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Isolation, Chest:
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Body Isolation Exercise: Chest, Side-to-Side

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, ankles angled slightly outward so that you're pigeon-toed. The angle between your thigh and shin should be less than 90 degrees.

Place your hands roughly 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.

[Note: This neutral position is slightly different from that of the preceding tutorial.]

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 on an imaginary plane which extends from left to right, bisecting your ribcage into front and back halves.

Your shoulders and collarbones should be maintained parallel to the ground. If you're seated in front of a mirror, this would be easy to monitor; especially if you place a horizontal line of tape at an appropriate height as a guide.

Your pelvis should only rock laterally in response to the movement of your torso, through the action of your mid-lower back and abdominal muscles. You should feel changes in pressure where your buttocks contact your seat i.e. more pressure on your left buttock as your torso moves to the left and conversely when moving to your right. Ideally, there should be no change in pressure in the forward and backward direction.

As you move your torso to one side, you should feel a stretch on the same side i.e. moving to the right should cause you to feel a right-side stretch. If you find your opposite side stretching instead, then it's likely that you've been 'tipping' your shoulders rather than keeping them level with the floor.

The distance between your elbows should remain constant (although their respective angles will change over the course of this exercise). 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.

Before we begin with movement off the neutral position, it's time for a word of caution. This exercise involves the lateral movement 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 side to side with minimal 'spill' to the other parts of your body.

The ideal axis of movement is lateral (left to right), parallel to the floor, bisecting your ribcage at the height of your lower breastbone. The track of travel is perceived to curve very slightly 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. We'll begin this exercise asymmetrically to keep things simple and build up from there.

Imagine a palm on the left side of your ribcage, exerting a firm and constant pressure in-line with the axis of movement, against the side of 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 to the right;
  • exert more than the palm pressure, your chest would press to the left;
  • 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.

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, and your shoulders to tilt.

Setting Up
Get into the Neutral Position.

Imagine a palm on the left side of your ribs pushing your ribcage to your right. Resist this pressure by pressing leftwards against that palm. Gradually increase both pressures until they are firm.

Positive Pressure
also known as antagonistic movement because you're moving against the virtual force.

Keeping the virtual force constant, press against the palm until you overcome it and your torso moves to the left.

Feel the weight of your torso shift to over your left buttock, and your left side stretching.

Repeat the process slowly until you get a feel for the action, then start paying attention to your feedback points:

  • Are your shoulders level, or are you 'tipping'?
  • Is the elastic string holding your diaphragm high?
  • Are you moving on a lateral plane? [Tip: imagine you're polishing a pane of glass with the middle of your back.]

Remember that you started this exercise from the neutral position, so you've been practicing from centreline to left, which is only half the full range of movement. Try the same exercise starting with your torso in the rightmost position to practice the whole range of movement.

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

Negative Pressure
also known as sympathetic movement because you're moving with the virtual force.

Again keeping the virtual force constant, reduce your pressure against it until it overcomes you and your ribcage moves to your right.

Feel the transfer of your torso-weight from the centre line to over your right buttock and the right side of your ribcage stretching.

Keep your shoulders level. There's a natural tendency for the head to tilt in the direction of movement which inclines the balance organs (semicircular canals) of the inner ear. This makes it feel as if the leading shoulder is 'scooping' upward (and the trailing shoulder 'dipping' downward), even when the shoulders are actually parallel to the floor.

Now assemble both practices together, alternating between antagonistic and sympathetic movement to a virtual force applied from the left on your ribcage.

Breathing and Timing
The rule of thumb is:

  • exhale as you move away from the centreline; and
  • inhale as you move towards the centreline

Exhaling does tend to make your diaphragm drop, so you should be doubly conscious of maintaining the height of your action as your ribcage travels to the ends of the movement track. However, this is better than the alternative; inhaling increases the tone of your torso muscles, restricting movement and the stretch you can feel.

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

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

which, interpreted into virtual forces becomes:

...– ribcage dominant – equilibrium – palm dominant – equilibrium –...

and translates into movement as:

...– leftward – pause – rightward – 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 leftward or rightward phase occasionally to verify that your neutral position is still correct.

The next stage is to perform this with the breathing cycle reversed:

  • inhale as you move away from the centreline; and
  • exhale as you move towards the centreline.

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 co-ordination of the lateral isolation exercise is initially synchronised to breathing as a learning aid, but should eventually become independent of it. It is used primarily to initiate steps taken to the side, forming a lateral joint cascade (more in a later tutorial).

Once again, practice to a slow rhythm and gradually build up speed - developing muscle co-ordination takes time.

To adapt an infamous quote from a friend, 'that's all very well, but can you do it the other way?'

You guessed it; repeat this exercise with the virtual force being exerted on the right side of your ribcage.

Then combine them both so that your ribcage is being moved by two palms; one on the left and the other on the right side.

A useful teaching point is to imagine your torso as a barrel on wheels being moved from side to side by two palms pushing. You can change your level of muscle by varying the imaginary weight of the barrel - the more full it is, the slower, smoother and more forceful it becomes.

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
    Forearms each placed across the middle of your respective thighs.
  2. Removing support for shoulder-weight
    Arms held in front of you across your body, forming a straight line: from left elbow - left forearm - one hand on top of the other (both palm down) - right forearm - right elbow. Hands at lower sternum level.
  3. Removing support of the seat
    Standing, feet more than shoulder-width apart. You can increase the intensity of this exercise carefully by easing your hips slightly in the opposite direction to your torso.

1999 Salsa & Merengue Society