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Body Isolation Exercise: Chest, Front-to-Back

Setting Up the Neutral Position

Sit at a table, preferably a round one.

Place your feet flat on the floor, wider than hip-width apart, toes pointed slightly outward. The angle between your thigh and shin should be about 90 degrees.

Place your hands palm down on the table, inside shoulder-width apart, fingers pointed toward the centre of the table.

Adjust the position of your hands from the edge of the table, such that the table supports most of the weight of your forearms without causing your torso to lean forwards. You may need to bring your chair a little closer to the table.

Adjust the distance between your hands, and the direction in which your fingers point, such that your elbows are relaxed but away from the sides of your body.

Relax your shoulders, letting them drop towards the floor under their own weight.

The "elastic string" teaching point
Imagine that there's a piece of elastic string attached to the centre of your diaphragm, passing through the top of your head, and fastened to a point in the ceiling.

Imagine the dome of your diaphragm being pulled upward toward the ceiling by the elastic string. As you do so, you'll find your spine coming into alignment and better supporting your ribcage.

Close your eyes, and listen to and feel your breathing. Feel how the "elastic string" teaching point seems to lighten your chest and release pressure in the abdomen. Feels good, doesn't it?

This is the neutral position and it is both a starting and reference point. Keep practicing getting into and maintaining the neutral position until it becomes second nature.

Feedback Points
All self-teaching systems should incorporate mechanisms for monitoring the successful execution of the lesson.

The neutral position provides such a mechanism as it isolates and focuses on a specific part of the body, and puts other parts into comfortable supported positions which provide you with feedback on the progress of the exercise.

  • Your shoulders should be relaxed and remain located in the same space relative to the room. If you find them moving vertically, backwards or forwards, then you could be using them to pull your action along.
  • If your elbows flare apart or swing inwards, then your spine is inclined excessively toward the table or away from it respectively.
  • If the curve of your lower back tends to disappear during the exercise, then you're allowing your diaphragm to drop. Remind yourself of the elastic string teaching point.
  • Your pelvis should only rock forward and backward through the action of your lower back and abdominal muscles; and your weight should be evenly distributed laterally throughout.

Before we begin with movement off the neutral position, it's time for a word of caution. This exercise involves the flexion and extension of the lower back. If you suffer from a serious back condition then you should not proceed. If you want to be sure, submit this exercise for evaluation by your physician.

If you have determined that it is safe, you next need to manage your expectations for suppleness. It's likely that you've not done this sort of exercise before, so aim to make progress in small increments. Patience is a safeguard as well as a virtue.

Lesson Concepts
The purpose of this exercise is to get your ribcage moving forwards and backwards with minimal 'spill' to the other parts of your body.

The ideal axis of movement is front to back, parallel to the floor, passing through your spine and lower breastbone or sternum. In practice, the track of travel curves upwards at the ends to minimise stresses on the lower back.

To develop the proper muscle tone, this tutorial is based on the concept of virtual forces. This is achieved through imagining the presence of a palm on your sternum, exerting a firm and constant pressure in-line with the axis of movement against your chest. Your response to this pressure; how much and how hard you press back, determines the direction and rate of travel of your ribcage.

Should you:

  • Resist less than the palm pressure, your ribcage would ease backwards
  • Exert more than the palm pressure, your chest would press forwards
  • Equalise the pressures, your torso would remain poised in place.

The idea of opposing forces and their relationships in dance is also studied in the tutorials of the Merengue section, for example in HALO™ Turns for Followers.

We'll make use of a few teaching points to ease the learning process: it will help if you think of your shoulder-blades as gates; your shoulders as the hinges; and your ribcage as a tall drum on wheels.

Maintain the effect of the elastic string teaching point throughout. Pay particular attention to it at the ends of the movement when your diaphragm is most likely to sink.

Let's start the exercise from where we left off.

Virtual Forces - Equilibrium Pressure
Set up in the Neutral Position.

Imagine a palm on your lower sternum trying to push your ribcage backward, and that you're resisting this pressure by pressing forward against that palm through your breastbone.

Gradually increase both pressures until they are firm.

Accounting for Breathing
Maintaining equilibrium pressure, tune in to your breathing. I find that closing my eyes helps.

Notice that your sternum moves as you breathe: flexing outward as you inhale and retreating as you exhale. This means that the process of breathing affects equilibrium pressure due to the movement of your sternum, causing it to press more against the palm as you inhale, and press less against the palm as you exhale.

Fine-tune your resisting pressure against the palm to compensate for this movement. That is, account for your breathing by

  1. pressing a little more as you exhale, and
  2. pressing a little less as you inhale.

Master this process as it will inform the initial stages of this exercise.

Backward Movement
Exhale a long, slow steady breath.

This time, rather than topping up the resisting pressure, let the pressure from the palm push your ribcage backwards.

Feel your back stretching in width as your ribcage travels backwards, parting your shoulder-blades.

Learning metaphor: Feel the palm push the drum though the gates, the hinges remaining in place.

Remember to keep the elastic string attached and your diaphragm high.

As you become more proficient, you can push the barrel farther and farther backward without moving the hinges nor snapping the elastic string.

Learning points
The tendency is to use the lower back to assist in this exercise. This would cause your action to sag, as if the push of the imaginary palm was being directed downward as well as backwards. To remedy this,

  • ensure the elastic string connecting the top of your diaphragm to the ceiling is still working, and
  • reposition the push of the palm, so that it's directed slightly upward as well as backward.

Don't be tempted to exaggerate the action by pulling with your shoulders. Your hands are placed on the table to help keep your shoulders still in space. If you find yourself leaning into the table on completion of the push, you've overcooked it. Let your ribcage do the work.

Forward Movement
As you draw breath, feel your ribcage expand and your sternum press outwards.

Imagine the palm pressure remaining constant. The force of your sternum overcomes the palm pressure as you inhale, leading your ribcage to move forwards.

Learning metaphor: Imagine your sternum is attached to the front of the drum, and the drum being led forwards by it. Feel the gates closing behind the drum as it moves forward.

The elastic string should act steadily to keep your diaphragm high, especially at the end.

Learning points
The path of motion of your sternum scoops upward as your ribcage moves forward.
As you progress to the end of the motion, it should feel as if your breastbone was peeling off your body from the bottom tip upwards.

Beginners commonly lean forward from the hips in order to get more travel, which does not serve to isolate the action. You can tell when you're doing this if you find yourself leaning down into the table edge, and if you find your elbows flaring outwards.

Your ribcage has mass, so you will have to compensate with a counterbalancing shift of the shoulders and tilt of the pelvis. Expect it, but try to keep extraneous movements small.

The co-ordination of the front-to-back action is initially synchronised to breathing as a learning aid, but should eventually become independent of it, so that it can be used to accent important beats or to maintain a rhythm stream like the pulse.

The breathing cycle alternates between inhalation and exhalation interspersed with short pauses:

...– inhale – pause – exhale – pause –...

which, interpreted into virtual forces becomes:

...– sternum dominant – equilibrium – palm dominant – equilibrium –...

and translates into movement as:

...– forward – pause – backward – pause –...

The role of the pauses should never be underestimated as they play an important part in promoting muscle and timing control, thereby smoothing out the entire action. Clearly this role is diminished at higher tempi, but they are of tremendous value at lower speeds.

Do stop in the middle of the forward or backward phase occasionally to verify that your neutral position is still correct.

The next stage is to invert the action relative to the breathing; that is your ribcage moves backwards as you inhale, and forwards as you exhale. This is an extreme variant of the exercise with respect to virtual forces, but serves as a useful intermediate step to independence.

I find that alternating the inverse variation with the conventional one, then focussing on the action aspect (thereby de-emphasising the breathing aspect) is sufficient to stimulate timing independence.

The most common application for this action is to maintain the pulse in a small understated movement like a 'tic' to interpret high energy passages in a song. For more information on the pulse, see The Percussionist Dancer: Core. It's worthwhile practicing to a slow rhythm and gradually build up speed - developing muscle co-ordination takes time.

Unleashing the Action
The final phase is to get the action to where it can be immediately applicable in a dance context by knocking out the feedback supports we had put in place.

  1. Removing reliance on table
    Palms placed on the middle of the respective thigh so that your fingers run across the line of the thigh, elbows pointed outward for continued support of the shoulders.
  2. Removing support for shoulder-weight
    Hands resting lightly on thighs, elbows dropped to rest by the sides of your torso.
  3. Removing support of the seat
    Standing, feet more than shoulder-width apart.

Once you can do all of that, you've got a very handy little item to add to your dancing. As an application example, see the Dancing a Percussive Counterpoint tutorial.


1999 Salsa & Merengue Society