Good alignment and posture are visually pleasing. They also ensure the most effective movement and help to prevent muscle imbalances, strains and injuries. Consequently, learning how to hold and move the body in alignment is something that is beneficial throughout life, not just in a dance class.
Alignment: Alignment is the correct placement of body parts in relation to each other.
Posture: Posture is the way the body is held.
What is alignment?
Alignment is the placement of the joints in anatomically correct positions. Correct alignment of the body, specifically the joints, makes movement more efficient and reduces the risk of injury.
Advice from experts in anatomy, fitness and dance suggests that the most efficient alignments are those where the body is balancing on the bones like building blocks, so that the major joints are neatly stacked. This makes the body look and feel longer, reduces stress on the joints and produces more efficient movement.
Four key building blocks of alignment are particularly efficient for dancers:
- Arches of the feet vertical (“pull up the arches”)
- Knees over centres of the feet (“knees over toes”)
- Front of the pelvis vertical (“neutral alignment”)
- Ribcage vertical over the pelvis (“use abdominal and back muscles together to balance the ribs”)
1. Arches of the feet vertical
Having good alignment at the feet can increase movement efficiency in the hips, knees and ankles, as well as in the feet.
Good alignment over three bony landmarks on the feet allows the weight of the body to balance on the bones with less stress to the muscles, tendons and ligaments. It also allows for shock absorbency when landing from jumps.
The alignment landmarks of the foot are the:
- base of the big toe
- top of the arch
When the body weight is correctly distributed, these three landmarks will be on the same vertical plane and the Achilles tendon will make a straight line up from the heel. Body weight will be equally distributed over the base of the big toe, base of the little toe and the heel, with the arch pulled up.
Two common misalignments at the foot are:
- pronation (“rolling in”) – the top of the arch falls to the inside of the base of the big toe and the heel
- supination (“sickling”) – the top of the arch falls to the outside of the base of the big toe and the heel
Some amount of pronation or supination is supposed to occur naturally when walking, running or jumping to allow for shock absorption and efficient movement. However, too much movement in either direction can produce stresses that may result in injury to the feet, ankles and knees.
- Understand how alignment at the feet should look by checking in the mirror to see if the arches are vertical and the Achilles tendon is straight. Alternatively, ask someone to take a photograph.
- Aim to feel equal pressure over three points on the bottom of each foot: big toe, little toe and heel.
2. Knees over centres of the feet
Whatever the position of the legs, the centres of the knees should align with the centres of the feet so that the ankle and knee joints can hinge without twisting.
Whenever the knees flex, they should go directly over the feet. This applies whether the feet and knees are pointing forward in parallel or pointing more to the sides in turnout. This is also the case when the legs are not in a symmetrical position (e.g. in a lunge).
When it comes to turnout for ballet, the knees, ankles and feet are put at risk if the feet are forced further to the side than the knees can go.
Dancers should work to improve their turnout by challenging their hips slightly. However, positions should still feel comfortable and good alignment is essential. If dancers pretend to have more turnout than they really have (by trying to show more turnout than their hips can manage) they misalign their feet and stress their knee and ankle joints.
- Concentrate on understanding how good alignment of the knees over the centres of the feet should look by practising some demi-pliés while looking straight down to check the alignment is correct.
- Concentrate on understanding how good alignment of the knees over the centres of the feet should feel by practising some demi-pliés with correct alignment while keeping the eyes closed.
3. Front of the pelvis vertical
The pelvis is the link between the lower limbs (legs and feet) and the torso.
It is a basin-shaped bony structure that is made up of the ilium, ischium and pubic bones on each side. The spine is connected to the pelvis by the sacrum, which sits in between the two pelvic bones at the base of the spine. A person’s centre of gravity lies just in front of their sacrum.
Dancers must learn to move from their centre and the pelvis is the base of this centre.
Proper or neutral pelvic alignment enables effective muscle use and efficient movement execution – including the external rotation from the hip joint referred to as “turnout”. Having an extremely stable, well-aligned pelvis will help keep the supporting leg held while allowing the working leg to relax in its hip socket to produce a greater range of motion and fluidity of movement.
For most people, the pelvis is well-aligned when the top front corners of the pelvis – the anterior superior iliac spines (ASIS) – and the lower front of the pelvis (pubic symphysis) are on the same vertical plane. This basically means that if there were headlights on the front of the hip bones they would be level. Hence, the beams of light would shine straight out horizontally.
If the ASIS are in front of the pubic symphysis, the pelvis is tipped forward. This is called anterior tilt (sometimes known as “arching the lower back”).
Anterior tilting causes unnecessary stress to the lumbar spine and it can shorten the muscles that cross the front of the hips. Dancing in this position also means the abdominal muscles slacken off and the inner thighs cannot activate efficiently, which compromises turnout.
If there were headlights on the front of the hip bones, the beams of light would dip down when the pelvis is in anterior tilt.
If the ASIS are behind the pubic symphysis, the pelvis is tipped backward. This is called posterior tilt (sometimes known as “tucking”).
Posterior tilting can overactivate the quadriceps (thigh muscles) and gluteal muscles (bottom) and may cause these muscles to become overdeveloped. Posterior tilting makes it harder to move freely.
If there were headlights on the front of the hip bones, the beams of light would tip up when the pelvis is in posterior tilt.
Engaging the abdominal muscles can prevent anterior pelvic tilt but engaging them too much can cause posterior tilt. Strive to find the neutral middle ground so that the bones are in balance, but the body can still move efficiently.
If there were headlights on the front of the hip bones, the beams of light would shine straight out horizontally when the pelvis is balanced.
- Rather than locking the body into a position, try to get used to continually assessing alignment to feel when the pelvis is balancing on the top of the thigh bones.
- To securely hold a balance on one foot, the centre of gravity should be maintained in a vertical line that passes through the foot to the floor. Try to visualise the pelvis and sacrum stacked over the standing (supporting) leg.
4. Ribcage vertical over the pelvis
When aligned efficiently, the ribcage is vertical and stacked directly above the pelvis.
A common misalignment is to lift the bottom of the ribcage forward and up, which tilts the top of the ribcage back. This often occurs with anterior pelvic tilt.
If the ribcage is always tilted the muscles on the back of the spine will become shorter, making it more difficult to bring the spine into neutral alignment.
Like many misalignments, tipping the ribcage reduces movement efficiency and is less aesthetically pleasing.
- Misalignment of the ribcage is easier to see and feel once pelvis alignment is correct. The aim is then to get used to stacking the ribs above the correctly aligned pelvis.
- Strive to look and feel longer, balanced and at ease by engaging both the abdominal and back muscles just enough to maintain alignment without creating excess tension.
- Due to the interactive nature of alignment, aim to adjust misalignments gradually and simultaneously.
What is posture?
Posture is a term that is used synonymously with alignment.
Posture is often referred to in the context of standing in an upright position, but posture is not only relevant to static positions. Both posture and alignment are dynamic because dancers need to be able to constantly make tiny adjustments to return to neutral, biomechanically efficient and aesthetically pleasing body positions while moving.
Therefore, it may be better to think about “postural alignment” when dancing. This might help a dancer ensure that they pay attention to how they are supporting and adjusting their body weight for maximum efficiency at all times.
Postural alignment along the plumb line
The spine has four natural curves: the cervical, thoracic, lumbar and sacral curvatures. Any change in these curves can cause stress on the intervertebral discs and lead to unnecessary muscle action. Therefore, the aim of correct postural alignment is not to iron out the curves. Instead, rather than thinking of being “straight”, think of being stacked vertically and in neutral alignment. This will lengthen the body and allow the curves to be properly maintained.
To help with this, picture the three primary body weights – the skull, the thorax (trunk/torso) and the pelvis – stacked along the plumb line. The plumb line is an imaginary vertical line. It drops from the sky to fall through the centre of the top of the head, straight down to the feet and into the ground.
The exterior landmarks of alignment to be aware of when picturing the body stood sideways and stacked up along the plumb line are: the side of the ankle, the side of the knee, the greater trochanter (the top of the thigh bone) at the side of the hip, the side of the ribcage and shoulder girdle, and the centre of the ear. Each body part must be lined up, or balanced, in sequence. This is because any change in one body part will affect the alignment of the body in its entirety.
The plumb line applies whether a dancer is in parallel or turned out.
Postural Alignment Tips
- Rather than thinking of being “straight”, think of being stacked vertically and in neutral alignment.
- The intention is to lengthen the body and allow the curves to be properly maintained.
This resource is intended as a helpful guide.
It was compiled using the following sources:
Deckert, Jennifer (2009) ‘Improving Pelvic Alignment’, International Association for Dance Medicine and Science Bulletin For Teachers, 1(1), pp. 11–12. Available at: https://iadms.org/resources/publications/iadms-bulletin/ (Accessed: 5 January 2023).
Haas, Jacqui Green (2010) Dance Anatomy. Leeds: Human Kinetics.
Olsen, Andrea (2004) Body Stories: A Guide To Experiential Anatomy. Hanover and London: University Press of New England. Available at: http://old.girshon.ru/txt/eng/BodyStories%20-%20Andrea%20Olsen.pdf (Accessed: 5 January 2023).
Welsh, Tom (2009) Conditioning For Dancers. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
Wilmerding, Virginia and Donna Krasnow (2011) ‘Turnout for Dancers: Hip Anatomy And Factors Affecting Turnout‘, International Association for Dance Medicine and Science. Available at: https://iadms.org/resources/publications/resources-paper/#turnout (Accessed: 5 January 2023).
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.