“I should warn you, I have bad balance..” -about half of my dance students tell me this, usually during the first several months after they begin taking lessons. Over the years, I’ve worked with hundreds of students who claim to have bad balance, or clumsiness. Why do so many people feel off-balance while dancing, or in their daily lives?
The fact that so many dance students feel off-balance at times is no mystery at all. After all, our bodies are anything but perfectly symmetrical. One lung has two lobes while the other has three, your liver is off to one side, and one leg is typically shorter than the other. Adding to this could be other factors such as poor posture, scoliosis, or severe laterality. A better question might be, “how do we ever stay balanced at all?”
Our bodies would never stay upright if it weren’t for constant little unconscious adjustments made by our vast network of balance and stability muscles. Primary muscles such as the quadriceps, pectorals, and abdominals get most of the attention in the gym, but it’s the balance and stability muscles that will keep you from losing your balance while you dance.
For example, just standing on one leg requires the services of the tensor fascia lata, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus of the weight-bearing side to level the pelvis; the psoas major for controlling deviation of your trunk; the obturator internus, superior and inferior gemelli, quadratus femoris, pirifiormis, and obturator externus to steady your hip joints; the peronial tibialis for lower leg stability; and finally, the anterior tibialis and gastrocnemius for foot flexion/extension.
Wow. And all that muscular action happens without you even knowing what’s going on. Since we’re usually not even aware of the balance and stability muscles, how do we train them? And what are some ways we can adjust our posture and alignment so that our muscles don’t always have to work so hard? Here are some exercises that can help you develop your body’s natural balance correction system:
Get unstable. It’s not comfortable being off-balance and unstable, but if you want to maximize your balance and stability, it’s a must.
- Try standing on one leg for one minute, then alternate to the other side. Do this several times daily. If you progress to doing a minute without falling over, see how long you can last with both eyes closed.
- Any seated exercises you do at the gym can be done standing up. This will force your stabilizer muscles to work overtime as you handle the weight and work to keep your balance at the same time during your set. For any exercise that can’t be done standing up (like ab crunches), you can also ditch the bench for a Swiss ball.
- Stand on a balance board several feet from a wall, and bounce a tennis ball off the wall and catch it. You can also do this with a partner. This will train your stability and balance muscles to react to sudden movements more sharply.
Get off your ass. As I’ve mentioned on this site before, sitting on your ass is terrible for you.
- Get up and walk around at least 3 times per hour. It takes just 20 minutes of sitting for your ligaments to deform, causing instability. Also, leg muscles become almost completely silent a few seconds into sitting, which contributes to stabilizer muscle atrophy.
- You can also try Hindu squats when leaving the cubicle isn’t an option. This is a great exercise for recruiting stabilizer muscles in the legs, and it’s also great for stoking the metabolism when you’re stuck in the office all day.
Become a well-rounded athlete. Everyone has one side that is slightly stronger and more coordinated than the other, but many athletes become even more lateralized with the repetitive and highly specialized motor functions of their sport. On the contrary, dancers need bodies which are as balanced in musculature and coordination as possible.
- Work out one side at a time. Using barbells can reinforce muscular asymmetries by allowing your dominant side to “help” the weaker side in lifting the weight. Try using dumbbells for the same exercises, and you’ll force your weak side to work the same amount as the strong side.
- Ditch isolation exercises for compound exercises. No more bicep curls or tricep extensions!! Muscles never work by themselves when you dance, so you shouldn’t isolate them in the gym either. Kettle bell swings and the clean and press are good examples of compound exercises.
- Stand with your back against a wall, and try to make your calves, buttocks, shoulders, and the back of your head all touch. Now stay that way.
- Keep your hips level by imagining that there’s a bowl of water sitting in-between your hip bones. If you spill the water, you lose! You can also check this by making sure that your belt remains parallel to the floor. You may have to engage your lower abs, or “tuck your bum” a bit to get the effect. If you’re doing it right, this should make your lower back feel completely straight and aligned with your upper spine.
Other ways of further improving your balance include:
- Yoga , Pilates, and Tai Chi are disciplines very complimentary to dance practice and can improve balance, tensile strength, and body awareness.
- Studying Alexander technique can help you to move more effortlessly and reduce excess tension in the body.
- Use the Feldenkrais method to improve physical awareness and coordination.
- Slacklining is a dramatic and challenging way to improve overall balance and agility
Improving your balance is one of the most important things you can do to improve the quality of your dancing, and reduce your risk of injury in dance and in daily life. Do you have any additional thoughts? Anything that helped you to improve your balance? Please share them below. Thanks as always for stopping by!