A Dancer’s Guide to the Upper Back

Hi everybody!  Today we discuss the concept of the upper back in ballet dance.  This part of a ballet dancer’s technique is often ignored. Yet it is vital to maintaining correct posture, a high arabesque and many other technical achievements.  While most back workouts are aimed at strengthening the distinctive muscles of the lower back, upper back workouts help strengthen a more specific and useful area.  You will be presented with a variety of exercises today to help you out, in addition to learning the uses and anatomy of the area.

Uses of the Upper Back

Your spine is a very articulate and complex part of your body: it is more than just a bone.  There are 132 spinal joints associated with the vertebrae.  Because of the spine’s ability to be mobilized and rolled through, it can be a great tool for artistry and expression.  Some of the great dancers I have watched have the ability to use the mobility in their upper back to successfully convey different characters onstage.  It is not only a practical, technical part of dancing, but an artistic one too.

Furthermore, it is useful in physical endeavors as well.  Pointe Magazine wrote an entire article about how the upper back can help improve your posture, and provided various exercises for this.  When the upper back is supported the line is extended from the base of the spine to the crown of the head creating the appearance of more confidence.

Finally, ballet steps that involve an extension of the spinal joints to the back require a very strong and stable upper back for support.  If you don’t have the back strength to keep yourself upright in arabesque, often the pesky culprit is a lack of upper back strength.  While the lower part of the torso is strong and stiff, the upper back is loose, and therefore the line is flattened and the position cannot be supported.

Now, before we learn how to strengthen and find articulation in this area, we must examine the precise anatomy and physiology of the upper spine.

Anatomy Lesson

A study entitled “Injuries in Female Dancers Aged 8 to 16 Years” by Neil Steinberg et. al concluded that “joint range of motion and scoliosis” are associated with back injuries in recreational (non-professional) dancers.  What does this mean?  That dancers with increased flexibility and particularly bendy backs are more prone to injury (typically lower back injury). 20% of the dancers involved in this study had experienced a back injury.

The takeaway from this is that overuse of the lower back can cause horrible injuries in young, recreational dancers, which I estimate is the majority of the dance world population.  By learning to utilize the upper back rather than the lower back, we can reduce the risk of injury.

In anatomical terms, this means utilizing the areas of the cervical and thoracic areas of the spine rather than the lumbar area.  The diagram below shows the areas of the spine:


(Photo: http://www.mayfieldclinic.com/pe-anatspine.htm)

The thoracic area of the spine is the least flexible due to the rib connections to the vertebrae in the area.  Yet, this is the area that can be the most pliable and aesthetically pleasing in lines such as arabesque and cambré en arrière.  The majority of the lower back injuries discussed earlier were centralized in the lumbar and sacral areas of the spine.

There is a specific muscle that is useful in articulating the upper back, known as the subscapularis.  As the prefix suggests, it is the muscle located underneath the scapula, which is the technical name for the shoulder blade.  This muscle helps control the upper spine, manipulate the shoulder blades, and bring the shoulders back to create an appearance of greater confidence.  However, this muscle also plays the important role of connecting your arms to your spine via the scapula, therefore connecting your arms to the rest of your body to aid in correct technique.


(Source: http://www.kingofthegym.com/subscapularis/)

Learning To Articulate

Finally, we can learn how to articulate and strengthen this muscle.  First, I encourage you to test the flexibility and control of your upper back.  Do a cambré backwards and try your best to articulate through each vertebrae going downward, beginning with your neck (cervical spine) and ending in the lumbar area.  If you find it difficult to control the area below your neck and above your lower back, you are not alone!  This is the hardest area to articulate due to the various rib attachments there.

To strengthen the area try doing back ups without coming up all the way.  Lying on your stomach, come up through your upper back and only lift that area off the floor. That way you will strengthen the upper rather than the lower back.  Over time this will enable you to develop control and stronger muscular fibers.

Thank you for reading this post, and I hope you learned something!  I hope to catch you next week here at gouletballet.com.  Make sure you are following us to the right.





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