Present Tense Fitness

Dance and Sports Performance

Strength training and conditioning approaches for dancers

Hip Articulation and Arabesque

Edit: In each of the videos below, you’ll see me executing the movements with my head down. That was a self-conscious effort on my part to ensure that my form was on point. But in so doing, I neglected to maintain good cervical spine posture. So, don’t do what I did here. If you’re doing the movements I talk about below, keep your head up and your eyes forward. With enough practice and intention, your body will do what you need it to do. —Jason

When I began reading about the biomechanics of dance and started having conversations with dancers about their experiences, one of the postures that came up repeatedly was the arabesque. This technique is so important it comes up within the first few pages of the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science textbook about holistic dancer health.

One of the strongest ligaments in the body is the ilofemoral ligament in the hip joint, also called the Y-ligament because it looks like an upside-down Y. Because this ligament is so taut, it greatly restricts arabesque, which is why you must compensate with spine movement to create the line. —Dancer Wellness, M. Virginia Wilmerding and Donna H. Krasnow

Given that the “normal” range of hip extension is approximately 10 degrees, we know dancers will have to borrow a lot of range of motion from their spines in order to be able to execute a beautiful arabesque—but we also know that dancers can be plagued with back pain and injuries.

So what do we do?

We can’t tell dancers to stop practicing arabesque. We can’t tell dancers that the position is unsafe. I might tell my 47-year-old accountant client that, but not an artistic professional whose livelihood depends on getting into this position beautifully.

This is where we have to accept the dangers of the job and try to make the dancer as safe as possible. Part of how we do that is ensuring they have the general strength and conditioning capacity to do their job. We accomplish that with good, progressively overloaded programming and timely rest and recovery.

But that’s not enough.

The second part of the equation must be paying close attention to the strength and mobility of every joint in the body. Given that arabesque is in part an interplay between hip extension and spinal extension, we must pay attention to both of these movements separately in the training space so that the dancer can pull them together in the dance studio.

Today I want to isolate hip movement for you, and to do that we’re going to introduce a Functional Range Conditioning technique called controlled articular rotations (CARs). CARs are articular movements—meaning, movements about a joint—that are intended to work the outer ranges of motion. The theory is that if I can ACTIVELY move my hip and control its outer ranges of motion, then I’m less likely to injury myself during athletic movement. For our purposes here, I’m interested in developing as much specific range of motion in the hip as I can so as to mitigate the amount of spinal extension I need to borrow in order to execute a beautiful arabesque.

In the first video below, you’ll see a basic hip CAR. I’m using the power rack to support my body, and I’m not using much irradiation (or muscle tension) to take my hip through the movement. Dancers could use this as part of a morning routine or pre-class warmup.

In the second video, I’ve added a degree of difficulty by incorporating the Stick Mobility sticks. Now I’m applying irradiation, or full body tension, to the movement. This would make for a slightly more difficult “working rest” interval following a heavy upper body strength movement.

The final video here is the most advanced of the three shown. Now, not only am I irradiating, but I’m also making the planted leg work hard to keep me in position. Notice throughout all three videos that I display varying levels of efficacy around isolating JUST my hip joint. That’s the work here, to make sure I have fundamental control over that hip joint. I’m not pushing into any pain, and I’m not borrowing from anywhere else in the body.

Next week we’ll take spinal extension, and you’ll see how the hip CARs and the spine work tie together—hopefully helping a dancer work a safe, durable, beautiful arabesque.

Like what you’re reading? Be the first to find out about our Dancer’s Guide to Strength & Conditioning, coming this Fall 2019. Go here for more information.