The Body in Space – anatomical dimensions, planes, and posture in dance & life
“To understand the concepts of balance and counterbalance through posture and placement, it is helpful to identify (1) each of the three body planes, which link two of the three dimensions of height, width, and depth, (2) the center of gravity, (3) the central vertical axis, and (4) the base of support.”
– Rory Foster, Ballet Pedagogy: The Art of Teaching **
Last week I talked about the dynamic actions that make the creation of shapes with the body possible, and now we focus on the intersection between the elements of the body and space, starting with how we describe the shapes themselves in anatomical dimensions and spatial planes, so they can ultimately be used in expression and reproducible in choreography, as well as describable and understandable to audiences. We can use discipline-specific language to do this of course, but to me it is valuable to work conceptually as this helps us to work effectively across disciplines over the course of our lifespan.
Learning the spatial language of the body, the dimensions and planes, opens doors to understanding functional anatomy, kinesiology, medicine, biology, behavioral psychology, dance, yoga, and athletic techniques of dynamic alignment and movement, movement analysis, and choreography.
Peggy Hackney provides a nice succinct summary of the Laban Movement Analysis definition of the dimensions and planes of space in her book, Making Connections**:
“Our world has three cardinal dimensions. Each dimension contains two directions which are opposite poles: Vertical–Up/Down; Sagittal–Forward/Backward; Horizontal–Left/Right or sideward open/sideward closed. Each direction is one spatial pull…Movement in the three cardinal planes is movement which invests in two spatial pulls at the same time; for instance up and left in the vertical plane. Each plane is like a flat cycle, or rectangle. Vertical Plane–combines Up/Down and Right/Left; Sagittal Plane–combines Forward/Backward and Up/Down; Horizontal Plane–combines Right/Left and Forward/Backward.”
The Anatomy Coloring Book**, commonly used for studying anatomy in all disciplines, including my kinesiology for dancers class in grad school, further describes the planes thusly:
“The median plane is the midline longitudinal plane dividing the head and torso into right and left halves. The presence of the sectioned midline of the vertebral column and spinal cord is characteristic of this plane. The median plane is the middle sagittal (mid-sagittal) plane.
The sagittal plane is a longitudinal plane dividing the head and torso into left and right parts (not halves). It is parallel to the median (not medial) plane.”
Regarding the sagittal plane, Rory Foster in the book Ballet Pedagogy adds: “The sagittal plane is a vertical line that symmetrically bisects the body into right and left halves. When viewed from the front with the feet in first position, this line runs from the top of the head through the center of the body ending between the heels–the base of support for the evenly distributed gravitational weight of the body. The spatial dimensions in movement are height and depth, as in a forward bend or backbend or a somersault forward or backward.”
This is why we also call the sagittal plane the “wheel” plane, if we move or roll forwards or backwards like a wheel, we are moving through the sagittal plane.
Back to the Anatomy Coloring Book, it describes the coronal plane: “The coronal or frontal plane is a longitudinal plane dividing the body (head, torso, limbs) or its parts into front and back halves or parts.” – Anatomy Coloring Book
Ballet Pedagogy adds: “The coronal (vertical) plane is a vertical line that divides the body into front and back parts. When viewing this line from a profile position with the feet in parallel, it runs from the top of the head, just in front of the ear, continuing through the pelvis, hip joint, knee, and into the metatarsal or transverse arch in front of the ankle. The spatial dimensions in movement are height and width, as in a stretch or cambré to the side or a cartwheel.”
The coronal/frontal/vertical plane is also called the “door” plane, as one is in this plane while standing in a doorway, or while gesturing or moving to the side.
“The coronal and sagittal planes together establish the central vertical axis, also referred to as the line of gravity or the plumb line.” – again Ballet Pedagogy
The Anatomy Coloring Book describes the transverse or horizontal plane: “The transverse plane divides the body into upper and lower halves or parts (cross sections). It is perpendicular to the longitudinal planes. Transverse planes may be horizontal planes of the upright body. Transverse planes are called ‘axial’ or ‘transaxial’ sections/slices by radiologists.”
Ballet Pedagogy adds, “The horizontal (transverse) plane divides the body into upper and lower halves. The spatial dimensions in movement are width and depth (rotation) as in a pirouette or fouette turn.”
The transverse/horizontal plane is also known as the “table” plane, as when we move or gesture in this plane, it is as if across a tabletop.
“The point at which all three planes (coronal, sagittal, and horizontal) cross each other is the center of gravity (COG)–the imaginary point where all parts of the body balance each other. This is located just below the navel at the body’s midline and anterior to the second sacral vertebra.” – again Ballet Pedagogy
Ballet Pedagogy helps put all of these concepts together to apply to our posture in ballet dancing practice: “Correct ballet posture and placement also require elongation through the legs and torso by means of lengthening and stretching. This is universally known and often misunderstood as pull-up. Elongating the body raises the center of gravity. By raising it, we increase the distance from our center of gravity and our base of support on one or both feet. It is done by lengthening and stretching the spinal column, thereby elongating the spine’s natural curves. This causes diminished stability, but enables greater mobility, allowing the dancer to move with speed, lightness, and grace. The diminished stability factor is overcome by years of muscular development and control while refining technique… There should be a sensation of pushing downward through the legs from the hip joints while lengthening and pulling up from the waistline. Upward elongation or the torso from the waist should be felt primarily in the spine–head, neck, shoulders, and arms should remain free of any tension. Maintaining this stance requires core abdominal strength as well as control in the upper back and between the shoulder blades.”
If you’re an auditory learner or enjoy podcasts, you might also enjoy this content on my podcast. “The Body in Space” is the second in my podcast series on the Elements of Dance, where I’ll be explaining each Element, including The Body, Action, Shape/Shaping/Space, Time, and Quality/Energy and how I use them in choreography, criticism, teaching, and reflective practice. It’s also my 25th podcast, and I’m incredulous that I’ve already produced that many! It’s been a fun way to collect and share themes from my dancing, yoga, teaching, and coaching practices. If you want to explore the concept of space more on the podcast, check out 003: Finding an Oriented State of Being, & 013: Electric Flow in Dance, Yoga, & Life.
We discussed the abdominal strength required to maintain this alignment last week, and this week I created a couple videos on the A Blythe Coach YouTube Channel that teach and reinforce the anatomical dimensions and planes. Coming up, I’ll be connecting these ideas about the body in space to the larger space in which the dancer performs, and in which the artist or person moves.
My ballet offering this week is “Ebullient Battement & Passe,” in which I teach the movements of battements dégagé, grand battements, coupé, & passé, and the shapes of sur-le-cou-de-pied, and retiré. I also reinforce the anatomical plane concepts discussed this week.
In the sphere of yoga, in the Bhagavad Gita** the ideal posture for meditative practice is described as follows: “Keep the body, head, and neck erect without looking about; gaze instead toward the tip of your nose.” As discussed in my “Electric Flow in Dance, Yoga, & Life” podcast, this allows for energy or prana to “flow easily through the spine along the … important nadis passing through all the chakras.”
Anatomy of Hatha Yoga** demonstrates how important proper alignment is to our practice in an experiential practice:
“No breathing technique will work unless you are sitting correctly, as two simple experiments will show. First sit perfectly straight and breathe evenly, remaining aware of the elliptical nature of the breathing cycle and making sure that you are not creating pauses or jerks at either end of the ellipse. Now slump forward slightly and allow the lumbar lordosis to collapse. Notice three things: inhalation is more labored, exhalation starts with a gasp, and it is impossible to use the abdominal muscles smoothly to aid exhalation. Breathing evenly is impossible and meditation is impossible. The lesson is obvious: Don’t slump.
Now sit on the edge of a chair. Keep the lumbar lordosis maximally arched but lean forward, making an acute angle between the torso and the thighs. Watch your breathing. The abdominal muscles now have to push strongly against a taut abdomen to aid exhalation. Then, at the beginning of inhalation, if you relax your respiration, air rushes into the airways. Try restraining inhalation and notice that active abdominal muscles are required to prevent the sudden influx of air. The lesson here? Don’t lean forward, even with a straight back.”
As I mentioned last week, the topic of establishing physical integrity and alignment is also related to integrity in our actions. As an ontological coach, I learned through Accomplishment Coaching that “Resolving issues with one’s sense of integrity is a daily practice. We begin to have a low tolerance for being out of integrity. We practice and grow greater awareness of our integrity. Making choices based on a context that victimizes us becomes unacceptable. Our lives take on a new power when we are in process to restore our integrity.”
In the future, I’ll cover related topics about the crystalline structure of the performance space in ballet and dance, how different schools of classical ballet classify the walls and corners of the stage differently, the way in which Laban Movement Analysis identifies affinities between moving in the spatial dimensions with qualities and moods, all of this as choreographic inspiration, and more!
My featured dance production and company this week is Pilobolus, especially their productions of “Atlas Shrugged” and “Shadowland,” which are great examples of use of the dimensions and planes and other spatial concepts in dance as well as a collaborative process and innovative partner work. On the topic of Pilobolus, during my MFA studies at the University of Hawai’i, I had the great pleasure of participating in a master class from former company member Matt del Rosario, a fellow North Carolina School of the arts alum who also grew up in Hawai’i. Sometimes it is a small world!
I never meant for my playlists to become a weekly thing, as usually I only come up with new ones for my classes seasonally, as well on occasion for myself, but I suppose I’ve been particularly prolific lately, and this week I’m sharing my “Send Me – Bluesy Autumn Jazz” Playlist.
In observance of this time of year of harvest, gratitude and celebration, in November I am offering one of my favorite coaching tools to one person weekly. This is the Essence Conversation, and it is about a 90-minute conversation about how you are showing up in life. How would you like to show up this holiday season? Enjoy this complimentary coaching session with me by making an appointment on my Calendly calendar in November. It’s a transformational conversation all on it’s own, and you’ll come away with actionable steps to show up your best for the holidays, into 2021, and beyond!
A bit of exciting personal news, I’m completing my 200-Hour Yoga Teacher Training this month (at last–it was originally scheduled to be completed in the summer, but due to the pandemic things had to be shifted considerably- glad we can complete it at all! I have learned so much and am excited to keep sharing more in the future. But due to activities around this milestone, I am publishing this blog a bit later than usual, and will not post another until next week.
Until then, Happy Halloween!, and I invite you to become aware of your posture as it relates to these spatial ideas and practice physical integration for your dancing and your life.
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A Blythe Coach:
Dance Education & Coaching to move through life with balance, grace, & power
** I have included links to recommend some of my very favorite books and as a reader, lifelong learner, and academic I hope you enjoy my recommendations. These are Amazon Affiliate links, and if you purchase them I stand to receive a percentage, cool! Of course you may also obtain these books through a number of other means 🙂
DISCLAIMER: A Blythe Coach recommends that you consult your physician regarding the applicability of any recommendations and follow all safety instructions before beginning any exercise program. When participating in any exercise or exercise program, there is the possibility of physical injury. If you engage in this exercise or exercise program, you agree that you do so at your own risk, are voluntarily participating in these activities, assume all risk of injury to yourself.
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