The Stem of Aplomb — Part One: The Cervical Spine

a·plomb /əˈpläm/

A young woman's arms, head, neck and shoulders are shown as she reaches overhead in a fitness class

Photo courtesy lululemon athletica

Noun: Self-confidence or assurance, esp. when in a demanding situation.

The great ballet mistress Agrippina Vaganova said, “the stem of aplomb is the spine”.  In dance, aplomb is also used to describe stability as achieved through correct posture, placement and alignment. None of this can be achieved without involving what I consider to be the “life source” of dance: the spine.

The main function of the spine, in people in general and certainly in dancers, is to support the weight of the head, rib cage, and shoulder girdle. The majority of this weight is transferred to the pelvis, where the center of gravity is located.

We often think of the spine as one “thing” but in reality it is a series of 24 individual bones connected by intervertebral discs (excluding the nine fused bones of the sacrum and coccyx).  I like to think of the spine as a “system”, instead of a thing, because each of its parts is affected by and dependent on the others.

The Cervical Spine (below) is Part I of a three-part series.

Part II – The Thoracic Spine

Part III – The Lumbar Spine, Sacrum, and Coccyx

On top of it all – The Cervical Spine

The Cervical Spine, seven tiny bones that carry the weight of the world, so to speak.  Though small, these mighty bones are responsible for all movements of the head and neck, and make up the most mobile section of the spine.


IMAGE A diagram of the C1 thru C7 of the cervical spine and where they are located on the whole. IMAGEThe seven bones of the cervical spine are labeled C1-C7.  Together, these bones form the concave top end of the spinal column, and (with the exception of C1 and C2) have common characteristics that they share with all the other vertebrae. Specifically, there is a central body with three extensions, or processes. The two transverse processes extend to the side of the body, and the spinous process is the single middle extension. You can feel (or palpate) the spinous processes of several vertebrae down the length of your spine. C7, or the last of the cervical vertebrae, is very prominent and can be felt easily by tilting your head forward and touching the base of your neck.  The opening between the body of each vertebra and the spinous process is where the spinal cord passes en route to the brain.  So, it’s safe to say, these little bones have a lot going on.

The atlas and the axis (C1 and C2, respectively) are the only vertebrae that break the structural trends of body – transverse processes – spinous process. These exceptional bones are what make it possible to turn your head in any direction, limited only by the tightness of our individual musculature. The atlas is so named after the legendary Greek myth in which Atlas was forced to hold the heavens above his head. In this case, the “heavens” are analogous to your noggin – as the atlas bone supports the entire weight of your head on the spine.

IMAGE Looking up at Rockefeller Center's Atlas statue in New York City. IMAGE

photo by Vibragiel


As I’ve alluded to a couple of times, the cervical spine is the most mobile of all spinal sections, enabling movement of the head in all directions in addition to flexion and extension, lateral flexion and rotation of the neck itself. You can feel the cervical spine in action by putting your hand on C7 (previously discussed as that biggest knob at the base of your neck) and moving your neck around in each direction.  Pretty cool, if you ask me.

How does this information help me in dance?

Good question…

At the top of the article, I quoted the great Agrippina Vaganova, who calls the spine the “stem of aplomb”.  The way that a dancer carries his/her head, the length of the neck, and the position of the chin, are pivotal to the overall appearance of grace and poise so necessary in dance.

Two common errors I see in young dancers are collapsing the neck in cambré derrière, and poking the chin forward.

Cambré derrière dissected:

Though we often state that the top of the head is the starting point for back bends, this movement truly initiates from the cervical spine (read: the head itself has no joints, but provides a good image for lifting up before arching back). Many young and/or novice dancers cannot support the weight of their heads past a certain point, and as a result the head collapses backward. Not only does this break the aesthetic line of the arch, but isn’t good for your neck.  The most common and functional solution is to ask the dancer to turn the head to the side, so that the weight of the head is supported by the strong Sternocleidomastoid muscle (SCM, for short). You can see this muscle working by performing the cambré with your head to the side – it’s that protrusion on the side of your neck that wraps from just beneath your ear to your sternum. This is a perfect example of how dance technique has evolved to not only cater to our aesthetic sensibilities, but also to protect us from injury.

Chin back, shoulders down:

Many dancers have the habit of standing with their chins poking forward. Correcting a chin “poker” can be especially challenging because of the way the spine is structured. Though divided into sections, each part of the spinal column is interdependent on all the others, that is, changing the curve of the cervical spine affects the curvature of the thoracic and lumbar spines as well. I’ll get to more on those sections in later installments…

My point is: a dancer can’t simply pull her chin back without potentially creating other problems. A poking chin is often the result of an attempt to lower the shoulders, and many times accompanied by splayed ribs and a swayed lower back. Putting it back can create the opposite problem, curving the shoulders forward, rounding the middle back, and sometimes tucking the pelvis.

While it IS possible to isolate the movement of each spinal section, it’s extremely difficult for young dancers to accomplish. Instead of allowing dancers to bounce from one extreme to another, it is often helpful to simply encourage them to elongate the spine as a whole. This softens each of its curves, enhances flexibility of each spinal section, and stacks each vertebra on the next. I love the image of the head “floating” on top of the spine, as though it were the top piece on a pyramid of dominos. It must be light and perfectly placed, or the whole structure is affected.

Deep thoughts

Skyscrapers are built using straight lines.  Regardless of your personal belief system, religion, philosophy or mantra, The Architect of the human body is irrefutably brilliant far beyond our comprehension.

I can’t imagine staring up at the Hancock building in Chicago or the Eiffel Tower in Paris and seeing the heaviest part of the building resting on top of seven thin blocks arranged in a curve.  I don’t know why it works, but I know that it does. Designed in any different way, and we dancers would have no subtle movements of the head, no forward or back bends, no aplomb.

I once had an adult student who had five fused cervical vertebrae, and she found it exceptionally difficult to participate in dance. Almost everything we did was possible for her, but my impression was that she lost interest because she never felt that joyous lift through the top of her spine that we dancers thrive on.

Your turn:

What corrections do you find yourself giving relating to the neck and spine??


Developpé Dilemma: Deb Vogel Addresses a Reader Question

Photo by Giorgio Montersino via Flickr

I often get emails from dancers, students, and others asking for advice or help with a particular problem. I do try to answer inquiries from readers or do my best to point them in a direction where they may find answers. When I received Amy’s question about pain in developpé below, my instinct was to help yet, I was not confident that I was fully equipped to assess what might be happening with Amy. So, I did what I would have for any student who had a problem I could not work out – I took her question to someone more knowledgeable than I – Deb Vogel, a neuromuscular educator and movement analyst who has been working with dancers for years. She has an awesome blog within which she answers questions very much like Amy’s. I reference her work often in my articles about the body and while I have a teacher’s knowledge of anatomy and kinesiology (enough to write and research for my articles and work with students in person), I felt sure that Deb would provide a more educated response.

Deb has been kind enough to do just that right here on Dance Advantage.

Amy’s Question

Hello, my name is Amy. I recently stumbled upon your article regarding the psoas and it immediately sparked something inside. I am twenty years old and danced for majority of my life. I started ballet a little later than most around ten. I have been dancing with different ballet companies, but find myself still crying myself to sleep at night because I cannot get through a center exercise/adage with my terrible extension. I have had training growing up where there was no discussion or thorough understanding of HOW to lift one’s leg or what those muscles really do. I have turnout and can kick quite high, but ask me to develop my leg past my knee and I cringe and tear up. (Sounds so dramatic, but hurts so badly). As I begin to lift I immediately feel the top part of my leg tense and it feels like someone is pushing down upon my leg as I go higher. I know that is not how the leg should be lifted. I cannot find any teachers to help me fix this issue, I have asked around and perhaps their discussions or explanations make no sense. I feel like no matter how much I try, I cannot fix this issue. I am desperate to at least be able to hold my leg a little above 90 degrees with ease. I figured perhaps, you might have a little insight that could point me in the right direction. Thank you so much for taking the time to read this, and I hope you can help!

Here is what Deborah had to say to Amy:

Photo courtesy René Michaels Photo & Design -

Amy, you are on the right track with thinking that it might be a strength issue with the iliopsoas muscle. As Nichelle pointed out in her article on the iliopsoas – when the leg gets above 90 degrees the quadriceps lose their leverage and the iliopsoas becomes the prime mover of an extension. You would think that doing multiple grand battements and kicks in class would strengthen the iliopsoas – but they don’t.

Here’s a simple and easy way to start strengthening your iliopsoas. Sit on the front part of a chair with your back long and tall, both feet on the ground. You are going to monitor staying on top of your pelvis – don’t let yourself roll to the back side of the pelvis during this exercise. Start by lifting one knee up towards the ceiling, and then lower it just so your toe touches, and lift it again. Can you do 20 repetitions without fatiguing? That would be your first goal, and you’ll be delighted  at how quickly you gain strength.

Do the same movement on the other leg. If you want to make this more challenging you can tie a theraband around both thighs to provide resistance to the leg that’s lifting.

Once that becomes easier to do you can lean back in your chair so your back is against the back of the chair (your lower back and pelvis may be slightly tucked under, that’s okay for this exercise – even though it isn’t for your standing alignment). Now have one knee bent with your foot on the floor and the other leg straight. Turn the straight leg out slightly before lifting it up as high as is comfortable to the front before lowering to the level of the other knee. Continue lifting and lowering the straight leg up to 20 times before doing the other leg.

Another variation is to lift the leg up as high as you can, bend it into a passé like position and then straighten it forward (parallel to the ground). Then reverse, bending the knee and lifting the thigh like a developpe to the front and then lower the leg to parallel to the floor. You can again use the theraband wrapped around the thighs to make it more challenging.

In the beginning your iliopsoas may tire very quickly…. but in a relatively short time you will see improvement. It goes without saying that after you have spent some time strengthening the iliopsoas you would then want to stretch it out with doing one of the many variations of lunge stretching. I’ve put a short video up on YouTube on iliopsoas stretching.

Hope that helps!

Author, academic, and co-founder of The Center for Dance Medicine in NYC, Deborah Vogel has been involved in the medical field since 1978, helping hundreds of people – from dancers to athletes to office workers – get the most out of their bodies while minimizing injury risks. Her articles can frequently be found in Dance Teacher, Dance Spirit, and Pointe Magazines Deborah wrote Tune Up Your Turnout: A Dancer’s Guide, and has co-authored a 3-level guide for teaching functional anatomy in bite-size pieces within a class format. She offers a free newsletter for dancers on injury prevention and technique tips as well as running The Body Series, an online source of educational products for dancers and dance teachers. Currently, she is on faculty at Oberlin College and the Oberlin Conservatory of Music.