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Posture and Frame

by Sandi & Dan Finch

It's Just A Stack of Bones

We talk about the spine being an integral part of a good frame, but really, the spine is just a stack of bones that can’t do anything on its own.

But that stack of bones—24 of them to be exact—is considered so important in ballet, it has been called the “life source of dance.” It certainly is the basis of good posture.

Good posture is hard to come by these days. What with cell phones and computers and working at desks, we spend too much time looking down. No wonder, when asked to dance a new figure, a beginner will look down to see if it is working. Not good. Our heads weigh between five and 11 pounds. When you look down, the head goes forward, shifting that weight and disturbing your balance.

Good posture gives you balance . If you have balance, you can feel comfortable, and if you are comfortable, you will probably look at ease, and that sense of presence leads to confidence.

The job of the spine is to carry the body weight. With good posture, your bones and muscles remain aligned upright against gravity with the least amount of energy. Poor posture taxes the body, so you wind up with achy muscles and worse—spinal injuries. It is said that for every inch your head juts forward, you add 10 pounds of pressure on the spine.

Anything you do with your head as a dancer affects how you move. When we talk about a good frame, we suggest thinking about a puppeteer’s string pulling your ears toward the ceiling. This puts your head over your spine, in balance. You know that trying to spin with your head tilted even a little bit forward is impossible.

The spine is made up of five groups of bones. The very bottom is the coccyx and the sacrum, which are fused into a block that does not move. Going up the spine, next is the lower back, called the lumbar area; then the thoracic spine, from the bottom of the chest up to the neck; and then the cervical spine, which allows your head to turn. The bones are numbered (C7, for example, the bottom bone of the cervical group, the knob at the base of your neck).

What keeps the spine together is a network of muscles. For that pretty frame, a group of muscles called the erector spinae runs up and down the back elongating the spine. They work like the string on an archery bow—when they tighten, your chest will expand—oh, so pretty on a dancer. Their latin name means “lift the spine.”

For dancing, we need to develop the transverse abdominis group (which translates to “runs across the belly”). This is a sheet of muscle, the deepest of the abdominals, that lies under all the other abdominal muscles. When it contracts, it squeezes your abdomen. You engage this this by sucking in your belly button, like wearing a tight belt. It anchors your lower ribs, pushes your hips down, and expands your upper spine.

The rectus abdominis (latin for “lift the belly”) is the much celebrated “six pack.” If it gets too tight, you can’t lift your rib cage—necessary for the lightness of quickstep— and shortens the front of the body. The pectoralis major and minor (the bigger and smaller muscles of the chest) connect the arms to the middle of the chest. When we work our arms, the movement should begin with these muscles.

You can find a book online, called Stand Taller, Live Longer, containing what the author calls an “anti-aging,” 10-minute-a-day exercise program to keep your body active and pain free, and focused on improving posture to eliminate pain, enhance sports (dance) performance, and increase flexibility. Joseph Pilates, of yoga program fame, says “If your spine is inflexibly stiff at 30, you are old. If it is completely flexible at 60, you are young.”

In talking about frame, you may stretch one side, tilt, or sway, but your spine is a straight line to your head. Your head moves to maintain that clean line down the body. Focus on a point slightly above the head of a person standing near a wall. This will lift your chin and restore the natural curve of the neck.

There is scientific proof that posture matters. A study published by the Royal Society of Great Britain looked at male dance moves and which of them women find most attractive. In every case, the ones found most unattractive were made with the man’s head forward, looking down.

So, Mother was right. Stand up straight. It will improve your dancing.

Picturing Your Framework

“If I were a painting.....”

Picture FrameRemember that Kenny Rogers song? How does it go? “It's only the frame that holds me together or else I would be falling apart.” He could have been talking about dancing.

Frame, frame, frame. Almost from the beginning in dance, you have heard about keeping your frame. Having a frame enables you to stay in balance and allows the partnership to communicate and move together, and it looks pretty.

We automatically think about frame being a necessary function in the modern/standard style of dance, where we are in closed position. But, Kyle and Allie Spinder, American Smooth professional teachers, make a case for keeping a “frame” during all of those open, half open, and shadow positions we get into throughout a dance, too.

They were speaking at the annual Embassy Congress in Irvine last week. Although they were talking about ballroom open work, the comments apply to round dancing as well because we incorporate American Smooth movement throughout all phases and rhythms. Those are the times when partners separate, do underarm turns, solo turns, and otherwise dance in what is called “open” position. “Regardless of level, you need to recognize those moments when you are in extended frame, or not even touching,” he said. Problems occur mostly during the transitions from open back into closed position.

Kyle sees a dancer as having an exterior frame, that closed position connection of two people through the arms and torso that we all know. He also sees an interior frame, called your core by some people, that should also be maintained, both in closed position and when we break apart. He likened the exterior frame to a picture frame that keeps an oil painting flattened and not rolling up, while the interior frame works like a backing that gives structure to a picture without the actual frame.

That interior frame is easy to lose when you relax, he said. When you lose it, your sides collapse, you become back-weighted and off balance, and you fumble getting in and out of closed position with your partner.

As dancers we regularly work on the elements of a good frame for closed position. Heads up, shoulders relaxed, Man’s elbows forward of his shoulder, arms rounded making a place for his partner on his right side.

We don’t think so much about that interior frame, but we should. When we sway, that interior frame keeps your sides “long” so they don’t collapse, he said. When you dance away from your partner, the interior frame keeps tone through the body so that your arms don’t flop at your sides. When you do an underarm turn, Man needs to give his partner enough space so he can maintain his frame as she turns under. In a two-hand hold, both partners need to keep their posture with elbows staying up as they lower on count 3 in waltz (instead of collapsing the arms to your sides as the body lowers).

We change sides, explode apart, bring partners to shadow position. We waltz away and together. In each case, we need to keep that interior frame so the bodies can blend back into closed position.

So how do you achieve an interior frame? Breathe, lift your sternum, engage your abdominal muscles. This is lengthening your ribs away from your pelvis, which improves your posture, mobility, and stability. Put tone in your arms by feeling their connection to your lats (upper back). Don’t let arms hang; feel like you have a tennis ball in your armpit.

At the same Congress, Victor Fung and his partner, Anastasia, lectured on closed position—being disciplined about the form to achieve more freedom of expression. Teaching in Irvine when they are home, they are currently number-one professional standard dancers in the United States and in the top three worldwide.

One primary part of the body that needs to be disciplined, in his mind, is his right arm and how it connects with his partner. He doesn’t hold her body, he said, but his right wrist under her left arm tells her when and where to go.

For a pretty, functional frame, he says, pull your occipital bone back—that bony knob at the base of your neck where it connects to the spine. In the front, make sure your manubrium projects up and “faces” your partner’s manubrium. (The manubrium is the top bony part of the sternum that connects the two collar bones.) Anastasia then makes sure her arms have tone and project forward to her partner. Her upper body is his, and she leaves her arms with him, freeing her hips to move freely, she said.

Frames come in all sizes and designs. Just like in interior design, find one you like and copy it. Just have one. It will keep that pretty picture from getting all out of shape.

From club newsletters, July & September 2019, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, October 2019.


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