If you've taken any ballet at all, you've probably heard your instructor reminding (or ordering!) the class to "tighten the core" or "pull up the abdominals/pelvic floor". This internet list has collected some of the most creative phrasings for this common correction in ballet (hilarious!)
But seriously, there IS a reason why the lower abdominal muscles or transverse abdominis muscles are also known as "the dancer abs", but many dancers, especially adult or recreational students with limited access to instruction, are somewhat unsure: What exactly IS this core we speak of and how do we use it? This post is intended to give a brief and general overview of the core from a recreational dancer's point of view as well as to provide some resources for finding and working your own ballet core. Developing a strong core and the body awareness of how to effectively activate and use it will greatly assist in your progress in ballet technique. Although we tend to overly concentrate on what the arms and legs (and heads and shoulders) are doing, it's the core activation that holds it all together!
"The core", for ballet purposes, refers to the cylindrical support of the pelvic region via the interplay of several groups of deep muscles that stabilize this area. The transverse abdominis muscles are located in the lower front of the abdomen, lower than the navel and between the hip bones (i.e., not the "6-pack" upper abs or rectus abdominis muscles found higher on the torso). The pelvic floor is literally like the floor of your torso: it runs from the pelvic bone in your genital area, between the sitz bones, and back to the tailbone area (the pelvic floor muscles are those that you use in Kegel exercises or tighten to stop the flow of urine). Around the lower back of the abdomen are a couple of small deep muscle groups like the multifidus and the quadratus lumborum that provide support in and around the spine and sacrum area. Because these muscles tend to be smaller and located more deeply inside the body (they are usually located underneath other muscles), identifying these muscles and learning how to properly activate them may require a little practice.
Pilates instruction is one of the best ways to learn core activation and strengthening of these muscles, and a personal Pilates routine is part of just about every professional dancer's wellness plan. It is true that quality Pilates classes/instruction can be difficult to find and/or tend to be quite expensive. However, books, videos, and the internet can be a useful fill-in. As with ballet, there is simply no substitute for the well-trained eye and corrections of a professional, but here in the real world of adults with full schedules and limited resources, self-education can get you started.
Through a friend who is a yoga instructor, I found the website DoYogaWithMe.com, which offers a wide range of free yoga, stretching, and Pilates videos that you can use for home workouts, but what I found most valuable about this site was that it also contains a resource section called "Yoga Anatomy" that includes a series of eight short videos that explain the location and activation of the core muscles and lead you through step-by-step exercises that will help you find and learn to use these muscles together with proper alignment and breathing. The info video on the five Pilates principles is a good "next step" in putting that new core awareness into practice. Classic Pilates mat exercises are a very effective way to learn how to engage, strengthen, and use the core and to control pelvic alignment, so crucial for ballet and dance in general.
With Pilates and other core work, it is important to understand that these exercises are all about the little muscles and very fine degrees of activation and control. It's easy to let the larger muscles take over or to "do the movements" but with the wrong muscles. Small and controlled movements of this type are actually harder (at first) but the payoff is worth the effort. A strong core will help you find your lift and balance and be able to hold that quiet midsection during your barre and centre work. Additionally, strengthening your core will aid your posture, stamina, and overall strength for everyday activities.
If core work is part of your 2013 resolutions or just something you know you should pay more attention to in your dancing, I hope these resources help you get started. Happy new year and happy dancing! :)