San Francisco Ballet rehearsing Raymonda. Photo by Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB.

Our Best Tips: Perfect Your Posture

The way you stand makes a huge impression, whether you're in an audition or just walking down the street. Awareness of your posture will help you achieve a more engaged and gracious épaulement, project confidence and strengthen your upper back. Read on for our best tips and exercises.

Two Exercises for a Strong Upper Back

1. When you begin your first plié combination of the day, you're likely feeling refreshed and ready to go—not to mention standing tall with good posture. But as class goes on, and the mind fatigues, bad habits can creep in. By center, your upper back may be slumping forward, and your posture less than perfect.

Julie O'Connell, director of performing arts medicine at Athletico Physical Therapy in Chicago, says she often sees dancers standing with their shoulder blades too far forward and the chest caved in. She suggests this exercise to help correct this postural problem. Though the motion is minimal, it can have a big impact on your overall épaulement. If you feel your upper back rounding during class, you can even do a few reps in between combos, to remind your body of the proper alignment.

  • Stand straight against a wall, using it as a contact point for your shoulder blades.
  • Lift both arms in front of you to a 90-degree angle. The wrists should be in line with the shoulders and the elbows should be extended.
  • Using the serratus anterior muscles (which wrap from the upper ribs around the scapulas), slowly reach both arms forward in a punching motion, feeling your shoulder blades move away from each other as they glide along your rib cage.
  • Return to the starting position, so your shoulder blades are resting alongside the spine. This is correct, engaged alignment. Do 2 sets of 10 repetitions.

2. Many dancers struggle to stop habitually hunching their shoulders. Raised shoulders not only erase the look of a long neck, but also make it harder to correctly use your back muscles and core.

Try this: Strengthen your upper back to develop the muscles necessary to properly support your arms. Marianna Lobanova of the Kirov Academy of Ballet of Washington, DC, suggests this exercise, repeated daily: Lie facedown on the floor with your arms and legs stretched out. Lift your upper body for at least 10 seconds, moving your arms into fifth position overhead and keeping the lower extremities completely still. Repeat at least three times.

Stephanie Wolf Spassoff, director of The Rock School for Dance Education, who has coached dancers including Beckanne Sisk and Michaela DePrince, warns students to watch their posture outside of the studio. “Encourage your friends to tell you when you're slouching," she says. It will help train your back to support you even when you're feeling tired or tense.

Be careful: Don't lock your shoulders in place. “When there's no movement," Spassoff warns, “you've lost your épaulement."

Your Posture Can Enhance Your Performance...

If you're trying to perfect your portrayal of a dramatic character in any story ballet, research suggests you should focus on your chest. A study recently published in the journal PLoS One used eye tracking to determine that observers most frequently looked at the movement of a dancer's chest when asked to decide if she was enacting happiness or sadness. Don't underestimate the subtlety of slightly sinking the sternum or proudly presenting the collarbones.

...And Your Mood

When you're dreading an especially rough day at the studio or a challenging performance, improving your mood could be as simple as changing the way you walk. A recent study published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry found that subjects who walked in a more depressed style (with shoulders rolled forward and less arm movement) experienced worse moods than those who walked in a “happier," more upbeat style.

In the study, participants were shown lists of positive and negative words, and then asked to walk on a treadmill, where their gait and posture were measured. After, they were told to write down as many words from the list as they could remember. The people who had walked in a more depressed style remembered more of the negative words, and vice versa.

Previous research has already shown that our mood can affect the way we walk, but these results suggest that the opposite is also true. So the next time a difficult rehearsal is getting you down, hold your head high and put a little extra spring in your step as you walk to your next class. It might just give you the boost you need.

Power Up Before an Audition

If you're heading into an audition and feeling nervous, try striking this power pose: Take a wide stance with your head held high and your arms energized and extended to form the letter T with palms facing down. Research shows that holding a high-power pose for two minutes can make you feel more confident, and it lowers your cortisol levels, meaning you'll feel less stressed. Plus, this “fake it till you make it" strategy is a quick and easy way to strengthen your lats, deltoids and triceps, giving you more defined port de bras.

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