The more ways you understand something, the better you can apply it, or explain it to others. In ballroom dancing, teachers frequently resort to colourful metaphors, like the “top-loading washing” machine to describe Cuban hips. But sometimes it helps to know the specific muscles that help our dancing look and feel great.
Because there’s so many different ways we move our body when we dance with our partner, let’s look at some of the most common muscles worth paying attention to.
The ‘Frame Muscles’
Keeping a strong back and an open chest is the key to maintaining a graceful form. In addition, the arms must be elevated almost to shoulder height, and rounded towards the partner to create space for the upper body.
- Core muscles – these keep the pelvis flat and the midsection engaged forward. Imagine you are flattening your stomach by ‘pulling upward’ with the core muscles. The butt muscles can also help with pelvic tilt.
- Lower trapezoids and rhomboids – Engaging these keep the shoulders from hunching forward, especially with arm elevation. Imagine you are pulling your scapula (the triangular bones on each shoulder blade) downwards to little pockets in your back. To open the chest, squeeze the lowest points toward the small of your back, without arching the back.
- Teres and deltoids – Running just outside the armpit and above the shoulder respectively, these two tag-team to keep your arms elevated, without raising the shoulders. You can activate these by lifting the elbows while imagining heavy weights sitting on the shoulders.
The ‘Walking Muscles’
Ballroom dancing is not as different from walking as you might think: A little more action from the knees in smooth/standard, dragging the ball of the feet in rhythm/Latin, but essentially the same. That’s important if you want to achieve the movement of a dancer without tensing unnecessary muscles.
- Quadriceps and hamstrings – This pair is constantly working in any rise and fall action (about 30 knee bends in a 2 minute waltz). Practice walking with the standing leg bent without a bounce (as in tango), or bending and straightening the knees as part of rising and falling. Feel that burn in the front and back of the legs? That’s where you want it to be.
- Calf muscles – We don’t just want to ‘fall into’ our steps; we needs to push into them with the balls of our feet. The calves are the main engine for that movement, which helps us feel grounded and in control.
- Instep muscles – Numerous little muscles underlie the bottoms of our feet, assisting the calves in pushing actions. You can feet both calf and instep easily by practicing lifting and lowering the heels off the ground.
The ‘Twisting Muscles’
It’s not enough to connect and move together; rotation is what gives our dancing a 3D, dynamic look, from rotating into a waltz reverse turn, to more complicated movements like Cuban motion.
- Obliques and related back muscles – These strong muscles rest on either side of the torso and back. Contracting the right side cause the torso to rotate to the right, and vice versa. You will feel these muscles the most by rotating one direction, then the other, without swinging your arms or otherwise relying on momentum.
- Iliotibial (IT) Band – While there can be disagreement amoung instructors as to what muscles move the hips (some say the knees, others the diaphragm and midriff), there’s no doubt that the IT band plays a major role. While not actually a muscle, this long band of connective tissue runs from hip to knee on the outside of your leg. It can be difficult to find, but if you place your hands on the outside of your legs while doing Cuban motion, you should feel a slight tightening on the side the hips roll towards.
- Deep rotator muscles – Connecting the back of the pelvis to the upper femur, the ‘deep 6’ are the movers and shakers behind turnout of the feet, crucial in any rhythm/Latin dance. To find them, try balancing on one foot and rotating the free leg outward. The tightening feeling you’ll get on that side of the butt is the rotators doing their job.
Every instructor has a slightly different way of explaining how we move, and every student a different way of understanding. If this helped at least one of you understand how to move your body better then you did before, then my job is done.