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 contribution by Kendall Baab, MSc., a Personal Dance Trainer and Dance Scientist. 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.
Do you ever have a dancer that you just can't figure out how to teach? They can't increase their turnout, they can't lift their leg higher, and they can’t stay on a high relevé. No matter how many corrections you give, it just doesn't seem to work. They’re the same age and experience level of another star student in class, so why aren’t they keeping up? After several months, you start to get frustrated because it seems like this student isn’t practicing on their own like you’ve asked.
I’ve had a few teachers ask me about this issue with their students and why it happens. Some of the common explanations to this problem are that the dancer is being lazy or that the dancer isn’t understanding the concepts being taught in class. This might be the initial thought, but it’s not always the correct answer.
These obstacles that the dancer is experiencing in class are often related to structural limitations in their body. Their turnout cannot be increased further because the head of the femur is anteriorly rotated in the hip socket. They struggle to lift the leg higher because they lack the necessary strength in the quadriceps. And they are having trouble going to their highest relevé because their ankle/foot dorsiflexors are tight and they have little movement happening at the talus bone.
If those explanations threw you for a loop, let me explain. Yes, your main job is to teach dance, but if you understand the structure and movement patterns of the human body, you are better able to analyze movement and assess your dancer through a scientific lens.
A study by Hui Dong (2017) sums it up perfectly: “Dance anatomy not only presents body structure for dance learners, but also allows dance learners to identify the role of each part of body in dance training and guides them to understand the mystery of (the) body so that they can pay special attention to protect their sensitive and vulnerable parts and reduce body injury effectively in dance training process.” This research study was focused on teaching anatomy to dancers themselves. However, the study of anatomy can be a career-changing educational tool for the teacher as well. With a deeper understanding of anatomy, you can help your students succeed while keeping each of their limitations in mind. With your knowledge, your student can progress more efficiently in their dance technique.
An easy way to incorporate anatomy in the dance classroom is by using anatomy terminology to describe your choreography. Instead of saying, “walk forward and backward,” you can say “move in the sagittal plane.” Instead of saying “straighten your knees,” you can say “engage the knee extensors in your battement.” When these terms are sprinkled into your teaching, it creates an atmosphere that is not just scientific, but hopefully inquisitive for the students. Allowing them to ask questions about their bodies will help cultivate a positive mind-body connection.
A study on experiential anatomy in dance classes used a great progression for their 9-week dance curriculum course to integrate a non-threatening approach to anatomy in the classroom. The researcher chose one body part per week to explore and discuss with their students, and the aim of the study was to allow students to “gain a deep understanding of their individual differences and how their body works best” (Salk, 2005), which is ultimately how we want to teach dance – embracing the individualism in the classroom and allowing students to be safe and succeed in their own body.
This quote from Salk’s research demonstrates the general results that were achieved when introducing the scapula, rib, and shoulder girdle in class- a direct result of the intricate self-observation of the human body:
“The scapula, rib, and shoulder girdle explorations have an almost immediate impact on the way students use their arms and torso. They incorporate the torso more and the arms do not move as if they are separate from the body. There is a sense of connectivity throughout the body” (Salk, 2005).
Rather than focusing on multiple body parts at once, Salk organizes the body parts into 9 categories:
- Week 1: Whole Spine
- Week 2: Individual Vertebrae
- Week 3: Scapula
- Week 4: Hip Socket
- Week 5: Knee
- Week 6: Ankle/Foot
- Week 7: Tibia and Fibula
- Week 8: Rib Cage and Sternum
- Week 9: Shoulder Joint
You can bring this same concept into your classroom. Even if it’s not discussed in depth, you can bring attention to this body part during technical skills. For example, if you are teaching a plié, you are not solely focusing on the external rotation at the hips. You can suggest that your students look at the alignment of their ankles and knees to better support the hips in an externally rotated position. In a plié, students can also think about the position of their pelvis. If it is anteriorly rotated, they may not be able to access as much turnout as they could if their pelvis is neutral.
For some students, they may be experiencing these new sensations for the first time. Different parts of the body work simultaneously, and it can be hard to focus on one body part at a time. A secondary muscle group is always opposing or supporting the main muscle group that is performing the desired action. How can your students feel that opposition in their bodies? How can they feel the stability that another muscle group provides to the body? Students are often thinking about the big picture. They copy the positions of the teaching body, but they may not always tap into their own bodies and think about the individual body parts. For some students, this may be completely new. And for some, it can completely change the way they approach movement.
By using this progression in your own dance classes this semester or choosing your own parts of the body to explore, you can introduce anatomy to your students slowly and ensure that your students are thinking about these concepts while practicing dance technique or learning choreography. If dance anatomy is of interest to you, I suggest continuing your education and diving deeper into the human body to help your students succeed with their technique and to help you become a resourceful and well-educated teacher. It will truly have an impact on yourself and your students.
Kendall Baab is a Personal Dance Trainer and Dance Scientist located in Los Angeles, CA. She earned her BA in Dance Science from California State University Long Beach where she trained in ballet and modern dance, and a MSc in Dance Science from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London, UK where she completed dance science research involving perfectionism and self-efficacy in online dance classes and trained in contemporary dance. Kendall is a NASM Certified Personal Trainer and a BASI Certified Pilates Instructor with a dance specialization. She is also a Certified Health Coach through Dr. Sears' Wellness Institute. Kendall works with dancers all over the United States on strength, conditioning, and flexibility to enhance performance and prevent injury. Learn more at https://bodykinect.org.
Headshot by Adrien Padilla.
Dong, H. (2017). Discussion on Application of Dance Anatomy in Basic Training Classroom of Chinese Classical Dance. Proceedings of the 2017 4th International Conference on Education, Management and Computing Technology (ICEMCT 2017). 2017 4th International Conference on Education, Management and Computing Technology (ICEMCT 2017), Hangzhou, China. https://doi.org/10.2991/icemct-17.2017.231
Salk, J. (2005). Teaching Modern Technique through Experiential Anatomy. Journal of Dance Education, 5(3), 97-102.