Article and Photos by Viki Westall-Eyre
During my 17 years as a professional ballet dancer, firstly with London Festival Ballet and then as a principal artist with Northern Ballet, I had vaguely heard about ‘the Pilates thing’ as a complementary exercise therapy. I later discovered that when Joseph Pilates set up his original studio in New York, devotees George Balanchine and Martha Graham regularly sent their students to him for training and rehabilitation, so in America a strong link between the two methods of training has existed for a very long time.
However, it wasn’t until I had retired from the stage and embarked upon a teaching career that, wanting an official qualification, I decided to discover more. I was initially somewhat taken aback by the length and intensity of training to become a Pilates instructor. Body Control Pilates, my training body, demanded a 2 week intensive course, numerous exams both practical and anatomical, and 50 hours of supervised teaching before you could even get started. Despite this, the more I learnt the more interested I became, and now, 18 years later as a matwork, reformer and student supervising teacher I am continuing to broaden my knowledge, and find it impossible to count the number of times I’ve thought – “Why didn’t I know this when I was a dancer?’
Pilates makes complete anatomical sense. From rehabilitation to top level sports enhancement, it works. I have been running classes in my home town since the year 2000, and have seen the difference it has made to my clients, their posture, their pain, their performance, their confidence and their ability.
I have been training students and dancers on the reformer at Northern Ballet for the past 12 years and have seen huge improvements in their core strength, their muscle balance and their stability (and therefore increased confidence and the freedom to move and dance).
The Pilates regime and classical technique have so many things in common, and over the next few issues we will be discussing ways in which Pilates can enhance the training in these areas.
Without perfect posture it is impossible to achieve full potential of flexibility and freedom of movement. Ballet is especially warped in it’s demands for all movements to be performed in an unnaturally turned out manner, which, unless executed in perfect posture and within the limits of a dancers’ natural facility, can be seriously detrimental.
The Pilates mantra of posture set up – equal weight on all parts of the feet, knees in line with the 2nd toes, tailbone down, hips in ‘neutral’, ribs soft and relaxed, openness across the chest and shoulders, long back of neck and especially the image of a helium filled balloon attached to the crown of the head all translate across to dancing posture.
It is the last cue that is so vitally important, the ‘lift’, the length, the creation of space between all the joints that makes all the difference. Once a dancer can make that space, can lift the pelvis off the heads of the femurs, then true free turnout can be achieved, and greater flexibility found for the whole body.
Having the pelvis tucked and the gluteal muscles over engaged to achieve the ‘feeling’ of turnout rather than lifting off the legs and wrapping around with the smaller rotators will result in the adverse effect of blocked movement and reduced ‘diamond windows’ in the demi plie. The knees will now not be over the 2nd toes and sooner or later whilst attempting allegro injury beckons!
In early training classical turnout beginning with forcing the rotation of the feet can also have an adverse affect on posture, with increased lordosis, over extended ribs and rolling or collapsed arches. Far better to have the body correctly stacked and to work to gain muscle strength to increase rotation than to force and set up for injury.
Controlled breathing is integral to the correct execution of all Pilates exercises. We teach clients to breathe ‘wide and full’ and into the back, expanding the rib cage sideways with no movement in the shoulder girdle or abdominals. Many people find this difficult to do at first, but with practise the intercostal muscles stretch facilitating a greater volume of air intake. For dancers it is also vitally important that the effort of aerobic exercise does not interfere with their core stability or neck line, and of course increased lung capacity has a direct effect on power sustained. Audiences do not want to see strain or unsightly panting! In Pilates the ‘out’ breath coincides with the recruitment of transversus abdominus – the sensation of the drawing down of the lungs accentuating that of the drawing in of the abdominals.
BALANCE AND PROPRIOCEPTION
The ability to balance results from correct posture, the requisite amount of muscle recruitment, and also our sense of proprioception. Exercises for the latter are a valuable addition to a dancer’s skills, usually involving simple standing exercises with the eyes closed. It is remarkably difficult to rise smoothly without the information provided by sight, and yet how often is a dancer blinded by sidelights as they spin hopefully around a stage. Our proprioceptive senses can be improved very quickly by such simple methods, and tuning in to your awareness of your body in space is vital to balance. It is so easy to block this natural facility by ‘trying too hard’ and not listening to your body.
In the next issue: