"If you are an Oriental dancer and you think you need to study ballet in order to improve your posture, maybe you should read this."
By Tania Luiz (Degree in Dance by the Faculty of Human Kinetics, Lisbon and Diploma in Personal Training by the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America).
“I need to take up ballet in order to improve my Oriental dance posture.”
“Her Oriental dance is so beautiful that you can see her ballet training.”
I have heard both comments many times, the first usually coming from advanced level students and the latter is usually from non-dancing aficionados.
These comments have always baffled me, but before I start debating the reasons behind my surprise, allow me to introduce myself. I have been doing Oriental dance for 23 years and dedicating myself to it professionally for the last 20. After many years of teaching, I became curious about fitness as I experienced a burnout (unexplained fatigue, slow recovery, weight loss, lack of motivation) from too many hours of teaching and performing. Soon after that, I became a certified Personal Trainer and overcame being burned out. I also studied posture, breathing and alignment with Hatha Yoga and Theravada meditation (a basic meditation in many Buddhist traditions). Recently I concluded a three year university degree in Dance which included studies in Anatomy, Physiology and Kinesiology (the science that studies human movement). All three disciplines related to what I’m about to discuss.
Let us now analyze the two statements above and what lies behind them. What follows is purely my opinion, based on my dance experience and study.Let us now analise both statements above, and what that lies behind them.
What follows is purely my opinion, based on my dance experience and study.
"I need to take up ballet in order to improve my Oriental dance posture."
This statement implies that the study and practice of Oriental dance is not enough to develop a correct posture. As if posture is somehow overlooked in our art form, therefore the need to develop good posture through the study of another discipline. I will discard the possibility of good Oriental dance training being the cause of bad posture, for reasons I believe to be obvious. This statement shows the speaker’s bias: their belief that the posture employed in ballet and the movements that emanate from it are somehow more aesthetically appealing or possess a better alignment and kinesiologically more correct than Oriental dance. But the ballet posture has some inherent flaws in it too, due to the desired aesthetics. It is sadly true that some unqualified Oriental dance teachers are not fully aware of the importance of good posture and alignment and therefore they do not focus on it while teaching. However, a good Oriental dance teacher will tell you that Oriental dance is based on our body’s natural posture and alignment and that is why people can study this artform at any age. Here is the human neutral anatomical posture, the posture used in anatomy:
Figure 1: the human anatomical position
So, what is good posture? What about the posture in Oriental dance versus ballet posture? What are the differences? Are they both healthy?
A correct alignment means that if you are looking from the side, your ear should be in line with the center of your shoulder, which is then in line with the point where the femur (great trochanter of the femur to be exact) inserts itself in the pelvic bone. Then finally all this is in line with the round bony protuberance on the outward part of the heel (lateral malleolus). Basically: ear to center of the shoulder to the center of hip and down to the heel.
Figure 2: The plumb line method of checking posture
The correct posture and alignment for Oriental dance.
The basic position we use in class and what I and so many teachers say over and over again is: “The feet are parallel and hip width apart.” Actually, a more correct way to describe this is that the feet should be the width of the iliac crests which are the protuberances on the upper part of the pelvis. If we place our hands firmly around our waist, and then let them slide down slowly, the tips of pur fingers will soon touch the iliac crests.
Figure 3 shows exactly where these are:
Figure 3: the iliac crests
The pelvis should be in a neutral alignment or very slightly “tucked in.” Note that the pelvis is capable of anteversion (being sway back where the “butt sticks out” behind you) or retroversion (where the pelvis is severely tucked under). Neither extreme is healthy (should be adopted as the basic alignment during any physical activity, except some Pilates and yoga mat exercises). The middle posture is neutral and correct for Oriental dance. It is quite common in Oriental dance to find people who have an accentuated hyper lordosis in the lumbar region and we often call this being “sway back.” This posture is glamorized in photos of fashion models. People who sit all day at a desk, are particularly susceptible to this. People who are hyper lordotic need to learn how to do stretches towards a retroversion of the pelvis in order to counteract and correct this and they need to work on their abdominal strength.-pelvis in neutral alignment, or slightly “tucked in”. The pelvis is capable of doing retroversion and anteversion which is shown very clearly in the figure bellow:
Figure 4: First drawing shows anteversion or "butt sticking out",
neutral alignment in center, retroversion on the right (pelvis "tucked in")
It is quite common to find people who have an accentuated hyperlordosis in the lumbar region. These people really need to understand how to do the retroversion of the pelvis in order to correct it, and to work on their abdominal strength.
The shoulders should be down and relaxed. The shoulder girdle is the set of bones that connect the arms to each side. Students will often come to you with their shoulders lifted up or pressed down, rounded or excessively pressed back. Some will hold their shoulders in an uneven way due to always carrying things on one side. The good Oriental dance teacher must coach the students on an individual basis to correct this. The neck should be long and the chin tucked in very slightly (not thrusted forward or pressed back too much).
As we dance, we push forth from this posture into many other dance positions and we travel and spin. But these basics are the foundation of a good Oriental dance posture and alignment and they must be respected: a neutral pelvis, a neutral shoulder girdle, a long neck and chin properly placed. This should ensure a healthy and correct posture. If the student needs more intervention, Pilates and yoga are excellent options for aiding in postural corrections and providing the strength and flexibly to achieve these corrections. I believe that seeking out ballet for an improved Oriental dance posture is a misguided approach.
We use other dance positions, we do travel steps, we spin, but some basics have to be respected: neutral pelvis, neutral shoulder girdle, long neck, chin tucked in.
Now, this is enough to ensure a healthy and correct posture. If it isn’t, Pilates and Yoga seem like the best options for postural correction (and weight trainign which I explain further down).
The thing is, seeking Ballet for an improved posture seems to be an illusion somehow.
The posture of ballet:
Professional ballet dancers must begin their training when they are very young in order to achieve the turn out of the legs and the other unnatural postural demands of ballet. Starting young the flexibility training is important, but the turnout comes from the hip joint, where the femur inserts itself in the pelvic bone, and it depends a lot on genetics too. Old school techniques and cruel teachers forced the student’s feet outward, when that must come from the top of the leg.
Point shoes must be started around 12 and/or following an Xray showing the level of bone maturation. Many girls started at 8, 9 and as adults have deformed feet and a lot of pain.
The excessive outward rotation of the hips is neither natural nor healthy and causes imbalances in the thigh muscles. Their feet are turned outward towards the corners and even in walking, they continue to be turned out. Many of them experience incredible pain and the women sometimes dance on fractured bones in the feet. Our bodies were not made to walk on the points of our toes (en pointe) and there are 26 bones in the foot that can break as well as tendons that can tear. Many dancers lose the natural curves of the spine. Even children are told to lose weight and the adults also struggle to maintain a thin but muscular physique. Lifelong professional ballet dancers are plagued with problems that are painful, dangerous and require therapy later in life.
In a 2016 study, Ribeiro et al, studied a population of 19 classical ballerinas aged over 15 years of age, with at least 5 years of uninterrupted classical ballet practice and concluded that:
“The results presented here allow us to conclude that the practice of classical ballet promoted changes in the alignment of the head, trunk, shoulder girdle, and pelvic girdle, as well as the vertebral curves of the ballerinas in our sample. However, the sample size limited the extrapolation of the results to the general population, Nonetheless, this study pointed out the need for physiotherapeutic intervention aimed at postural reeducation in order to contribute to the kinetic-functional balance of classical ballet dancers.”
Ballet is clearly a very demanding dance style that requires some “unnatural” positions, and a determined, resilient physique that can endure its hardships. Of course, a dancer can look beyond health and decide that aesthetics alone are a worthy goal because this dance is so exquisitely beautiful and holds a fascination for the participant as well as the viewer. I am quite sure that the people who recommend the study of ballet for Oriental dancers were not intending for those dancers to become professional ballet dancers. It would be impossible to achieve that without starting as a child. They are referring to the improvements in posture and overall health that they assume belong to ballet alone. The speaker is fascinated by the aesthetics of that dance and the assumption that ballet is somehow a better form of postural training. But we can see that ballet training is very demanding in terms of posture and alignment, with rules of its own, that doctors and physical therapists would never refer to as healthy, normal, desirable or therapeutic.
The fascination with ballet explains the second statement: “Her Oriental dance is so beautiful that you can see her ballet training.”
This speaker misinterprets the grace, the beauty and the feeling exhibited by the Oriental dancer as based in ballet. This is most often said by a westerner who does not fully understand or accept the culture, history and aesthetics behind Oriental dance. Their eyes are still accustomed to believing that the academically driven approach to classical ballet is the standard of ALL dance training. This is the posture and look that they revere. Oriental dance, especially the Turkish style, has a very “down to earth” feeling with fast and big moves and an unapologetic sensuality. This western speaker may be further biased that this and all forms of Oriental dance should not be associated with a “proper” dance form. Let’s face it, Oriental dance still has a long way to go to gain recognition as a peer in the dance world. And even in the countries where Oriental dance is traditional and an integral part of the culture, we see another kind of prejudice, but I will leave that discussion for another article!
There are many professional Oriental dancers and teachers who teach correctly, who are knowledgeable about posture and alignment, who have researched Oriental Dance and beyond. They know that this dance is historically most often taught in an informal context, rather than an academic one. This is a traditional and folkloric dance that did not even come to the public stage until the 1920s in Egypt and Turkey. The good Oriental dance teachers learn as much as they can from every source they can find. These are the teachers that students should seek out rather than following a teacher because she is friendly, pretty or performs well. Unfortunately, there are many unprepared teachers, who may be great performers, but simply do not know how or what to teach. Dance schools who employ Oriental dancers alongside of other dance forms, should also look for experience and credentials. Resumes and bios should be checked by students and school employers to know what their future teachers can and cannot offer. It is imperative that Oriental dance teachers seek information and training in order to explore the full potential of this dance, and to be able to impart the rich artistic, therapeutic, cultural and social aspects of Oriental dance to their students.
How to help the dancer who still feels that there is something “lacking” in their training or dance…
Diversify your training. If there are dancers, teachers or students who feel that “something is lacking” in their training, many times it is a lack of strength. Strength training has many different aspects and methods, and is not simply pumping up with heavy weights at the gym. Weight training (either with weights or just using one’s own body weight) develops an excellent level of muscle mass, muscle balance, core strength, overall balance and stability. And yet, increasing strength is one of the most overlooked aspects of Oriental dance training. A lack of overall strength can lead to poor abdominal strength as well, which is another cause of an incorrect posture.
Yoga and Pilates are also great for correcting postural issues. If a dancer is experiencing a lack of stamina or cardiovascular power, any aerobic activity can improve this (whether dancing, brisk walking or even jogging, but these activities are usually done with different levels of intensity, which affects the rate at which cardiovascular improvement will occur).
I recommend having a doctor, osteopath, chiropractor or physiotherapist observe you standing, sitting and walking to let you know how your posture is and what your needs are.
“Dancers are the athletes of God.”
This wonderful expression is attributed to both Martha Graham and Albert Einstein. Regardless of who said it, I must say that professional ballet dancers are amongst the world’s most beautiful and astonishing beings. Their sacrifice, dedication and hard work is written on their bodies but it comes at a high price. Only recently are they, their teachers and academies being helped by experts who are coaching them to eat correctly, to rest well and to use safe weight training in order to compensate for imbalances, to prevent injuries and to extend their careers. For the common human being, however, it is not a therapeutic dance. That being said, if you really love it and must partake of it, do your best to keep up with both art forms in the safest possible way. It will be a curious challenge to maintain a healthy coexistence between these two languages converging in the same body.