4 Tips for Expressive, Safe Head and Neck Articulation

February 9, 2022

Dancers tend to spend countless hours refining footwork, training extensions or building power for jumps. But as Houston Ballet Academy faculty member Susan Bryant points out, audiences generally gravitate towards watching performers’ faces—and, therefore, their heads. The ability to skillfully articulate the head and neck can help dancers embody their characters, safely tackle challenging choreography and, perhaps most importantly, dance with their entire bodies. 

Start From Neutral

Many dancers are taught from an early age to strive for good posture, often being told to keep their shoulders down and their chin lifted. But as Bryant puts it, “It’s almost like they’ve listened too well.” Pressing the shoulders too far down or lifting the chin too far up can minimize a dancer’s range of motion by not allowing them any more down (in the case of the shoulders) or up (in the case of the chin) to go, points out Chicago-based physical therapist Julie O’Connell, director of Performing Arts Rehabilitation at Athletico. 

Starting from a true neutral position allows dancers to move in whatever direction the choreography requires. For the shoulders, O’Connell suggests thinking of wrapping the shoulder blades around and into the spinal column instead of pushing them down. For the head, imagine a candy cane hook from the sternum bone to under the chin, with your eyes looking forward towards the horizon, says O’Connell. This also helps eliminate the tension in the back of the neck that comes from lifting the chin too high. 

Make It Natural

Bryant says that the movement of the head and neck should come to us naturally, but students sometimes lose that natural instinct when they are so focused on technique. To counter this, Bryant tells her students to pretend that their chin has a plié, which encourages them to allow the chin to rise and fall.

Another way to channel a natural sense of movement: Allow the head to go where the eyes go. “If you have real direction with your eyes, I think your head will go in the right place,” says Bryant. 

If you’re not sure where to look, try following your hands or arms. In classical Indian dances, where “the head and the neck are the primary focus of movement” and are often used to tell stories, says Amit Shah, this is usually built into the choreography. “Anytime there’s an arm movement, the head and neck will move in that same direction,” says Shah, founder of New Jersey’s AATMA Performing Arts school and company. 

The same can often be said of ballet and other styles, says Bryant, who sees it as a way of dancing with the entire body. “The movement has to start within in order to come out,” she says.

The Care and Keeping of Your Neck

Neck soreness and stiffness can restrict your range of motion and potentially lead to long-term issues. Keep your neck healthy with these tips from O’Connell.

Avoid stomach sleeping. O’Connell recommends ergonomic pillows with neck support that can encourage side or back sleeping, or rolling up a towel to support the neck on a regular pillow. She cautions against using multiple pillows, which can position the head too far forward, and warns that “the fluffier the pillow, the worse.”

Mind your sedentary time.Many hours spent sitting at a computer, hunched over a phone or driving can adversely affect the neck. 

Watch your bag. Instead of a heavy dance bag slung over one shoulder, try using a backpack, and consider reassessing how much weight you
really need to carry around. 

Manage soreness.O’Connell recommends muscle rubs with lidocaine, wet heat (like wrapping a heating pad in a moist towel or taking a hot shower) and massage—whether from a professional or with tools like a Theragun. 

Know when to seek help.If you begin experiencing headaches, swelling or bruising, or referred pain into the shoulder blades or hands and fingers (such as your hand falling asleep or feeling tingly or numb), make an appointment with your doctor. 

Exercises for Neck Strength

O’Connell says that strengthening the muscles at the front of the neck is the biggest thing dancers can do for greater mobility. Here are some of her favorite exercises. 

For proper head alignment: Dancers tend to hold their chins too far forward or too lifted, whereas the “chin shelf” should simply be parallel with the floor. To correct this posture, place a tennis-ball–sized foam ball under the chin and nod the answer “yes,” or place your pinky finger on your sternum and index finger on your chin, and push your chin back. You can also stand with your back against a wall and gently push your head into it. 

For greater freedom in the neck: “The neck is easier to move when its role is to move the head and not hold up the weight of the arms,” says O’Connell. “So stronger upper backs and shoulders are a better shelf for the head to sit on.” O’Connell recommends strengthening with shoulder rolls and arm circles backwards and forwards, or shrugging the shoulders up and down. She also suggests lying on your back and punching both arms up toward the ceiling, then squeezing them back into a T on the floor, and bringing them back up towards the ceiling. Do two sets of 10. 

For upper-back mobility: Having a mobile upper back can enhance the articulation of the neck, but O’Connell says most dancers have a very straight, often stiff, upper spine. To encourage more mobility, she recommends lying on a foam roller placed horizontally across your midback and arching over the roller into thoracic extension. 

To prep for whiplash choreography: O’Connell says choreography that involves quick transitions or throwing the head around can put the neck at risk. To strengthen the side and front muscles (which O’Connell calls “the abdominals of the neck”), try neck sit-ups: Lying on your side, bring your ear up towards your shoulder, or, lying on your back, do a mini-oblique sit-up, lifting the head on a diagonal and bringing the chin towards the sternum.