Complete guide to posture for west coast swing

Let’s face it: we want to improve our posture for west coast swing but most of us have poor posture in our daily lives. Computers, cell phones, and desk work encourage us to slouch forward, hunch our shoulders, and generally look like cavepeople.

Even if you are one of the few people that has good posture in your daily life, you still might need to improve while dancing—almost all beginning dancers unconsciously lean in towards their partner, letting their shoulders go.

Poor posture makes you look nervous and small, it hurts your connection, spins, styling and it often results in back pain, so how can you improve your posture?

Unless you are extremely lucky, you probably have some degree of forward head posture. As we get older, our head tips further forward until it looks like we are rubbernecking.

Not only is forward head posture unattractive, but it also messes up your balance and hurts your spine.

TAKE ACTION> Watch my take on posture in this video

Improve your posture for spins

In this section we will focus on 2 main elements of posture as it relates to west coast swing and more importantly spins. Your spine and your core.

1. Spine

How many of you have heard the advice to “stand up straight” and lifted your chest? Although you are thinking about having good posture, you are actually having the opposite effect. To understand why, we need to look at where the spine is.

Our bodies are designed to come forward from the spine. Our hips and ribcage attach to the spine at the back, with almost the entirety of the hip and ribs in front of the spine itself.

When we say that you should stand up straight, the effect we want to create is having the spinal column lengthened from top to bottom. Instead of compressing the spinal vertebrae together, or bending them in various directions, we want the whole column to be vertically aligned and uncompressed.

But, what happens if you think about lifting your chest?

You lift your ribcage from the front, but your ribcage still attaches to your spine in the back, and that connection didn’t move up. In fact, your vertebrae have to compress to lift the front of your ribcage! So how are you supposed to stand up straight?

Think about stretching the spine itself. If the spine lengthens, your rib cage will lift naturally because the vertebrae that the ribs attach to have stretched up, and the ribs are carried along.

The Drill: This drill is straightforward, but it requires a lot of repetition to build the muscle memory. Practice standing up straight from the spine. You should feel like your back is lengthening, and that should naturally cause your ribcage to lift. Don’t think about lifting the ribcage—the chest should be an effect, and not a cause.

2. Core

In all forms of dance, controlling the center is essential for creating body flight, establishing balance, and looking poised. We need focus on an often-neglected muscle for supporting and controlling your core—the transverse abdominis to improve our core.

The core is made up of four primary muscle groups:

  • The rectus abdominis is the muscle that makes up the six pack of your abs, and it is closest to the surface.
  • Underneath the rectus abdominis are the external and internal obliques, which are involved in rotation and side-bending of the trunk. These are the 2nd and 3rd muscle groups of your core.
  • The deepest muscle is the transverse abdominis, which is a girdle that runs around the abdomen and connects the lower back to the pelvis.

Our goal is to isolate and engage the transverse abdominis (the deepest of the core muscles) while leaving the other muscles relaxed. Engaging the transverse abdominis supports the spine, compresses the viscera, stabilizes the pelvis, and improves the efficiency of movement by more effectively recruiting muscles in the extremities.

Functionally, this means that engaging the transverse abdominis will protect your back, improve your balance and stability, and make your movement appear more natural and graceful.

The Drill: To engage the transverse abdominis, think about pulling your belly button back towards your spine.

Most people make the mistake of engaging their rectus abdominis (the outermost ab muscle) rather than the transverse abdominis (the deepest muscle)

Instead, think about engaging your core by zipping up your jeans.

Start from the bottom of the zipper (your crotch) and tighten the muscles up through your pelvis.

By the time you are pulling in the belly button, you should feel like your abdominal region is wearing a snug girdle. That’s a sign that you finally found the right muscle.

Practice engaging that muscle while dancing. You should feel more stable through your trunk and your legs should feel like they are more coordinated with what your center is doing.

TAKE ACTION> Watch my take on posture in this video

How to stop looking down when you dance

Dancers have a bad habit of watching their feet while they dance. It’s easy to look down when thinking, especially if you’re thinking about footwork variations. Unfortunately, looking down projects uncertainty—and more importantly, it puts a lot of stress on your cervical spine.

The Drill: This drill is a simple way to overcome that bad habit of looking down towards the floor. For an entire dance, keep your eyes focused on the line where the wall meets the ceiling. Because that line is above your head, it’s almost impossible to look down while staying focused up there.

This drill is an overcompensation exercise: to overcome the habit of looking down, you are looking up to an exaggerated degree. Eventually you want to train yourself to keep your focus at eye level, but forcing yourself to look above that line will help you become aware of when you look down.

5 other drills to improve posture for west coast swing

Drill #1 (Keep your neck long)

Stand with your back to a wall. Put your heels against the wall and relax your shoulders so that your entire shoulder blade is flat against the wall.

When you are standing in this position, look straight ahead. Move your head straight backwards until the back of your head presses against the wall, and hold that position for at least one minute.

While you are holding that position, think of lifting your head by the crown while your shoulders relax to the ground. Your goal is to lengthen your neck, but don’t let your shoulder blades or head leave the wall!

Keep doing this drill as frequently as you can—several times a day is not too much! You are trying to retrain your neck muscles and (likely) reshaping your cervical spine to correct your forward head posture, so be patient. Doing this drill regularly will make a big difference in the look of your dancing, and will also improve your posture and appearance off the dance floor.

Drill #2 (keep you shoulders down)

Stand or sit up straight. Lift your shoulders up. Then push them back as far as they go. Now pull them down as far as they will go—this will probably feel a lot lower than when you started. In that lowered position, slowly let your shoulders come forward until they are in line with the side of your body. You want to go forward just enough to flatten your back: if your scapula are sticking out, your shoulders are still too far back.

This series of movements—up, back, down, in line—is designed to let your shoulders sit naturally on top of your torso. If you try to lower your shoulders immediately from a hunched position, you will lock your shoulders into an internally rotated position, in which your shoulders are rolled in front of your body. Going up and back first is necessary to externally rotate your shoulders and correct the hunched posture.

Drill #3 (Keep your head back)

Stand up straight with your back against against a flat wall. Keep your feet and back as close to the wall as possible. Chances are good that, in this position, your head is not touching the wall. That’s the issue that we’re going to fix.

The correction is simple: just bring your head back so that the back of your head is touching the wall. Think of taking your head straight back; you don’t want to tilt your head up. If you lifted your chin, reset and try again.

Make sure that your shoulders are pulled down when your head is back. You will probably feel like your chest is really open and pushing forward. Feeling like your chest is pushing forward is ok, but actually pushing forward is not. Your whole back should still be in contact with the wall: if your arms are against the wall but your back is pressed forward, you are arching your back instead of pulling the head back.

Hold this position for a few minutes, reseting when necessary. Remember what this position feels like.

The real challenge is to come back to this position during your day. You are trying to overcome a habit of leaning the head forward, and there are a lot of environmental cues (like holding your phone at torso-height) that encourage you to bring the head forward. So, you need to be consciously correcting your posture frequently throughout the day in order to replace those habits. Even something simple, like doing a posture check every hour during your workday, can have a dramatic impact.

Drill # 4 (Stop looking down)

Dancers have a bad habit of watching their feet while they dance. It’s easy to look down when thinking, especially if you’re thinking about footwork variations. Unfortunately, looking down projects uncertainty—and more importantly, it puts a lot of stress on your cervical spine.

Today’s drill is a simple way to overcome that bad habit of looking down towards the floor. For an entire dance, keep your eyes focused on the line where the wall meets the ceiling. Because that line is above your head, it’s almost impossible to look down while staying focused up there.

This drill is an overcompensation exercise: to overcome the habit of looking down, you are looking up to an exaggerated degree. Eventually you want to train yourself to keep your focus at eye level, but forcing yourself to look above that line will help you become aware of when you look down.

Drill #5 (Improve your posture while social dancing)

Although lengthening the neck is easy to do, it’s also easy to forget. The best way to practice this skill is by constant awareness. For the next day, build cues into your environment that remind you to lengthen your neck. These cues could be post-it notes by your work space, an alarm that goes off every half hour, or a reminder taped to your coffee cup. Be creative!

If you are going out for an evening of social dancing, a great way to practice is to decide that a long neck is going to be your focus for the evening. At the beginning of every dance, remind yourself to work on your posture. Hopefully you will also remember in the middle of the dance (usually because you’ve noticed that your shoulders are by your ears again!). When that happens, take the next anchor to reset yourself.

An athletic posture for dancing

If you watch almost any sports professional, you’ll notice that they have a common stance. Baseball, basketball, football, soccer, tennis, or volleyball—and dozens of other sports—have a similar posture because the human body is built to move in a specific way, and these sports have developed a ready position based on how the body can respond quickly and effectively.

The video below provides a quick introduction to the athletic ready stance:

In west coast swing, we want to be balanced and able to react quickly, so our dance posture is also based on the athletic ready stance. In this drill, we’ll use the ready stance as a method to find a good posture for WCS.

The Drill: Start by getting into a standard athletic ready position. Stand with your feet just slightly wider than shoulder width apart. Your toes should point forward or have a slight turnout—no pigeon toes!

Your knees should be soft. Lower into your knees slightly so you have a lower center of gravity. Let your hips hinge to counterbalance the forward bend in the knees, but do not rotate the hips.

Your back should be straight, but not upright. A straight back means that, if you put a stick along your back, it would remain in contact with your back all the way from the hips up to the shoulders and head. But, your hips are tilted forward a couple of degrees, so that stick will not be perfectly vertical. That slight forward pitch is important: if you try to get rid of it, your weight will be stuck on your heels, which is bad for balance and agility.

Check that your shoulders and head are in line with your back. If your shoulders or head slump forward, or if you let your chest collapse, your weight will fall too far forward. If you push your chest out too much or try to pull your shoulders or head too far back, you will feel uncomfortable.

When you’ve worked through your whole body, go back to your feet. Is your weight balanced on the balls of the feet? You should be able to lift your heel, but you also don’t want to be so far forward that your heels are coming off the ground.

This is the default athletic stance. Right now, you are much lower than you would be when dancing because your feet are apart (in second foot position). You may also have more bend in the knees and hips than when dancing; this is because most sports want a lower center of gravity for increased stability, but dancers prefer to have cleaner leg lines. So, bring your feet together and decrease the bend in your knees to a slight angle (but do not lock the knees!). This posture is your neutral, “ready” dancing position.

Practice going into the athletic stance and then standing up into your ready position for dancing. You should practice standing up by bringing your left foot to your right foot, as well as the other way around. It may be helpful to gently bounce on the balls of your feet before bringing one foot to the other in order to better feel how your body is balanced.

Improve your spins with this drill!

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