Training your center for country dancing

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Have you ever been to a dance lesson where someone didn't mention your center? You have to move from your center!

Okay. Okay. So we have all heard it before, a million times, already. We know this, but we don't all do it, or at least not all the time. The truth is that it can take years to really understand what it means to engage and move from your core and then perhaps even more years to be able to apply the theory consistently.

The first step

The first step in mastering this fundamental principle of dancing is awareness--knowing how to feel movement in your core. So, let's get real. If you can't touch your toes, then you probably can't feel your center, and consequently cannot use it at an optimal level. The center of your body, your abdomen, is made up of 6 different, yet connected muscles that move by working off of each other like an accordion. However, if they are not toned and supple, then they become much less engaged and tend to move awkwardly as if in a solid mass—So, why does that matter?    

All movement comes from the core

Because ALL body movement originates in the core. From the spine to the tips of the fingers, energy, in the form of movement, radiates outward and then back inward before moving again. But the spine, in and of itself, cannot act alone. It engages and operates as a result of the contraction and release of the abdominal muscles. Let’s get more specific.

The job of your abs.

One of the first and most important jobs that the abdominal muscles cover is postural support. Although many people believe that their posture is something they are born with, how we hold our body is actually something that we develop over time with our habits and muscular support (or lack thereof) in the right areas. Although all six abdominal muscles take part in creating body posture, the deepest muscle group, the transverse abdominal, because of its location closest to the back, has a much greater capacity to affect the health and stability of the spine. You cannot touch or see the transverse abdominal from the outside of the body, but it wraps around the inside of the torso and supports the spine much like a weight belt.

Don't be weak!

A weak transverse abdominal allows the spine to sink and sag over time and results in poor posture. Without good posture, dancers often experience difficulty moving the body without pitching your lower center (hips) forward ahead of the feet, or backwards, over the heels. Both are typical responses from dancers with poor abdominal control. For leaders, poor posture usually results in not being able to lead clearly or stepping on their follower’s feet. On the other hand, ladies that have poor posture often tend to feel heavy, behind their feet, and much less responsive (or slow). Another negative impact of poor postural control for both leader and follower is the inability to stack the necessary joints completely over a supporting foot which affects both balance and one’s ability to turn and rotate.

Move with power

In addition to postural support, the abdominal muscles act in symmetry with the muscles of the back to move the spine forward, laterally and rotationally. Contra Body Movement Position (CBMP), one of the most common elements of almost every dance form, is made possible by two sets of abdominal muscles called the internal and external obliques, a pair of muscles that wrap around either side of the torso. Although the oblique muscles also play an important role in posture, they are crucial to the rotation and lateral (side to side) flexion of the body. Any time that the body must stay towards the partner while the feet move in another direction, the oblique muscles must engage and release to make that happen. In addition, any time the hips must twist in either direction, the obliques create that action as well. Ever hear yourself claiming, “I just can’t move my hips like that?” Weak and underdeveloped oblique muscles are responsible, not the hips.

Prevent back pain

The most externally situated and therefore most visible abdominal muscle, the rectus abdominal (commonly referred to as the six-pack) is responsible for the flexion in the lumbar spine or lower back and controls the tilt of the pelvis up and/or down. Weakness in the rectus abdominal impedes its ability to support the lower back which often results in chronic lower back pain (a common complaint among dancers). When strengthening of the lower abdominals is ignored, certain movements in dance, namely, hip flexion, hip extension, stabilization, and back extension can cause the lower back muscles to overextend. Damage to the lower back can ensue because the back’s extension is not counter-supported by the lower front abdominal muscle group.

Practice all day

Even simple movements like moving straight forward or backward require abdominal muscle engagement. As the legs move in opposition, the hips or pelvic girdle acts as a tray that must balance the upper body and keep it from falling over. The abdominal muscles are almost completely responsible for that balancing act. Imagine them like two hands holding the upper body steady and strong above the hips. Now, imagine the body balanced on the tray with no hands for added support. The whole torso would slump down like a lump of Jell-o without the abdominal muscles holding the ribs and spine firmly in place. It is easy then to understand how a general lack of abdominal health can affect all aspects of body movement, creating both balance issues as well as chronic pain.

What is a dancer to do?

Well, if you have been dancing more than a year and are investing any more than ten dollars a week into your dancing, I believe that it is well worth the effort to squeeze in fifteen minutes of ab work at least three days a week. And, although regular sit-ups will go a long way in improving your spinal flexion, adding exercises that improve rotation and lateral flexion will make you a much better and healthier dancer in no time. Below is a list of exercises you might choose from to get started:

Try these exercises!

Select 5 to 10 of the following exercises and then do three sets of 15 of each: 

Spinal flexion - such as:

  1. Ab Crunch on an Exercise Ball
  2. Long Arm Crunch
  3. Reverse Crunch
  4. Basic Crunch
  5. Captain's Chair

Rotation - such as:

  1. Bicycle Crunch
  2. Seated Oblique Twists with Medicine Ball

Lateral Flexion - such as:

  1. Crossover Crunch
  2. Standing Side Bends

Some fun instructions for performing most of these exercises and more can be found at

About the Author:

Tracy Martin contributing writer to CountryDancePros. She is an Author, Life Coach, Soul Searcher and former successful competitive ballroom, swing & country dancer. She has spend countless hours on the floor as a student as a teacher and even more time contemplating and writing about her journey.

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