Last Sunday while I was cross-training, my teacher told me, “Relax your neck and shoulders. Engage your core and tuck your tailbone into neutral. Lift your chest. Keep your pelvic and lower abdominal muscles engaged, and don’t forget to breathe!”
If you’re like me, when you get lazy your shoulders slouch forward and your butt sticks out; your belly relaxes and your head drops, watching the pavement or trail just a few feet in front of you. The role of support slips out of your core and into your legs. Good thing I’ve got experience with belly dance on my side to keep my running form in check!
Yes, that’s right, I said belly dance helps my running form!
Before I got serious about running I knew I needed to find other opportunities to strengthen my body too, and I happened upon a troupe of belly dancers. I used to start every Friday night out at this particular bar, just so I could see them. I was attracted by their swirling skirts, tattoos, bindis and weird facial markings and pounds and pounds of jewelry, but what kept me coming back and begging to learn their dance was their smiles. These dancers weren’t just performing, they were having fun, and I wanted to have fun too!
Lucky for me, the dance troupe I happened upon performed American Tribal Style belly dance, which has its roots in traditional Middle Eastern dance and looks like an age-old tribal art, but officially began in the 1980’s in San Fransisco, where a dancer named Carolena Nericcio began a troupe called Fat Chance Belly Dance and developed an improvisational belly dance form that includes elements from many different styles of dance.
I say I was lucky for a few reasons. First, ATS is a dance that is always performed in groups, and its improvisational nature forces dancers to interact a lot with one another during performance, making it very complimentary to a running lifestyle that keeps me alone for miles and miles. Also, the aesthetic of ATS is founded upon a solid posture that, in Carolena’s words, employs “uplifted arms and joyful display of the body.” This lift of the upper body is floated over a grounded, stable platform in the lower body, a combination which is particularly beneficial for distance runners.
Under my first teachers I received an introduction to this lifted, supported posture and an overview of the movement of the dance, but it was once I moved to New York and started studying under Mimi Fontana, director of the Manhattan Tribal troupe and dance studio, that my education in posture really began! My teacher Mimi started her athletic life as a figure skater and in addition to professionally teaching ATS belly dance, she is also a certified personal trainer, fitness instructor, pilates teacher and has studied nearly every form of body movement there is, from Aerobics and Ballet to Yoga and Zumba. She’s not a runner, but she is a leader in the New York City dance community and most certainly a very well-rounded athlete and coach. I am so thankful for all she has taught me about my body and the way I can manipulate it to better facilitate movement. And as a teacher, if there is one thing she is a stickler for, it’s posture!
I recently returned to Mimi’s classes after a run-focused hiatus, and as I dive back into the world of dance, I thought I’d share some key elements of posture that I implement in both dance and running.
Step 1: Keep the legs soft. Obviously, we don’t stand still with our knees bent when we run, but it’s good to remember not to overextend our legs whether we’re standing, dancing or running. It’s important to engage your core, and thereby provide a solid foundation under which your legs can freely move, whether they’re driving you forward in a 5k or spinning you around for 8 counts.
Step 2: Bring your pelvis into a neutral position. The key word here is neutral. Don’t go crazy and roll your tailbone underneath your spine; merely engage your lower abdominal muscles and your pelvic floor (like a kegel and a crunch combined). If you stand in profile before a mirror you should notice your waistband is parallel to the floor, the spine is lengthened, and if you take a couple of leg swings or shimmy your hips up and down a little, you should notice that your range of motion is improved from when you’re booty’s stickin’ out.
Step 3: Roll the shoulders back and down and keep them soft and relaxed. We often have a natural tendency to shrug our shoulders when we’re tense or excited; this will help counteract that and help ease your arm swing.
Step 4: Lift your chest. Without arching your back, think of your chest as a separate entity from your lower body and lift it! Lift lift lift! I think of it as if there is a bunch of balloons tied under my armpits, or as if I’m reaching toward the sky with my heart. This opens up the chest cavity and allows our lungs to take in precious air; not to mention it lengthens your torso to create a beautiful, uplifted silhouette!
Step 5: Smile! It will help you breathe. Okay, this one is a stretch for runners, who pretty much can’t forget to breathe, but whether I’m dancing or running keeping a smile on my face helps me remember to keep my breath and my attitude light and easy. Last spring I even introduced smile training into my running repertoire with stellar results!
For inspiration, here’s a nifty video of my teacher and Manhattan Tribal. Yeah!
Now I’m not saying you need to go out and join a belly dance troupe or anything, but hopefully these tips will help you keep your form stable and lifted next time you run, and maybe even add a little shimmy to your step!
Do you draw inspiration from other forms of movement for your running form? Have you ever tried dance as cross training?