Anatomy of a Ballerina

Welcome to our latest anatomy blog on the ballerina! This blog has been highly requested from the pole community so we’re excited to break it down for you. It's a big blog (aren't they all!)

Now, first things first. Let’s make sure we’re all on the same page with the name of the trick. For some unknown reason no one in the pole world calls a trick by the same name, so you may also know your ballerina as:

  • Ballerina sit

  • Twisted ballerina

  • Skater or ice-skater

  • Music box dancer

  • Capezio (when the front leg is extended from the pole)

Gosh, the pole world can be indecisive sometimes! Per the International Pole Sports Federation categorisation it is known as Ballerina and we know it as that, so that is what it shall be referred to for the rest of this series!


Ok, now that we’re all in agreement on the name, let’s break this trick down!

Video 1. Ballerina Tutorial


This would personally have to be one of our favourite moves because it’s visually stunning and a guaranteed audience pleaser. Now there’s quite a few arm and leg variations of this move so we’ll do our best to explain them as we go. But let’s talk through the move first in it’s true form as a ballerina.

Our Ballerina has four key points of contact on the pole: the armpit of the back arm, the back of the torso, the inner thigh of the front leg and the outside shin. It can feel a bit mentally twisted to understand this trick but it’s helpful to remember that the pole crosses the body with this move. Which means our inside arm and inside leg are not on the same side. They are actually opposites! Ie. your right arm and left leg will be in contact with the pole or your left leg and right arm will be. Hopefully that helps to set this twisted move straight in your mind!


Key requirements for our ballerina:

There’s a few key requirements our body needs to perform this fun trick:


  1. Shoulder horizontal extension of the inside (back) arm to reach our foot

  2. Shoulder (horizontal) pulling strength and stability

  3. Trunk rotation, extension and a small degree of side bending around the pole

  4. Inside (back) leg hip extension and knee flexion

  5. Hip abduction and external rotation of both legs

Video 2. Breakdown of Ballerina


Let’s break it down even further into the key muscle groups we need to perform each of these series of movements! Time to get nerdy!!


Shoulder Stabilisers:

By now we’ve learnt through our previous anatomy blogs that our shoulder stabilisers work every time we’re on the pole, so it will come as no surprise that they are working hard in our ballerina too. In our ballerina, our inside arm reaches backwards to our outside foot. This reach increases load through our glenohumeral joint (the shoulder) that our rotator muscles are required to withstand.


Our rotator cuff muscles are vital to ensure we are stabilising what is otherwise a fairly unstable joint. It’s particularly important that are shoulder stabilisers are working hard in moves like our ballerina that require a decent amount of shoulder mobility. Did you know these muscles also have a double role helping our shoulder pulling muscles extend the arm to reach the foot? It’s fair to say they are super essential!


Horizontal Extension:

Shoulder horizontal extension is not so much of a push or a pull action, but more so a way to describe the mobility required in our reaching arm for our ballerina. When our top arm comes off the pole and reaches for the back leg this movement is known as horizontal shoulder extension and is critical in unlocking our ballerina.


To perform this movement we require both mobility and strength. The strength comes from our shoulder stabiliser and pulling muscles, whilst the mobility comes from the shoulder joint & our pectoralis major/minor and anterior deltoid muscles.

Did you know that the amount of mobility required in the shoulder to reach our ballerina is directly related to how much hip rotation and abduction we have in our basing leg? More on this shortly!


And of course, any time we are reaching the end of our range of motion, there needs to be flexibility in the opposing muscles to allow for that movement to occur. The key muscles we are referring to here are our pectoralis muscles. Stiffness or reduced length of our pectoralis will reduce the reach of our arm. Additionally, if we’re experiencing any restriction of our median or ulnar nerves they may contribute to a restriction in this movement!


Horizontal Pull:

As just mentioned, in the case of our ballerina our back arm is required to horizontally extend (also known as horizontal abduction) at shoulder level to reach our foot. How far it has to reach will depend on a few factors, including how high we can extend our leg and how much rotation our body can produce. Our horizontal pulling muscles are primarily responsible for this action.


These muscles are our:

  • Latissimus Dorsi

  • Posterior and middle deltoid

  • Trapezius

  • Rhomboids

  • Most of our rotator cuff muscles (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor)


The Trunk

Alrighty, so when it comes to our ballerina, the trunk is where it’s at! This is the first move we have covered to date where the body is required to wrap around the pole. There’s a few muscle groups and movements involved here.


Rotation

Firstly, we need rotation of our torso. Due to our bony anatomy, almost all of our trunk rotation comes from our thoracic (upper) spine. Without this movement there wouldn’t even be a ballerina! So a lot of polers first come unstuck trying to get into this trick when they are limited with upper back mobility. But don’t worry we will be working on a few ways to improve our thoracic rotation in this series.


The key muscles responsible for our rotational movement are our:

  • Abdominals – external oblique, internal oblique, rectus abdominus and transversus abdominus

  • Adductors

  • Latissimus dorsi

  • Gluteus medius

  • Thoracic & lumbar multifidus and paraspinals

  • Rhomboids

  • Trapezius

Our adductors muscles (inner thigh) are also key stabilisers with our rotational trunk movements. They work together with our abdominals (eccentrically through our anterior oblique chain) to allow the rotation to occur. This is a fancy way to say they have to work whilst they are being stretched. They also are big helpers when it comes to lifting the back leg. Fun fact: adductor magnus acts as an additional hamstring! Anatomy is fascinating right?!




Lateral flexion

A small amount of side bending (lateral flexion) also occurs in our ballerina. To secure the position in our ballerina, our spine is required to open up/stretch on one side (leg on the pole) and close down on the other side (back leg side). This is a very small movement but essentially think of it as our side muscles of our abs and back with stretching on one side and shortening on the other.


The key muscles responsible for this in our ballerina are:

  • Quadratus lumborum

  • External and internal obliques

  • Lumbar multifidus and paraspinals

Extension

The last thing our trunk has to do is an extension (slight back bend). Now the degree of this extension changes with the demands of the trick. So for an upright ballerina there is a small degree of extension. But when we progress this move into a capezio (we will cover this later), then you better believe the amount of back bending required is going to increase!


The key muscles responsible for this movement are our:

  • Quadratus Lumborum

  • Lumbar multifidus and paraspinals

  • Gluteus maximus

  • Hamstrings

  • Adductor magnus


The Back Leg

Hip extension:

To end up in our beautiful ballerina position, we require some good ol’ active flexibility (aka strength through movement!) This is a perfect example of why it’s important to make sure we’re strengthening our muscles through full range of motion. In our ballerina, our back leg is required to actively extend at the hip and flex at the knee to bring the foot towards the hand. Once we’re able to grab hold we can passively extend the leg into this position. Active hip extension is primarily controlled by our:

  • Gluteus maximus

  • Hamstrings

  • Adductor magnus

Our antagonist/opposing muscles to this position are our hip flexors and shorter adductor muscles (adductor brevis, adductor longus and pectineus). These muscles require good length (and strength) to allow the leg to reach the desired height needed in a ballerina to reach our hand. Additionally, irritation to our femoral nerve may lead to a restriction of this movement. Our femoral nerve runs through the front of the hip and thigh and is stretched when we extend the hip and flex the knee in the back leg of our ballerina.


Hip abduction and external rotation:

You may not have realised this, but our back hip doesn’t lift in a straight line behind us when we lift the leg. What we find is that as we extend the hip, we also abduct and externally rotate it as well. This is due to the fact our torso is wrapped around the pole and our hips are in an open position (aka not facing forwards). This slight degree of hip abduction and external rotation tends to be more comfortable for our hip to be positioned in.



And what this means is that the lift of our back leg is assisted from a few extra key muscles:

  • Gluteus medius

  • Gluteus minimus (abduction only)

  • Tensor fascia latae (abduction only)

  • Hip external rotators: obturator externus, obturator internus, piriformis, superior and inferior gemellus, and quadratus femoris

The Front Leg

And lucky last we need to cover the front leg when it comes to our ballerina. Once wrapped around the pole, this leg seemingly remains mostly passive. But in reality what’s happening at this leg is quite pivotal for our whole ballerina. This front leg affects our back leg, torso and even our shoulders! Why and how you ask?


Well our front leg is required to passively abduct and externally rotate when it’s wrapped around the pole. Interestingly this movement actually occurs mostly through through the eccentric action of the adductor muscles. The more externally rotated and open our hip is, the more open our pelvis is.


Think about this like you would think of an open vs closed front split. By opening our split line we are rotating our pelvis to be more in line with where our torso is facing on the pole, kind of like a middle split. This in turn reduces the rotational demands through the trunk. If we kept the pelvis square and facing forward then our upper back would be required to rotate even more to reach around the pole for our leg. And unless we’re super bendy and strong, we probably wouldn’t make it! So having open and rotated hips is helpful here!



Now back to the shoulder for a second… the load and demand on our shoulder changes with the amount of rotation from our thoracic spine. The more we need to rotate our upper back to reach around, the more horizontal extended is needed from our shoulders, and the more the shoulder gets loaded up. So if we’re able to open our pelvis to face the same direction of our ribcage, the spine somewhat becomes more stacked or aligned for a better word. This in turn takes our shoulder out of end of range horizontal extension, which it is happier with!


Keeping out of end of range is a far more comfortable position for our shoulder and ribcage to be in. Think about how uncomfortable it feels to bend a finger back and hold it there for a long time. It’s doable, but it’s not comfortable! This is kind of similar to our shoulder. End of range shoulder horizontal extension and thoracic rotation can be done in our ballerina, but it doesn’t mean it’s comfortable. And we may even find if we can’t control this position we increase our risk of injury! It’s much harder to control the end range of our movements.


So it’s time for full circle now: by focusing on improving our hip mobility and strength, our shoulder joint load and position will feel much happier hanging out in a ballerina too!


And our back hip will be able to lift higher too! Win-win all round!


Entry and exit into Ballerina (aka via our baby ballerina)

Entry into our ballerina is usually through a twisted grip reverse spin. I affectionally refer to this position as baby ballerina, which is a precursor position for our ballerina. And there are some important anatomical differences between our baby ballerina and actual ballerina. The key difference is that the back leg is no longer lifted and our arm is no longer reaching behind the pole for the leg. This frees up the back leg for some stunning variations and keeps the arm placed in a twisted grip position on the pole instead.


This twisted grip position has a slightly different demand on that shoulder. To enter into our baby ballerina, our shoulders require a minimum of 180 degrees shoulder flexion and 90 degrees of internal rotation. And our rotator cuff muscles and vertical pulling muscles have to work extra hard to ensure we don’t hang out of our shoulders. The shoulder and cervical nerves are commonly injured in this move when the poler is lacking adequate shoulder mobility and pulling strength prior to attempting!


Also, it is helpful to note that when entering this position we are required to use our front hand on the pole to push/pike our hips away. This is how we are able to wrap our leg around the pole. Without this horizontal push we wouldn’t make it around. This hand is removed from the pole as our leg wraps around. If you find your hand gets stuck between your thigh and the pole in this entry, make sure you’re pushing through that hand enough. It will allow for greater control of your leg placement on the pole.


To exit this position we place the lower hand back on the pole to push us out of our leg hook and we pull through our twisted grip arm to unravel from our twisted position.


So key recap of our baby ballerina is that we need our twisted grip of our top arm and a downward push out of our bottom arm to get into position.

Video 3. Baby Ballerina Tutorial


Grab some air time!

Nailing your ballerina? The first way we can progress our ballerina is by taking it aerially. Nothing changes from an anatomical perspective with this move, it’s just that our muscles have to work a lot harder to keep us there.


How we get into our ballerina however is the fun and challenging part! We no longer have the ground to help us push off. Which means we have to create the entry momentum without that extra help!


Our two most common entries into our aerial ballerina are:

  • an inside leg hook to swing around the pole

  • via a full spin from a climb

When starting out most find the inside hook easiest as they can use the pole to push off to create momentum. From the climb our body is behind the pole and needs to create greater circumferential momentum to end up in a ballerina. This is much harder to do. Regardless which entry you use, both entries rely on a great detail of vertical pulling strength from the top arm, horizontal pushing strength from the bottom arm, rotational strength from the abdominals and flexion strength from the abdominals and hip flexors. Check out the two different entries via the videos here.

Video 4. Ballerina Entries


Capezio