One of the first challenges to overcome in ballet is proper posture. This can be especially difficult for adults – unlike young children, our bones and joints are already fully formed, making us less flexible overall. Our lifestyles contribute to the phenomena of poor posture: we tend to sit hunched over and crunched up all day at keyboards and steering wheels, rarely allowing our spines to release or bringing our tailbones into alignment. Bad posture is known to contribute to a number of health concerns (this excellent article from the National Health Services in the United Kingdom highlights a few), and may even affect our life-span. As is reported in this recent NPR article, poor posture may be an element of our modern culture in the United States, contributing to discomfort and sometimes serious back paid as we grow older. As such, proper posture must be addressed before we can begin to move or dance.
Balletic posture requires that the body be held upright, with the shoulders squared, the spine properly aligned, the tailbone tucked under, and the feet balancing squarely on the floor. The chin is held parallel to the floor, and the top of the head is parallel to the ceiling. One phrase that is often used in ballet class is “feet under knees under shoulders” – meaning that all of these areas are in alignment. It is a trained posture, so it takes work to adopt and maintain balletic posture properly. Since ballet is performed in turn-out (with the toes pointed outward from the body), maintaining the proper posture is important to gaining access to the correct hip position. Turn-out is ALWAYS performed from the hip – not the knees! Posture is also supported by the core – the muscles of the abdomen, hips, glutes and upper thighs – which provided the dancer the necessary strength to move. Growing up, a phrase I often heard from my ballet teachers was, “A dancer’s strength is in her core. A dancer’s dream is in her feet.” By working on our posture and engaging the core muscles, we improve not only our stance, but our overall fitness.
Correcting poor posture requires mindfulness about our bodies and how we move in space – our personal carriage, sometimes called body comportment. In class, we’ll work on exercises to improve posture and balance, especially using the barre. But beyond class, you can work on improving your posture by taking a moment to check in with your body – are you slouching? Are your shoulders hunched inward? Is your chin sticking out? Can you comfortably take a deep breath?
I love this video featuring the very accomplished British ballet mistress, Deborah Sims. In it, Ms. Sims addresses all of the little checkpoints of posture – alignment of the spine, placement of the chin and shoulders, contact between the feet and the floor – and asks her students to mindfully modify the way in which they are carrying their bodies. It isn’t a difficult task per se – the challenge is to make it instantaneous and instinctual: one in which we engage without thought from the minute we put our feet on the ground.
Creating a habit of answering these internal questions and making a few small corrections can go a long way towards improving your posture, even when you’re not in the studio.