How to Help Your Dancers Activate Their Core
August 19, 2022

“Core” is one term that is used frequently by dance educators and health-care practitioners.

To truly understand the core is to understand our anatomy in order to learn how to train it effectively, and then learn how and why we use our core while dancing. By understanding the ins and outs of core biomechanics, we can release our movement potential while also protecting our back.

The Anatomy of Our Core

Anatomically speaking, the core is a set of muscles that stabilizes the region between the pelvis and the rib cage. When describing the core, I often use the analogy of a soda can, since there is a top and a bottom, and it spans 360 degrees around. 

The top of our core consists of our diaphragm. This is why breath work is so intertwined with core work. Our diaphragm is a muscle that contracts to pull air into our lungs by creating negative pressure. The bottom of our core is made up of our pelvic floor. Our pelvic floor controls our bladder and bowel function, as well as supports our organs. (Note: all diagrams below are courtesy Kenhub.com.)

We have a set of deep, stabilizing muscles (the transversus abdominis and the multifidus) that supports our lumbar spine. These muscles protect our lower back when doing extremity movements. In fact, our core muscles even turn on before the muscles in our arms when we are performing movements like port de bras.

Our more superficial muscles make up the front, sides and back of our core (rectus abdominis, internal/external obliques, erector spinae and quadratus lumborum). These muscles act more like global movers, working in tandem to stabilize and move our trunk.


How to Engage Core Muscles

Core activation should be used when doing almost every step in dance, whether that is a stationary port de bras in the center or grand allégro across the floor. In the past, I have often used “belly button to your spine” as a way to cue core activation in dance students. More recently, I have switched to using imagery describing the hip bones moving closer together, as if you have a muscle connecting the two. Regardless of what verbal cue you give students, it’s important to test this with palpation (looking for tight muscles activated around the front, side and back). You want your students to turn on these muscles before doing any extreme movements, in order to protect their lower back.

Breath and efficiency are two important components of activating the core. It’s important that students not hold their breath while dancing, because creating or relying on intra-abdominal pressure to stabilize the lower back actually stresses spinal discs, which can lead to back pain and disc herniations, or even sciatica symptoms. Efficiency and percentage of maximal voluntary contraction (MVC) means that we want students to adjust the level of core activation based on the physical demands of each skill. Turning the core on 100 percent each time we move can lead to muscle strain and early fatigue. For instance, performing sautés during warm-up requires much less core activation than a turning switch split in class.

How to Condition and Strengthen Core Muscles in Class

Tip #1 Start with isometric holds and work towards movement—always being mindful of how we move during core training. For example, you may want to start with a side plank before adding a side crunch. By focusing on the stability and breath work involved with holding static positions first, we can bring awareness and control before adding concentric or eccentric load to that tissue. (Note: All exercises below are demonstrated by student Caitlin Wang).

Forward plank

Tip #2 Make sure you are including all three sides of the core in your conditioning classes. The easiest way to hit all three is to include some sort of plank variation, side-plank variation and crunch variation. Try not to overtrain the front of your core by focusing too much on crunches.

Tip #3 Avoid torque, especially with less experienced dancers. By “torque,” I mean rotation while the spine is under load. An example of this is performing crunches with a twist through the spine. This can stress our discs, and it doesn’t have enough payoff to warrant the cost–benefit ratio. Instead, I recommend doing pure side (lateral flexion) crunches if you want to focus on obliques during a series of crunches.

Side plank lifts

Remember: We want to train our dancers to approach core conditioning with both their bodies and minds. I like to explain to dancers what part of our anatomy we’re focusing on with each exercise. From my experience, I find that the more dancers have a thorough understanding of how their bodies work, the more intention and care they bring to the execution of movements and steps.

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