In this blog, I’d like to explore the relationship between posture and dance and how we can train the body to be used in more efficient and aesthetically pleasing ways.
As a dancer and a person with an office job, I’ve experienced a lot of challenges with my posture, and come up with quite a few strategies for improving posture. Disclaimer, I’m not a doctor. This is purely for informational purposes only. Use anything herein at your own risk. I’ve used almost all of these methods myself to improve my own posture.
Lindy Hop’s roots are in African dance, from the forms brought over by Ashanti tribes, and dances from other regions like Kuku and Kassa. There are social traditions, like the ring shout and spirituals sung during hard physical labor, that have influenced Lindy Hop’s development. Some dance historians say that because of the history of those African based cultures being hunter-gatherers, the dance forms evolved in low, crouched, or grounded positions, with most of the movements connecting to the pelvic girdle. In opposition, ballroom dances find their roots in cultures where hunting was done horseback, in a more upright posture; thus the upright stance of ballroom diaspora, where the movements originate from the chest. Just as jazz music combines both European and African characteristics, the dance of Lindy Hop does as well. While we adopt the dropped posture, we also offset our bodies the way we do because of early ballroom traditions like carrying swords on the left side of the body. Jazz dance is a mix of that. We’re ideally low in our lower bodies, and upright in our upper bodies. However, it’s that bend that creates issues in posture.
When we Lindy Hop and use our body in a crouched, or grounded way, the hamstrings tighten. For many reasons, we often turn our gaze downwards, and our desire to reach stretched or lengthened shapes can elongate the muscles that pull the shoulders back. Working at a desk all day can atrophy the core muscles that keep our upper bodies held high while the lower body is bent. We need to make an active effort to reverse these tendencies.
So you might ask yourself if your own posture is ideal. Here’s a simple test. Stand in front of a wall, back facing said wall with your feet and body about 2 inches from the wall. Lightly fall back. Your buttocks, shoulders and back of your head should all hit the wall at the same time. If they do not, then you might have some room for improvement.
Another simple test is to stand “normally”, i.e. how you stand when you’re not thinking about making your posture nice, and see if there is more weight in your heels than in the balls of your feet. If you’re experiencing an uneven weight distribution, you might not be using your body as well as you could be.
Lastly, sore shoulders can be a strong indicator of holding your head too far forward. Your head weighs about as much as a bowling ball. For every inch it’s out of alignment forward, you’re putting tremendous strain on your neck muscles. That translates to very sore shoulders at the end of the day.
Now, what can you do? I’m going to cut to the chase and tell you the bottom line. Bad posture is much of the time a strong indicator that you could just be in much better physical condition. As the core strengthens, and the muscles of the body are brought closer to their optimal strength, you’ll find that your posture will often self correct. So, job #1, do a lot of physical conditioning, whatever that means to you. My favorite is Bikram yoga. Not only is it a great fat burner, a great cardio workout, but its specifically designed around healing of the spine, and restoring it’s full range of motion. Bikram is great for me, but it might not be great for you. It’s detoxifying, great for your cardio, great for your flexibility, but it’s not for everyone. You can learn more at http://www.bikramyoga.com/
So outside of the gym, there’s other things you can do to help your body help you.
When sitting in a chair, especially for long periods of time, make sure you push your lower back all the way in to the seat. No triangle of space between the chair back and your back. This will actually take stress off your body, and essentially allow you to “rest” those muscles so when you do stand up, they are more energetic for holding you up. Alexander Technique is where I learned this. You can alternate sitting in a traditional chair with sitting on a “Pilates” ball which will strengthen your core.
When you do have to sit in a chair which seems specifically designed to encourage poor posture (I’m referring mostly to airplane seats), you can roll up a couple of magazines or a newspaper, or a small blanket or towel and put it behind your lower back to encourage a more upright posture.
Treat yourself to a massage. But not for fun. Beyond relaxation massage there is a whole classification of body workers who specialize in restoring full range of motion to the body and helping you learn to move your body in ways that are most natural to your anatomy, but maybe not how you are habituated to moving. For instance, if you’ve worked at a desk a long time, your chest muscles (pectorals) will shorten. Much of this shortening takes place in the fascia, the outside connective tissue that surrounds the muscles. Fascia is a hot topic among athletes and body related professionals – read more about it here. Rolf technique is especially good with what’s called myofacial release. If you are interested in finding out more, the Rolf Institute maintains a list of rolfers. As a bonus, if you can find someone with experience in structural integration they can help you change a couple of your life habits that might be encouraging bad form.
To maintain openness in the chest, I do a stretch while working where I stand up, look straight up, open my arms out to the side, palms up, then pull them back as far as I can, feeling as much stretch in the front of the neck and in the chest as possible. In another variation of this you can find a 90 degree corner in a room, put your hands flat against the wall, and slowly move your body toward the corner, opening your arms out.
Visualize a wheel. Think of everything in the front of your body as flowing upwards, and everything in the back as flowing downwards. Stand up tall. Think about rotating the tops of your shoulder blades out, and the bottoms of them inwards. This (for me at least) often has the effect of causing my feet to point more parallel. Hold this, and now walk around looking 3 inches taller and way more confident.
Every evening before you go to sleep, stand in front of a mirror and pull your shoulders back as strongly as you can. Imagine squeezing a pencil between your shoulder blades, and hold for a 6 count, then release. Do this for 5 or 10 reps. It’ll shorten the muscles across the back and give them the strength they need to hold themselves in place under stress.
Go on a “posture walk”. Take a short (.5 miles or so) walk and have pointed concentration the entire time on keeping your posture in place. Not only is it invigorating, but it will rewire the neural pathways of your brain that wants you to walk in a slumped fashion.
Use a brace. Amazon has a lot of options, I’ve also seen them at various sports equipment suppliers. Wear these for a couple of hours at your desk, or while you sleep. They work wonders. This is just one example.
Today, we accurately use the phrase “there’s an app for that”…or rather several. Lumo Body Tech is a wearable device that vibrates when you slouch. As an added benefit, it counts steps and give you tools get in shape.
There are also some interesting apps called “mindfulness bells”. Some people use them for meditation. I use them in a way so that I remember to stand up when I hear the bell. Hat tip to Bobby White who gave me the heads up on this one.
Habit RPG is an app that helps you “game-ify” your life. All the things you want to do or work on in your day become a game. For those of you that need a little motivation, this can be a fun way to track your habits and add a little competition among your friends.
These are some things I’ve tried in the past, and when I actually do them, I see and feel a significant improvement in my posture. Feel free to share your tips and tricks in the comments below.