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Is your psoas just so-so? Understanding the Role of the Dancer’s Muscle


by Janine Bryant for The Dance Journal

When audiences see movement performed that appears to require very little effort on the part of the dancer, it is often because the dancer was able to generate the movement efficiently.  Understanding how to move efficiently means firing the right muscle(s) for the required action without recruiting unnecessary ones which can make movement appear tense or ‘inorganic’.

As Ruth and John Solomon share in their paper entitled, Functional Anatomy Training:  An Efficient Warm Up Emphasizing the Role of the Psoas, “I readily perceived that the study of anatomy had the potential not only to explain to me how efficient movement is produced, but also that it provided a very precise and universally accepted language with which to pass that knowledge on to my students.” {1}

This month’s column focuses on the role iliopsoas. More commonly known as the psoas in the dance world, this muscle is one of the longest and most powerful muscles in the body, and it is the only muscle that attaches to the spine, pelvis and femur. The iliopsoas includes the psoas major and the iliacus.  This muscle is often called ‘the dancer’s muscle’, because it is one that is used often as dancers flex their femur in an effort to create high front and side extensions.

The iliacus originates from the inside of the iliac crest [and fossa], and the psoas takes its origin from the vertebrae between the twelfth thoracic (T12) and fifth lumbar (L5) vertebrae. The iliacus and psoas are joined in the common iliopsoas tendon, which inserts on the lesser trochanter of the femur. This complex is located right in the center of the body and attached to three of the anatomical units that are most crucial to dance movement—the lower spine, pelvis, and hip joint. {1}

Dancers often speak about the need to ‘move from the center’.  Understanding the psoas and how to recruit it for both stabilization and activation could help dancers achieve this goal.

If a dancer can stabilize the dorsal aspect of the muscle (the portion attached to T12-L2) while activating the contraction of the proximal portion (e.g., to bring the thigh up toward the torso) the body will remain in good alignment and produce an efficient movement. On the other hand, movement is inefficient specifically when it is initiated by the peripheral muscles that lie near the surface of the body, as can be seen all too commonly in students at all levels and in all genres of dance. {1}

We can think of students who are having difficulties with side leg extensions.  Beyond the required 90° position, a teacher may notice tension and students can often experience popping or clicking sounds that will hinder this effort.

This has been identified as a positioning problem of the gesture leg and can be solved by the teacher gently guiding the leg to find that particular student’s natural ‘second position’, and raise the leg from there. This position varies from dancer to dancer and should ultimately feel right, i.e. pain free and without tension. The quadriceps do engage during extension, but their role is to be kept secondary to the psoas. {1}

Releasing the quads and allowing the psoas to do its job can help students eliminate the ‘gripping’ that often occurs when the quadriceps complex is over-recruited during leg extensions.

So, how can dancers learn to use the psoas in order to move more efficiently from their centers?

Solomon recommends a beginning warm up that starts from standing: roll down to the floor, place the seat onto the floor, continue to roll onto the back, reverse the movement and return to standing. Perform this movement vigorously to increase blood flow, heart rate and allow for joint lubrication.{1}

Exercises that emphasize the role of the femur as ‘lever’ can help strengthen the psoas and include coccyx balances with leg extensions to the front and side.

Solomon concludes the article with, “I emphasize the roles of the psoas, the pelvis, and the spine because the study of anatomy has led me to believe that they are the prime motivators of movement. If the dancer is able to initiate action by the use of these components, all else should follow and the movement produced will be relatively stress free and efficient.” {1}

Please refer to this helpful article cited below for visual aids as well as a listing of references used in the article that may generate further exploration of the psoas or ‘the dancer’s muscle’.

{1} Functional Anatomy Training:  An Efficient Warm Up Emphasizing the Role of the Psoas, IADMS Bulletin for Teachers, Vol 3, #2, 2011.

Until next time, dance healthy and long, friends!

Janine Bryant
Co-Director of Dance
Faculty of Biokinetics, Education
and the Campolo College for Graduate and Professional Studies
Eastern University, St. Davids Pa.


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