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What is Pilates and How it Can Help You… Perform Better?

by Denisse Ambert

By Edlyn Gonzalez

Whether you are a dancer and prone to injuries, or a singer in search of ways to improve your technique, maybe an actor who needs to work on your projection, or all of the above (or even none of them), here you’ll find useful information that I believe you should add to your training to help you improve your performance and prolong your career in show business.

Why you should trust me on this? Growing up as a ballet dancer, I used to tell people that all kids should take dance classes. I believed that dance training taught you discipline, and body and spatial awareness, among many other things that will prove useful later in life. To date, I still believe that, but now I add “everyone should do Pilates!” Now, here we go.

 

What is Pilates?

Pilates is a workout technique invented and developed by Joseph Pilates. Although it has gained a huge popularity in the last 8 to 10 years, this incredible fitness method has been around for over a century. It helps you to strengthen, stretch, and lengthen your muscles while focusing on alignment, posture and finding your center, which makes it an excellent and effective workout for everyone.

As artists, we push our bodies to the limit, and even beyond, but the adrenaline doesn’t let us feel that we are probably overdoing it. On top of that, more often than not, we do a poor job of warming up or overlook it altogether, before a show or long rehearsals.

How can Pilates help your performance as an actor, singer and/or dancer? I can talk about it for hours on end, but let’s just focus on three key things: knee stability, balance, and core strength.

 

Knee Stability

Knee injuries are some of the most common among dancers and just about everyone. Meniscus and ligament tears are very common terms we hear associated with these injuries. To avoid them or as part of the rehabilitation protocol, you need to strengthen the muscles that stabilize the knee. Being very flexible may work in your favor as a dancer but it actually makes you more prone to injury. We focus so much on stretching to show glorious lines or because our acting scene requires big movements, however, we must make it a priority to strengthen the stabilizing muscles as well. Hence, enter the quads (especially the Vastus medialis), hamstrings and calves.

Although dancers have very strong legs, their movements are not functional, so it is essential to add other exercises that are not dance-related to avoid injuries that can set you back. These exercises can and should be done by the general public too.

Step Up
Start standing in front of a bench or similar stable surface (figure 1). Here I’m using a Pilates box. Step up, never placing the other foot on the box and ensuring that the knee of the working leg doesn’t move from side to side or too far over the toes (figure 2). Do at least two sets of 10.

Step Down
Start standing on top of the box towards the edge so one foot is floating off (figure 3). Bend the standing leg allowing the floating one to go down past the edge of the box (figure 4) and then straighten. Again, keep your knee tracking over your second toe. Do at least two sets of 10.

 

Balance

This is food for thought for everyone. As we get older, we start losing our balance and stability. It is caused by a combination of becoming less active as we age coupled with normal bone/muscle/neural degeneration. Strengthening the outer part of the hip and thigh combined with knee exercises mentioned above will improve your balance. That means less falling, feeling more grounded while performing, better turns, better posture, etc.

One of the most important muscles for walking and balance is the gluteus medius. It stabilizes the hips and thighs and supports the bigger muscles like the quads and the gluteus max. There are also some other smaller muscles deep in our hips that allow rotation of the legs. Walking, balancing and rotating the hips are movements we do without thinking. If you pay a little more attention to your body, you’ll notice we tend to always favor one side. The goal is to identify it and focus on keeping it all working evenly.

Feet are super important, and very often neglected. Think about it. Your full body weight is on them and anything that affects their normal functionality will affect the rest of your body. Next time you feel something is amiss with your feet, pay attention to how your body compensates to avoid pain and how you may feel misaligned or have pain on the opposite side of your body. It is important to make them stronger and more stable but also, to roll them out often just like we would do with other sets of muscles.

Leg lift
Start laying on your side trying to stack your pelvis as much as you can (figure 5). You can achieve that thinking of moving your top leg away from your head. Lift and lower the top leg keeping the feet flexed and parallel and the rest of the body super stable (figure 6). Do 10 reps.

Leg Semicircle
With the same set up as the leg lift, draw an imaginary semi-circle with your top leg. Point your foot this time and make sure you reach equally in front (figure 7), up (figure 8) and back (figure 9). Make the semi-circle smaller if you can’t stabilize the rest of the body. Do 5 to 8 reps and reverse the direction of the circles.

Clam
Laying on your side with legs bent towards the chest (figure 10). Keep the heels together and pelvis stable, rotate open the top leg so your knee tries to reach up to the ceiling (figure 11). Do 10 reps.

 

Core Strength

In Pilates, no matter what part of the body you’re working on, we will always remind you to use your abdominals (core). Having a strong core as a dancer will help you turn better, have more control over your extremities and have better balance. For a singer and actor, part of what we learn is to use our abs to project our voice, but the core is not just the “six-pack.” We cue deeper than those.

Learning how to breathe properly and how that affects the movement of the diaphragm can be life-changing. There may be a time when a director asks for you to hold an unusual pose while singing a long note. You may want to think of using your oblique and back muscles when that happens. They come handy when stabilization is needed.

Single-Leg Stretch
Lift the head and shoulders off the mat. With both hands, lightly pull one knee in towards your chest while the other is straight out around 45 degrees (figure 12) Switch the legs and hands at keeping everything else stable for at least 10 reps.

Crisscross
Keep the legs switching from the previous exercise but this time, hands are behind the head. Rotate the torso towards the leg that’s bending in trying to keep the elbows wide and the pelvis stable (figure 13).

Scissors
Send one left straight up to the ceiling and the other straight forward in a diagonal. Lift the head and shoulders off the mat and put your hands behind the leg that’s reaching up. Switch the legs at least 10 times. Let the leg coming up meet the hands. Keep the rest of the body stable (figure 14).

Double Leg Stretch
Lift the head and shoulders off the mat. Hug both legs into your chest (figure 15). Keeping the head and shoulders up all the time, send the arms back and the legs forward (figure 16). Hug them back in and repeat 10 times.

Leg Lowers
Send both legs straight up to the ceiling. Place the hands behind the neck and lift the head and shoulders off the mat (figure 17). Lower the legs to a diagonal (figure 18) and lift them back up. Do 10 reps.

 

BONUS TRACK!

My favorite question to ask my clients these days is: Have you heard of the pelvic floor? This is the game changer! The pelvic floor is the muscle group holding your organs from the bottom of your torso. Also, the ones that help you not poop your pants. We all have it so, why not talk about it?

When you learn to engage the pelvic floor EVERYTHING becomes so much easier. My voice teacher calls it “the root” and with good reason. Of course, I know about it because I teach about it every day but, learning how to engage while singing made me able to actually do it in an entirely different way and better than when I was performing frequently seven years ago. To practice my speaking voice, using my pelvic floor and abs, I also play with volume, projection and going from my head to my chest voice and vice versa. Once you become aware of it and start to engage it, everything falls into place and starts to make sense.

Some Thoughts

As mentioned above, anyone can do all these exercises, whether a performer or not. Learning a bit more about anatomy can help you extend your career in show business and enhance your general wellbeing. No one wants to see their training, auditions, and much less their performances being disrupted by injuries. Knowing how to avoid common injuries or simply how your body works can make a huge difference.

For me, deciding to become a Pilates trainer a few years ago has allowed me to have a new stable career as well as learn so much about my body. Now that I’m putting myself back in the performance game, I can approach an audition, a dance class or a voice lesson in a very different way. I’m excited to see what more I can do, always trying to stay healthy and feel good.

I encourage you to do these basic exercises shown here at least twice a week. I also suggest digging more into what Pilates can offer.

 

“Everyone is the architect of their own happiness.” – Joseph Pilates