Want ideas to take better care of your body as you return to dance?
We're smarter now... the forced hiatus has taught us more about how we need to better take care of ourselves (in many ways). So as you return to dance, you'll need to build your conditioning back up gradually so you can get your West Coast Swing back!
In general, we recommend consulting a professional for this, and it so happens we have one in-house on Team Swing Literacy!
We sat down with Coach Gabriel Shaw, practicing kinesiologist, to hear his recommendations for Westies as they return to dance.
Plus, we'll tell you about an upcoming workshop for Westies to get more mobility in their thoracic spine so they can feel less stiff and improve things like contrabody, body rolls & isolations, and groove.
Please note this article is not intended to be prescriptive nor instructional. For personal treatment advice, please visit your health practitioner. For instruction, please refer to swingliteracy.com
Tessa: Can you explain more about your training, your job, and how a kinesiologist helps people?
Coach Gabriel: Glad to! I am a practicing kinesiologist, and completed my B.Sc. Kinesiology at the University of Victoria. After my degree I pursued the professional designations of Clinical Exercise Physiologist and High-Performance Specialist through the Canadian Society of Exercise Physiology (CSEP).
But my training really started when I was 13 years old as that’s when I began taking classes in Kung Fu, Tai Chi and Qigong. That particular style was very choreographed and fanciful, so I joke that’s also when I started dancing.
In the study of movement, a formal education is only the beginning! My continuing education also includes: Kinetic Link Training, The Franklin Method, Motivational Interviewing and various Tai Chi & Qigong Instructor certifications.
Kinesiologists can do many different jobs, but it generally involves a holistic approach to active rehab and conditioning. People see kinesiologists to learn how to exercise properly, train more effectively, manage persistent pain or re-integrate after injury.
My work is primarily to help people discover the stress/tension/trauma they hold in the body, which causes compensatory movement patterns that lead to pain or dysfunction. I use a combination of vehicles for this from Tai Chi, active rehab, neuromuscular re-education, mindfulness and dance. A lot of my work takes place in private sessions, but I also teach regular group classes and occasionally workshops and events.
Tessa: How have you worked with Westies prior to the pandemic? (treating injuries or inefficiencies from bad technique, old injuries, etc.)
I’ve worked with Westies before the pandemic, and throughout the pandemic through private movement coaching, group classes and workshops, plus a little bit of West Coast Swing teaching.
My work is helping them to resolve pain and injury by conditioning more functional, integrated ways of moving specific parts of their body. This involves stability, mobility, releasing tension and deeping their mind-body connection, so they can prevent pain, stiffness, or instability from holding back their dance!
Tessa: Westies have been on a forced hiatus for a year and a half. What do you think has happened to their conditioning as a result of not being able to keep up their dance lifestyle?
Coach Gabriel: It ranges a lot.
From what I’ve seen, many people have not been nearly as active as they were before the pandemic, both because of dance and their other hobbies. Most have lost a lot of the functional strength they had before, which often results as joint pain or instability. Now they may be starting to dance more often and they are having a hard time with aches, pains and setbacks. Many have also seen reduced cardiovascular fitness, which means their heart and muscles fatigue much faster than before.
Others have been using this time constructively for self-care, improving their health or addressing chronic issues that they never made a priority before, which is great and I’m glad to be a part of that solution.
So many people are realizing how stressed and busy they have been. Dance is such a great outlet that many people are missing in terms of their mental health as well. Some people have been able to answer this by starting meditation practices, taking up outdoor hobbies, dancing solo or in online training programs such as SwingLiteracy. But many are seriously struggling with symptoms of stress and anxiety, which can also show up as physical pain, fatigue and lack of motivation.
Tessa: Given these weaknesses/changes, how do you think Westies are vulnerable as they resume their WCS hobby?
Coach Gabriel: The biggest vulnerability is in not being honest with yourself about where you are at.
Some people want to be where they were before, in terms of their dance abilities or conditioning, and they might jump in100% to the activity level or effort level they used to be able to maintain. But their bodies are not prepared for this anymore, and it will take time to build it back up.
The biggest risk is having to take yet another break from dancing due to pushing too hard and getting injured, I’ve seen this a lot. This ends up taking more time in the long run than starting slow at first.
The best bet is to take it slow to start and listen to your body, take breaks and be more mindful. Of course being super stressed makes it harder to listen to one’s body. But this is when you need it the most.
Tessa: What can Westies do at home to build their conditioning back up to prevent injury? (In priority order)
Coach Gabriel: One of the biggest areas of weakness is the hips - which are also very important for dancing.
A lot of Westies like to walk or run, but this is only forward motion on a mostly even surface. Our bodies are designed to leap, turn, move sideways, climb hills and trees, etc. You need the variety in order to build agility.
So if possible, try to walk, run or hike on uneven surfaces such as trails or beaches. Standing single leg exercises (especially while moving) are very good for training the hip stabilizers, both the adductors and abductors. These muscles are commonly ignored by most people but they are especially important for dancers to improve balance, spins and prevent hip and knee pain.
Training the hips can also be done through a program that includes a lot of lateral movements. There’s a good hip exercise on Tai Chi Walking on my YouTube channel for this here.
The core is also a big issue for dancers. Dancers will often see the symptoms of this in reduced balance, control and the onset of back pain. Regular, consistent activity does a lot to condition the core, so a sedentary lifestyle with a lot of sitting means a big drop off in core strength, even for those who exercise regularly.
My tip for this would be to pass over flexion exercises like crunches or sit-ups which involve actively changing the position of the core, and instead aim for exercises that challenge the ability to maintain a neutral spine position. In other words, movements where you have to hold your core steady while moving other parts.
For example, when doing a Plank, you hold your core steady, but it would be even better to use a moving exercise, which will be more translatable to dance, such as the dead bug or the Paloff press, which are simple, yet effective.
Embodiment is very helpful for the mind-body connection and stress. Embodiment really means actively listening to your body and physical sensations. A lot of pains, compensations and stored stress are a result of constantly being in our heads and ignoring our bodies. It’s a vicious cycle because stress and anxiety don’t feel good, which compels us to push those feelings away. Anxiety and physical pain can be prevented or quickly resolved by slowing down and focusing.
For example, when post people go to the gym they are trying to get it done as quickly as possible. They rush through their reps and sets or spend a lot of the time thinking about other things rather than investing in coordination training or mental imagery. So this is a good time to invest in embodiment or mindfulness training for self-care. That could be through meditation, forest-bathing, tai chi or other mind-body modality.
Tessa: What can Westies build into their daily routine to create better movement habits that are going to improve their quality of dance?
Coach Gabriel: Well, as you know, your quality of dance will improve when you train smarter to move more effectively and efficiently.
So daily routines can go a long way to improve dance skills because you are reminding your muscles how you want them to move so frequently that they will myelinate new habits.
First, make sure you warmup your joints every day. It’s shocking how many social dancers just start dancing without warming up first. When you warmup first, your dance just feels better! Plus it’s way easier to avoid injury.
I have a great 30min routine for this here, but even just 5-10 minutes of warmup exercises can make a difference.
In your daily routine, I would recommend including the walking, core, and embodiment activities mentioned above, plus:
- Rotational exercises for core, hips and shoulders.
- Exercises to strengthen the gluteus medius for hip stability and the transversus abdominis for core control and contrabody.
- Rotator cuff strengthening can also pay big dividends helping dancers avoid shoulder problems and improve their connection.
Dance Less Stiff: virtual workshop
with Coach Gabriel
Designed just for Westies!
This is perfect for you if you:
Tessa: How might a Westie know if they need a kinesiologist?
Coach Gabriel: If you consistently receive the same feedback from partners or teachers, despite many attempts at correcting the issue, this means you need to try something different. Sometimes this means getting help from a different WCS Pro, but sometimes this indicates a lack of conditioning. That’s a good time to get some movement coaching.
Many of the people who come to see me have dance-related pains that are preventing them from dancing at the level or amount that they desire. This is especially true if those individuals have already tried physical therapy or a standard exercise protocol.But there are also a lot of people who simply see the value in getting expert guidance on how to exercise specifically for dance in a way that will help them keep dancing for a long time or as they age.
Ever wondered what physiotherapist’s take on West Coast Swing would be? It’s not easy to find one that really understands the nature of social dancing and the specific actions involved in WCS. But we’ve got one! Meet Ruth Norgaard, our WCS student for the past 3 years, who treats us when we are broken. We asked Ruth some questions about common WCS errors that lead to injury and how to avoid them. It was such a great resource, this interview is now also a chapter in one of the lessons in our Swing Literacy Development Method teacher training program.
Please note this is a long article, and it is not intended to be prescriptive nor instructional. For personal treatment advice, please visit your health practitioner. For instruction, please refer to the SLDM.
M&T: Let’s start by getting to know you. What is your profession and background?
Ruth: I am a Physiotherapist in private practice in Vancouver BC, I obtained my BScPT from the University of British Columbia in 2004 and then pursued post graduate studies in manual therapy from the Canadian Physiotherapy Association, Mulligan and Mckenzie techniques, Neurodynamic approaches and the Integrated Systems Approach (Lee & Lee) and Thoracic Ring Series “Connect Therapy” Part 4 TM (LjLee.). I don’t think the list will ever end! Like dance, Physiotherapy is a life long journey.
Prior to Physiotherapy I was a professional ballet dancer. I had my first professional contract with Santa Barbara Ballet, then moved to Seattle for intensive training with First Chamber Dance Company and Pacific Northwest Ballet, then moved back to Canada and joined Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in Montreal Quebec. I also worked with Ballet Ouest and did television and theatre productions. While my primary technique was ballet, my movement and the demands upon me were from classic jazz, contemporary “modern” or “lyrical”, tap, flamenco, ballroom and latin movement. Part of my career was also as a rehearsal director, coach and teacher.
Describe your WCS experience?
I had stopped dancing for close to a decade for many reasons (education, injury etc.) and then returned, at first to ballroom classes, it was fun but…when I found West Coast Swing I fell in love with it. I started with one studio but then made a conscious decision to embrace as many resources as I could. I am so glad I did!
A bicycle injury in 2004 left me with a with a spinal cord injury, nerve damage of my lumbar spine and a myriad of other dysfunctions that I am still working on. I cannot express my thanks enough to my Physiotherapist!! I am finding my body again through physiotherapy and dance. It is a humbling yet fulfilling experience.
I have to admit there were a few injuries sustained in my return to dance that I cannot attribute to the bicycle injury. Social dancing is just that, no harm right? Not so, dancing that involves another person also carries the responsibility of being mindful of the person on the end of your arm. On two occasions I have seriously considered quitting social dancing because of dangerous and impactful dances.
My current game plan….I take lessons and consciously try to apply what I have learned in my dance. I stretch and practice some yoga, pilates, ballet inspired movements to grow and maintain my physical vocabulary as often as my schedule will allow. The gym, walking, tennis and swimming – cross training and eating healthy also helps! AND …I go to the health care provider who supports and makes a positive difference to my physical experience!!…in my case a Physiotherapist. I also pace myself at dances, while I appreciate a goofy fun late night dance, I know my limits.
I usually dance around 3 or 4 times a week. I have a healthy balance of learning: My private lessons are ongoing depending on my and my pro’s schedules, I take advantage of visiting professional’s workshops, some privates or workshops at conventions, attend conventions when I can afford it. I am now an Intermediate WCS dancer averaging 4 -5 conventions a year. I also compete in Masters where I can tell you I have had fantastic experiences!
In the big picture, what types of injuries are WCS dancers prone to?
In my experience, WCS dancers tend to have wrist tendonitis or tendonopathies (incorrect grip and arm tension), shoulder strains of the biceps or rotator cuff (unexpected weight support moves, “cranking” through turns, flaccid frame), knee strains or meniscal injuries (twisting in sticky shoes, squatting for dips), ankle strains (these can be serious and take months to years to recover), foot problems such as Morton’s neuromas (way too much pounding of feet without strengthening), plantar fasciaitis, hallux valgus- big toe going sideways!! (these can be painfree or require surgery), males tend to have more back injuries (often poor posture), and women can easily aggravate their hips (hitting too hard!!) I know there is a longer list and perhaps some thoracic drivers in there…I could go on…
But whole system is intensely integrated, isn’t it? One incorrect alignment can have a ripple effect on several joints.
Absolutely!!! You think it’s just your ankle? Hah! Think of how much you have done to your body in your life besides dance. Car accident? Trip on the stairs? Slam into a snow bank? Sit like a pretzel for 20 years? Martial arts, gym, hike, swim? Awkward body positions repetitively?
Just because it doesn’t hurt doesn’t make it healthy or fully functional! Ask yourself why you can turn to the right but not the left? That list goes on and on. If you imagine a puppet with clear strings, it moves freely, now twist the strings. Doesn’t work so well: the human body is not that different. The body is fabulously integrated and is capable of beautiful things like dancing. You need all of you, so take care of it.
Many of the fundamental movement techniques recommended in our Swing Literacy Development Method are designed to establish proper alignment and function right from day 1. Unfortunately, many are either misunderstood by students, or are either neglected or recklessly taught by teachers. Can we tackle some of these?
You are right, it takes people a while to embrace the simple yet crucial details of dancing, IF they ever do. Everyone wants to rush through their beginner phase because it seems so simple and they think, “I’ve got it”. Being introduced to something is a far cry from integrating it, which is a far cry from mastering it. Here’s a few of my notes on these massive topics.
The following commentary is not intended to be instructional. For actual comprehensive instructions on how best to learn, develop, and teach these skills, please refer to the Swing Literacy Development Method materials.
This is a huge concept very often poorly described and I suspect this is why many give up on it, as the application of the description is onerous.
I am going to use a couple of technical terms and then try to make it easier.
When static (not moving), your sternum (breast bone) should be in line with your pubic symphyisis (crotch bone). I like people to think of lifting the sternum as if to show off your favourite necklace. What I don’t agree with is the abused phrase, “squeeze your lats”: pinching your shoulder blades together and pulling them down, guaranteed issues further down the line if it becomes a habit. This locks down the shoulder girdle on the thorax preventing dissociation of the upper extremities (arms) from the body and therefore interrupting the flow we all strive for. Posture is a lengthy topic and because we all may need different cues or perhaps treatment to achieve good posture it can be a challenge for the dancer and for the dance teacher. Unless they are Physiotherapists or other accredited health professionals, dance teachers cannot offer treatment. They can guide and give cues, but the decision and responsibility to find treatment lays with the student or dancer. There may be an injury or muscle imbalance that prevents the attainment of a nice posture. Try changing your cues and sharing ideas with others, if someone has a fabulous posture, study it.
In my Ballroom and WCS experience, I have heard some dance teachers misguidedly teach that “frame” is a rigid position, involving “pulling down the lats”, to be maintained at all times. This is not only inaccurate, it’s counterproductive and can be dangerous. It’s simply not functional for WCS. Being rigid is counterintuitive to WCS’s elasticity, which means frame is only really used for steering. But even steering frame needs to be adaptable.
Appropriate physical freedom within posture make for a happy body and a happier dancer. Frame, is not rigid but held with awareness and has the ability to adapt and change in response to the demands of the dance. Adaptation skills are GOLD! Adaptation also means moving in and out of “states of rigidity” there are instances that accessing a more rigid core or frame is of value, single foot spins, drops, lifts are examples.
It is not that the “lats” or latissimus dorsi muscles aren’t engaged in obtaining frame but they do not work in isolation, and they certainly aren’t the star of the frame show! Steering involves the integration of other trunk core musculature and the rotator cuff tissues (the core of your shoulder). But in contrast, to be technical, the “lats” take the humerus (upper arm bone), and extend it (draw it behind the body), adduct it (bring it down toward the body) and medially rotate it (rotate it toward the body). Examples of the “lats” in action would be raising the body during climbing or getting out of a pool. This is a powerful muscle, so while awareness and engagement is valuable over-emphasizing it is counterproductive to dance.
This is also a difficult concept for many, because most people do not have strong feet (who goes to the gym to work on their feet?) and because learning to roll feels awkward at first, most bail. Overly ambitious dedicated students can easily overdo this so it needs to be explained that this is a gradual skill development process and to grow as a dancer this skill should be embraced not pounded into your body! Yes, there are better ways to roll your feet than others, and yes there are exercises you can do to appropriately build your foot strength. The texture and control this skill can bring to your dance is worth the work.
Your feet are an extension of your leg and can make or break a line, help mark the music, communicate your intention to your partner, soften a landing, move you, push you, carry you, and if ignored or injured, break that wonderful flow, affect your balance and make you unable to follow or lead clearly and freely.
An injured ankle or foot can lead to other injuries. I recently treated a fellow whose complaint was that even after a year of “some” treatment and waiting time to fix his ankle strain he was still unable to run. I assessed him and discovered it was actually his hip mobility and fascial restrictions that were preventing his recovery. After my treatment schedule, he now runs! My point: don’t ignore injuries.
Pitch is an element of posture and frame that prepares you to move, to dance. It changes with the speed and texture of the music. If you look at a tennis player their “ready stance or pitch” is pretty obvious. As WCS dancers our pitch is subtle but just as important for our “game”. I would invite you to view (like you haven’t already) You Tube videos of the Pro’s and instead of checking the dance out for cool moves examine their flow and the body position that allows it. Slightly forward from the hips, more on the balls of their feet, freedom of the upper extremities (arms) to move and adjust. Now go to mirror or get a buddy to video you. Huge learning curve!
Common WCS errors that lead to injuries
Teachers that ignore technique in their teaching. “Tips” are just tips; technique is a library of information that allows safety and promotes solid growth as a dancer.
Dancers, both followers and leaders, trying to “HIT!” the breaks and poses and positions too big, too hard, without proper control or technique.
No warm up or stretching, throwing on the dance shoes and just going for it.
Leaders neglecting to learn about leading technique: collecting patterns without learning the technique that allows the action to evolve organically and effectively, leading to injuries for both partners. Foundation building is essential!
Dancers learning patterns or moves from YouTube, without having the skills to execute it. One must first do the work to prepare the body for the demands of that move. This is as dangerous as going to the gym and trying to bench press the same weight that the bodybuilder before you did.
Dancers taking a few series of basic beginner classes, thinking they’ve learned the dance “well enough”, then stopping learning and just going to dance parties. WCS, or dancing in general, is not an activity you can just check off your shopping list. It’s a skill that needs development, monitoring, feedback, nurturing and practice. If you don’t use it, you lose it, and if you use it incorrectly, you’ll run into frustration and injury of yourself or perhaps your partner.
Ignoring injuries and dancing through them. – your body will learn maladaptive movement patterns that imbed your injury but ultimately interrupt your ability to have flow and freedom in your movement.
What types of activities do you recommend dancers add to their lifestyle in order to compliment or support their dance practice?
WCS is not a symmetrical dance. It is easy not to know if you are imbalanced. Unfortunately an asymmetrical repeated pattern of movement like WCS can also contribute to imbalances that can lead to injury, even though it is fun! So consider either a home, gym, pilates, yoga, exercise maintenance program to support you through your dance. Some other dance training like jazz or ballet can also support this lofty goal! Need to work on footwork? Try ballet or Tap!
Self check: Do you have freedom of the right arm versus the left? Can your ribs move? (lateral shift, body roll), can you balance on right leg the same as the left? Can you turn well to the right and the left? Can you turn your head to the right and the left? Can you rise on your toes on the right and the left? Are you free to move? If you or your students are finding you lack the ability to freely move after a self check, your plans may include: symmetrical training, focusing your attention to gaining more freedom in the problem area (conscious specific drills or exercise), or finding that ever helpful health care provider.
I will also urge everyone to consider nutrition and sleep, dancers depend on their bodies and we should be nice to it. OK we all know WCS conventions like to push the late night hours, but if you observe more closely, people take breaks, leave the ballroom for a nap, sleep later…depends on the schedule but pace yourself and try to give your self “body care” time.
One further thought for consideration. Not all health care providers have the same training or interests so choosing someone and finding “your team” may take a while. Your team and choices may not be the same as others. Don’t hesitate to ask questions, expect positive yet realistic results, and understand it may take a while to heal or achieve your goals. I believe a healthcare provider has the responsibility to educate as well as treat .You have the responsibility to use what you learn and be “an informed consumer” knowledge is power.
Tessa: How would a Westie go about consulting with a kinesiologist?
Coach Gabriel: This is a good question, because it’s the same in all locations. I work with dancers virtually from all over the world. If anyone is interested they can schedule a free 20-min phone to call with me.
If we’re not a good fit I can usually recommend someone else based on the individual’s needs.
The British Columbia Association of Kinesiologists (BCAK), who I am registered with, has a “find a Kin” feature on their website. You could Google search the credentialing association in your area for the same.
The most important thing is to find someone with the proper educational background and an approach that you resonate with. If they don’t have formal education, offer some kind of free consultation, or can’t explain their area of focus, those can be red flags. Of course dance experience helps a lot too!
But just like working on your dancing with a private teacher: don't put it off! The longer you leave it, the harder it will be to correct bad habits that are holding your dance back.
As resident kinesiologist for Swing Literacy, Coach Gabriel provides our students and members with tutorials, workshops, and support targeted for West Coast Swing, which are integrated into our training programs.
Learn more about how you can #trainWCSsmarter at swingliteracy.com
What to read next:
Ever wondered what a physiotherapist’s take on West Coast Swing would be? It’s not easy to find one that really understands the nature of social dancing and the specific actions involved in WCS. But we’ve got one! Meet Ruth Norgaard…we asked Ruth some questions about common WCS errors that lead to injury and how to avoid them. Here are her responses!