Sunday, 3 January 2010

The pointe of good posture

By Barbara Lantin
Published: 11:52AM GMT 12 Dec 2005

You don't have to be a ballet dancer to align your body correctly, says Barbara Lantin

When Simone Clarke, principal dancer with the English National Ballet, says that she has "terrible posture", I want to laugh out loud. Like all ballerinas, Clarke, who is dancing Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty and the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Nutcracker at the London Coliseum this Christmas, has a back like a ramrod and deportment to die for.

Good carriage is a sine qua non in ballet. It's not just that nobody wants to see a slouching swan or a slumping sylphide: an upright bearing is a sign that the body is in balance. And a body out of alignment is vulnerable to injury - especially when it is being put through the rigours of classical ballet on a daily basis.

"If dancers maintain a neutral posture, they are not putting the body under so much strain, and are less likely to sustain an injury," says the English National Ballet's chartered physiotherapist, Jackie Pelly. "Everything should be in alignment, from the feet to the head. You do not want to lean back or forward, or favour one side or the other."

Pelly believes the rest of us could benefit from a similar discipline, and has devised a regime, called Posture Pointes, that anyone from ballerina to bank clerk can use to keep the body balanced and the spine straight.

"If people did postural exercises, I think we would see far less back pain and injury," she says. "When you are in a slouch position - for example, at an office desk - your muscles contract, and you can develop muscle spasm. So at the end of the day, you cannot move your neck as far round as you could at the beginning. There is a lot of research showing that working on the big abdominal muscles can prevent back pain."

The first step is to put the body into alignment. This means distributing the body's weight evenly over the ball of the foot and the heel, and, when the knees are bent, having the knee-cap in line with the second toe. The pelvis is kept in neutral by drawing in the lower abdominal muscles, the shoulder blades are pulled down and in - rather than back, which can make them feel tight - and the head is held up straight with the chin in. "After a while, it all becomes second nature," claims Pelly.

All newcomers to the English National Ballet are taught this basic, postural alignment, though - unlike ordinary mortals - they are expected to perform their exercises on an inflatable ball, to ensure that they can maintain their posture under challenge from pirouettes, arabesques and jetées. They are also coached according to their body type, and for the role they are performing.

"Research shows that when dancers undertake a fitness programme for a specific ballet, injury rates drop markedly," says Pelly. "When we tried this on a four-week tour of Romeo and Juliet, they fell from the normal 30 or 40 to just a handful."

Clarke has never been injured, a blessing she attributes to a strong body and good luck. "I am not overprotective with myself, but I'm careful how I lift things - including my two-year-old daughter - and I wouldn't go on a horse, a motorbike, or an ice rink," she says. "I get aches and pains, especially when I am rehearsing a new part. I am now doing The Nutcracker and woke up this morning in absolute agony, as I am not used to the movements, but I know that will pass."

Clarke is careful to keep warm while working, because a body that is struggling against cold is much more susceptible to injury.

"We were on tour in Manchester the other week, and if I was dancing in the evening, I did not leave the theatre all day, because it took me much longer to warm up again after being out in the cold and damp."

Daria Klimentova, also with the ENB, knows how costly mistakes can be. After getting off a long-haul flight from Australia with swollen feet, she went straight to rehearsals in soft pointe shoes. "I felt something pinching, but I ignored it until I couldn't dance any more."

Klimentova had injured the bursa, a cushion between the tendon and the bone, in her heel, and needed an operation. She was off work for a year. "If only I had stopped dancing sooner, I might not have had to take so much time off. I listen to my body more now."

Jackie Pelly's 'posture pointes'

Do these exercises at least three times a day, but, ideally, every hour - especially if you spend most of the day at a desk.

Sitting at your desk, roll your pelvis backwards and then forwards, to find the neutral position, where you can feel your "sit bones". Breathe out, and contract the lower abdominal pelvic floor muscles by about 30 per cent - as if you were doing up a zip. Hold the position for 10 seconds. Repeat five times.

While sitting, shrug your shoulders to your ears, and then relax them, pulling the shoulder blades down and in. With your palms facing back, push back with your hands, until you feel your shoulders come into balance.

Breathe in, and as you blow out, push your tongue against the roof of your mouth. At the same time, elongate the spine by imagining somebody pulling on a hook attached to the top of your head.

Standing up, tighten your big abdominal muscles as you curl right down through your spine, touching the floor with your fingers if you can. Come back up gently by stacking the vertebrae on top of each other. (Do not attempt if recovering from a back injury.)

Sitting on your office chair, make sure your knees are bent at a right angle, and do not cross your legs, because this restricts blood flow. Place your feet flat on the floor; if you are wearing heels, use an angled footrest.

Keep ankles slightly forward of your knees. This will aid return circulation from the feet, and prevent you from leaning forward in your chair.

Ensure your lower back is supported. If your chair does not have a built-in arch, use a cushion, or a rolled-up towel.



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