CategoryTechnique

Imagery and Visualization for Choreography

I have always been fascinated with the process of choreography, actively seeking out connections between pole dance and other forms of movement. For me, the elements of choreography for the pole, aerial, or floor routines, should overlap. Incorporating narrative is important, as well as including motifs and themes. These help the dancer communicate with the audience as well as tie the whole routine together so it is much more than just a sequence of clever tricks and poses.

I recently came across Wayne McGregor from his TED talk and hearing his ideas about choreography just blew my mind!

Dancers from the pole and aerial community talk about “combos”. Thousands of videos are all over social media, linking tricks together in familiar or innovative ways with the change of leg or hand or direction around the pole. Hundreds of questions flood pole discussion groups asking how to link poses – what do I do after a superman? – any tips for my leg hang to ayesha transition?

Creating smooth combos is an essential part of creating a routine, but listening to Wayne McGregor opened up an entirely new way of thinking about movement and what comes together to make a dance.

What struck me is that he didn’t talk about poses, but about movement. Rather than stationary shapes connected with transitions, he uses spatial language and direction to inspire dance. Sometimes he places an imaginary object in the room and asks the dancers to move around it, to trace it’s shape, go under it, or respond to it changing. The eventual dance may have familiar shapes and poses but how they were created and how they flow together becomes a unique collaboration between the choreographer and the dancer.

When we work on a spinning pole we are essentially holding a shape and allowing the motion of the pole to accentuate our movements. The language of pole dance can be limiting as we think about choreography as a sequence of poses – climb, straddle, scorpio, butterfly. Even for floor work, movements can also become quite static, one pose to the next, even if they are choreographed to the rhythm of the music. Naming poses is useful, especially to help us communicate choreography with other dancers, but it should be remembered that this is not the only way to think about movement.

What if there were other elements on stage to inspire your movement? Real props, or imaginary ones, can fill the space and will influence the way you can move around it. If there was a box in the middle of the room, you could leap over it, dance around it, or even pick it up and dance with it!

I first heard Kristy Sellars talk about giving the pole in your routines a character or status, which offers similar possibilities. Think of the pole as a lover, or an enemy, and explore how you might respond to it differently, in the way you touch the pole, walk around it, or dismount from it.

Using these ideas will change the way you enter a pose and move through it, or may inspire a new shape or movement all together. Rather than your combos looking like everyone else’s, your dance will become uniquely you.

I highly recommend watching Wayne McGregor’s TED talk and taking inspiration from his ideas about dance, choreography, movement, and expression. We all have movement habits and it’s easy to let muscle memory and familiarity take over. Adding imagery and visualization to your choreography will help you break these movement habits and dig deeper into your creativity. For those who also feel uncomfortable with freestyle, these exercises can also be a great starting point to exploring new movement and inspiring a new direction for a routine.

I created a simple dance flow with a scarf to explore the prop vs no-prop concept. A small dance was recorded with the scarf and then repeated without it, attempting to recreate the movements as closely as possible.

This clip could be worked on and polished for accuracy, however the point of the exercise needs no more clarity. What amazed me was how the eventual choreography would never have come about without the experimentation with the scarf in the first place. Sure, I could have danced and imagined I had a scarf in my hand, but the result is a completely unique flow that emerged from my body interacting with the scarf in the first place. My body learned “the dance” so to speak and could then repeat it for the second take.

These experiments may never become a final dance, but they do teach us something about the way we move in relation to our environment, and how to inspire new movement through the use of props, imagery, and visualization.

I’d love for you to share your experiments too! Tag me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram with your videos!

 

Reflecting on Fundamentals

A lot has changed in my dance practice in the last year. Without access to a pole I am in a position to discover other ways to dance, to move, to create, and to express myself. More recently, however, I am finding that underlying all of my new discoveries on lyra, silks, yoga, chair dance, and even life modelling, is a layer of fundamental movements.

In many ways I am a beginner again. Five years of pole dance prepped my body for other aerial arts but each apparatus requires new techniques and new revision. I’ve found myself in a process of coming full circle and actually enjoying relearning many foundations of movement.

Noel Burch talks about the learning cycle offering four stages of learning. Rather than thinking of learning as a liner process – not knowing —> knowing. the four stages can be viewed in a cycle. This allows you to adapt to new skills and information that may support or refute what you may know already. Your skills in relation to pole dance and aerial arts do not exist in a vacuum, putting you forever in motion of learning, relearning, revisiting, and mastering.

“The Four Stages of Learning suggests that individuals are initially unaware of how little they know, or unconscious of their incompetence. As they recognize their incompetence, they consciously acquire a skill, then consciously use it. Eventually, the skill can be utilized without it being consciously thought through: the individual is said to have then acquired unconscious competence.” (Wiki)

Let’s think about this in relation to a pole class. The first time you ever walked into a studio you were probably in a state of unconscious incompetence – unaware of the skills and concepts you were about to learn. After a few classes and watching some inspirational dancers, you may progress to conscious incompetence – that overwhelming feeling where there is so much to think about when doing pole moves, everything feels way harder than it looks, and the inevitable question, “when will I ever straddle?”

Gradually, through persistence and regular training, some skills become less difficult. You feel consciously competent – pole dance offers you so much joy and you find endless street poles to show off your new tricks!

The fourth part of the cycle is unconscious competence. An area where things have become familiar allowing muscle memory to take over. You can spin, invert, and dance with a sense of grace and letting go.

Learning does not stop here though. In my case, I took up lyra and silks and although I still remember how to straddle, I have had to consciously revisit the basics. Assuming that my pole dance experience was going to let me just start doing crazy advanced aerial hoop tricks was quickly leading me down the road of developing bad habits.

For instance, knee hangs. Very similar to our trusty outside leg hang in pole, but also very different. What muscles should I be engaging to hold me up? When placing my leg, where should the contact points be?

Interestingly, instead of be being frustrated as I waver between conscious incompetence and conscious competence, I have found that I am really enjoying the process of relearning. And my body is thanking me for it, remaining injury free, and continuing to become stronger and more flexible. I am also learning how to make moves less painful as I revisit how to engage my glutes, and hamstrings rather than just trust that my bent knee will stop me from falling to the ground.

I have found support in instructors like StudioVeena who stress the importance of learning proper technique and focusing on fundamentals. Veena’s Teaching Manual is a fabulous resource for both students and instructors.

She states –

“As instructors we need to remember that every level of pole dance can be fun, improve physical fitness, and provide emotional freedom and expression”

Returning to the basics does not just have to be repetitive drills and boring shapes. Learning about muscle engagement, correct alignment, contact points, and how to use your breath should all be part of each and every move you learn on the pole, or other apparatus. Taking your time to learn slowly, also offers you space to listen to your own body. How did your shoulders respond to that pole hold? Do you need to work on coordination and balance to refine your fireman spin?

My journey into training my goofy side was probably the first step I made towards revisiting the basics. So many pole holds and spins were now muscle memory (unconsciously competent), but to successfully complete the move on the other side meant re-entering the cycle and starting again, albeit with a bit more strength and a lot more knowledge.

Where do you find yourself in the learning cycle? If you have just completed a course or term in a pole studio, you may be resting a the top of the cycle – unconsciously competent. Enjoy it! Fly with freedom and relish in your new skills and learning. But also be aware that as a new term starts the process of learning will start again. Frustrations may brew as you feel like a beginner again but strong foundations are your key to further success!

Saturday Laturday!

At some point, pole dancers and aerialists will begin to see their upper back and shoulders becoming stronger and larger. Racer back tops and sleeveless dresses are now the norm as we cater to our growing lats, shoulders, biceps, and traps. Our bodies are stronger because of pole, yet many women question if their growing lats are something to be proud of or something to cover up.

So, in the spirit of embracing strong women, it is with great pleasure that I introduce #SaturdayLaturday! Show off your lats to the world and support women growing stronger – inside and out!

Just like #sundaybumday, and in the spirit of training safer and stronger, let’s look more closely at our lats, how they work to support us upside down, and how you can keep them injury free.

In the diagram you can see that the lats are the muscles that wrap around the middle and lower spine, extending up through the armpit. They insert on both shoulder blades and the upper arm at the humerus.  Their full name is “latissimus dorsi” which basically translates to “broad muscles of the back” – latissimus = broadest, and dorsum = back.

The lats connect and support movement through the spine, ribs, sacrum, and shoulder blades. Every time you lift you arms above your head and engage your shoulders, sit tall with good posture, or twist and bend your torso, your lats are put to work. Having strong lats will stabilise your scapula and upper back and also aid in shoulder stability. The lats pull your arms down towards your body and help with rotation. Try this: hold our your arm out straight and make a “thumbs down” action rotating from your shoulder. You should be able to feel your lats working in this movement. If you are familiar with a twisted grip mount in pole dancing you will also see the similarities and how your lats work to rotate your arm and shoulder for you to turn your arm and grip the pole.

Bodybuilders use exercises such as chin ups, pull ups, and pull downs  to strengthen and train their lats. Your inverts, shoulder mounts, and any work on silks and lyra, are going to engage your lats as well. Hence, the surprise when someone snaps a pic of you at the beach and you realise how much your back has changed because of pole!

Aerialists and pole dancers spend lots of time pulling with their arms overhead. Having strong lats will help with these movements and will give you better posture. But if the lats are too tight, you may be at risk of rotator cuff injuries as your shoulder overcompensates. Tight lats also make it virtually impossible raise the arms full over head in a backbend, and may even reduce your ability to create a stable base for a headstand (ref).

If alarm bells are going off in your head as you realise tight lats may be stopping you from reaching your flexibility and aerial goals, then read on!

One way to counter tightness and care for your lats is to foam roll them. Lay on your side with your bottom arm outstretched and the roller perpendicular to your torso. From here you should be able to roll forwards and backwards as well as side to side, being careful to not roll over your ribs. Regular foam rolling will help soothe and soften the lats.

When stretching the lats, ensure that your pelvis and ribs remain stable. If you raise your arms over head from a standing position and you find your ribs popping and lower back arching, your lats will not be stretched effectively. “Stabilise the origins” of the muscle by keeping your pelvis and tailbone tucked under and your core engaged. When you raise your arms, you should feel a stretch at the back of the armpit.

You can see how tight your lats are, and have a great lat stretch by trying this exercise on the floor:

Lie on your back on the floor with your arms by your sides. Feel where the back of your rib cage touches the floor, taking special note of the point of contact that lies closest to your waist. Turn your palms up, then lift your arms up and overhead to the floor, or as close to the floor as they will go without you bending your elbows or separating your arms wider than your shoulders.

For most people, this movement will make the lower ribs lift off the floor in back and jut out in front. Now return your arms to your sides and repeat the same actions, but this time, as you reach overhead, press the lower rib cage—the point closest to your waist—firmly into the floor to prevent it from lifting up at all. This will probably create a sensation of stretch on the outer sides of your armpits and make it harder to reach the floor. The stronger the stretch and the greater the restriction of movement, the tighter your lats are. (ref)

Here are some simple stretches to include after your pole dance or aerial session to balance out your training and give your lats some love –

1- Assisted Squat – Use stall bars or a high bench to offer resistance as you hold on with your hands. Start with a neutral pelvis (pictured) and then sink your hips down towards the floor. Tuck the pelvis and feel free to let the back round and relax, gently swaying from side to side to increase the stretch.

2- Elbows on chair – Use a rolled up towel or something to hold on to, to keep your arms from rotating back in. Sit on your knees in front of the chair and rest your elbows on the chair edge (roll up a blanket or yoga mat to make this more comfortable. Sink your hips down and lower your chin to your chest to feel the stretch.

3 – Eagle Pose – Doing this pose seated on a chair will ensure that you keep your pelvis and ribs in alignment, focusing the stretch on your lats without arching the lower back. Wrap your right elbow inside your left and curl your wrists around so your palms are facing each other (or as far as you can go). Lift your elbows towards the sky until you feel the stretch behind your armpits. Take a few breaths and then change sides.


With all the technical talk out of the way, it’s time to show off your lats! Join the #SaturdayLaturday movement, show off how strong and proud you are of your body and give your lats some love for all they do in your dance practice!

Use the hashtag #SaturdayLaturday on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and lets share the love for our lats!

The Importance of Breathing

I recently came across a new article by Monika from The Dance Training Project titled “7 Rules for a Highly Effective Movement Practice”.

I’ve followed Monika for a long time, enjoying her thoughts about safe dance training and body awareness. She currently works in Toronto, helping dancers to improve their technique by retraining movement patterns for better alignment and injury prevention. It’s a valuable practice and her insight is relevant to all kinds of dancers and athletes.

In her most recent article Monika makes a point about breathing. My yoga practice has encouraged me to think about the relationship between breath and movement. Vinyasa is defined as “a method of yoga in which movements form a flowing sequence in coordination with the breath.” Breathing properly not only brings oxygen into the blood and to the muscles, it also ensures you are moving from a place of calm and not from a fight-or-flight mode that can lead to tension and injury.

When pole dancing the excitement of a new pole trick, gritting your teeth while you sustain a posture, and the if-I-can-just-ahhh-get-my-foot-to-reach-aahhh-just-there mentality, often results in dancers forgetting about their breath. Holding your breath in, or out, causes the mind and body to become tense and a tense body loses it’s ability to be flexible and strong.

Monika points out,

“If you cannot breathe during the movement, you do not own the movement.”

and she goes to explain,

“Your emotional state and physical health can be interpreted via the quality of your breath, as well as your ability to load and use core musculature to provide dynamic stability and decelerate spinal motion.

In motion, if you can demonstrate a diaphragmatic breathing pattern, you are in charge. Good work.”

Consider a trick that you feel most comfortable with. Beginner or advanced, it does not matter. Many people find a ballerina spin fairly comfortable. It’s a go to for making graceful lines and you can add on elements to show off flexibility or strength.

I’d bet you can breathe fully and completely while spinning in a ballerina. You’re so comfortable that you can even make arm gestures, expressing meaning to make the pose your own. It may even be a resting pose as part of your choreography, where you hold it for 8 counts or so and take a complete breath.

 

Now think about a trick that requires more effort for you. It may be a straddle/invert, jade split, or even an ayesha. What is your breath doing when you attempt these poses? Can you breathe, as Monika says, with a “diaphragmatic breathing pattern”? Or are you taking shallow breaths barely filling the upper part of your lungs? Are you holding your breath?

 

If you video your practice, you may even be able to see your face change as you grit your teeth and the tendons in your neck pop, all signs that you are not breathing properly and not “owning the movement”.

If you are still unconvinced that all of this matters, consider how the quality of your breath will also effect the quality of the movement. A dancer who has been holding their breath as they hold a pose, is going to have to breathe eventually, usually with a gasp that will interrupt their flow and progression into the next pose.

So how do you find space in your dance to breathe?

I recall an instructor once asking us spontaneous questions while training. He suggested a trick, an Ayesha for example, and then asked us to stay in the pose and call out five names. This experience forced our brains to change tack, most often allowing our breath to return to state of normal while we focused on a different task. The act of talking also changes the way you hold your face and neck, allowing a more natural breathing pattern to resume.

Try it for yourself and feel how your own breath changes the movement. Prepare for a straddle/invert and inhale as you go upside-down. Now try it again with an exhale. Some people suggest inverting with your mouth slightly open, reducing the chance that you will grit your teeth. Record yourself or do it with a friend and see if they can see the difference. Most likely, you will also find that the movement feels different to you too.

Once you have experimented with this, consider how you breathe when moving through other poses, or throughout an entire routine. I’ve been known to write in breaths into my choreography as conscious reminders of when to check in and make sure I’m breathing properly.

I’d love to hear and see how it goes! Tag me in your post on Facebook or Instagram.  Head over to The Dance Project too and let Monika know how her wisdom is also helping pole dancers!

Chair Dance

Since being away from my pole and a regular studio space, I have had more time to explore other aspects of my dance practice. Mornings start with at least an hour of yoga and stretching before breakfast. After some work or time exploring our new city I find that my desire to just move leads me to long floor work sessions and most recently choreographing a chair dance routine!

The processes involved in chair dancing has challenged my creativity, flow, and stage presence and has offered a new perspective on tricks and floor work. It’s a great foundation to strengthen your dance skill set too!

Many pole studios offer chair and lap dancing in conjunction with pole, or as separate classes. Training in Sydney, I joined chair dance for one term a few years ago. As a group of three we performed what we learned at a showcase. But aside from this class, my experience dancing on, with, and around a chair has been limited.

Creating a chair routine and recording my chair dance freestyles, I have become aware of three elements of chair dance that may compliment your pole practice.

Creativity
I have to admit that when I first chose to start working on a chair routine I was stumped. I had a song, and knew what feeling I wanted the choreography to take, but it was hard to know where to begin. I could not rely on standby pole combos or spins. I was also limited by the type of chair available, how it could hold my weight in various balances, and the space it offered for placement in poses.

Making shapes and coming up with something new is challenging. I was surprised though at how many of the tricks and shapes I was able to translate from my pole experience. A pike, a back bend, a dynamic transition from a closed shape to an open one. I was reminded about the quality of the movement that matters, not just a shape having a name.

Unpacking this took time and experimentation, but I’m so glad to have had these moments. When I do get back on a pole I hope to have such a larger repertoire of tricks and formulations to return with.

Versatility
Using a prop such as a chair, or an ottoman as you can see in my final routine, offered new angles to explore floor poses and transitions that I was familiar with. It also challenged me to think of new ways to move around the space. The ottoman does not have a back, so I had to make a decision to have it against the wall, or to be able to move around it from all sides. When working with a chair in conjunction with a pole you can also choose to have the chair rest in front of the pole or place it to one side.

I really enjoyed the process of discovering the wall and then working it in to my dance. As I recorded my freestyles and watched how my arms and legs responded to the space, I found a new sensuality in my movements. Touching the chair and wall could be a movement in itself in a way that is not always possible when dancing with a pole.

Engagement
Eye contact, facial expressions, and hand gestures, are all elements of chair dance that make it more intimate. The audience is right there with you and being able to captivate them is much more important. I have already written about stage presence and polishing your choreography, but there is a whole language of the body that can help you tell your story. This was perhaps one of the most powerful lessons I have learned from engaging in chair dance, and something that is probably more related to burlesque and exotic dancing. I’m excited to see how this evolves as I work on new chair and floor routines too.

 

My “What To Do When You Don’t Have a Pole” videos from my pole hiatus last year got some great air time. Chair dance has reminded me how much I do just love to dance. There have been many moments in the last few weeks where I warm up by just putting on my long socks and turning up the volume. A space to dance needs just a floor and your body, no props required.

I do, however, recommend a chair (or a footstool) if you are looking for ways to change up your dance practice and inspire new movements and inspiration.

You can watch my chair dance routine on Vimeo here.

Sunday Bumday!

sb2We are seeing more and more butt selfies taking over social media. Sunday rolls around and every pole dancers across the globe is snapping pics as they squat it out, strut towards the pole, or just lie in bed in sexy lingerie.

But, what do you really know about your butt?

It wasn’t until I was forced to see a physio for my hamstring injuries, that I began to learn about the importance of working my glutes – for stability, strength, and mobility.

My rehabilitation involved lots of glute strengthening to ensure that my now scarred hamstrings would remain stable and safe even after they healed.

So let’s break down our derrieres.

There are three muscles that are called glutes:
The gluteus maximus, gluteous medius, and gluteous minimus. There is also a muscle called the tensor fasciae latae (not to be ordered along with your cronut!)

They all have different roles to play in helping your leg move in the hip socket, including rotation, lifting, and abducting. The condition of your glutes also influences your posture, and the chance of you developing back, hip, and pelvic pain.

THE GLUTEOUS MAXIMUS
The gluteous maximus helps us extend and externally rotate the leg.
You engage this muscle when
– creating a turn out
– swinging your leg back behind your torso
– lifting you leg while holding a plank
– doing donkey kicks
Squats and hip thrusts, can also exercise the gluteus maximus.

THE GLUTEOUS MEDIUS
The gluteous medius assists in external rotation, and also works to help internally rotate the leg. It’s third job is to abduct – the action of lifting your leg out to the side, like lateral leg raises or a clamshell exercise.

THE GLUTEOUS MINIMUS
The gluteous minimus teams up with the TFL to internally rotate the leg, as well as support abduction.

 has great Gluteal Exercises to see and feel all of this in action. Using your hands to feel the muscles working, especially in the butt, can be enormously helpful in understanding what is activating and when. Imagine it as a hands on way to talk to your body and tell it what to do, physically creating a pathway from the brain to the butt while the neural pathways are being formed.

If you are having trouble with certain poses on the pole, you may need to think about strengthening your glutes.

 

Case in point – Cupid

cupidYour top leg is hooked on the pole, gripping and pulling with the pole behind your knee. Your bottom leg is straight, pushing against the pole through the foot.

Hip mobility will play a role in how this shape looks on your body. Your crotch might be close to the pole, or your top leg might be more a right angle. Either way, to be stable in the pose, and eventually be able to take your hands off, you will need to be activating your glutes. Instructions such as “push your hips forward” and “squeeze your bum” may help you connect to the muscles that need to be engaged, but learning how to engage the three different glute muscles when off the pole will help with your muscle memory when you return to the pose.

Even beginner spins, require a certain amount of glute engagement to create nice lines. Play with a stag leg back spin and see the difference when you actively pull your back leg up with your glutes.

Yoga and Barre involve many exercises that will help train your glutes, and don’t be afraid to take it slow while you consciously think about engagement and activation. Make it a regular part of your pole dance training and join the #SundayBumday movement with tush that you’re proud to show off!

Can’t get enough? Now there is #SaturdayLaturday too!