Hollow back

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The tendency of hyper lordosis in Bharata Natyam basic posture

A dancer can often be recognized in his or her daily life attitude. Trained dancers usually have an upright body posture, move gracefully around and thus radiate confidence. I agree, dance strengthens the back and helps in building an awareness of an upright body posture. In fact, there are even doctors nowadays who recommend dancing explicitly for improving one’s own posture.

However, it’s not that simple. It would be wrong to think, that you get a healthy and strong back just through dance training. Three aspects are crucial here:

  1. The professional education of the teacher
  2. The body awareness of the student
  3. The kinetic and muscular exercises which prepare our back to take up a certain stance

In this blog, I will talk about the previous knowledge of Bharata Natyam teachers regarding structures, flexibility and risks connected with the spine and hence therefore with a correct posture.

Having met a few Bharata Natyam teachers so far I got a general idea of their state of knowledge on anatomy. Very few know about the spinal flexibility in its different sections. There is basic knowledge about the importance of abdominal and back muscles, but this knowledge is rarely implemented through specific exercises into the actual dance training.

Everybody knows that an upright body posture is healthy, but what does that mean? “Lengthen your neck!”, “Keep your head upright!” or “Hold your back straight!”, these are a few of the general instructions which you hear in most of the dance classes. They sound very clever but they convey a completely wrong idea of what makes an upright body posture. Liane Simmel describes this very nicely in her Book “Dance Medicine in Practice”: “[…] by using these wrong correction images you run the risk of the spine being fixed too much. That way it loses its elasticity. Corrections like “stretch your chest to the front” make it even worse. The instruction aims at an elongated back, but many dancers make the same mistake: they pull their shoulder blades together and stretch the lower ridges out to the front. Opening the ribcage in this way makes it difficult for the abdominal muscles to work, […] Therefore the mobility of the thoracic spine and ribs decreases.” (Simmel 2014:59-60; translated from German).

Very often bad or weak body postures result from everyday life and are taken into dance training. The hollow back is probably the most known among them. I observed this problem especially with children. When young girls start to dance without pre-education their abdominal muscles are often hypotonic, meaning that they are weak, which causes the pelvis to tilt forward. The basic Bharata Natyam posture demands a slightly forwarded position of the thoracic arch, meaning the upper body has to slightly lean forward. That way a hollow back can be easily overseen, especially if the person in charge is not appropriately trained in understanding kinetic mechanisms. Therefore, the hollow back doesn’t always have to be a result of the person’s posture in daily life, it can also be caused through weak instructions by the teacher while introducing the basic Bharata Natyam posture, which I just described previously.

Either way, the wrong posture – combined with the pressure through stamping – can lead to biomechanical stress on the spine, which cannot be tolerated without pain in the long term. Research supports this fact. Shiradha Pawar and Unnati Pandit have shown in their clinical study „Study of lumbar lordosis and pelvic position in Bharatanatyam dancers“ (2015) that 45% of all examined dancers were suffering from lumbar hyperlordosis. That’s almost every second dancer! This high percentage shows how weak knowledge in this regard among Bharata Natyam teachers is, because they are supposed to identify and correct the posture in the first place. Simmel shows (2014:59) that there are simple identifying features and effective exercises, which prevent and resolve such issues in the lower back area. I have summarized them here in a small movie:

As a young Bharata Natyam student I was repeatedly told, how healthy Bharata Natyam is – as opposed to Ballet, where your body is broken at the age of 30 – and how well all our dance movements are aligned with our anatomy. I agree, BUT dance isn’t doing it all on its own. It needs an able dance teacher who has basic knowledge of anatomy and kinetics and who knows how to deal with the fundamental problems of posture. Often, when a student had to build more muscles to hold on to an intense dance training, she was sent to swim: “Go swimming once a week, that’s easy on the joints and builds your stamina.” Is that it? Let’s forget for the moment the thoughtlessness of how we deal with bodies of young students who are in middle of their growth. And let’s ignore the difficulties which are caused by the daily school routine and the excessive sitting. Can we afford to leave it simply to the technique and the aesthetics of our dance style on how we build our back posture?!

Many routined dance teachers will now probably say “That has worked for decades now, why is this suddenly a problem?”. Or perhaps they think that they have the necessary understanding of physical health already, thanks to their experience and knowledge of human nature, even without technical expertise. I agree with the latter. An experienced, intuitive teacher is just as valuable as a theoretically educated one. But I strongly disagree with the first point. There is no evidence that Indian dancers did not suffer from lumbar hyperlordosis or other back problems a hundred years ago, that does not mean they didn’t exist. Medical progress gives us so many possibilities today, it would be foolish not to look at the findings in dance medicine at least once. This topic has already been taken up in ballet and is now even part of their curriculum in some academies. I would therefore hope that the experienced, older Bharata Natyam teachers feel more touched by this matter, and that my critical questions arouse their curiosity.

I ask all Indian dance teachers, take your responsibility seriously! You don’t have to be a therapeutic expert or attain medical knowledge. There is sufficient literature meanwhile by qualified people who have laid out this issue in a comprehensible and informative way. Everyone who has worked regularly with their body already has experience which they can apply. The necessary theory is quickly understood. The effort is comparatively small considering how important the wellbeing of the spine is for our whole life.

Reference:

Simmel, Liane (2014): Dance Medicine in Practice: Anatomy, Injury Preventions, Training. Translated by Jane Michael and Liane Simmel. London & New York: Routledge.

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