To dance with strength and stability, as well as to avoid injury, we have to have core strength. That’s not just six-pack abs — but a muscular foundation and integration through the side-body, back and pelvic area. As dancers, we also need conviction, confidence and commitment to our decisions — to perform at our best as well as to face the challenges of artistic life.
Pilates contributes to comprehensive core strength, as well as integration of core parts and those body parts that they power (limbs, head and extremities). A flow and rhythm of breath is essential to producing those effects, just as it is for dancing with fluidity and connectedness. All of this also helps us to connect to our personal power, wisdom and creativity. Those attributes are essential for us to offer all that we have as artists.
Practise the following short Pilates sequence — monthly, weekly, even daily — to connect, if even just a bit more, to all of those important things. All you need is five to 10 minutes, a soft surface (a mat is helpful but not totally necessary) and yourself.
#1. Bridge Roll-Ups
This exercise can help us connect to the core, integrate it with muscular actions in other limbs and bring in energy through mild back-bending. At the same time, having the head, shoulders and chest grounded on the mat can feel calming, sometimes even relaxing.
Start by placing your feet on your mat/other floor surface, hips-width apart. They should be close enough for you to tickle your heels (unless you have a long torso, in which case step them out a little farther). Engage your inner thighs to prevent your knees from falling wider than your hips. Engage your pelvic floor and low belly (what we call “co-contraction” in Pilates), as well as your hamstrings. Soften your glutes (the “butt” muscles).
With that co-contraction, breathe in and begin to peel your back up off the mat/other surface under you, vertebra by vertebra, until you’re on top of your shoulders. Breathe out and roll back down. Remember that slower and more controlled movement is more effective. Repeat 10 times. You can play with variations such as extending one leg as you roll up and placing it back down as you lower – or the same breath pattern with both arms up overhead, backward, up overhead again and back down.
#2. The Saw
This exercise looks like “sawing” something off the outside of your foot. Your lower body is stable and grounded, while your upper body moves with integration and smoothness. Sit up tall, engaging your abdominals but softening your shoulders and face. Flex your feet, and place them just wider than hips-width apart. Raise your arms directly out from your shoulders, palms down.
Then Twist cross-laterally — that is, the arm in front toward its opposite leg. Fold forward at your hips to bring the back of your hand to the outside of your foot. Try to do that with a mainly straight spine, just as you do with a simple forward-folding stretch (your low belly descending to your thigh first – and then a slight curve in your upper back).
To get the full benefit of the exercise, bring your torso back to vertical (over your hips) still in that twist. Inhale as you do this. Exhale to face back center, with your arms as they were when you started (in a “T”, palms down). Keep your hips as still as possible, and your abs engaged, the whole time. Enjoy the feeling of your upper and lower halves working together to keep you stable, yet moving fluidly.
This exercise offers work on integrating the limbs and the core, which allows core energy to travel through your extremities. Being on the belly can also feel very grounding and calming. From that place, engage your low belly and pelvic floor. Pull your abdominals away from the surface below you. Raise all four limbs just one inch off your surface.
Inhale and raise one arm (with palm facing down), and the opposite leg, higher. Exhale and lower them back down. Alternate to raise the opposite cross-lateral (the other arm and leg). Look somewhere in between straight down and straight forward, so that you don’t have any wrinkles in the back of your neck. Repeat 10 times. Throughout, focus more on lengthening your limbs than on raising them high.
This is all done with one inhale or exhale to each movement. If you want more of a challenge, then start to pick up the pace. Beat your arms and legs as quickly as you can and still have control – as well as easy, fluid breath. Try to smile, and allow yourself to feel playful.
#4. Pilates Push-Ups
This is a traditional push-up…and so much more. Do 10 cycles, more or less if that’s better for you on any given day. Begin standing, feet hips-width apart and looking confidently ahead. Let your shoulders soften and your shoulder-blades melt down your back. Drop your chin to your chest and roll down your spine, vertebra by vertebra. Place your hands on the ground as you fold over your legs, also bending your knees to protect your hamstrings. Then walk your hands out, lowering your hips, to a plank. Draw your tailbone and your shoulders toward your heels.
Then take a push-up, with elbows tucking into your sides (the elbows-out version can help strengthen your triceps but can also seriously strain joints). Walk your hands back to again be folding over your legs. Roll back up your spine, stacking each vertebra on top of the last. Abdominal engagement is important throughout the exercise but particularly so when rolling up, in order to protect your lower back.
Stand up again tall, proud and strong. Enjoy the feeling of your core’s energy and stability radiating out through all parts of your body, in all directions. Observe your breath. Let its steady rhythm, along with that energized strength, help you feel more grounded and calm. You have what it takes to handle whatever may come your way!
By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.