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By Siobhan Burke
A new injury-prevention tool is making dancers stronger and smarter.
Bornstein leads a stick class with New York City Ballet dancers, including Lars Nelson (in light green). Photo by Kyle Froman.
Like many inventions, it happened by accident. Rocky Bornstein, a longtime staff member at Westside Dance Physical Therapy, the clinic that treats New York City Ballet’s dancers, was preparing to teach a course on aligning and strengthening the shoulder girdle. She had fashioned various hand-held tools, which involved Thera-Band tubing and hollow, bamboo-like rods. Some leftover materials—a long piece of tubing, a stray rod—caught her eye. What would happen if she combined these, threading the tube through the rod into a contraption that might help to strengthen not just the shoulders but the whole body? It didn’t take long for her to devise a simple, elegant, versatile apparatus—“the stick,” she calls it—unlike any other she’d encountered in her 10 years as a physical therapist at Westside.
“As soon as I tried it, I got really excited,” says Bornstein, a former dancer, of her first encounter with the tool. “I could feel how helpful it was.” By slipping one foot through a velcro loop to anchor the device, taking hold of the rod with both hands, and pressing it above her head against the resistance of the elastic tubing, she created a triangular frame around her body, a few inches in front of her torso. She noticed the sense of low-impact yet firm compression, the activation of her postural trunk muscles, and the useful way in which seeing the vertical plane of the triangle informed her placement. She began to play with manipulating the stick to challenge her balance and activate different muscle groups—first in two dimensions, then in three. Through “hours and hours” of experimentation, she says, she started to develop a repertoire of exercises focused on building stability in the joints, strength in the core, and a sensitive awareness of the body’s alignment.
Now, about a year after her initial discovery, the stick has become the basis for injury-prevention classes that are helping professional dancers to move more safely and efficiently—and to deepen their understanding of the body’s mechanics—in ways that other somatic practices don’t.
“To see Rocky going right to the crux of what a particular dancer needed—I wanted to applaud,” says Diane Madden, rehearsal director for the Trisha Brown Dance Company, where Bornstein offered several classes last summer. “Very quickly, the stick work revealed these things in their coordination: where there were weak spots or overcompensation. When you’re in a dance company, you don’t have a lot of time to figure things out. There’s this demand on you. I feel like Rocky’s approach delivered what was needed much more quickly than other approaches.”
Marika Molnar, president and founder of Westside Dance, was likewise intrigued when Bornstein showed her the stick. “I thought it was very interesting and very functional,” says Molnar, who has worked with NYCB’s dancers for over 30 years. In early 2011, she invited Bornstein to teach weekly classes to the company’s apprentices. These sessions, still going on, have served as laboratories for Bornstein. She figures out where the dancers need more strength and designs new exercises accordingly.
Molnar, who assists Bornstein with the classes, has observed exciting changes in the dancers. “What I’ve noticed since Rocky started working with this group,” she says, “is that they can maintain a stable trunk and swing their legs beautifully before they have to do anything else. They can optimize movement from the hip joint before they start using their back, and they can stand on one leg very well, without having to sink into the hip or rotate in order to balance.”
This is the kind of result that Bornstein likes to see. In helping dancers to avoid injury, she says, she wants to educate them about the range of options available—the many muscles they can draw upon, the subtle skeletal adjustments they can make, whether doing a basic grand battement or a complicated lift—so that they don’t get locked into one habitual, potentially harmful way of moving. She uses the example of an arabesque: “If you’re always moving from one segment of the back—and you can’t feel that other parts aren’t moving, and you have no other ways of thinking about it—then you can get into trouble.”
The stick, she has found, is particularly effective in conveying those “other ways of thinking about it.” But what exactly makes it different from other somatic practices and physical therapy methods?
First, Bornstein says, dancers can use the stick standing up, rather than lying down or tethering themselves to walls and barres. “Too much of our stabilization work is done on the floor, or on equipment,” she says. “But you don’t live in that world. You don’t live on your back, or your side, or your stomach. You live on your feet.” Another key feature is that it “offers some resistance to enhance your sensation of what’s going on”—you push against the elastic and it pushes right back. “By adding a little compression to your system,” she says, “it makes you more aware of subtle motions.”
The stick also provides visual and tactile feedback about the body’s position in space. As NYCB corps member Lars Nelson says, “When we’re dancing, we usually can’t see our alignment. So it’s nice to have an outside reference to see, ‘Oh, the stick’s tilted, which means my shoulders are tilted, so I need to adjust.’ Or when we’re twisting, if the stick doesn’t twist directly with our body, we know we’re twisting with our shoulders and not the entire upper body.” Bornstein often asks students to place the rod on the crown of the head or just above the pubic bone, so they can feel where those points should be when neutrally aligned. That feeling gets ingrained over time. She says that eventually, “when you take the visual object and the sensation away, you’ve memorized it.”
The stick tends to inspire simple yet profound realizations in those who use it. One young dancer, Bornstein reports, came out of his first class saying, “I know where to put my arms at the barre now.” A client in her 50s had severe, chronic back pain. After a brief session with the stick, Bornstein recalls, “She almost started to cry. She said, ‘I can finally feel what it’s like to stand up.’ ”
Bornstein hopes to start teaching at other companies and schools and to work with a broader range of ages and backgrounds. Molnar sees great promise for this goal. “I think the fact that it’s a simple tool will make it easy for more people to use,” she says. “And Rocky is so creative and intelligent—I see a lot of potential for the development of this.”
Siobhan Burke is a Dance Magazine associate editor.