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Tag: technique

Flexibility At What Cost? Alixa Sutton Talks

Flexibility At What Cost? Alixa Sutton Talks

The world, and certainly our social media feeds are awash with hyper flexibile poses and stunts, each one more jaw dropping than the next. Each person trying to push their bodies to the absolute limit. But at what cost? Yes, they are young now, their bodies are mailable and have been trained to be so for many years, but do we truly know the consequences of such extremism further down the line for these dancers, when ageing and all that that entails comes knocking?

The risks of hyper flexibility and over stretching are certainly a topic in their own right, but one person who knows the perils of over stretching from experience is Alixa Sutton. Alixa created a safe flexibility programme, which is so successful and achieves almost instantaneous results that she travels world wide, taking her skills and passing them on to the future generation of dance. We chatted to Alixa about her background, reasons for creating the programme and general thoughts on flexibility in today’s world of dance.

DN: Alixa, tell us about yourself and the reasons behind setting up your own flexibility programme.

A.S: I come from a Rhythmic Gymnastics background, and then went into Circus Contortion.  All my career I had traditional coaches & teachers who believed in the old style methods of stretching.  As an athlete & artist, I had one injury after another.  All the injuries finally acclimated in me breaking my back, and being barley able to walk for a year, let alone train or perform.  This was such an eye opening experience for me, as it made me realize that there was another way of doing things.  I also never wanted to see my students go through what I had.  I spent the next few years studying & learning from doctors, physical therapists, reading every single study I could find on all the new information we have now about how the body works and what is best for the body.  Then I took this information and incorporated it into the practical knowledge I have about dance, gymnastics, and contortion.  I have created a method that works for every body type, age and level of flexibility- but safely.

DN: How long has the programme been running?

AS: I have been teaching the Alixa Flexibility Method for 20 years now, but we have just expanded into doing Instructor Courses the past 2 years.  I also have to say that the program is constantly changing. One of the issues is that children’s bodies are different now than 20 years ago!  Some teachers may have noticed that the younger students are much tighter than in years past.  This is because the children sit so much now, and at younger ages.  They actually cause their hips to fix in a rounded position, shorten their hamstrings, and cause a huge muscle build up in their spines from all the rounding & sitting they do.  As teachers, the “traditional” stretches we used to use to improve flexibility, just don’t work anymore as we are trying to apply them to a different type of body.  I am constantly creating new stretches to help open the body naturally through mobility &

extension.

DN: Can you tell us some of your success stories?

AS : Oh goodness there are so many!!  Just this week I had a teenage girl who came into my course and told me I shouldn’t even bother with her as she was just horrible and would never be flexible.  I told her to wait and see.  At the end of the two hours, she came over and gave me a big hug crying and said she couldn’t even believe the difference she had seen & felt.  

A dance teacher took one of my Instructor Courses to help improve her teaching.  Several months later she wrote me that she was having so much pain with her own body that she was unable to walk. She started using my stretches daily and in 2 weeks was able to go on a hiking vacation with her family.

A student came to me and stated that she wanted to be a contortionist.  She was so tight in her shoulders, she couldn’t do a bridge and get her head off the floor. Her hips were also extremely tight.  We worked very slowly & steadily to improve her, and 4 years later she got her dream and was working as a contortionist in Cirque du Soleil.

(A before and after of one of Alixa’s clients)

DN: What drives you?

AS: Definitely what drives my is seeing the joy in students.  I love seeing someone who was always in pain feel better, or having that student who felt like a failure light up because they have had a success.  Flexibility is hard work, there is nothing easy about it in the beginning if you do it correctly, but it is so rewarding to see the changes in the students and to see them gradually become naturally flexible and to love doing it.  It is the best feeling when you able to give the tools to a student to help them improve and to hopefully stop them from being injured before it happens.

DN: What do you hate to see the most that’s currently in the industry?

AS: Improper technique.  It is very easy to do things wrong, and the students like to do everything on their good leg, or with their hips unsquared etc. because it is much easier.  But not doing flexibility in the correct alignment or on both sides equally, is so damaging to the body!  I think a perfect example is with back flexibility.  Most students use their middle/lower back to bend at because it is easiest and their cores are weak.  To do back flexibility correctly, they need good core strength and to use their hip flexibility & upper back/shoulders- not their middle/lower backs.  This takes longer to learn and is not as much fun, as students have to focus on good technique.  However, it will be the difference between having back pain & problems later on, or being safe & having a healthy spine their entire lives.

DN: What would you say is your no.1 tip tip for safe stretching?

This is a tricky question because I don’t think you can nail it down to one.  

1st I would say correct alignment & technique is very important during stretching.  

2nd It is important to relax.  I use mobility exercises with all my stretches to help the body relax, and to assist students who are very stuck improve more quickly & gently.

3rd  Making sure you stretch all areas of the body.  For example, ballet students tend to focus on turn out as they need it so desperately.  However, they often make themselves very flexible in one area and neglect others, creating imbalances which then cause overuse injuries.   They can improve much more quickly by stretching the glute & IT band areas which will open up their hip flexibility overall.

The Alixa Flexibility Programme offers student workshops, teacher certification courses and specialist contortion programmes. It’s currently on its extensive tour of the U.S, followed by Australia, the U.K and Canada. For more information on courses, locations and dates, please see the website following this link Alixa Flexibility

Safe stretching!

Dance Niche

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Everyday things you’re probably doing that could hinder your dance and how to fix them

Everyday things you’re probably doing that could hinder your dance and how to fix them

Humans are creatures of habit, but not all habits are good for you, particularly where posture is concerned and we all know how important that is for a dancer. And the thing about habits are that you do them so often without thinking, that you’re probably not even aware you’re doing them. Here are some of the most common things you do every day that could be harming your dance practice.

TECH NECK

The sudden increase in technology and the devices we use daily has had a dramatic effect on our posture. Next time you’re on your phone, tablet, PC, make a note of your posture. Probably shoulders hunched over, with your head dropped forwards. This creates roundness and tightness in your upper back, and puts added strain on your neck. In time, with increased duration, can cause a permanent curvature to the upper spine, not to mention tight muscles which will restrict range of motion in the shoulders.

Combat this by doing lots of upper back stretches and shoulder mobility exercises. If you do yoga, heart opening exercises. If you have a foam roller, lie on your back placing it underneath your shoulder blades. Stretch your arms above your head and gently roll backwards and forwards. You will feel a release sensation in the upper vertebrae. You can also hold the stretch if it feels particularly tight, and let gravity help. A classic shoulder mobility exercise is done with a resistance band or tea towel. Hold either side of the band/towel in front of you, keeping your awns straight. Lift your arms above your head and try and get them to pass all the way back to behind you, then back in reverse. This is a tricky one. You’ll need to start with your arms quite wide apart at first, but with more practice and increases mobility, you’ll be able to accomplish this with your arms closer together.

HIGH HEELS

Wearing high heels may look amazing, but be careful not to wear them too often. Extended periods of time in high shoes puts your feet and ankles under a lot of strain. Corns and hammer head toes are very common afflictions, not to mention other more serious damage. The foot and ankle are at an unnatural angle, which can cause tension and strain through the intrinsic muscles and metatarsals. Wearing heels daily can actually shorten the Achilles’ tendon and tighten the calf muscles, reducing your Demi plie range. Not only that, there’s a real chance of falling off your heels and twisting your ankle or worse!

Combat this by wearing heels for limited times only. If you’re in you feet all day, try and wear flat, comfortable shoes. If your calves are feeling tight, use a yoga block or the first step of your staircase. Put the ball of your foot on the step, and use a chair or wall for balance. Slowly lower your heel down as low as it will go. You will feel a nice stretch of your calf and Achilles’ tendon. Hold for a few seconds and rise back up. Repeat as necessary.

Using a resistance band is also good for reversing damage. Place the ball of your foot in the middle of the band, and pull either end up towards you. Draw circles with your foot in one direction, then the opposite, slowly and controlled. The resistance from the band will help strengthen all the muscles around the ankle.

HEAVY BAGS

Whether heading to college or dance class, you’re probably hiking a huge bag full to the brim with stuff, and all on one shoulder. Stop now! Carrying on one side can really effect you posture. It can cause curvature of the spine, uneven shoulders and weaker muscles on one side of your back depending on which shoulder you favour!

Combat this by only carrying things in your bag that you need for that day/lesson to reduce the weight, and always try and use a rucksack, with both shoulder straps across each shoulder, which distributes the weight more evenly across your back. The tea towel exercise mentioned previously is also good for relieving tension in the shoulders from carrying all day.

You can also try this. Stand side on to a wall. Place your arm closest to the wall at a right angle, coming out from your shoulder parallel and fingers pointing upwards. Turn the palm outwards and place on the wall with your whole forearm. Keeping your arm in that position, take a step slightly forwards, so your arm is now slightly behind you. You should feel a nice stretch across the front of your shoulder girdle.

SITTING INTO YOUR HIPS

Waiting for a bus, stood in a queue or waiting to go into the studio, you’re probably stood with all your weight into your back leg with your hip distended. Doing this for long periods of time or frequently isn’t great for your hips. It can cause also the tendons and ligaments around the hip joint to stretch and lengthen, which in turn weakens them. This will effect the height of your developpes and sometimes even shift your centre of gravity from centre!

Combat this by always standing with weight evenly distributed between the two feet, with knees relaxed and not snapped back into any hyperextension. Exercises for strengthening the hip flexors will also be beneficial. Sit on the floor with your legs extending in parallel in front of you. Without compensating in your lower back, lift one leg off the floor as high as it will go, hold and put it down. You can also pulse the leg once it’s in the air. Repeat on both legs. You can improve on this by placing 2 objects in front of you. If you imagine a clock, at 5 past and 10 past. Again without sloughing, lift the leg over first object, then over the second then back over the first and finish where you started. This builds strength and also mobility for developpes a la seconde.

FEET UP ON THE SOFA

It’s a great to spend an evening relaxing watching the TV, with you feet up. Or is it?! Are you curling your legs up to the side of you? Look at the angle of your feet and ankles. Your top one will be pretty neutral, but I bet you’ll find the foot underneath is bent, flexing in towards you. This stretches and lengthens the muscles on the outer side of your foot, weakening the ones on the inside. This will give your foot a suckling line when extending or pointing and is a dangerous line for pointe work.

Combat this by lifting and extending your legs out in front of you, on a foot stool or similar. It will keep your ankles and feet in neutral alignment without any weight bearing on them. The foot exercise with the resistance band mentioned above is great to help undo this. We also wrote a post on strengthening your feet for pointe, which has more foot exercises you can try. Read about them here https://danceniche.com/2017/05/02/pointe-shoe-chronicles-strengthening-your-feet-for-pointe/

When dance is your chosen craft, your body is your tool. You have a responsibility to look after that tool as best you can. This means avoiding anything that might hinder or damage it, which will ultimately hinder your dance. So just check in with yourself every now and then and be mindful of your posture and what your body is doing. Your dance will thank you for it later!

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Surviving dance comps as a parent

Surviving dance comps as a parent

Dance competitions and festivals can seem pretty intense, especially for parents of dancers! There’s your baby, all on their own on a stage that seems to swallow them up, not matter how old they are! What if they go wrong? What if they slip and fall? What if they miss a beat, or speed ahead of the music?! In your eyes, they will always be your baby, and you’d do anything to protect them, but there they are, so exposed and you can’t do anything to help them if something doesn’t go quite to plan! But never fear, Dance Niche is here to guide and help you through comp season.

DON’T PANIC

Try to stay calm as much as possible. Children feed off emotions of parents, so you don’t want them to start stressing out and worrying unnecessarily. If they are worrying or nervous, they will look to you to be their rock, so make sure you’re the picture of calmness, even though your stomach is about to turn inside out!

Remember to breathe! The only difference between excitement and nervousness is the amount of oxygen getting to the brain, it’s the same chemical responsible for both emotions. Take big deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth. This is also advice we give dancers too, you can read our competitors tips here https://danceniche.com/2017/04/11/top-5-dance-comp-survival-tips/

BRING PROVISIONS

Comps and festivals can be a long day, especially if your children have multiple dances. It’s a good idea to bring some food and drink with you for you and your dancer. The festival organisers afternoon have refreshments available, but if you’re there all day, it can get expensive! Try not to bring anything that’s too messy, so your child can eat in her costume whilst waiting if needs be, but make sure they don’t eat for at least half hour before they are due to dance, to make sure food has settled and they will be at their best.

It can also get very tedious waiting around, so bring a book or iPad to help pass the time. Taking your mind off the waiting will help keep the nerves at bay.

BE ORGANISED

If your have a tiny dancer, you’ll have to do the prep work for them. Make sure you make a check list and have everything ready the night before, including costume, footwear, music, make up and hair box etc. It’s a good idea to get them to help you in the preparations. It teaches them how to be organised and helps them understand what’s needed, as when they’re older, it’ll be their responsibility. If you have an older dancer, you can verbally check in with them to make sure they’ve got everything covered.

ITS NOT YOUR ROUTINE

This one applies to parents of the younger dancers mostly. I know they are small and look like a dot in the stage but it can be incredibly off putting for the adjudicator if you are doing every single step of the dance in the audience. Not only that, how will your child every learn how to take responsibility for their own dance and actually learn it, if they know they’ve always got you mirroring for them. If they have a blip and freeze, give them a small prompt of course, it happens all the time, but that should be enough to jog their memory. Let them get on with it. If they cannot remember the majority of a routine, you have to question if they are ready yet.

REMEMBER WHY YOU’RE THERE

You might feel feel like comps are the worst things in the world, and the added time, stress and pressure just isn’t worth it, but does your dancer think the same? I bet your child loves comps, thrives off them even. They love to perform, and not only does it give them more experience, but they wouldn’t even be doing them if they didn’t want to be up there dancing on their own, centre of attention! If you ask your dancer, they may feel a little nervous pre performance, but afterwards, they’ll be bouncing off the walls with adrenaline. You’re there to support you child, help them build confidence and make memories. If they don’t feel anxious about it, you shouldn’t either.

Being the parent of a comp dancer is often a thankless task, and it’s hard work too but just remember these few tips and it should be a whole lot less of a stressful thing. Don’t forget the other mums too! Competitions bring a real sense of togetherness and camaraderie, so there will always be a seasoned pro Mum there to hold your hand! You will find you might actually start to enjoy comps.

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TECHNIQUE vs PERFORMANCE – Are we losing the art of dancing?

TECHNIQUE vs PERFORMANCE – Are we losing the art of dancing?

This is something I’ve been wanting to write about for a while, and is a fairly controversial topic, as there will always be strong views for either side. Before I continue, I’d just like to say that I am in no way advocating poor technique, or the lack of, as we all know technique and good form help keep us as dancers safe and injury free. It’s more to do with current trends in the dance world and of course, personal opinions will always come into play.

With the rise of social media, National T.V competitions and reality shows, dance – and dancers, have been projected not only into the lime light, but into the lives of young aspiring dancers everywhere. They follow their favourite dancers week by week, voting for them to get through to the next stage. They follow their social media accounts with enthusiasm, marvelling at each new pose they post. Instagram has a particularly large and influential dance community, as t.v and professional dancers from all over the world display their craft. Professionals. People who have spent years upon years honing and perfecting their craft with complete and total dedication. And of course much like you and I, they only post the very best photos, the ones that are timed just right to get that perfect shot, the grande jete beyond 180 degrees, the developpe a la seconde by their ear, and the ever popular ‘crotch shot’ aka side tilt, which seems to be as common as leg warmers in the movie Fame! In fact, it’s that common, and some say distasteful, that it has its own hashtag ‘#stopthecrotchshot

We live in a world where how many ‘likes’ your photo receives, dictates how good you are as a dancer. So naturally, young dancers are wanting to emulate the idols they follow, and post the best dance pose they can, hoping to rack up the likes. This has also transpired into choreography. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. More and more I see dancers at festivals show off their acquired skills, one into another, into another, but it’s getting to the point where they are almost showing off. Yes, of course, that’s what they are aiming for. They want to wow the audience and adjudicators with the amazing tricks and displays of hyper flexibility, however these elements are beginning to roll into one another, BAM, BAM, BAM! Quite often, these are the dancers that are placed. The ones who thrill us with their continual display of talent. But is it that thrilling?!

For me, Dance has always been about telling a story, being able to dance with such emotion that the audience pick up on the vibrations, making the hairs on their arms stand on end. You know the exact feeling I’m talking about. A good dancer can move you to tears. It’s part of the magic. You feel like you’ve been let into a private moment. It’s intoxicating, and leaves you wanting more. Can this simply be achieved by a display of capability? I think not. Don’t get me wrong, a well placed trick or element can really add a spectacular highlight to the dance, but it’s more than that. What about the steps in between, the facial expressions to convey the feeling, a well placed pause, a moment of stillness can hold so much tension and captivate an audience so much so the atmosphere is almost tangible. This is the true art of dance surely. To be able to give yourself so fully to a piece, to bare your soul, that the audience are able to re tell the story back, as they live it with you. Martha Graham famously said “great dancers are not great because of their talent. They are great because of their passion” and I think that speaks volumes.

But this doesn’t stop at tricks, and here’s where I could become unpopular with my view, it can also be true of actual technique too. Let’s set the scene……….local dance festival, lots of competitors in a section. There’s that one girl who has been genetically blessed for Dance……..the almost flat turn out, legs for days with slight hyperextended knees giving beautiful lines, feet that arch like bananas, and all the grace and beauty of any prima ballerina that has passed. But she lacks something. That spark behind her eyes, the fire in her belly, the calling from deep within her soul. She dances because she is good at it, REALLY good, but what drives her? Does she perform and project? No, she is selfish with her performance, and has a face like she’s simply stood waiting for a bus. Dare I say it………perhaps slightly boring! Cue the girl that isn’t so genetically blessed. Her legs aren’t as long, she doesn’t have the best turn out but she works with what she’s got and she pointed her feet as much as they allow, but she has something special. She has that ‘X’ factor. She doesn’t want to dance, she needs to. Her face visibly comes alive as soon as she steps on the stage and the audience know instantly they’re in for a treat. She captivated them so much, you can hear a pin drop. It’s also visible when you watch a group dance. There will always be that one dancer who catches your eye whether they are at the front or back. They catch your eye because they perform! They use their face as well as their body. They dance with such passion that it oozes from ever pore. It’s what an audience want to see. They want to watch someone who is interesting and intriguing, who’s fire burns so brightly they too can feel the heat and they get that all over tingling sensation that brings tears to your eyes. Someone who moves them when they dance. It’s echoed very much in the computer animated film ‘Ballerina‘(or Leap if you’re in the U.S) Effectively a battle between a talented girl who’s danced all her life, but dances because that’s what she’s always done, and a girl who has dreamed of being a dancer but wasn’t given the same opportunities, but her passion and determination she’s her through. It makes such a good story, because it’s a true one, “nothing great in the world has ever been accomplished without passion” – Georg Wilhelm Friedrich

So who would win? Ultimately, it’s down to the individual adjudicators, and again, this varies. Some favour perfect technique over performance, but I will always be swayed by that special something a dancer gives. In a perfect world, a dancer would have both, and these rare creatures are the ones that make it pro, all the way to the top, but they are just that, a rarity. Don’t let that stop you though, there is a growing trend in the dance world. Things are changing, slowly, but for the better. Companies are beginning to hire different dancers, differently by age, build race, but that’s a whole other blog post………

So what is your opinion? Which camp do you lie? Are you Team Felice or Team Camille? Content or creativity?

Dance Niche

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