Long and slender, ballet dancer Anna St. Laurent makes a perfect line, pressing her lower legs against the top of a silver exercise ball, flexing her feet and tensing the muscles of her inner thighs and abdomen, with the back of her head and shoulders on the mat. St. Laurent danced throughout her college career, then she married and started a family.
“This program allows older dancers to return to dance again, without hurting our bodies,” says the 40-year-old mother of two. For the last three months, she has practiced Progressing Ballet Technique (PBT) with instructor, Monica Coulter.
Balance and coordination are critical to performing all physical tasks and there’s a word for how it all comes together. Proprioception, from the Latin word, proprius, meaning “one’s own” and capio, capere, to take or grasp, is the sense of the relative position of one’s own body and the effort used in movement. It is the information
the brain needs to direct the various muscle groups. The temporary impairment of proprioception due to changing bodies is the reason adolescents sometimes seem clumsy and old
people, off balance. The proprioceptive sense is believed to be composed of information from sensory neurons located in the inner ear governing motion and orientation, and in the stretch receptors located in the muscles and joint-supporting ligaments, directing and maintaining stance.
Growth that might also influence this would be large increases or drops in bodyweight and size due to fluctuations of fat, say after liposuction, or during a rapid gain in muscle content, during bodybuilding or with the use of anabolic steroids. Epilepsy, migraines, even extreme fatigue may impair the brain’s process of integrating information.
It can also occur in those who gain new levels of flexibility and contortion, since they may be using a range of motion never experienced before or unused since youth.
When learning any new skill, sport or art form, it is usually necessary to become familiar with some of the proprioceptive tasks specific to that activity. Without the appropriate integration of the input, an artist would not be able to brush paint onto a canvas without looking at the hand as it moved the brush over the canvas. It would be impossible to drive a car because the motorist would not be able to steer while looking at the road ahead. People on the streets would not be able to walk without watching where they put their feet. A dancer could not perform ballet. However, proprioceptive impairments may be diminished or eliminated through training.
Training the Proprioceptive Sense
Achieving balance requires the brain to integrate inner ear and vision information with muscular stance. The proprioceptive sense can be sharpened through the study of a variety of disciplines, such as Pilates, Yoga or Tai Chi, and specifically for ballet dancers—this relatively new program employed by St. Laurent.
Ballet dancers are particularly dependent on body awareness and balance to perform. More importantly, the correct use of their core muscle groups extends the life of their performance art. Using tools like exercise balls and therabands, students of PBT gain awareness and begin to feel the correct muscle groups and how balance, posture and weight affect their performances. The earlier students start, the stronger their bodies are.
PBT was developed by Australian dancer and instructor, Marie Walton-Mahon. There are only a few certified trainers in the United States, yet Chattanoogan Monica Coulter is among them. Recently returned from leading a workshop in Las Vegas, where participants’ ages ranged from eight to 64, Coulter is gearing up for the season at her studio at the Wellness Corner at Nutrition World.
“The goal of the program is to help participants find better balance,” says Coulter. Not all of Coulter’s students are involved in ballet. In fact, only about 50 percent are dancers, dance instructors or former dancers.
“It’s also a great tool for physical and occupational therapists whose patients are recovering from injuries,” she says. “But for dancers of any age, it is an important
tool for preventing injuries.”
St. Laurent believes her muscle tone is increased and a hip injury she has dealt with for a few years is much better through the practice of PBT. “Monica is an excellent teacher and PBT lets us do things as more mature dancers, that we thought we’d never do again.” What it does for a person’s return to ballet cannot compare with its value to the pre-professional ballet dancer, Coulter believes.
“PBT is an innovative way for ballet students, especially those interested in ballet, professionally, to understand the depth and importance of training muscle memory,” says Coulter. “This training focuses on the progression of the whole, well-rounded ballet dancer.”
Learn more at Classical Barre with PBT on Facebook.