One of the most popular “buzzword phrases” that I hear today is “You gotta use your core!” Everyone knows that “the core” (also known as “the center”) is important in dancing, but I find that many people really don’t understand what it means to use “the core”.
Firstly, let’s talk about what “the core” is. Your abdominal wall is made up of 5 major muscle groups: the rectus abdominus, exterior and interior obliques, the lower abdominals, and the transverse abdominus. The rectus abdominus is the muscle group that runs from your sternum to your pelvis and the muscle fibers run vertically. This is the muscle that most people try to use when developing their core. It’s the most visual, being the one where you get your “six pack” and look really sexy and trim. I see so many dancers doing a gazillion crunches in an effort to make their core stronger. Problem is, the rectus abdominus acts as a shield that protects our organs and even though it is an important muscle group, it is not a stabilizer for the spine. In fact, if your rectus abdominus gets too strong and out of balance it can adversely affect your posture (which for a dancer is detrimental). Those who regularly perform crunch and situp exercises for their core and nothing else often demonstrate forward head posture. You see, as the rectus abdominus becomes chronically shortened, it pulls the chest downward increasing the First Rib Angle which will also bring your head forward. Not good!!
So, I would like to address the importance of a deeper abdominal muscle called the Transverse Abdominus, (TVA for short.) The TVA is the deepest abdominal muscle and it’s muscle fibers run horizontally. The TVA connects to the spine through the connective tissue so when it becomes activated, it pulls on the connective tissue which in turn pulls on the sides of the spine which then stabilizes the spine. When the TVA is activated it acts almost like a girdle cinching your waist. The problem with the TVA is it is a lazy muscle and not always easy to find! If the other muscle groups are strong, they basically try to take over the job of the TVA and the TVA goes on an extended vacation. Developing the TVA is crucial to finding and maintaining postural stability. Also, because it is an important stabilization muscle, it also helps to prevent injury and back pain. There are many ailments that can be directly related to a weak TVA including hip pain and malfunction, shoulder pain, knee pain, neck pain, balance issues, uncoordination, etc. Often times, the ability to tap into the TVA and making it do its job is all that is needed to correct a variety of issues that may be affecting your ability to dance effortlessly.
So how do you identify the TVA? One of the best exercises for this is an exercise that I learned from my kinesthetic and postural education at the CHEK Institute called the Four Point Tummy Vacuum. To perform this exercise: 1. Assume a position kneeling on the floor with the knees directly under each hip and your hands on the floor directly under you shoulders. Make sure that you keep a neutral spine which means that you should have a very slight, natural curve inward of your lumbar spine (lower back). 2. Now, take a deep breath and allow your tummy to drop towards the floor. 3. Exhale and draw your naval towards your spine as far as you can. It is crucial that you do not allow the spine to move at all! Otherwise you are just flexing your spine and not using the TVA at all. You may want to have a partner watch you to make sure that you sure not cheating. 4. Hold for 10 seconds. 5. Now inhale and allow your tummy to drop to the floor. 6. Repeat 10 times.
Once you have mastered this on the floor, you now need to learn to do this in a standing position. You may progress from the floor to a shortstop position, meaning standing on your feet with your knees slightly bent, hands on your knees and your body at a 45 degree angle to the floor. Again, make sure your spine is in a neutral position as you inhale sending the belly out and exhale pulling the naval in.
After that, you need to bring yourself into a standing position with good posture. Stand against a wall with your heels, hips, upper back and back of head touching the wall. Make sure your spine is in a neutral position. To check the amount of curvature in your lower back, you should be able to just barely slide your hand through the space between your lower back and the wall. If there’s a huge space and your hand goes through freely, you have too much curve and if there’s no space, you don’t have enough curve. (I’ll be writing about these issues at another time). Now, inhale and let your belly hang out. Now exhale, drawing your belly button in, but do not allow the curve in your spine to change. Hold for 10 counts and begin again. Perform this exercise 10 times.
Now that the correct muscle has been identified, it is possible now to learn how to “use” it! The TVA is the major link that connects the upper body to the lower body and all movement begins from the core. When your body and posture are stabilized, movements become free and easy without the need to over activate other muscle groups to try to find stabilization. It is a relatively small movement and correction in the core, but it is a powerful correction that can make a huge difference in your dancing!