April 9, 2019 - Jenna Calo
Dance ED Tip #63: The Dancer’s Hip: Top 5 Exercises for a Healthy Hip Joint
As a Physical Therapist, hip pain in dancers is one of the top complaints that I see. When we examine common movements in dance, we can see that the hip joint has high demands placed on it regardless of the genre. Turnout and height of leg as well as the power required for jumps all put variable loads on the dancer’s hip. Hip pain can present itself in a few different areas but most commonly in the front or outside of the hip. Dancers may also state “my hip is popping or snapping”. A dance medicine health professional can evaluate whether or not the pain is coming from INSIDE the hip joint or OUTSIDE the hip joint with the latter being more related to the muscles. Regardless of the source of pain, it is not uncommon to find that dancers with hip pain have an imbalance between the muscles in the front of the hip compared to the back/side of the hip and also from right to left. As we know, dancers need to have both a strong gesture leg that can hold turnout and maintain the height of leg as well as have a strong stable leg to stand on.
Turnout has varying degrees of emphasis depending on the style of dance. We often see dancers trying to strive for more turnout specifically with classical ballet. The reality is the amount of available turnout is influenced both by body structure (shape of the hip socket/shape of the ball that fits into the socket as well as tautness of ligaments) and by proper muscle recruitment (how a dancer is using their muscles as well as strength). Unfortunately, we cannot change the shape of our bones and how we were made, BUT we can change how a dancer is using their muscles and their strength so the individual dancer can maximize the freedom of movement within the hip joint.
Here are some exercises you can incorporate into your warm-up to help target key muscles of the hip. The first three exercises are intentionally slow, controlled, and should be executed with very low intensity and effort. This allows the dancer to find freedom of motion and the image of “spinning” in the hip socket so they can begin to explore isolated hip rotation. A good way to think about these three movements is an effort to “grease” up the hip joint with repetition. Often times, we see dancers trying to muscle through their turnout but instead of having more available turnout, this can lead to tightness and inhibits the dancer from accessing their full range of motion. The last two exercises aim to fire the muscles on the outside and backside of the hip to take the load off the front in preparation to be a good standing leg. Think of these 5 exercises as “phase I” for your dancers which are foundational and begin explore some key parts of how the hip works.
a. Dancer starts face down on a mat. Your dancer can start with taking a few breaths in and out to allow the body to settle down into the mat and let go of tension. Next, the dancer should bend one knee to 90 degrees without letting the low back move. The “core” muscles should be lightly engaged. Next, the foot moves slowly inward and then outward. Repeat for 1 minute then switch sides.
b. TIP: Tell your dancer to use 20% effort with this exercise so they can imagine the hip “spinning” in the socket. We are looking for ease of movement and control so we’re aiming for the arc of movement to be smooth.
a. This time bend both knees to 90 degrees. Slowly let both feet move outward which brings the hip into internal rotation. Next, circle the feet down towards the floor. Repeat this sequence for 1 minute.
b. TIP: try to have your dancer make the entire sequence slow and smooth. Working on internal rotation allows the hip to maintain its full available range of motion which in turn will help access full turnout.
3. HIP ROCKING:
a. Dancer should transition to their hands and knees. Wrists should be directly below the shoulders, the knees directly below the hips, and the spine and pelvis in a neutral alignment where if you placed a yard stick on their back it would be touching the back of head, mid back, and the tail. With this movement, we are trying to teach the dancer to “soften” the hip flexors in the front of the hip. Repeat for 1 minute rocking front to back slowly.
b. TIP: Movement should be small and slow with no movement at the dancer’s spine or pelvis. Movement here suggests the dancer is having a hard time separating their hip movement from their back movement.
4. CLAM SHELLS:
a. Dancer is on their side making sure the hips and the shoulders are in a neatly stacked position. Next, without letting the pelvis rock backwards, slowly open the top knee towards the ceiling. Repeat 10-12x each side then switch.
b. TIP: make sure your dancers feel the outside of their hip working and not the front of their hip. If they feel the front, they may benefit from shifting their feet so they are slightly behind the body. Another trick is to put them up against the wall so the pelvis cannot rock backwards.
a. Dancer is on their back with knees bent and feet flat. Have the dancer breathe in, on their exhale gently tighten their abdominal muscles, press their heels into the floor, and gently squeeze their sitz bones together to lift their pelvis towards the ceiling. Slowly return to starting position. Repeat 10-12 times.
b. TIP: make sure your dancers are not arching their low backs to perform this exercise. If you see they are arching, tell them to not go as high until they can better learn to control their spine and pelvis.
* Note: If there is any pain with these movements checking in with a healthcare professional who specializes in treating dancers is a good idea *
Jenna M. Calo, PT, DPT, OCS
Doctor of Physical Therapy
Jenna Calo is the Director of Program Management and Performing Arts Medicine at Body Dynamics Inc. (BDI) in Falls Church, Virginia. She completed her Doctor of Physical Therapy at the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences in San Diego, CA and her Bachelors of Fine Arts from Mason Gross School of the Arts (MGSA) at Rutgers University. While attending PT School, she had a strong desire to combine her new knowledge of the body with her dance background by learning to work with dancers to recover and manage injuries. Jenna teaches specialty graduate level coursework in
performing arts medicine at Shenandoah University. She enjoys working with dancers of all levels from recreational to professional and of all styles and genres. She has especially valued the opportunities she’s had working backstage with performers at Arena Stage, Shakespeare Theatre, and Ford’s Theatre as well as with dancers of Suzanne Farrell Dance Company and The Washington Ballet/The Washington School of Ballet in the DC metro area.