NDEO’s Guest Blog Series features posts written by our members about their experiences in the fields of dance and dance education. We continue this series with a post by Donna H. Krasnow and M. Virgina Wilmerding. Guest posts reflect the experiences, opinions, and viewpoints of the author and are printed here with their permission. NDEO does not endorse any business, product, or service mentioned in guest blog posts. If you are interested in learning more about the guest blogger program or submitting an article for consideration, please click here.
Dance training is at the heart of the art form of dance. All dancers can recall the teachers who had tremendous influence on their growth as young dancers and artists. The science known as motor behavior – an umbrella term for motor development, motor control, and motor learning – is having a stronger voice in helping teachers and dancers develop to the top level of their skills and artistry. Motor development is the study of ongoing changes to movement abilities that are common to all people, and it looks at these changes through all the stages of life. These changes are both progressive, meaning that one skill builds on the next, and irreversible in a healthy population, so that once a stage of development is reached, it does not disappear. This blog will cover motor development with a specific focus on balance, defined as the ongoing loss and recovery of equilibrium during dynamic movement.
There are three anatomical systems that contribute to balance, the visual system (the eyes and visual cortex in the brain), the vestibular system (receptors in the inner ear) and the proprioceptive system (receptors in muscles, fascia, tendons, ligaments and joints). In the early developmental years, birth to 5 years old, the visual system is dominant. Integration of the three systems occurs between the ages of 4-6 years old, and this can be a time of inconsistency and experimentation with balance. The period after integration, the ages of 7-10 years old, is an optimal time to challenge the systems to develop more sophisticated balancing skills. This can include working with the head off the vertical as in some dance forms and improvisation, attempting simple balances with the eyes closed, and easy turns and spins. These tasks reduce the influence of vision and can enhance the brain’s ability to make use of proprioceptive input, especially when vision is limited, such as dim lighting.
A second major challenging time for balance is the period of adolescence, between the ages of 11-18 years old. This is the time when growth spurts can occur, usually earlier for girls than boys. During these growth spurts, many changes occur including long bones growing faster than the surrounding muscles and connective tissues, and proprioceptive adaptations which can cause the young dancer confusion about limb length and center of mass. These changes create potential deficits in flexibility, coordination, and balance. Additionally, there can be psychological stress about these perceived regressions in skill. It is important that teachers explain to the students what is happening and that these regressions are temporary. It is an excellent time to work on conditioning, especially core work which can contribute to better balance, and artistic focus, since too much focus on technical skills can create frustration. It is also an opportunity to work on body awareness and mindfulness, and somatic practices can be introduced to the dancer’s training regime.
Teachers can choose to challenge balance in other ways that are less traditional than what is commonly done in dance classes. They can work with dim lighting, which can simulate stage conditions. Dancers can be asked to close the eyes for material that does not travel in space, and even attempt simple balances and shifts of weight with the eyes closed. In terms of traveling without vision, partners can guide each other in movement through space with light touch. Teachers can provide times for working on uneven surfaces, such as mats or wobble boards, which in particular challenges proprioceptive information from the ankle joints. In fact, there are three different strategies for maintaining balance or re-gaining lost balance: ankle strategy, hip strategy, and stepping strategy. The ankle strategy is the most common and occurs in minor shifts of weight off the support base, whether one or two feet. The muscles that function at the ankle make the adjustments to recover equilibrium. In larger shifts, the hip strategy takes over, and occurs as the muscles functioning at the hip joints react to create equilibrium. And finally, when the shift of weight is so large that neither of these strategies is sufficient, the person will automatically take a step to retain balance.
It should also be noted that there are two major categories of balancing mechanisms called anticipatory and reactive. With anticipatory control, dancers know that the balance is coming and can prepare for it, such as doing a passé at the barre on relevé and then letting go of the barre. With reactive control, the dancer does not know that the challenge is coming, such as another dancer coming too close and disrupting a dancer in a balance. Both types should ideally be included in dance training, to prepare for every possibility.
For dancers and teachers who would like additional information on motor development, control, and learning, the book Motor Learning and Control for Dance: Principles and Practices for Performers and Teachers by Donna H. Krasnow and M. Virginia Wilmerding has a special focus on this material as it applies to dance. It covers all three areas of motor behavior and was published by Human Kinetics in 2015.
Donna H. Krasnow
had an extensive career as a professional dancer, choreographer, educator, researcher and author. She is a professor emerita and senior scholar in the department of dance at York University in Toronto, Canada. In 2016 she was presented with the National Dance Education Organization Outstanding Dance Researcher Award, and in 2018 she received the Healthy Dancer Canada Lifetime Achievement Award.
M. Virginia Wilmerding danced professionally in New York City in her early professional career, and is now a research professor at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, New Mexico where she teaches for both the exercise science and dance programs. Post photos by Jake Pett.