On October 7th 2018 I attended the Body Control Pilates Development weekend held at The Royal College of Physicians in London. Around 480 teachers gathered to attend a selection of over 28 lecture/classes from presenters from around the world. I attended a warm up class given by Sian Marshall who owns a studio in Chobham - hard core! Interesting use of the power ring and Pilates arc (which I have purchased and is making its way to the studio soon), fantastic for spinal extension and also some gruellng abs work ... Next was a 'Best of Nathan Gardiner' focusing on the importance of the gluts (squats are sooo in) and then a reformer session with Cara Reeser from the US. Cara's teacher was a pupil of Joseph Pilates so it was a fascinating insight into variations of exercises I hadn't come across before. It was also eye wateringly hard! Lastly I worked with another distinguished American lady Elizabeth Larkham on the reformer, focusing on rotation. I quickly got the gist of recording exercises on my iphone, so I have still a wealth of new stuff to decode and pass on. The Development Weekend is hugely exciting, and it is great to know you are up there at the forefront of the Pilates exercise development. I have just about stopped aching and can't wait to make you do the same! - Viki.
I'm always so pleased when Dave is accompanying my pupils at Northern ballet. He is absolutely brilliant, and the dancers find an extra something when he is playing for the class. - Viki.
David's CDs are available online (search for 'David Plumpton ballet music'). This photograph is from Planet Dance Direct, which sells a selection of his CDs and gives a short biography.
Sleep is integral to your mental and physical health. Matthew Walker demonstrates without doubt that it’s key to optimum physical health, performance and self-healing. Studies of cultures who sleep well reveal that they don’t get cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's, heart disease... Matthew has tips to help you break bad habits, and I for one and sleeping better since reading this book. - Viki.
'Why We Sleep' is an international bestseller, available from most bookshops.
Humans are the best ultra-runners, which is thought to be why we survived the Neanderthals. We are the only mammals who can regulate breathing independently of running speed. This is a fascinating study of the Tarahumara tribe, the best of the best ultra-runners, and an inspiration for runners and Pilates students. - Viki.
'Born to Run' is highly recommended, and is available from most bookshops.
Grace Horler wrote the following article about her life on the day of Saturday April 14th 2018. The photograph is from the Scottish Ballet website - click for more information about their current productions.
On Saturday morning – because it was a show day – I had a little bit of a lie in and, as usual, was quite tired! During performance weeks you go to bed much later than normal as after curtain down you have to shower, you have to eat, and you might have to sew more shoes or watch TV to wind down a bit. When you come off stage you are so excited and full of adrenalin, the last thing you want to do is to lie down and go and sleep! Our show ‘Highland Fling’ is high energy, the first half is a lot of characters, a lot of acting and energetic movements as you are meant to be in a night club. You have to approach it as if you are on a night out with your friends – which is a lot of fun!! And you can put your own twists on the character you play. When the choreographer Matthew Bourne came to see it recently he said how pleased he was to see it so fresh, with new people in the roles. Everyone interprets them a little bit differently and puts a bit of themselves into it too. In the second act we are these gothic sylphs – these creatures from another world, and you need to give it a lot of energy to project these supernatural beings who work in a pack to actually kill the main character, James. It’s very empowering! We are about to take this piece to The Highlands of Scotland to smaller venues, so we have doubled up the parts so that the same dancers do both acts. This means that whilst the audience are sipping their interval drinks, we are running round like headless chickens backstage painting ourselves completely white and changing our wigs and costumes. You don’t have a moment to sit down and feel tired!
For breakfast I had Weetabix cereal with a banana and of course a good old cup of tea. We got to the the Edinburgh Festival Theatre for class at 1115, which takes an hour and a quarter on show days. We always have class on stage when we are performing. We all approach class differently when we are on tour. At home in our own studios you use class to push yourself – maybe go for that extra pirouette or to jump that bit higher, and if it goes wrong and you fall over you can think – oh well maybe tomorrow! But when you have 2 shows you have to be more sensible. The tours can be very long – we do 2 months before Christmas, so you have to preserve yourself and wrap up warmer as it is often colder on stage.
I then had 2 hours to get ready for the show, so I put on my big warm tracksuit to keep my muscles warm and had my good solid snack which I had brought in with me. Then it was makeup and wigs and costumes. I did another short warm up before the show – if it’s a more contemporary piece I need to get down into my legs a bit more.
The show went well - I really enjoyed the Saturday matinee! It was a completely new cast so there were a lot of first show nerves and excitement. I had to channel my energy as you can get too excited and sometimes you have to rein it in. I did a completely new character in Act 1 – she is a bit of a madam and a trouble causer so I had the joy of being her for the day! It’s funny seeing people in coloured wigs completely different from their own hair for the first time.
After the matinee it took about an hour to get off all that white paint and to wash my hair. Then we went out as usual between shows to get some fresh air and to some ‘lunch’ even though it was about 5.30pm. On show days your whole eating pattern gets shifted back. We always try and get a good meal then as close as possible to the theatre – I had pasta as I was starving! It was a different cast for the evening show but I still had to go back at the half to check that everyone who does my parts were ok – thankfully they were as my Mum had come up to see me all the way from Windsor. She looks after my cat whilst I’m on tour! So I spent the evening with my Mum. When you first start being on tour it’s like being jet lagged as the days are so long and you go to bed so late. My Mum was ready for bed at 11pm but I was still buzzing so we compromised and went at midnight!
We have such an exciting time coming up with the tour around The Highlands – I love exploring Scotland and want to see more of it, and we are also going to Hong Kong, Macao and Seoul. I’ve not been to that side of the world before so I am really looking forward to it.
Viki has been training students and dancers on the reformer at Northern Ballet for the past 12 years and has seen huge improvements in their core strength, their muscle balance and their stability - and therefore increased confidence and the freedom to move and dance. She wrote an article about How Pilates Helps Dancers, published in three instalments in the June/July, August/September and October/November 2017 issues of German-based magazine Dance for You.
The excerpts given here are an inspiring new way to think about posture, balance, breathing, stretching and co-ordination, core stability and scapular stabilisation.
Core stability lies at the heart of the Pilates technique and is probably the area from which dancers, and indeed all high performing athletes, benefit most.Unlike most gym training, Pilates advocates the use of the transversus abdominus by performing abdominal exercises in the ‘neutral spine’ position, and not flattening the back into the floor when prone. These stabilizers are one’s core strength, allowing the body the ability to move limbs and load without disturbing the whole, a hugely efficient way of conserving energy, therefore leaving more for endurance. The stronger rectus abdominus plays its part in torso flexion but as an agonist, can work to 100% capacity, but will quickly tire. Although a ‘6-pack’ look may be some people’s goal, the female dancer markedly needs a leaner line. The use of transversus gives the abdomen it’s most drawn in position. The Pilates refrain of “Breathe in wide and full, draw the navel to the spine, exhale keeping the stomach in’ whilst a movement is being executed begins compiling this inner strength which is not quick or easy to achieve. My established Pilates class of 15 years (comprised of mainly mature ladies) have far greater core stability than my new 19-year-old recruits to the Graduate class at Northern Ballet Academy! The true test of the simple ‘Double Knee Fold’ – the ability to raise the 2nd leg to the chair position without a hint of a stomach bulge – soon reveals the absence of the ability to recruit transversus on it’s own. For a supporting muscle, it has to be remarkably well toned to hold the weight of the leg without help from it’s friends. This single exercise certainly rebuilt my centre after a Caesarean section, so I know it is perfectly possible to go from zero to hero with time and training.
This is an area in which the advanced dance student will more easily excel than the general public, where those who spend much of their work time in sitting position will invariably have problems. However, the correct recruitment of the stabilizing muscles for the scapular must not be overlooked in dance training in the quest for seemingly effortless pors de bras. The neck needs to be free and relaxed with the shoulders held down in place whatever else is going on with the rest of the body. The stronger activists, the upper trapezius in particular, are always eager to kick in to hold the shoulders from above (very evident in office workers where bad sitting posture over-stretches and weakens the stabilizing muscles with the tendency to spend long hours round shouldered in front of a computer with the head jutted forward). This, however, is still common in dance students who struggle with their posture (so most of them!) or have tightness across their pectoral muscles, so Pilates exercises can help them find the correct muscle recruitment to facilitate their scapulohumeral rhythm and thus free their pos de bras. This is especially necessary to avoid strain in the upper body area when put under pressure by increased aerobic effort required for more demanding enchainment, particularly sustained allegro work. Classical ballet also calls for the shoulders to be firmly down in place when the arms are elevated above the shoulders (for example 5th position) which is an unnatural kinaesthetic action for the body, therefore muscle engrams have to be entrenched in order for this to be second nature.
Both male and female dancers require tremendous physical strength in their upper bodies for pas de deux, whose choreographic contents are becoming ever more challenging and extreme. I recommend taking all your Pilates tools with you in to the fitness studio to face those weights, as you need to be assiduous in your scapular stabilization to avoid injury.
Without perfect posture it is impossible to achieve full potential of flexibility and freedom of movement. Ballet is especially warped in its 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 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.
The Pilates technique advocates breathing wide and full into the back, maximizing the capacity of the lungs by gently stretching the intercostal muscles between the ribs. The use of a theraband wrapped around the torso then held securely in one hand usually highlights the amount of chest expansion in normal breathing activity. By pressing the ribcage outwards wider and fuller against this resistance on the inhalation, the breath capacity can be increased.
Dancers need maximum oxygen intake for energy, power and performance with minimal neck, shoulder and abdominal disruption, so the Pilates method suits perfectly. The tendency to breathe into the upper part of the lungs only mars the neck line, and breathing into the stomach is also aesthetically displeasing. Air intake can also be increased by practising holding the ribs wide (as expanded by the in-breath) whilst breathing out – a strange sensation, then on the next in-breath, refilling the lungs and inflating even further. Breathing will become easier and deeper and more effective.
Drawing attention to the breath can also be enormously beneficial to those breath holders who, either through fear or overload of multi-tasking, fail to take much air in at all during their solos, with the resulting retching or panting loudly in the wings (during what is nearly always an ensuing quiet bit of music), being somewhat disquietening. Obviously, anatomically, the more consistent and the larger the oxygen intake the better the body will perform at maximum output.
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 so often a dancer is 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.
It is essential for dancers to be co-ordinated. Many believe lack co-ordination to be a lost cause, but not necessarily so.
Co-ordination is one of the Pilates’ principals, and all exercises right from the beginning basic mat work, demand co-ordinated movements of the limbs, and by repetition improvement is achieved. By building these muscle engrams block by block the body assimilates co-ordination, and whilst this ‘learnt’ form will never replace the natural one it does a good job, with enough recurrence and concentration, of coming close. Lying prone, sliding the opposite arm and leg out along the mat seems easy enough, but the skill in achieving departure and arrival of differently weighted and sized limbs will prove problematical for the uncoordinated client. These calm simple Pilates drills can begin to prepare the way for the simultaneous action of pors de bras and leg movement in plies or ronds de jambes a terre for example, commencing and finishing their separate pathways in satisfying togetherness. Harmony in whole body movement is not only visually pleasing for the onlooker, but also efficiently rewarding for oneself.
Keeping muscles pliable and responsive and maintaining maximum joint mobility is part of the Pilates philosophy. Dancers also require an unnatural greater length and stretch in some muscles to achieve high extensions.
There is of course now copious advice available on varying methods of stretching thanks to the requirements of high-level sports performance which dancers can now tap in to. Briefly, these comprise Passive stretching, Dynamic and Active Isolated Stretching prior to activity, and Neuromuscular Stretching after activity. Pilates recommends the mantra of little and often Passive Stretching, holding the stretch constantly for over 30 seconds (to desensitise the stretch reflex) which then allows the muscle to relax. You cannot hurry a stretch! You also need to be warm or to warm up before stretching, cold muscles are not prepared to be elastic. Working the opposing muscle group hard is also very effective in releasing tension in it’s partner, as is contracting hard in a non-movement capacity against force. For dancers the use of props to either push against or to hold the extreme positions are extremely useful – therabands, rollers, even the wall, allowing the body to eventually relax and give in to greater elongation. The more often the body is called upon to ‘assume the position’ required the more it will adapt – although of course age will place restrictions on this. Ligaments and cartilage do not like to stretch and it is very important that these are handled with care, whereas tendons, as part of muscle attachments and with a better blood supply, can be encouraged to give.
The effectiveness of Pilates has long been recognised by the medical profession. The Body Control Pilates Association are now starting to work more closely with the NHS, with the initial focus on Low Back Pain.
Four short exercise videos have just been posted on the NHS YouTube channel: click on the image or link to try them yourself.