A strong core is the foundation of good technique. Dancers rely on the muscles surrounding the pelvis and spine for posture and aesthetics, as well as balance, stability and moving safely through tricky shapes and direction changes. Building and maintaining those muscles poses a constant challenge, and grunting your way through hundreds of crunches can be more torture than it’s worth.
“Dancers can rely on psoas muscles and bypass the abdominal wall when they do crunches,” says Irene Dowd, who teaches movement-driven anatomy/kinesiology classes at The Juilliard School. Crunches also work muscles concentrically, meaning they shorten them and bring the ends together, as in a Graham contraction. Dancers must also be able to engage the abdominals when they are stretched out in an arabesque. And crunches do not work the back, making the exercise, according to Dowd, “an incomplete use of those trunk muscles.”
Over the course of her 45-year teaching career, Dowd has developed an arsenal of core exercises that engage the entire torso safely and effectively. They are designed with the dancer in mind, strengthening muscles the way students use them in class and choreography. Here are a few of her favorites, demonstrated by Juilliard student Solana Temple.
To engage the abdominal wall: Starting from a tall standing position, hinge at the knees and lean back, maintaining one line from the knees to the top of the head. To increase the challenge, clasp hands behind the head and rotate elbows to the right and left, spiraling the spine to engage oblique muscles.
To engage the back: Hinging at the hips and allowing knees to bend, lean forward with a flat back. Clasp hands behind the head and press gently into the palms to engage the upper spine. Rotate the elbows for added challenge. The exercise becomes more intense as you approach a table-top position with the spine parallel to the floor.
To engage the abdominal walland back: Stand with your back lightly touching a wall or barre, hands clasped behind the head. Raise one leg to the side, keeping the heel against the wall or in line with the barre as the body hinges at the hip to lean over the standing leg. There should be a line from the gesture foot to the top of the head. Return to standing without breaking the line.
“Crazy Fish”: Named by Dowd’s students, this exercise engages the abdominal wall muscles without involving the hip flexors.
1. Lie on your back with feet flat on the floor and knees bent. Raise pelvis off the floor, and extend arms above your head with palms pressed together. Raise head slightly (hair should still touch the floor), and slide feet out as you elongate the hip flexors, straightening knees so only heels and upper back touch the floor. For added challenge and to protect and lengthen the spine, position a towel roll or foam half-roll under the middle of your back.
2. Begin bending the torso sideways, moving rapidly back and forth. The bigger and faster the movement, the more you work core muscles. (The Crazy Fish can also be done from the original bridge position with the feet flat on the floor and knees bent.)