Monday, October 8, 2007

Alignment for Dancers—Part Two: Scoliosis and Supporting the Pattern

In Part 1 of this article/audio combo, we addressed the lumbar, thoracic and cervical curvatures of the spine, which are vital to our ability to support ourselves in standing. Some of us, in fact many of us in dance, struggle with an unnatural curvature of the spine, which is called scoliosis. This is a lateral (or sideways) curvature that usually includes some degree of spinal rotation. For dancers, scoliosis is an imbalance at the very core of the body that can lead to unnecessary tension, overcompensation and, eventually, pain.

Scoliosis can result from structural issues, such as a leg length discrepancy. It can also develop due to functional or habitual issues, such as poor posture or always carrying a heavy bag over one shoulder. Over time, these issues can lead to permanent structural changes in the spine. While we can’t do anything to change our skeletal structure, we can take steps to minimize further deterioration by addressing the shortening and tightening of the muscles on one side of the torso that accompanies a scoliosis curvature. In dance, the tendency for correcting such an imbalance would be to stretch the shorter side and strengthen the chronically lengthened side. In a Feldenkrais®-inspired world, we take a completely different approach.

As counter-intuitive as it may seem, it is possible to bring about dramatic changes in the body by a teaching strategy that Feldenkrais practitioners call supporting the pattern. It is based on the premise of starting with an individual’s strengths. In dance, we often use the word “strength” to point out positive aspects of a dancer’s technique. In this context, “strength” refers to those patterns strongly evident in the individual’s body and movement—even if we think that the pattern is wrong, or not to the individual’s greatest advantage. In dealing with an individual with a shortened side, for example, instead of trying to stretch out the shorter side, the strategy would be to make the short side even shorter. We would support the pattern.

What is really exciting about this approach is the way it triggers something within us—within our brain, nervous system and body. By supporting the pattern, we set up the conditions whereby the nervous system can detect patterns of neuro-muscular activity that are not useful and shut them down. Within just a few moments the individual can usually feel their ingrained pattern begin to shift: a short side suddenly lengthens effortlessly, for example. I think of this strategy as a kind of circuit breaker for the mind. If our body and movement patterns are the result of neurological impulses, and by supporting the pattern we take over the work of the muscles being impacted by the neurological impulses, the brain quickly realizes that it no longer needs to transmit those impulses. As the neurological firing quiets, the muscle contractions triggered by those impulses release and the mal-adaptive pattern is dissolved.

Although I am framing this teaching strategy of supporting the pattern around working with students with scoliosis, there are many applications where it can be effective. But let’s try a short Feldenkrais-inspired movement exploration that will help you to feel what I am talking about. Once you have experienced the sensation, I think you will be able to utilize the strategy with your own students, with great results!

© Andrea Higgins 2007

Click here for IntelliDANCE Podcast: Lesson 2

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