Eyes-Closed Dance Training for Improving Balance of Dancers
Updated: May 21
Originally Researched and Written by Kimberly Hutt, M.Sc., B.Sc.(Hons), PGCHE, MSST, London Contemporary Dance School, London, UK Summarized here by Richelle Stevenson, LAT
This study is an excellent resource for teachers! It investigates how training balance in technique class can help prevent injury and improve performance in dancers. What's in Balance?
There are 3 elements to balance: the inner ear, physical stimulus (called proprioception) and visual feedback. Although dancers are known for their incredible balance, research has shown that dancers rely too heavily on visual cues and lack proprioceptive ability. In other words, the body's internal forces (neurological) lack enough practice of stabilizing a dancer, especially while moving. While performing with your eyes closed is highly unlikely, this study shows how practicing dance movements with your eyes closed can improve your body's stabilization; thereby preventing injury and increasing balance ability. The author also suggests a lack of proprioception can impact performance on-stage, as stage lighting alters visual perception. This study notes that traditional dance classes alone do not adequately train a dancer's proprioception (even with exercises for "balance"). As the author further explains, "researchers have identified that in order for balance training to be successful, it must be trained using the same skills that are required during performance. Therefore, when training dancers it seems appropriate to select a balance-training program with specificity to dance practice." In other words, traditional sport balance exercises can be beneficial but to trul train the proprioceptors properly, a dance specific mechanism is best. What this study found In this study, a group of pre-professional dancers were given a program of selected dance steps to complete with their eyes-closed. It sought to "enhance their proprioceptive mechanisms for balancing and to seek improvements in dynamic balance." In other words, it aimed to help dancers gain static (stationary) balance positions and progress into stabilization throughout movement. The training progressed from por de bras through grand battement over the course of 4 weeks. For the exact exercises, see the table in the link! Researchers tested balance through a modified Star Excursion Balance Test in both an en dedans and en dehors pattern. Interestingly, they discovered a significant difference between randomizing the supporting leg during this testing, instead of using the predicted pattern. The author explains that "predictive balance relies on anticipatory postural adjustments, which can be accounted for by learned movements. The dancers in this study were classical ballet students. It could be argued that sequences within a ballet class can be predictable." How to include this in your class As a teacher, I FIRST recommend following the dance specific program recorded in this study. Another great option is to require students progressively attempt exercises with their eyes closed. The key word here is "progressively" since too advanced of movement too quickly can predispose the dancers to injury instead of accurately training them. Perhaps start with one exercise of slow tendus at the barre, or just moving the arms and head in the por de bra. Another finding in this study involved "predictive balance;" it suggests that teachers vary the patterns within their combinations. For example, reversing a jeté or using retrograde can help a dancer's "muscle memory" encompass a larger amount of steps. Throwing in these 'surprises' will also challenge the student's muscular ability to adjust to unique movement and thereby improve their proprioception. Lastly, although static balance training (balancing in a stationary position) is important, dynamic balance training is more applicable for dancers (who need to balance through quick movements). As stated, "research has shown that when the speed of a moving limb increases, more equilibrium control is required to maintain balance" this suggests "that balance training not only improves dynamic balance, but may also improve speed." Therefore, I recommend progressing (in time) to slow weight shifts with eyes closed to help the inner ear and the proprioceptive ability be activated fully.
Resources: The International Association for Dance Medicine and Science has an entire journal devoted to dance education called Bulletin for teachers. It can be found here https://www.iadms.org/page/243
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Why strive for the highest relevé?
by Richelle Stevenson, LAT, ATC
Not only is a high demi-pointe aesthetically pleasing, it has a great deal of benefits for helping improve turns and preventing injury. If your students struggle to understand how a higher relevé can be easier on their ankles than a relaxed relevé, perhaps this visual will help. This image "shows the relevé position with the at-risk anterior talofibular ligament and fifth metatarsal subject to injurious forces if the dancer falls into inversion from a plantar flexed stance". (See the full article here). This article explains that the ankle is actually more likely to sprain with slight inversion (sickling) at this position than in a full releve or even en pointe. This is "because convergence of the posterior edge of the tibial plafond, the posterior talus, and the superior calcaneus stabilize the talocrural joint." In other words, because the bones are not 'stacked' in a vertical position, the ligaments (and foot bone) are susceptible to injury. Another way to prevent this is to help strengthen all 3 peroneal muscles (the "winging" muscles); we'll share an easy exercise to target these muscles later this month on instagram! This author also found that ribbons provide added stability compared to elastics when on pointe; follow the full article's resources for more details.
Wish you had more resources to determine which students were fully ready for pointe? Contact us for information on our Pointe Screening Evaluations!