Written by Bija Sattwelee, a certified personal trainer and motivational fitness coach. Bija holds a BA in Dance from the University of Colorado, and is a 3 Time U.S. Representative to the World Senior Dancesport Championships.

Falling down on the dance floor has got to be one of the ultimate catastrophes that can happen to you in competition. Sooner or later it happens to many a surprised dancer. Quickly upright, the dancing resumes… red-cheeked and vowing not to let THAT happen again! A spill may be the red-flag alert for poor balance, but there are other giveaways: dancing with feet too far apart, never hitting a clean line, wobbling on a foot, pulling one’s partner off balance …. ouch.

We take balance for granted most of the time. Since it is an integral part of dancing, why not zero-in on the essentials of improving yours? Even if you’re not going to join the circus and stand on your head, it wouldn’t hurt to have the dexterity of a tightrope walker the next time you hit the dance floor.

Balance is defined as a state of bodily equilibrium, characterized by stillness, and a cancellation of counter opposing forces on all sides. You saw it in super slow-motion many times over if you watched the Summer Olympics on TV. If an athlete was PERFECT you could see rotation around an axis, perfect landings, and those moments of brilliance when all looked effortless. Often the only thing crushing an athlete’s hopes was the final wobble of the feet when landing slightly … off balance.

HELP! MY HEAD IS SPINNING… Getting dizzy is the ultimate loss of balance. Or is it? Dancing should not feel like a carnival ride, where you’re at the mercy of things beyond your control. Remember Gary and Diana’s McDonald’s cha-cha ending with her doing a million fast spins around Gary? (He checks his watch…) her head goes back… still more spins… suddenly they step back and stop on a dime… to the music! Diana has seemed superhuman at times, but her inner ear and balance mechanisms are made of the same stuff as everyone else’s. She’s just learned to master it. You can too. To some degree you just accept it, feel where you are over your feet, and work with it. It’s a mental thing.

Maintaining one’s balance is primarily coordinated by three systems. The first is the vestibular or auditory system, located in the inner ear, which acts like a “carpenter’s balance” to keep you level. The second balance system uses sensory nerves called proprioceptors that are located in the muscles, tendons, and joints. They give you awareness of your body’s position in a 3-dimensional space. And finally, there is the visual system, which sends signals from the eyes to the brain about your body’s position.

To some degree we all have ‘good balance.’ Who can’t manage a rocky beach, a flight of stairs with some laundry or clutter underfoot, or walk a straight line on the highway if asked to? But moving confidently from one foot to the next on the dance floor, now that’s where things get tricky!

If you have ever danced with someone who is much better than you, one of the first things you notice is their balance feels incredible. Proficient dancers seem to have it as a superpower. It looks good, and it feels great. Now… how to get it.

SURENESS OF FOOTING First of all, know that the actual movement of dancing can make you think you’re balanced, when you’re really falling from foot to foot. Try dancing your routines slowly, by yourself, making sure you are secure in each and every foot, and balanced in pivots and turns. Use floor pressure for balance, focus your eyes, and find your center. Gradually dance up to tempo by yourself. Then do the same thing with your partner, starting slowly, checking every foot and action for balance. Slowly dance up to tempo with your partner.

Secondly, develop better core strength. The “core” refers to all the muscles that surround and connect to your trunk. It doesn’t matter how strong your arms and legs are if the muscles they’re attached to in your center aren’t equally as strong.

Here are some BALANCE EXERCISES to strengthen your coordination, muscles, and reflexes. Wave for help if you fall off the deck!

  1. Stand on one foot, barefoot on a hard surface (no rug). Don’t lock the knee. Have your weight between the heel and ball, equally, with more weight on the inside of the foot. This position should feel quite stable.

    Get used to standing on one foot, in a variety of body positions. Move slowly, or move quickly, or even FREEZE a position. Do this one-leg dance without falling, for one minute per foot. Keep your awareness on the position of your mid-foot. This also builds calf strength, which is needed for dance balance.

  2. Stand barefoot with BOTH FEET TOUCHING. Roll up to the balls of your feet and balance there. Once you have your balance perfect… close your eyes. Interesting, isn’t it?

    This demonstrates the importance of our vision to help us find our center. We need a POINT OF REFERENCE. When you hold a line, or if you are turning quickly, focus clearly. Too many dancers have that ‘glazed over’ look from some kind of internal overload. Practice using your eyes, it’s vital to your dance survival!

  3. Turning on one foot. Stand barefoot on just your right foot, between the ball and heel. Pick up your heel and turn to the left (about a 90º turn) on the ball of the foot, then stop yourself by lowering the right heel. Do this four times to the left, stopping perfectly balanced with the weight between the ball and heel each time. Then do four 90º turns to the right. Do this on both feet.

    Once you’ve mastered 90º turns, try 1/2 turns, then whole turns. Don’t try to hurry. Perfect balance is not forced or rushed, and as with many things, just putting your attention on it can help develop the skill.

  4. Rise up to the ball of one foot and stay there. Only use a fingertip on a wall or chair if you need it. See how long you can balance on the ball of one foot without help. Switch legs when your calf gets tired.

  5. You can also do a partner exercise — use a full water bottle or a light medicine ball and play a game of catch while balancing on one foot. If that’s too easy, stand on just the ball of the foot and play catch.

NOW for CORE CONDITIONING Toys! Classes! Props! YAY! Fitness trends sweep through the country, and the current trend is core conditioning. It focuses on strengthening muscles of the trunk and legs, especially ones that control the spine. Props include balance boards, disks, foam rollers, stability balls, the Reebok Core Board, and Bosu (which stands for “both sides up”) balls. Other classes that develop core muscles are yoga, martial arts, pilates and tai chi. Any of these could greatly improve your natural balance ability, as well as overall fitness.

Here are some simple core exercises:

  1. Start by lying on your back, extend your feet and legs up toward the ceiling. Pull your abdominal muscles in and press your low back to the floor. Hold it for 5 seconds. Then slowly lower your legs toward the floor. Do not let your lower back come off the floor. When it starts to come up, stop and return to the start position. Do 5-10 slow repetitions, keeping your back pressed into the floor.

  2. Start in the same position on your back, feet up toward ceiling. Arms out to the side, press your palms into the floor, and slowly lower your legs to the side. You get a slight spinal twist doing this. Use your abdominals to control the lowering and to return to the starting position. Do 10 repetitions each side.

  3. Plank. Lying on your stomach, clasp your hands together and have forearms on the mat, elbows close to your sides. Tuck your toes under, contract abdominals, and lift your body off the floor. You should be in a straight line from head to toe. If it’s too hard, you can keep your knees on the floor. Hold for 30 seconds – one minute.

These core exercises can be done several times a week. Combined with balance exercises and dancing slowly on your own, you can increase your kinesthetic coordination, and in turn your balance will improve. Be open to the changes, for true balance is always in flux, and is without strain. Good luck!

In joy and good health, ~ Bija Satterlee Certified Personal Trainer and Motivational Coach

 – Copyright 2012 by Bija Satterlee