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Where Am I (in space and time)

by Sandi & Dan Finch

Most dancers don’t think too much about getting out of bed in the middle of the night or walking across a grass lawn. You can do it without thinking, yes? Yet those seemingly simple occurrences require a complex system within the body to work together to keep you upright. It’s called “balance,” and we all take balance for granted…..until something disrupts it.

Merriam-Webster online dictionary has 183 synonyms and antonyms for “balance.” By whatever name, balance is an essential part of every day life, and unquestionably necessary for dancing.

And, even here, Covid strikes again. Dancers who have not been dancing much during the pandemic may find they have some lightheadedness or concentration issues upon returning to their old dance schedule. That’s because lack of use may have disrupted part of their natural balance system. The good news is, you can get it back in most cases.

Balance depends on information received by the brain from your eyes, ears, and muscles. When any part of that system is disrupted -- either by illness, injury, aging, or even non-use -- you may experience dizziness, fatigue, lightheadedness, or concentration difficulties.

EpuiTestSome doctors understand this and don’t dismiss complaints about dizziness among our age group as “just aging.” In Southern California and many other areas, you might be able to be referred to a physical therapist who has a machine that uses “computerized posturography,” like the one at right, to diagnose the source of balance problems. It is called the EquiTest System. You stand on a pad inside its telephone booth-like equipment. As the pad moves slightly, the machine tests your reaction, reading impulses from your heel and the ball of your foot.

If this sounds space age, it is. NASA needed this kind of machine to measure astronauts’ equilibrium on return from space, according to NASA Spinoff. The inside of the International Space Station is designed to give astronauts the illusion of being upright, with uncluttered “floors,” lights in the “ceiling” and equipment packed onto the “walls.” NASA said astronauts experiencing weightlessness learn to use their eyes more than their other senses to establish orientation, and it takes as much as a week to re-adjust when back on earth.

How do the feet figure into this? It goes back to an astronaut who ignored warnings to avoid sports on his return from the space station. He joined a game of basketball with his son. All was well until he went for a jump shot and didn’t know “how I was going to get down.” He had become disoriented as soon as he lacked information from the bottom of his feet, according to NASA.

One of our Southern California dancers recently experienced the EquiTest machine. He had been told his dizziness was occurring because he was just getting older. Some physical therapists offer gait and balance training to minimize the problem, and a few can do more than just provide exercises. Those with access to “the machine” can spot the source of problems to pinpoint treatment. Asking not to be named for privacy reasons, our dancer was referred to a physical therapist in Irvine who had one of the machines. The machine showed he had a “disconnect” between his brain and his inner ear. It may have been there before the pandemic, but lack of use made it worse. The test also showed enough of the connection existed to be corrected through exercise.

Interestingly, this is the same machine that Peggy Roller, a Southern California dancer, physical therapist, and Cal State Northridge professor, teaches physical therapists around the country to use.

Balance relies on impulses coming to the brain from your eyes, inner ear, and joints, muscles, and even skin (called “proprioceptive” information). Cues from the foot indicate sway relative to the standing surface and even whether that surface is hard, slippery, or uneven. The inner ear tells the brain about motion and equilibrium. Light striking receptors in the eyes tells the brain how you are oriented relative to other objects.

The brain measures all that information against “learned” information about your world. A person becomes disoriented if the sensory input received from one of the sources conflicts with what is received from the others. Higher level thinking and memory though can override the sensory input, according to the Journal of Vestibular Research, 2006, and based on all that, the impulses from the brain back to the organs and muscles can allow a person to maintain balance.

Lack of sleep, some medications, viral infections, and illness (stroke, low blood pressure) can cause balance issues. Eating less salt, drinking plenty of fluids, and exercising go a long way in preventing balance problems.

Babies learn to walk through practice, as impulses from the senses to the brain and back to the muscles create learned pathways. It is also the reason dancers should practice -- to build neural pathways so that more difficult ways of moving become automatic. If a problem develops with one of the senses, the balance system can reset and relearn.

Don’t undertake any exercise program without medical guidance, but for those interested in how our dancer began correcting his disconnect problem: Try walking a few steps in a straight line but look to one side and then the other, or stand on a foam pad and close your eyes (being sure to have something to hang onto close by). Sounds easy, until it isn’t.

From a club newsletter, May 2022, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, June 2022. Find a DRDC Finch archive here.


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