Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Dance bag essentials - tennis balls

Every dancer should keep a tennis ball in their dance bag, it doesn't matter what style of dance you do, from ballet to bhangra to ballroom, all of you are going to get tight muscles at some point, if you keep something as basic as a tennis ball in your bag you have a way of working on them wherever you are. When I was dancing full-time I think I forgot what it was like to wake up without some part of me aching or feeling tight and it was often at it's worst after a heavy class or rehearsal. Rolling muscles out with the ball became as much a part of my cool down as stretching did and made considerable difference to how long I could last between physio or massage appointments without totally stiffening up.

If you're really fussy, go buy a massage ball, but a tennis ball will do just as well. They're cheap, unobtrusive, take up little room and can be used in the absence of a foam roller to work most of your muscle groups. While foam rollers are great if they're in your studio or in your home, they're way too bulky to be portable. Okay, using tennis balls hurts more, they're harder and due to their size and shape are able to target deeper layers of muscle than a roller. That's not a bad thing. You can still do your ITBs, quads and calves with them, but they're probably at their most useful for dealing with glutes, the piriformis and your hip rotators.

If you're experiencing unexpected limited mobility or tightness in your hips it's often down to tightness in your piriformis and/or hip rotators. If you don't know where your piriformis is, think back to your last massage when you had a knuckle pushed into the side of your glutes and nearly leapt off the table in pain. That's your piriformis.

Or if you're lucky enough to have never had that happen, your piriformis is here.
The piriformis is a strange one, as often even when there is a huge amount of tension in it you won't be aware of this until you start to work on it. Tennis balls are an absolute god send for loosening them out, if you've been doing a lot of work en l'air in ballet, or anything in jazz, theatre or any other discipline where you're using a lot of high kicks or extensions, work on it afterwards, even if it didn't feel particularly tight to start with you'll often find that once you've released the piriformis, your hip mobility will improve.

You can also use balls on your feet, instead of carrying around foot rollers with you. For a lot of people the ball shape is preferable and less painful than wooden rollers. Anytime you're using self-massage whether with tennis or massage balls or rollers, stop if there is any numbness or tingling. Pressure on your nerves is not a good thing, and you'll end up doing more harm than good. Avoid rolling the pectoral muscles as you risk hitting a large network of nerves known as the brachial plexus, instead if your chest feels tight work on stretching it out.

Obviously this isn't  going to replace the need for the occasional (or more frequent) sports massage, but if you don't have regular access or can't afford regular appointments it's a means of keeping your muscles from tensing up too much and will tide you over between professional sessions.

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