I was sitting in a circle at a dance workshop, and people were sharing their experiences and asking questions that came up during the practice. We talked about rhythm, tension, the role of eyes in confidence, power postures, self-defense moves. I was stretching and listening and truly not being there in my role as a movement teacher, and then a question snapped me out of my student state of mind.
“Do you guys activate your core when you dance? Do you hold it to turn it on?”
I didn’t know what the teacher would say, but I looked around the circle and most women were nodding and sharing their experiences of how they do it. The teacher gave a dynamic explanation of how she connects the ribcage to the pelvis that I thought was beautiful, but still left it unclear.
Should we? Shouldn’t we? Are we missing out if we are not?
In “Redefine your core” and “Bulletproof your low back” in our latest book, we talked just about that concept – that fitness and exercise culture have for the longest time told us that we need to “tense” or “activate” certain muscles, completely ignoring their reflexive function. While reconnecting to a muscle and regaining motor control after surgery or injury may require a conscious effort, people walking in and out of a dance class or a gym are way outside of that phase of healing. So why are we still doing it?
Picture this: you want to have strong and muscular shoulders – do you just keep your arms stretched out so they can work? Do you walk with your shoulder muscles on all the time? Why not? Other than the obvious bumping into things if your arms were out, you wouldn’t be able to do anything else – like lift an object, or swing your arms by your side when you walk to stabilize your spine!
Instead of the silly example above if you want strong shoulders you do some push ups and pull ups, you climb and go on the monkey bars, you lift appropriate weights for your strength and endurance level, you give yourself time to rest. You would never walk around with your arms out, so your shoulder can “activate”. They why do we do it with our bellies?
The muscles of the core are essentially all the muscles that are not your arms and legs, as it’s impossible to separate your pelvic floor or deep hip muscles from the function of the abdominal, low back and chest muscles. But let’s just say, for argument’s sake that most people perceive the core as the rectus abdominis, internal and external obliques and transversus abdominis. When you “activate” your core – what do you do? Try to do it right now as you are reading this? Are you bracing like you are about to take a punch? Are you pulling in like when you exhale all your air? Are you lifting up, belly button elevating to your chest? Are you flexing and tilting your pelvis? Lifting your pelvic floor? What is “activating the core” to you and how do you do it?
See – if we put 30 people in a room and ask them to activate their core, we’ll probably get 30 different combinations of muscle actions and tension, each learned, remembered and practiced by a different body. Each promising strength, protection, and performance. But are you getting those benefits?
Opposite to what you might have taught yourself, however you activate your abs, there is a way in which your brain is constantly monitoring where you are in space. There are infinite combinations of movements and joint angles, each happening under the force of gravity and ground reaction force. When you are moving your body’s 360 joints are changing in three dimensions with every breath and every reach of your arm and every step. Your complex core system is adapting to your breath, the position of your organs, and all the movements happening within your body in response to what you are doing and what kind of an environment you are doing it in. Your muscles all over the body, including your core, are there to respond. Read that one more time.
There to respond.
Now if you pre-tense and ask your abdominal muscles to be tight or activated in a certain way that you have taught yourself, are they available to respond? Not so much…
Within the context of dance we are changing direction, and the eyes, hands, feet, pelvis and torso lead in infinite possibilities of directions. We yield, push, pull, reach and grasp with infinite rhythms, relating to other bodies, the ground, textures, emotions and our complex human history. Do you think bracing your core allows for your full expression or are you limiting your strength, performance and expression? By now you probably know.
So the next time you go to a dance class, or even just now, relax your core. Take a few breaths and feel how it responds. Stand on one foot and feel how your core tightens to stabilize you. Lean back and notice how the rectus and back extensors work together to support your spine, and feel and grasp that they know how. And hopefully as you get out of the way and start to trust your core again, you will find that your body doesn’t need someone to tell it what to do, it just needs you to provide the environment so it can be with you as it’s been designed in ways more marvelous and perfect than a human mind can even conceive of.
Are you a passionate dancer? You might love our podcast with Monica Volkmar, a movement and dance educator we deeply admire.
Do you want to do more for your body and restore its natural function in a fun, yet conscious way: get our Every BODY Moves home study course, complete with somatic meditations, anatomy explorations, morning workouts, a rich library or movement breaks and lessons on natural movement and modern ergonomics. Really, our richest library of movement we’ve ever created!