Visit any local eisteddfod and you will see young dancers displaying more and more athleticism. You just need to look at early ballet pictures and it is immediately obvious that expectations have changed and dancers’ positions of the body are requiring more flexibility and strength than ever before.
In my mind, one of the most beautiful of these positions is the arabesque. The body spirals from the crown of the head and extends through the gesturing leg, with the supporting leg in a counterbalancing external rotation. It is a beautiful and challenging position that takes great range and strength.
The first step in improving your arabesque or your posture, is to work on improving your flexibility. This includes spinal extension and rotation. Our spines have natural curves, which are important to maintain for shock absorption, and are wondrously intricate. It is important when working on improving our back extension that we remember to work our abdominals to support and protect our lumbar spine. Our goal should be to create space between the joints of our back to avoid injury through compression. Because of the direction of the curve of the thoracic spine, it is this area I believe, that requires the most focus.
As with any ballet position, there are a lot of components that go towards creating a beautiful line, but for today I am going to focus on improving the flexibility and strength of the thoracic spine. The shoulders and upper back are often an area where stress and tension are stored. A simple solution is the use of a ball and a wall. You may need to start with a softer ball, but my favourite is a spikey ball. Simply place the ball against the wall and lean on it, with the ball gently pressing against any area that is tense. You can gently roll the ball along the tight muscles and give yourself a massage!
Once you have released all the tight areas, get a larger ball, foam roller or you can even roll up a couple of towels. Position the ball or roller so that it runs perpendicular to your spine around where a bra strap would be positioned. Make sure you support your head by holding on to it with your hands (remember to keep the length to protect your spine). Lie back over the top of this and focus on keeping the abdominals working to protect your lumbar spine and work towards opening your thoracic and sternum. You can lie in this position for a while and let gravity help you improve your range. Always go gently and stop if you feel pain, or feel that it is not right for you.
Finally lie on your stomach with your forehead on the mat and your hands by your sides. Make sure that you switch on your low stomach muscles to protect your low back. You can place a small soft ball under your sternum. Imagine you are rolling a marble away with your nose as you start to lift your head and continue until you are rolling the ball under your sternum forward. Don’t lift your body all the way off the ball or come too high because the goal is to focus on working the muscles between your shoulder blades. Repeat 10 times, with a breath in on the extension, and a breath out as you lower.
When executing your arabesque, focus on opening the thoracic spine in this way and you will achieve a much more beautiful arabesque. After spending a long day at the office, do these exercises to help relieve neck and upper back tension.