Rolling down the spine is typically one of the first movements you do in a contemporary dance class.
Rolling Down the Spine
The Roll Down is a gradual, forward (or sagittal) flexing of the spine. It’s a preferred warm-up exercise, not only for dancers, but actors and vocalists as well because it gently encourages blood flow and helps to release tension in the whole body.
The Roll-Down is also not as easy as it looks!
Here, we’ll take it bit by bit, giving you pointers and common pitfalls of this fundamental movement.
Break-down of the Roll-Down
The roll-down is often performed in parallel positions but can be practiced with turnout of the legs also.
Either way, begin in a well-aligned stance with your weight evenly distributed over the feet.
Beginning with the head, which will drop forward with your chin toward the chest, start flexing the spine “one vertebrae at a time”.
Sequentially release the shoulders forward, followed by the upper and middle back.
As the head lowers toward the ground, the hips will gradually release to counterbalance the hanging torso and allow the dancer to stretch the back of the legs and lumbar spine (lower back).
This movement can be reversed to bring you back to an upright stance with either a plié or straight legs. (The latter places some strain on the lower back and may be more difficult for beginning or less-flexible dancers).
The head will be the last thing to return to its original placement.
Common Mistakes When Rolling Down
Dancers new to this movement are most likely to tense their arms, neck, and bottom, but even more experienced dancers sometimes need to be reminded to use only the muscles they need and none of the ones they don’t.
How to fix it:
Sometimes it helps to wiggle, bounce, or “rag-doll” a little before starting your roll-down to remind the body to relax.
I often cue my students with imagery during the movement. A favorite:
“Pretend there is sand pouring from your fingertips, the top of your head, your tailbone forming little mountains of sand between your feet and in front of your toes.”
Before they rise, I may use the sand image again, encouraging them to draw little circles and swirls with sand still pouring from these locations.
Sometimes I visit with a student as they roll down the spine, lightly jostling their arms or reminding them to let go of the head, but you can do these things for yourself, too.
Remember to support the movement with your core (center: abdominal muscles, back, pelvic floor). More on this in a moment.
Releasing Hips Too Early
During a roll-down, the hips and pelvis should stay pretty much where they started for as long as possible.
A common mistake is to almost immediately activate the hip flexors as the upper body bends forward. Though the head and shoulders may be rounded forward, this creates a flattened lower back with little spine articulation.
That doesn’t mean you should clench the buttocks to keep the pelvis securely in place, though. This habit is often a source of tension both around the hips, and in the neck and shoulders.
What to do instead:
Remember to support the movement with your core. Do I sound like a broken record? Phyically, core engagement is what you need to do to keep the pelvis aligned while the torso peels away from vertical.
Mentally, it may help to visualize the tailbone pointing down between the heels rather than to the wall behind, as it would in a flat back.
I also think of “rooting” myself straight down into the ground as my torso grows upward and hangs over like the vines of a weeping willow tree. This image gives a nice sense of opposing, vertical forces.
Excess Shifting of Weight
The habit of transferring most of your body weight over the heels is very often related to the early backward shift of the pelvis. In this case, it may help to imagine (or to place) a wall close behind you – not directly behind, as this does not allow for any counterbalance. This brings me to….
The mistake some dancers make: keeping their weight too far forward over the toes.
Be careful of overcompensating when your teacher says “stay out of your heels.” Pushing your weight too far forward may result in crunching or gripping with your toes (a habit that can cause overuse or chronic injuries in the plantar muscles or fascia (sole, or arch) of the foot.
Ideally, your weight will be evenly distributed over the tripod of the foot.
Not Engaging the Core
If you haven’t figured this out by now, I’ll tell you again. It is crucial that the roll-down movement has core support.
Lack of core support is often why other parts of the body tense and is a very common mistake in this and other movements because the concept of engaging the core is built from first, awareness, then practice… lots of practice.
Visualizing the Roll-Down
Dancers respond well to imagery – use your imagination to support the mechanics and quality of your movements.
If you are a young or inexperienced dancer, you may tend to focus more on the way a movement looks. A spinal roll-down may just look like a forward bending of the body. If you focus only on the bending over part, you are missing some important elements in this fundamental movement and you could be getting corrected a lot.
Next time you roll down the spine in a standing position, try to “see” the curling of a strip of paper as you roll a pencil down its length. Imagine how it curls in on itself as the lower portion hangs downward.
Try out the sand images above.
Feel fingers inching down your back from vertebrae to vertebrae as you slowly release the body forward.
Picture the way a fountain of water flows gracefully upward before cascading back to the earth.
What other images are helpful to you?
The spinal roll-down is dramatically under-covered in online how-to. Maybe it’s thought of as too basic, but this warm-up movement is more complex than it appears. It engages all kinds of muscles and encourages a dance student’s awareness of body mechanics. I’ve seen plenty of poorly executed roll-downs in my time as a teacher, so I hope this article has helped you.
If it has, leave a comment below.
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