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An Old Idea Is New Again -- Posture

by Sandi & Dan Finch

You never know where you might find a good idea. Inspiration struck this week in a pile of 40 year old dance magazines. That was the era when Joe and Nancy Jenkins were our undisputed United States professional dance champions, when Al Franz (Memory) was competing but not yet placing in the top 5, and Jeanette Ball was competing as an amateur. You may not recognize those names but they are among today’s competition judges and respected, sought-after coaches.

The inspiration came in an article called “The Secret of International Dancing,” in the July 1973 issue of the United States Amateur Ballroom Dance Association newsletter. The author wrote about his search for the secret after being told by an eminent English teacher on tour in Los Angeles that none of the local dancers had been taught correctly. Yet another English coach—then number two in the world —also on a coaching tour in Los Angeles, made a similar comment, complaining that Americans danced with “agonized bodies.”

That coach’s solution: pick yourself up by the ears. A great visual, and he actually meant it. The article quoted him as saying to reach up and take hold of the top of your ears, pinch them and twist them until they hurt a little, even turn red. When you let go, you are aware of them. Then, without hands, stretch your ears (think neck) straight up just as high as you can get them using muscles in the body. “This is what happens,” quoting the coach Michael Needham, “the head will go up and back, the shoulders will relax and come down, the chest will be high and ladies this will give you a beautiful bust line, the shoulder blades will flatten and you will have a beautiful back, the tummy pulls in, the pelvis will turn forward, you will be standing in lightly flexed knees, on the balls of the feet with heels lightly on the floor and most important your weight is forward in the direction you want to go.” Ladies will not fall backwards causing their partners to clutch them to maintain contact, and partners will have contact at the base of the ribs. The higher the ears, the lighter and more flexible the body becomes.

The author claimed he asked three more world champions coming through Los Angeles that year for their secret—and got a similar answer. Bill Irvine, many times world champion, told him he visualized picking up the body by the mastoid area, which is just behind the ears.

You don’t have to be on the dance floor to practice this idea. Sit, walk, stand, thinking of pulling up your ears anytime during the day. Keep your chin down, head level, eyes looking slightly above the horizon, not at the ceiling. You will have great posture, and it just might make your dancing better.

Slouch At Your Peril

Experts say correct alignment of the spine and body affects how we feel as well as how we function. Slouching is actually bad for your health and your mood. We do it all the time, spending so much time sitting at computers, looking down while texting on our phones (causes the shoulders to hunch), sitting in bucket seats while we drive (where our derrieres sit below the knees). Looks like mom was right when she harped on standing up straight.

Whatever the cause, fixing our posture is not a quick fix. One of my (many) therapists over the past three years lectured me on how to sit at the computer, where to put the mouse, how far the monitor should be and at what level. You don’t want to strain forward to see the monitor and you don’t want to look down at it. The mouse should be at the level of your arm when it is parallel to the floor. Your ears, shoulders and hips should still be in alignment while sitting. Sounds easy, but doing it requires constant vigilance.

Poor posture resulting from too much computer work actually has a name: kyphosis (from Greek for “hump”). You know it by shoulders hunched forward, chest (pectoral) muscles tightening, neck and head extended toward the screen and the spine no longer in vertical alignment.

The Wall Street Journal valued this issue highly enough to feature it on a section front page this summer. Strangely enough, the description of good posture in the WSJ is much the same as we espouse for dancing: Ears over shoulders, shoulders over hips, hips over knees and ankles. Amazing, we work so hard to dance that way, then we walk off the dance floor and slouch into a chair and look down to use the cell phone.

How we sit, stand and or walk is training our muscles to respond in that way. It is also affecting our mood. The WSJ reported a German study of 30 patients in treatment for depression. They were told they could sit up or slouch as they were shown words on a computer. Half of the words were positive— like ”beauty”, “enjoyable”, and half were negative—like ”exhaustion”, “dejected.” They were asked to imagine themselves in a scene reflective of each word. Then they were distracted with other tasks for five minutes, and then asked to recall as many of the words they had seen on the computer as they could. Those in the slouched position recalled more negative words, while those who sat upright had a more balanced response. In a 2012 study, 110 university students in California and Taiwan were asked to rate their energy levels, then walk in either a slouched position or like skipping, then rate their energy levels again. The research, reported in the journal Bio-feedback, concluded that those who slouched reported a decrease in energy levels, while those who skipped felt an increase in energy. Maybe if we imagine a waltz or sexy west coast swing as we go through our daily lives, we can help our bodies and minds pull it all together when we aren’t on the dance floor.

Go Ahead, Stick Your Neck Out

Much of what is beautiful about dancing is an upright carriage of the head and shoulders finishing off the picture of elegance and grace. When the head is in the wrong position while dancing, it interferes with your partner and pulls the rest of your body out of balance. A pretty head position comes naturally to some, but it’s possible for anyone with a little exercise.

We know we want our head balanced on top of the spine, not tilted back in a wrong attempt to get “that look” or chin pointing down while looking at the floor. Either shifts your head weight to be out of balance. You should feel as though your neck is being stretched upwards by someone picking you straight up by the ears, and you want to imagine that the back of your head is lined up with your heels. This will stretch your neck up over the spine and keep you from looking down.

To get an awareness of what your head is doing, try a few exercises. Stand comfortably, feet parallel, and bend the head forward looking down, stretching the muscles on the back of the neck. Raise the head and look straight ahead. Now flex the head backwards, looking up and stretching the muscles on the front of the neck Repeat these eight times each, being careful not to move any other part of the body, particularly the shoulders. Now twist the head strongly to the right and return to starting (neutral) position, then twist to the left and return to neutral. This will help you make head changes from closed position to semi and back more smoothly.

You need relaxed shoulders to carry the head well. This means toned, not slack or rigid. Some isolation exercises of one shoulder at a time will help you feel how to control shoulder movement and give you an awareness of what your shoulders are doing. Start by pulling the right shoulder forward, then return it to normal position. Then, push the shoulder backward and return to normal position. Raise the shoulder and drop it back to normal position. Rotate the shoulder in a circle, starting forward then down and back and to normal position. Reverse the circle, starting back an down. Repeat all the exercises with the left shoulder, then try them with both shoulders at the same time.

Watch in a mirror as you raise your arms out to the side, almost to shoulder level. The shoulders should remain relaxed, not raise up or feel cramped. Bend your arms as though taking dance position and there should be no change in shoulder elevation. Repeat several times until it becomes natural to take position without shoulder strain or tenseness. [When you extend your arms up and to the side, feel like you rotate your shoulders back and down and then roll your elbows forward and up. This will engage opposing muscle groups so that your arm is light when on your partner’s arm and you will have the tone to maintain your frame.]

From club newsletters, March, October, & December, 2014, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, March 2017.


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