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Cross Training for Pole – Part 8: Acroyoga

Yoga has always been a part of my bodywork practice. Even before dance, yoga showed me ways to start loving my body for what it could do. I still practice yoga almost everyday, but I am now learning about acroyoga and finding the benefits are tenfold in supporting my aerial dance practice!

For pole dance and aerial training, supplementing your program with acroyoga can support body awareness, core stability, balance, and be a great introduction to partner work on the pole or aerial apparatus.

For those new to the idea of acroyoga here is a definition from Maggie McCracken

“Acroyoga is a combination of acrobatics and yoga performed between two partners. One partner is the base while the other is the flyer. The base supports the flyer in a series of movements that combine balance, strength and acrobatics.”

At the circus we play around with group and partner shapes at the end of a handstands or flex class. It’s a great way to apply the skills that we are working and push through boundaries of fear and trust as we work with each other. I am constantly amazed with the breakthroughs I have been able to make. From not being able to hold a freestanding handstand, to being able to fly in the pose below was truly exhilarating!

Many pole and aerial studios offer classes for acroyoga, or use elements of the practice to add variety to a handstand class. Below are six benefits of acroyoga and how you can use the practice to support your aerial dancing.

– Increase in spatial and kinesthetic awareness
If you are a pole dancer or aerialist who forgets their left and right as soon as they are upside down, acroyoga could help! Kinesthetic awareness is about knowing where your body is in space. For example, you don’t need to see your foot to know how to grab it when you bend your knee up behind you. Many acroyoga poses require you to move your limbs while balancing and maintaining your focus out in front of you. Working as the base or the flyer in acro poses supports body awareness and challenges your body and brain to adapt to changes in position or balance quickly.

– Whole body workout
Many people who start acroyoga are initially surprised at how much of a workout it is, or under the impression that the base works harder than the flyer. This is simply untrue. If you are the flyer you will learn how to engage your core to create a stable centre of gravity of which to move around. Your arms are also pushing against the base in many poses, much like a handstand. Rather than being a “dead weight” the flyer supports their weight and compliments the forces applied by the base. The base offers support through a stable core and active legs as they hold the flyer in air. Acroyoga also requires stamina as you hold poses for a extended length of time. The encouragement you are able to provide to your partner, or group, is great motivation to work harder (within your body’s limits, of course). As you become more advanced you will discover muscles you didn’t even know you had in your core, back, hips, glutes, legs, and arms, that are activating and making small adjustments all the time, gaining strength as they keep you stable and respond to your partner.

– Learning how to fall
If you are a beginner I highly recommend working in teams of three, so someone can also act as a spotter. Learning to fall is all part of the fun, however a spotter is essential in maintaining the safety of both the base and flyer when entering poses and dismounting from them. With this in mind, it is also useful to play as both the base and the flyer, as each requires different skills and strengths and also allows you to understand the pose from two perspectives. For example, if you have tendency to push harder with your right hand than your left, you may be able to predict this behaviour and respond to it when your partner does the same. Knowing how to protect yourself and your partner is essential in preventing injury.

– Breath work
Matching your inhalations and exhalations with your partner can be an effective way to connect and enter or exit a pose. Learning how to breath through movement, exhaling into a stretch or inhaling through a strength based invert brings energy and oxygen into the body and helps you maintain focus. Making these techniques habit will allow them to transfer easily to your aerial training.

– Better communication

“In order to work closely with your partner or partners, you must consciously focus on maintaining presence without distraction. Your partner’s safety, as well as your own, depends on your ability and willingness to read each other’s physical, verbal, and visual cues without much discussion” (Source)

If you have aspirations for doubles pole or hoop, learning how to read the non-verbal cues of your partner is essential. Additionally, learning how to talk about positions and adjustments with your base or flyer, will support your kinesthetic awareness, and increase your communication skills as an aerial instructor and student.

If you need anymore convincing, take a look at this stunning acro inspired pole routine by trio Carolyn Chiu, Rosabelle Selavy, & Marcy Richardson.

Happy dancing!

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!

An Effective Warm Up

Whether you are training in a studio or at home, it is essential that you incorporate a warm up routine into your poledance or floorwork session. An effective warm up will prepare the body for exercise, lubricate the joints to support mobility, and increase blood flow, bringing oxygen to the muscles.

When leading a warm up, your instructor should be able to offer movements that prepare the entire body, and also include exercises which target muscles and joints that are specific to the pole moves you will be working on. For example, extra hip stretches for a class working on split moves, or some added shoulder and upper back exercises to help you engage the correct muscles for deadlifts and ayeshas.

At home, this can be a little tricky. You may remember movements from a warm up in class, but without the instruction and guidance from a teacher, you may be tempted to skip over reps or rush your routine just to get on the pole sooner.

I’ve seen many dancers do this in practice time too. Walking in, getting changed and doing a few shoulder rolls and hip circles before jumping on the pole and pulling out a crazy combo. Nine out of ten times you could do this and be fine. But you increase your chance of injury by not preparing the muscles to engage in such vigorous activity.

When planning your home practice, make sure you have included time for an effective warm up and cool down. Both should take about 10-20 minutes, longer if you are adding conditioning exercises, or working on flexibility and foam rolling.

“The warm-up should be a combination of rhythmic exercise which begins to raise the heartrate and raise muscle temperature, and static stretching through a full range of motion. “ (DanceProject.ca)

Consider the muscle groups that will be active in the types of tricks you are training. Working on Jade Splits? be sure to warm up your hip flexors, hamstrings, glutes, and quads. Working on your Handspring? You will need to warm up your shoulders, back, forearms, and wrists.

When creating your own warm up, keep these points in mind:

Keep it Dynamic – you are aiming to increase blood flow and get your heart rate up. Don’t just sit in static stretches. Flow through the movement and explore your range of motion. Yoga flow can be a great way to get started.

Jump Around – Break up the kicks and stretches with some cardio, star jumps, burpees, mountain climbers, or just running on the spot. It will help you feel warm and support your stamina for those long pole routines.

Turn It Up – if you are lacking motivation for your warm up, put on some music that gets you moving. The hardest part is often getting started.

Make it Functional – consider the movements and tricks you want to train and ask, how can your warm up support these? Knee lifts and high kicks for hip mobility. Add a thera band and put in some resistance exercises to warm up your wrists, arms and shoulders.

Range of Motion – Explore the movements from all angles. Lay down on your back and do you leg kicks and extensions. Add a chest roll to your upper body movements, or pause in a pose and do some arm circles, and see how you can target and engage different muscles.

Coordination – remember, a warm up prepares your body for what it is about to do. Pole dancing requires lots of coordination and body awareness, a relationship between your mind and your body. Animal walks are a great way to get you brain in the right mindset for pole, offering exercises that alternate between both sides of the body.

Breath and Movement elevatED Education talk a lot about how breath supports movement. There is no use increasing blood flow if your breath is shallow and not spreading oxygen around the body. If you have been to a yoga class before, you would have been instructed to pair your movements with your inhale and exhale. Try this in your own warm up, finding your own rhythm and breathing into a stretch.

Add Weights – Use a medicine ball, kettle bell, or ankle weights to up the challenge. Keep the ankle weights on as you start some pole conditioning, doing some pencil spins or straight leg straddles!


On a final note, remember that during a warm up you also have a chance to check in with your body. Any injury or illness you have can often be recognized, and further injury prevented. It’s much safer to be alerted to a tight hamstring or unhappy hip flexor when you are still on the ground, rather than mid combo 2 metres up the pole!

Being a regular home poler, I found myself a consistent warm up routine that I have now recorded and can share with you.

 

If you are a subscriber to my newsletter you will also be granted access to my Dance Warm Up at the end of November, a fun way to freestyle around the pole before starting any big tricks. Great for some added cardio and to work on those staple pole moves – body rolls, hip circles and kicks.

 

Floorwork: Rising Up to the Challenge

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When I first started pole dancing, we had a saying at the studio, “the floor is lava!”. The pole was our safe place, our rock that allowed everyone to spin around like superstars. The floor was a hard place (especially on the knees!) that revealed our lack of dance backgrounds and coordination.

Over the last few years, however, there has been a resurgence in floorwork. Pole dancers now don knee pads and leggings, and admit to even neglecting their pole tricks for the allure of “rolling around on the floor”. Floorplay is open for auditions once again and studios run classes exclusively for floorwork. Competition pros even have their own take on Basework  and Low Flow.

Floorwork does not have to be defined by sultry and sexy moves. You can make it gymnastic, acrobatic, contemporary, or add a break dance feel depending on your influence. In fact, your floorwork may even impact the overall style of your routine, dictating the flow of your pole tricks and your expression.

I was recently asked about my choreography process, in particular which comes first, pole or floor? Most of my initial inspiration comes from visualisation and as much as I see myself doing pole combos to various parts of the song, I also picture a pose or grounded movement. It’s a starting place for a floorwork sequence that is not necessarily how I will begin the routine, but may become a motive or shape that I revisit throughout.

I like the idea that floor based tricks can add a new layer to a performance. Jazz and contemporary dance talk a lot about levels for pathways of movement. You can try this exercise in your lounge room or studio:

Put on a song and set yourself a limitation. Consider moving from A to B (or pole to pole) by only crawling or rolling on the floor. No kneeling, no standing. Take as long as you need to, the whole song if you wish. Tune in to what comes naturally and places you get stuck.
Try a second and third time with new limitations. Rising only as high as your knees, or moving across the floor from a standing position. Set a rule that you much have one hand touching one foot at all times. Try it with both hands touching each other at all times.

The character of your performance and your intention will define how well each of these suggestions connect to the rest of your choreography. But they are worth exploring though freestyle or as a specific exercise, you’ll be surprised how creative you can be!

It has taken a long time to grow accustom to the carpet burns and bruised knees that come part and parcel with floorwork. However, I am working at making it a more important part of my repertoire. Acknowledging it as a space to incorporate different dance styles and offer even more scope for expression, time spent “rolling around on the floor” can lead to finding the essence of the dance, just as much as a pole freestyle.

But if the floor is still a scary, untouchable place for you take ispiration from Yvonne Smink, who choreographed an entire routine without touching the floor until her final dismount!

The Ultimate Guide to Walking in Heels

pleasers

Last night I was collaborating on a photoshoot with a friend, and the photographer asked us to wear heels. Being a pole dancer, I happen to have quite the collection of shoes to choose from, and thankfully the skills to walk and dance in them!

 

 

The other model however, could not hide her nerves! She had only brought along one pair of heels and soon revealed that she did not feel at all comfortable walking, or even standing in them!

So, as the rest of the photography party played with lighting set ups and camera gear, I spent about twenty minutes coaching my friend on how to keep her balance and make the most of the extra length and extra swag that her heels could offer!

First, some long term strategies to make sure your strut stands out from the rest.

1 – Practice Practice Practice!
When my first pair of  7inch Pleasers arrived, I wore them as much as possible. Not just for pole, but while doing the dishes, vacuuming, and making dinner. For shoes with hard plastic straps, or even boots with stiff PVC, this will help soften them and make them more comfortable for when you are ready to dance. It also helps you stop overthinking how to walk and stand in them, making you feel more natural in the newest addition to your sexy wardrobe! And who doesn’t want to add some glamour to your daily chores!

2 – Good Posture
Walking and dancing in shoes is not just about learning what to do with your feet. Great shoes become an extension of your entire body. Knees, quads, hips, abs, it all helps you walk and not wobble. If you find yourself needing to cruise along furniture or never leaving the handrail, try to think about stabilizing. Use your quads to lift your legs, pulling up the muscles above the knees, hold tight with your core and make sure you are not leaning too far backwards or forwards. Lift your chin and look ahead, not at the ground just in front of your feet. In yoga, instructors talk about a drishti, a technique of fixing your gaze on an unmoving point to help you focus, and balance in one legged poses.

3 – Strengthen your ankles
If you find yourself rolling to the side when walking in heels, you may want to put some time in to strengthening your ankles. Practicing toe point exercises and heel raises will build up the supporting muscles that will help your feet stay in alignment when you are walking. When wearing your heels around the house, try some different walking motions,

  • take two steps forward and one step back,
  • take a step to the side,
  • step wide and then bring your feet back together,
  • even try turning around on the spot with the least amount of steps possible!

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Now to some points for actually walking.

4 – The Four S’s: Slow, small, steady, steps
Save your Sarah Jessica Parker envy and don’t try and run in heels unless you have had years of practice! Start slow, with small steps. This will help you maintain your centre of gravity and allow you to focus on your technique as described above. Walking slow with small steps will also give you time to correct yourself if you do stumble.

5 – The heel and toe polka
Aside from times when you should be pointing your toes and landing on the platform, most walks in heels should follow a heel toe pattern. A flat footed walk will make you look more like a horse than a woman in control! A heel toe step will give you an elegant gait. But remember, the more slender your stiletto, the more stability you will need in your ankles to not roll as you place your heel down.

6 – Stairs
Walking up and down stairs can also be a nightmare in heels. There are often stairs to get on to a stage, and you would rather keep your composure than stack it before your routine even starts!
Going up – First of all, take it slow, and hold the handrail. Be mindful of how deep the tread of the steps are and if your shoe will fit. Keep the weight in the platform, and consider turning your feet to the side if you want to make sure your heel won’t slip.
Going down – I repeat, take it slow and hold the handrail! Be mindful of your posture and make sure you are not leaning forward, a sure fire way to go A over T. Turn your feet to one side so the platform and heel both make contact with the step.

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So now there are no more excuses! Go out and buy some great shoes and get practicing! Keep this link handy for when you see a friend struggling in their heels too!

Happy dancing!

Dance Safely – Thoughts on a Pole Dancer’s Practice

March 2014 - Sefton Pole Dance Competition

Following on from my article about falling safely, I have been thinking a lot recently about dancing safely.

For nearly a year now I have subscribed to The Dance Training Project run by Monika, who works mainly with traditionally trained dancers for rehabilitation and conditioning. Although not specific to pole, I have found her comments about injury prevention, body work, and cross training, so helpful in my own practice. It is called pole “dancing” after all!

Recently, Monika released an article titled Dance Like a Human, commenting on what dance training really does to our bodies, fundamental movement patterns, and injury prevention.

She asks,

“What happens when you work solely on pointing your toes, extending your back, and stretching your adductors so you can kick yourself in the head, but you never make time for the complimentary pattern?”

In yoga, it is considered best practice to compliment back bends with forward bends, inversions with child’s pose. A shoulder stand sequence includes a series of counter poses – shoulder stand, plough pose, fish – ideally all held for equal amounts of time.

In pole, this is not always the case. You might only have an hour or two to practice at home, so you attempt trick after trick and then rather spend time cooling down and stretching you quickly scrub the Dry Hands off your hands, get dressed and walk out the door.

We are told to train both sides, but how many of us attempt it once, get half way through the trick and bail because of virgin skin pole burn?

Evidence of this is all over. Crazy purple pole kisses from tricks attempted over and over. Shoulder injuries, hip injuries, and students arriving to the studio with their strapping tape coordinated with the colour of their polewear.

So what would “counter poses” look like for pole dancers? Beyond a stretch and cool down, what can we do to make sure our bodies stay in balance and injury free?

backbend

Coming from a yoga background I would suggest, if you’re training involved lots of back bends – ballerinas, cocoons, crescent moons and brass bridges, counter these poses with some forward bends off the pole – seated forward bends, wall assisted forward bends, and some spinal twists. Don’t forget to breathe deeply into the upper, middle and lower back in these poses and remember to lengthen and extend.

In my experience, over training can also cause many issues. Attempting these moves day after day can wreak havoc on your body, and rather than help you achieve your goals may set you back even further. If your pole goals include jade splits, upright splits, and Russian splits remember to let your hamstrings and hip flexors have a few rest days per week. And ensure you are working on strengthening your glutes, hip flexors and surrounding muscles to create ongoing stability.

A final few words from Monika,

“To an untrained eye, I can make most movements look good. Most dancers can, too because that’s their job. “

but…

“they [dancers] can mask their lack of fundamental movement quality with their impressive skills.”

You might be able to touch your foot to your head, but a cleaner and safer shape can come about with better technique.

Sarah Scott has just opened a Facebook group called Off the Pole, where she is aiming to share conditioning exercises to support a pole dancer body. For home polers and studio dancers, this is going to be such an asset to your dance training.

I am really looking forward to learning from Sarah Scott and making pole conditioning much more of a priority this year.

I’d love to know who you look up to and learn from to support a balanced pole practice. Comment here or tag me your training posts and let’s all dance stronger!