles learn to walk and jump (Akbarnia et al. 27). The pelvis adjusts accordingly to further the range of motion for the child and promote the coordination of opposite arm to leg (Pica 164) As for the thoracic spine, the circumference and volume of each vertebra grow exponentially during the child’s toddler years, and by the age of five, the concave curve that forms affects lung development and the size of the chest cavity (Akbarnia et al. 32). These primitive years of a child’s life are delicately changing the entire body structure causing constant remodelling, reorientation and alignment. The child’s brain activity relies heavily on instinct and emotional need therefore, the growing process is extremely peculiar to each child (Posner, Raichle 183).
The Ideal Posture
The unique positions of ballet lend difficulties for young children when they try to navigate through the world. Due to their limited muscle strength and continually growing bodies, the action of simply walking is difficult at times. To achieve a posture that is helpful for a young child, it is crucial to manage the spine from misshaping while letting the natural development happen (Akbarnia et al. 13). Generally, the most effective start to a class is to warm up the spine and find the quintessential ballet posture from a seated position. In their book, Conditioning with Imagery for Dancers, Krasnow and Deveau discuss the importance of aligning the spine before moving on to exercises that involve port de bras. The attachment of the arms to the scapulae and spine generates many situations of incorrect posture therefore, if the class begins by strengthening and stabilizing the torso region, travelling across the floor will be easier for the child (Krasnow, Deveau 113). For example, the exercise that is positioned by sitting with legs extended out in front helps to initiate the ideal ballet posture for a young child. They are engaging their hamstring muscles and adductor group to sustain the pose with their legs together in a parallel line, as well as accessing their erector spinae group to elongate the spine (Calais-Germain 75, 242). Not only this, but the dancers are able to practice the relaxation of their hips flexors by reaching the upper body forward over the legs as an additional stretch (Krasnow, Deveau 73). As a teacher, I appreciate this exercise because I can discover immediately the range of motion in my students’ lumbar spines. When I recognize that a student is not able to sustain extended legs as they reach forward, this shows me that their hamstring flexibility is weaker (Manire 1470). In a similar way, if a student expresses that they do not feel any stretch happening, I can suggest that they dorsiflex their ankles to provide more challenge (López-Miñarro et al. 72). It is this kind of analysis that teaching requires, so that a dancer does not feel left behind or bored in class. On the account that most children do not feel comfortable expressing their feelings yet, the teacher must be able to assess a proper plan for the child. With this in mind, I believe ballet classes for young children should act as an exchange of knowledge and movement, rather than a teacher who demonstrates while the dancers just watch.
Intelligently Dumbing it Down
Children are constantly seeing new experiences and interpreting ideas in complicated ways. If a student is taught a certain concept in a similar way that a teenager would be taught, the child’s brain stops thinking rationally and converts to an emotional state out of fear and confusion (Posner, Raichle 182). While they are eager to know information, it can be intimidating for them when placed in a dance class with other young dancers. Many influences of their thoughts include television, picture books, art, and electronic screens. All of these factors are defined by images that the child can store in their memory. With the use of imagery, the visual learner has an accessible thinking process resulting in a neuromuscular re-patterning for the child (Krasnow, Deveau XIX). If I incorporate this tool in my classes, there is a greater possibility my students will understand the complex positions in ballet training.
An imagery concept that proves functional for young dancers in the action of plié comes from Lourdes Hernandez in the ballet classes I have with her. The illustration is that the pelvis rides down into a toaster as the knees flex into plié, and recovers out of the toaster when extended (Hernandez). The intelligence of this is that if the body pretends to be a piece of toast, it would be painful for the pelvis to come in contact with the hot wall of the toaster. Therefore, the mind is forced to keep the pelvis in proper alignment as the knees bring the whole body downwards and upwards (Pica 38). I tried this image with my students over the last few weeks and noticeably, their pliés ended up being more weighted and their spine did not shift from correct posture. Also, my students were delighted to roleplay as a piece of bread and they continue to laugh each time we discuss this image.
During an exercise where the dancer must return to proper posture, I tend to explain the concept that the spine vertebrae are similar to the scales of a dragon. The students and I discuss that a dragon’s back has many little bumps that start from the top of the neck to the bottom of the tail. From my own personal experience, my students’ faces light up with joy to find that they can transform into a dragon. It would be impossible and ineffective to lecture the young dancers on the anatomical spine, especially since the spine has layers of muscles and skin covering it. The image of a dragon is popular in children’s media and literature thus, the dancers will be able to visualize the external scales of a dragon acting as their own spine.
Although a three to five year old child is still too young to properly examine how their future growth will turn out, there are many dismorphifications that can occur if physical activity and proper prevention are not a part of their daily routine. Ballet training is a sublime kind of physical activity for young children as it incorporates music and movement in a way that does not feel tiring for the child. On the other hand, if the child is put in a dance class where the teacher tries to over-stretch their range of motion or instruct ballet posture in a damaging way, the young child may mature with spine problems. Especially if the teacher exclaims the words: “Pull up!”, this can lead to hyperextension of the spine, and a lack of oxygen running through the body (Hernandez).
A spine deformity that is commonly known is scoliosis. One explanation for this is having a low body mass as a young adolescent which can delay menstruation and result in scoliosis (Watanabe et al. 284). However, there are other possibilities for this unfortunate spine structure. In their article titled “Current insights into the aetiology of adolescent idiopathic scoliosis”, Latalski et al. refer to different opinions on the cause of scoliosis once the patient is in their teen years. While some researchers say that every circumstance of scoliosis is too unique to declare a general cause for the condition, the major contributor is most likely an “imbalance of growth of anterior and posterior structures… [because] when bending forward, the vertebral bodies at the apex tend to move out of the way by rotating to the side” (Latalski et al. 1331). This explanation is a clear indication of muscles and/or ligaments that could be stretched or torn too far to produce the imbalance in the spine. If I want a dancer to develop their spine in a healthy way, their muscle memory must be trained to stack their pelvis underneath their rib cage and head with the most balanced muscular strength and ligament stability. Avoiding scoliosis should be number one for a young dancer and their teachers as they practice the unnatural positions in ballet. Otherwise, the benefits of ballet will be missed.
A Non-Medical Perspective
Looking at the immature spine, there are treatments that only doctors with more medical education and practice can execute. Exercises that are included in a ballet class do not perform miracles to cure spinal cases because surgery is sometimes the only option. With this being said, my goal as a dancer and teacher, whom has only the knowledge of personal experience and anatomy textbooks, is to establish the key postural stance for young children so as to eliminate the chances of scoliosis or other permanent deformities. Making ballet class an enjoyable and collaborative experience for the students will lead them on a path to success. Others questions that resonate around this topic are how to train young dancers to control the hard-to-find intrinsic muscles in the spine and which exercises diminish the range of spiral in their spine. There is still more research to be done to perfect a class plan that includes a variety of exercises and guides growing dancers towards a safe and healthy future in dance.
Akbarnia, Behrooz A., Muharrem Yazici, and George H. Thompson. The Growing Spine: Management of Spinal Disorders in Young Children. Springer, 2011.
Calais-Germain, Blandine. Anatomy of Movement: Revised Edition. Seattle: Eastland Press, 2014.
Hernandez, Lourdes. THD 200 Ballet, Sept 2017, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada.
Krasnow, Donna, and Jordana Deveau. Conditioning with imagery for dancers. Thompson Educational Pub., 2011.
Latalski, Michal, et al. “Current Insights into the Aetiology of Adolescent Idiopathic Scoliosis.” Archives of Orthopaedic and Trauma Surgery, vol. 137, no. 10, 2017, pp. 1327-1333. https://doi-org.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/10.1007/s00402-017-2756-1
López-Miñarro, Pedro A., et al. “Acute Effects of Hamstring Stretching on Sagittal Spinal Curvatures and Pelvic Tilt.” Journal of Human Kinetics, vol. 31, no. 1, 2012, pp. 69-78.
Manire, John T., et al. “Diurnal Variation of Hamstring and Lumbar Flexibility.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, vol. 24, no. 6, 2010, pp. 1464-71, Nursing & Allied Health Database; SciTech Premium Collection, http://ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib,ryerson.ca/docview/507139457?accountid=13631.
Pica, Rae. Preschoolers and Kindergartners Moving and Learning : A Physical Education Curriculum, Redleaf Press, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/lib/ryerson/detail.action?docID=1486520.
Posner, Michael I., and Marcus E. Raichle. Images of mind. Scientific American Library, 1999.
Watanabe, K, et al. “Physical Activities and Lifestyle Factors Related to Adolescent Idiopathic Scoliosis.” The Journal of bone and joint surgery. American volume., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 15 Feb. 2017, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28196030.