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Healthy spine exercises with contemporary dance

Updated: Aug 28, 2023

Student from the Martha Graham School, from

Do you feel like your back is stiffening up as each year passes?  Is it getting harder to do simple things like put your socks on while standing up, or bending down to pick things up off the floor, or even just being able to get down onto the floor?

Wouldn’t you love to be able to move easily and freely?  Just imagine it … effortlessly bending to scoop up something you’ve dropped (or your child has left behind), being able to dry your feet without sitting down, rolling out of bed in the morning with no trouble at all.

Vibrancy of youth

One of the secrets to maintaining the vibrancy of youth is having a supple spine, and strong abdominal muscles to support your back.  But who wants to do endless crunches or sit-ups to get those strong abs?  Not me!!

I believe that one of the reasons I am still able to do crazy things like backward somersaults at the age of 46 is that I have practiced contemporary dance for well over 20 years.  Today, I’d like to share one particular element from contemporary dance that is particularly valuable, and that is the principle of ‘contraction and release’.

A principle of contemporary dance

This principle has its roots in the early 20th century in the work of modern dance pioneer, Martha Graham.  It was one of several things she developed to keep her body strong and flexible, which meant she was able to dance and perform into her 70s.

You can perform a contraction and release in a stationary seated or standing position, or you can use it to initiate a larger movement that propels your body through space (no not outer space – the space in the room).

If you are happy to sit on the floor, performing the contraction and release in what is sometimes called ‘frog’ or ‘butterfly’ position is a great place to start.  This is sitting on the floor with the soles of your feet together.  Your knees are bend and you let your knees fall to the sides. You could also sit cross-legged, or with your feet flat on the floor in front of you and knees bent.

If you don’t want to sit on the floor, you can practice this standing.  Keep your feet parallel and hip width apart.  Or you could sit in a chair with both feet resting on the floor.

Start the contraction …

To start the contraction, flex the lumbar spine, posteriorly tilt the pelvic, and exhale.  Or in less technical language … curve your lower back so that your butt tucks under, and breathe out.  Make sure it is a deep exhalation which allows your diaphragm to relax).  The diaphragm is a dome shaped muscle that separates your thorax (ribs and lungs) from your abdomen (the part of the body between your ribs and pelvis where your digestive organs sit).

Let this movement travel up your spine so that your upper back curves as well.  From the side, it will look like your back is making a C shape.  If you are standing when you are doing the contract, let your knees soften and bend in response to the movement of your pelvis.  I also find that if I am standing it helps to have your arms out to your sides, and as you contract, curve them inwards as if you are hugging a giant ball.

It is actually your abdominal (or stomach) muscles which are initiating the whole movement.  They do this by contracting, which means the muscles are shortened.  So think about the movement starting with the shortening of your abdominal muscles, which pulls your pelvis under, and creates a curve that travels up your spine, ending in your head being gently pulled forward.

.. and release

The release is basically the reverse of the contraction.  Breathe in, and your pelvis return to a neutral position, which allows your spine to extend (or straighten) and return to its natural curves.

Conveying emotion

One of the reasons Martha Graham put such a strong emphasis on contraction and release was because of the power this movement has to convey emotion.  I remember watching a documentary about her some years ago, and she had been training actors to use the contraction to represent emotion, and there was a scene from an old black and white movie of an actress sobbing in a heart breaking way.  She had learnt to create this strong sense of heartbreak by using a Graham contraction.

Students from the Martha Graham School, from

Exercising with the beauty of movement

Now, just performing this movement of contraction and release would be about as boring as doing crunches or sit-ups.  But the great news is that in a contemporary dance class, you do this kind of movement all the time, in the middle of dance sequences.  So you are strengthening your abdominal and spinal muscles and loosening up your spine while you’re caught up in the beauty of the movement.  Once you learn how to perform the contraction and release, it makes dancing as well as everyday movements easier, because you have learnt this special skill of using your abdominals and spine to move with greater ease.

If you’d like to see the contraction and release in action, along with another Graham principle, the spiral, check out this video from The Martha Graham Dance Legacy Project.


Dragonfly Dance offers dance classes to adults of all ages in ballet, contemporary, jazz, and tap. We pride ourselves on offering you a place to indulge your love of dance, whether you’re a complete beginner, had a long break from dance, or danced all your life.  Our classes have a broad mix of ages, and our philosophy is that you are never too old to dance, it is never too late to start, and you can dance forever!

If you have any questions, give us a call on 08 7073 2069


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