Dancers are well aware that one side of the body is different from the other. Think back to the last class you took: How many times did you hear (or say) something like “this is just my bad side,” “one side is always different from the other,” or joined in the collective giggling as the entire class fumbles through the second side of a combination?
We all know that one side is going to be difficult, awkward, disorienting, or even confusing. But other than chalking it up to having a “bad side,” have you ever wondered why?
There is a lot more to say about this than I can possibly fit into one article. So, there will be more to come on this topic. But before I say anything else, let’s get one thing clear:
I don't have a good side or a bad side, and neither do you. We have two sides that are good at different things. And they can dance together.
The perception of good vs. bad or weak vs. strong when referring to laterality simply comes from expecting that the right and left should feel the same. When I began applying principles from The Reembody Method, a movement system that connects the two sides of the body, one of the first things I noticed was how quickly I adapted to doing the same combination on both sides. The "second side" no longer felt as confusing, awkward, or scary...it felt like a completely different dance.
There is a reason that our left and right sides don’t feel the same, and it has nothing to do with strength. The difference is in local joint behavior and it happens on a neurological level that we are not always aware of. So, despite what your third grade ballet teacher told you, no amount of practicing chaine´ turns to the left is going to make you less dizzy. The good news? This doesn’t mean that you are forever doomed to a career of sloppy left turns or chronic injuries on one side.
Put simply, we have a side of our body that tends to launch weight (the dominant side) and a side that tends to load weight (the non-dominant side.) To move efficiently, these two sides must work together in order to allow force to move through your joints in spirals- more a like a helix than a paper doll.
However, this helix only works if each side gets to practice the job of its counterpart. Because we don’t generally experience enough variety of movement for this to happen (yes, even in dance….arguably, especially in dance), these spirals become more and more specialized and separated from each other. That’s why the second side of that combo in last week’s jazz class was so dang frustrating!
If you’ve done any kind of social dancing or contact improv, you know that there is usually a lead and a follow. Each partner is good at their respective role, but both are required for the dance to happen. (And sometimes, they switch!) It’s way more fun to dance with a partner who is connected, listening, and responding to your body than one who is completely ignoring you or worse yet- just standing there:
Laterality works the same way. If the two sides of your body can’t trust each other, they can’t dance together.
Here is an exercise designed by my friend, colleague, and Alexandar Technique practitioner, Elyse Shafarman.
(For best results, first identify your dominant side. The most accurate way to do this is by thinking about which foot you would kick a ball with.)
1. Start in a knock-kneed stance with thighs turned in, knees bent, and arches of your feet relaxed. It’s fine to bounce a bit and get grounded. This is a good overall grounding pose which gets the pillars of both thighs underneath the center of mass of the body, allowing you to feel more stable.
2. To wake up your non-dominant leg as a support, rock from side to side on your feet, try and get to the extreme outer edge of your left heel bone while keeping the big toe on the floor. I like to imagine I'm on a ship and the floor has tilted downhill to the left. Another way to think about this is that your heels are balls rolling away from each other. Hang out there and relax your chest, and breathe. Then you can internally rotate your nondominant foot in front to create a kind of a "T" shape so that the arch of your nondominant foot is touching the toes of your dominant foot. This will increase the internal rotation of your thigh and bring it closer underneath your body. Step out of the T and back to ordinary standing. Note the sensations in your leg and body.
3. For the dominant leg, again imagine the floor of a ship tilting uphill to the left. Bend your right knee and allow the ankle bone to roll closer to the floor (as if the floor were tilting). The knee will roll inward and the foot will flatten along the inner edge. Counter these rotations by internally rotating nondominant thigh and bringing that hip forward (dominant hip goes back).
Try this as a warmup before class and notice if anything feels different!
To hear more from Elyse, check out her blog:
Before I go, here one more fantastic article about training with laterality by fitness professional and writer Jennifer Pilotti: