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A Better You | Know Your Upper Body


Combine anatomy and imagery to make port de bras sing

By Suzanne Martin, PT, DPT

Nothing is more beautiful or exhilarating than a port de bras. I love the saying “The legs dance the music and the upper body sings the movement.” But getting to the point where your dancing sings is not always easy. Often the problems are obvious to teachers, but what a correction really means or where the work should be happening might not be so evident to students. This month we examine some tools to guide corrections related to the upper body, and in the next few columns we will sequentially dissect the lower body and that all-important turnout.

A port de bras reveals much about a dancer. Wooden arms are a giveaway for lack of dancing expertise, no matter what the style. In my opinion, achieving the detailed perfection we expect from advanced dancers is far harder in the arms than in the legs. Arms should développé just like the legs.

An entire region of the brain is devoted to the coordination of the eyes, head, and arms. In a class on motor control I learned that for every degree of range of motion, it’s likely that 19 muscles are in action. Some of those muscles function as stabilizers and some as movers of the action. But how do you coordinate all that?

It helps to think of the upper body as three parts: the head and neck, the ribcage and its spine, and the shoulder girdle. An amazing fact is that the shoulder girdle (the breastbone, shoulder blades, collarbones, and arms) free-float on the ribcage (see Observe in “Visualize, Observe, Exercise”). The girdle attaches to the rest of the skeleton only where the collarbones meet the breastbone (sternum) in the sternoclavicular joint. This joint, among the strongest in the body, holds so well that in falls, the collarbones tend to break before this joint will become dislocated.

Musculature Stabilizers
We can categorize the deep muscles of the upper body by observing the surface anatomy of the body.

First find the stabilizers, what I call the “upper core.” These muscles balance and control the head and neck and anchor the shoulder blades. They can be visualized in the ribcage: Look at the bottom of the sternum. See how the ribs create an inverted V? By squeezing this V together and deflating the ribs below the breasts, you can activate the upper core.

The diaphragm, oblique abdominal muscles, and intercostal (between the ribs) muscles create a foundation for head balance and arm use. The action of the diaphragm, the big, horizontal muscle that divides the upper and lower portions of the body, is easy to observe: Simply place a hand just below the breasts at the midline and sniff a few times.

Strengthening the upper core prevents sway back, a very common dancer posture.

Shoulder blades
Learning to anchor the shoulder blades into the ribcage provides the leverage needed for optimal control of the arms.

A common complaint among teachers is that when students raise their arms past horizontal, they lift their shoulders. The shoulder muscles that attach at the ribcage in the back of the armpit area (the teres major, teres minor, and serratus anterior) work to anchor and elevate the heavy arm. You can find them by lifting your arm a bit to the side and reaching under the arm to feel around at the tip of the shoulder blade. To enhance the feeling, lift and lower your shoulders. Learning to operate the arms from this area prevents the upper shoulders (the upper trapezius muscles) from dominating the movement. Plank exercises, especially when done on the forearms, promote strength in this area.

All dancers want to appear larger than life onstage, and a big part of presentation is being able to project. When dancers hear the commands “Open the chest” or “Bring your shoulders back,” they may either splay the ribs in front or pinch the shoulder blades together. Accomplished dancers know to use the middle and low trapezius muscles, which essentially “tack down” the shoulder blades against the ribcage, opening the chest and lifting the face toward the light. (A sunken chest tends to pull the face down, away from the light.) These muscles are difficult to see or feel unless they are well developed (see Exercise 3, “Visualize, Observe, Exercise”).

Teachers often tell students not to let their elbows sag, which results in “chicken arms,” but they need to teach them to engage the triceps, the muscles on the back of the upper arm. A common triceps exercise in fitness training is the kickback. The upper arm is held parallel to the floor, and the elbow is bent and straightened while holding a weight in the hand.

The kickback is not enough for dancers, who need to engage the long head of the triceps that originates in the armpit; that’s what gives that floating-arms effect we like. Two Thera-Band exercises (see Exercises 1 and 2, “Visualize, Observe, Exercise”) promote the use of the triceps in dance. Doing these simple exercises before class can enhance sensation in the arms and boost coordination in combinations.

Alignment of the face and neck
If the upper-core foundation is intact, the head and neck will float on top of the shoulders. Teachers may give the command to not look down, which is good advice since the rest of the body will follow where the eyes go. Also, for optimal mechanics in turns and elevation in jumps, the weight of the head must be over the center of gravity in the pelvis.

What we say to students makes a big difference in how corrections are implemented; see “New Ways to Correct” for new approaches. Take these tips into the classroom and you and your students will be exhilarated and inspired by the improvements in their port de bras.

I have faith in you.

Visualize, Observe, Exercise

Visualize: Arms développé
Imagine starting from one imaginary back hip pocket and breathing out into the opposite armpit, like you’re filling a balloon with air. Imagine a golden ring passing around the upper arm, elbow, forearm, wrist, and then the palm. You’re sure to see a beautifully shaped and elevated arm.

Observe: Free-floating shoulder girdle

Shrug your shoulders up to your ears. See how the collarbones create an angle and feel how your shoulder blades slide up on the ribcage.

Exercise 1: Triceps
Hold a Thera-Band with both hands, roughly 10 inches apart, at your sternum, with the elbows pointing straight out to the sides. Straighten one elbow so that the hand goes out to the side and then return the hand to the chest, all while keeping the upper arm horizontal to the floor.

Exercise 2: Triceps
Hold the Thera-Band overhead (shoulders down!) with hands about 2 feet apart. Pull one end down and sideways toward the hip. You’ll feel the stretch in the elevated upper arm, pulling on the long head of the triceps.

Exercise 3: Trapezius
To strengthen the middle and low trapezius, lie on your abdomen and slowly move the arms from high fifth to second position and down to first. Concentrate on making a V with the point reaching down the middle of your low back as you move your arms from first to fifth while keeping the shoulder blades wide.

New Ways to Correct

1.  Old school: “Press the shoulders down.”  New school: “Lengthen the turtle’s neck out of the shell” and “Breathe out from the armpits.” Pressing the shoulders down may incite a painful grinding action of the shoulder girdle on the ribcage. What’s really needed is to hold the upper core and hold the arms from the armpits, not from the shoulders.

2. Old school: “Hold your ribs.” New school: Encourage students to engage the upper core this way: Place one hand below the breasts and the other on the sternum and gently pull the flesh in opposite directions. Then lift up by imagining that a pole that runs through the ears is moving toward the ceiling.

3. Old school: “Open the chest.” New school: “Widen the back” and “Breathe out into the arms.” Telling dancers to open the chest may lead them to pinch the shoulder blades together or splay the ribs in a sway back. Instead, students should use the back of the shoulders to anchor the arms.

4. Old school: “No chicken arms!” New school: Ask your students to fire up the triceps by lifting their elbows.  Tell them to imagine that the arms, in second position, create a ring around the back, with a sloping line extending from the shoulder through the elbow, wrist, hand, and fingers.

5. Old school: “Don’t grip your jaw.” New school: It takes practice not to grimace or tighten the jaw during difficult exercises. Challenge your students to part the lips as they dance; doing so softens the face and neck and unlocks the jaw. Take it to the next level by telling them to smile softly through the eyes. The image helps them relax and open the line of the head and neck.

6. Old school: “Don’t be so wooden!”  New school: Imagine that golden ring (see “Visualize”). In an adagio, tell the students to breathe out from the spine in opposite directions and reach the arms to second position starting from the armpits. Tell them to imagine that a drop of water is rolling in a smooth motion down the top of the arm to the third finger.


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July 2009
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