Spine Development through Ballet Training

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.

Possible Outcomes

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.

Works Cited

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.


GaGa In Comparison to Classical Ballet

There seems to be an unbreakable mask hovering in front of nineteenth century ballet dancers. Although the movements have the definition of beauty written all over the dancers’ bodies, a flow of energy stops and distracts the audience from the piece of art. By the end of the next century, an Israeli artist was able to exceed expectations for all who watch his choreography and all who experience his classes. Contrary to the façade of classical ballet, Ohad Naharin’s technique and choreographic language asks dancers to reveal the truth when discovering their pain, demonstrating a connection to pleasure and healing. In return, he initiates movement from their reactions, rather than demanding for an unnatural instinct to be danced. This relationship between Naharin and the dancers at Batsheva Dance Company transfers onto the stage, leaving audiences to be completely entranced by the execution.

Naharin explicates his dancing as a movement language by the name of “Gaga”. When Naharin was on the path to retiring from professional dancing, he endured a serious back injury, causing numbness in his legs and pelvis. This led him to further understand how to move in a healthy way and to ask why he put himself through the physical toll of dance for so many years. In her in-depth article about the structure of Gaga, Deborah Freides Galili refers to the Gaga-guru himself for the answer:

“The deconstructive component of Gaga reflects Naharin’s response to his physical injuries. ‘I really needed to dance both to heal and as a source for body pleasure, to compensate for the pain that my body gave me,’ he explained, ‘and to be able to overcome the injury by becoming more efficient, more coordinated, more clever, so I can bypass the injury and still do more with less’” (Galili 381).

The language of Gaga is meant for all body types, of any age and at any level of fitness, so it can truly teach the proper alignment to any person. Professionals at the Batsheva Dance Company train profusely in Naharin’s pedagogy, taking more Gaga classes than ballet each week (Heymann, 2007). With its focus on imagery, stamina and isolation, Gaga guides movers towards a deep awareness of the body and widens the physical kinesphere past the arms and legs (Galili 377). As Naharin continues to develop his language, he refines the way it heals human flesh and how it combines voluntary movement with involuntary movement.

In an odd way, Naharin finds himself falling in love with the dancers he works with, due to the emotional journey they go through. Their movements excite him, and it brings out the best results on stage when he taps into their life. In rehearsals, the dancers work endlessly on one simple movement as Naharin critiques. They often repeat it over and over until Naharin can sense the exact quality he wants of his dancers (Hot Docs Cinema, 4). If the choreography is stale and lacking of any truth, Naharin reminds them to touch upon their daily lives, including sexual adventures and eating delicious food (Heymann, 2007). From there, the dancers, though in an emotional state of chaos, can finally indulge in the feeling of the movements. They send artistic energy to Naharin, and the process continues. Many choreographers, specifically in ballet, plan ahead of time how the dance will progress, and how the dancers are going to move. This concept is very productive because the fear of failure can be overlooked. It is safe. Now, not only does Naharin play rough, but when a new batch of dancers are casted, he reframes his creations differently so that the work stays fresh. He dares to mix up the playing field that he once established, for the sake of his philosophy. The brand-new cast of humans have brand-new emotions, sex drives, or favourite books that they will speak about to the audience through their movements. For example, his widely-praised Deca Dance (first premiering in 2000), has suffered many reconfigurations:

“[Naharin] explained, ‘Deca Dance is something I have been playing with for some time. It’s a modular piece that keeps changing. I can reconstruct my work and create something coherent from the broken pieces, that gives me, the dancers, and the audience pleasure’… Certain segments— most notably a whimsical section in which the performers pull audience members up onstage to dance and a building, powerful movement accumulation to the Passover song ‘Echad Mi Yodea’ (‘Who Knows One’)— are present in almost every rendition. Yet at its core, Deca Dance is a fluid work in a perpetual state of evolution” (Bales 82).

Moreover, Naharin is always in constant evolution of his masterpieces because he realizes that his life is never static. The audience can appreciate this type of process, especially when they get to watch other audience members onstage, becoming part of a communal dance. Naharin is using his dancers, and in this case, his audience for inspiration, making sure to connect to the truth of humanity. The essence of the piece is never destroyed when different dancers are set to perform his choreography. He revisits the past while keeping the origin of the piece still alive. Likewise, he works with other companies, such as Hubbard Street Chicago (Nagel 93), and the creative process begins anew where he, again, falls head over heels for the various dancers.

As the prima ballerina exhibits beauty in her tutu, Naharin’s choreography is akin to the quality of ugliness and pain. Stripping down to pedestrian-style costumes, his dancers are praised by Naharin for diving full-force into a movement, even if it causes them to hurt their bodies. The dances in Batsheva’s performance repertoire delve into controversial subjects such as the vileness of war and death (Heymann, 2015), leaving no trace of hesitation from Naharin himself. Unbelievably, what helps the dancers accomplish these tasks every time they perform is their ability to connect to a pleasuring experience in the pain. The most extreme body contortions are enjoyable to the dancers, with Naharin’s specific instructions at bay (Galili 383). Dancing is a popular form of muscle injury, but he encourages them to “enjoy the burning sensation” (Naharin). They challenge the limits of their own sensitivities by questioning what their threshold of pain really is. Whether the task is to cause an internal earthquake in the body or to plunge into a frenzy of madness (Erwin 7), Naharin welcomes the dangerous risks of his movements as a way to display despair on the theatre stage. In addition to this, a solid background of technique is required to achieve Naharin’s choreography, which is danced effortlessly by his stunning performers (Stahl).

Taking from many dance styles, including the ever more structured ballet, Naharin transforms movement into a feeling of complete availability. One particular exercise that is utilized in his performances and taught in his classes is “Groove”. It is described by his students “as a highly pleasurable and communicative way to transmit the flow of energy through the body and channel it to others” (Gittings 14). Indeed, when attending a performance by Batsheva Dance Company, there is an atmosphere of total conversation between the audience and the dancers. The textures that Groove express link together the social aspect of street dancing and the concept of surrendering to the music’s rhythm. It is a repetitive bounce inside a dancer’s body that, at times, can result in the dancer hurting their knees or pelvis (Heymann, 2015). However, when the dancer commits all of their body parts to the beat of a song, the audience feels a sense of ease and delight. Likewise, the dancer has no choice but to lose control to the lure of Groove. Naharin chose this tool to mesh together the two most poignant emotions of a person’s life: “If you tap into pain and pleasure at the same time, you open up a huge range of feelings in between… Life can contain both of these concepts” (Heymann, 2007). Thus, the pain and pleasure of Naharin’s choreography encompasses the community of dance as a global activity. Grooving to a piece of music is universally known as an addictive release of energy while spending time with friends and family, and it branches out to every audience member who watches a Batsheva performance. Naharin incorporates this catharsis in his dance methodology for the benefits it comes with, and the audience does not hold back its desire to be a part of it.

To present a theatrical art form to an audience of emotional people, it is not enough to simply move. While the 19th century deemed a classical ballerina as its shining star, Naharin tenaciously brings the house down in the late 20th and early 21st centuries without looking to please the eye. His dancers strive to channel their dynamism out to the audience, and Naharin intuitively channels the human condition. Digging into the raw bliss of being in pain is one of Naharin’s greatest skills as an Israeli choreographer and teacher… but his genius does not stop there.

Works Cited

Bales, Melanie, and Karen Eliot. Dance on its Own Terms: Histories and Methodologies. Oxford University Press, 2013. Print.

Erwin, Laura. “A Personal Journey into Ohad Naharin’s Gaga Technique: Discovering Pedagogical Applications for Engaging the Performer.” Journal of Emerging Dance Scholarship (2014): 1-24. Web. 31 Mar. 2017. http://www.docs.google.com/viewerng/viewer?url=http://www.jedsonline.net/wpcontent/uploads/2014/06/Laura-Erwin-JEDS-Manuscript-final-edits-2-LC-LE-6-20.docx

Galili, Deborah Friedes. “Gaga: Moving Beyond Technique with Ohad Naharin in the Twenty-First Century.” Dance Chronicle 38.3 (2015): 360-392. Web. 31 Mar. 2017. http://www.journals1.scholarsportal.info.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/pdf/01472526/v38i0003/360_gmbtwonittc.xml

Gittings, Diane J. “Building Bodies with a Soft Spine. Gaga: Ohad Naharin’s invention in practice, its roots in Feldenkrais and the vision of a pedagogy”. Academia, uploaded by Diane J Gittings. Sept. 2013. Web. 2 Apr. 2017. http://www.academia.edu/6458350/Building_ Bodies_with_a_Soft_Spine._Gaga_Ohad_Naharins_invention_in_practice_its_roots_in_Feldenkrais_and_the_vision_of_a_pedagogy

Heymann, Tomer, director. Out of Focus. Heymann Brothers Films, 2007. Vimeo, uploaded by Ohad Naharin, http://www.vimeopro.com/user11134273/ohad-naharin/video/139978582

Heymann, Tomer, director. Mr. Gaga. Heymann Brothers Films, 2015.

Hot Docs Cinema, Review of Mr. Gaga, directed by Tomer Heymann, Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, April 2017, p. 4.

Nadel, Myron H., and Marc Strauss. The Dance Experience: Insights into History, Culture, and Creativity. Princeton Book Co, 2003. Print. Naharin, Ohad. “About Gaga”. Gaga people.dancers. Web. 28 Mar. 2017. http://www.gagapeople.com/english/about-gaga/

Stahl, Jennifer, editor. “Going Gaga”. Dance Magazine. 19 Mar. 2009. Web. 28 Mar. 2017. http://www.dancespirit.com/how-to/modern/going_gaga/