Break Your Bad Habits: The Shoulders
The shoulders are one of a dancer’s most useful expressive tools. Just think of a well-placed épaulement: An open chest and thoughtfully angled shoulders can exude confidence, playfulness, or power. But rolling the shoulders forward or pinching the scapulae together can read as just the opposite—timid, tentative, or tense. For advice on working through these tendencies and improving shoulder alignment, DM spoke with yoga practitioner, ballet teacher, and former Royal Ballet soloist Hilary Cartwright; master jazz teacher Patti Wilcox; and Alexander Technique expert Jane Kosminsky.
Habit: Rolling the shoulders forward
Cartwright says this habit often develops in young dancers during growth spurts. “Accelerated growth can take them by surprise,” she explains. “Sometimes they can’t adapt to the newly gained height by standing tall and keeping their chests lifted, through muscular support along the spine.” The cause can also be emotional, conveying a lack of self-esteem. “Rounding the shoulders can be a sign of sheer insecurity,” she says. Wilcox adds, “It becomes a form of hiding.”
Cartwright recommends this floor exercise for strengthening the upper back: Lie on your stomach, arms straight out in front of you at least shoulder distance apart. Keep the legs energized in a comfortable turnout, feet pointed and hips pressed to the floor. “Inhale, then extend one arm on an exhale to a slow count of 10. The head lifts slightly with each extension,” Cartwright says. The arm will lift off the floor, “but the action should be lengthening, not lifting.” Repeat three times alternating arms and three using both arms.
To open the chest, Kosminsky suggests visualizing the whole torso, front and back, as a wide “V” that starts narrowly at the pubic bone and fans out. This, along with tracing the clavical with the fingertips to feel its length, can improve awareness of the shoulders’ full width.
Habit: The shrug
Tense shoulders tend to rise up toward the ears instead of dropping back and down. “Onstage this denotes stress and makes the audience nervous,” Cartwright says. “Plus it destroys your line.”
Kosminsky says that if you imagine releasing the shoulders out to the sides, they’ll naturally drop away from the ears. “The shoulders actually move to the sides on the shoulder girdle, not down,” she says, adding that you should keep in mind “Alexander’s first concept of ‘good use’—neck free, head forward and up.” Cartwright reminds dancers to breathe rhythmically. “If you’re holding the breath in the upper chest, the shoulders rise up accordingly,” she says. “Use your breath with the action. During demi plié, breath out as you bend and in as you straighten.” Be careful, though, not to take the idea of “dropped” to the extreme. Pushing the shoulders down aggressively—so that they have no buoyancy—strains the neck and shoulder girdle.
Habit: Pinching the shoulder blades together
This is a common side-effect of lifting the chest out and up. But it can cause (or result from) two other bad habits: hyper-extending the ribcage and overworking the back muscles.
Wilcox suggests exploring your full range of shoulder motion to find a neutral placement. In jazz class, be conscious of your alignment during shoulder isolations. “If you roll too far back, you’ll end in a pinched position; too far forward, and you have the concave chest problem,” she says. “Focus on which muscles you’re moving—and how far.”
Lauren Kay, former
Dance Spirit associate editor, is a dancer and writer in NYC.
Photo by Nathan Sayers