"Get Fit to Dance!" by Bija Satterlee > "What a Pain in the Neck!"

Ballroom Dancing and the Lady's Poise
19 Mar 2005

“GET YOUR HEAD OUT!” What woman learning Standard hasn't heard that? The lady’s poise in International Standard is so lovely we are all enchanted by it. Just look at Katusha Demidova’s fabulous top line. It is amazing. Her spine is stretched up to Jonathan and then continues on out into her own space, often with her head almost horizontal to the floor. She is emulated by ladies around the world. Without proper understanding or conditioning how to achieve this, however, injury and neck strain are often the unfortunate result.

Carrying the weight of the world, stretched to its limits, and gleaming with rhinestones, your neck may be the weakest link in your dance career! If it crosses the threshold from ‘tired’ to ‘fired’ you will be sitting on the sidelines ~ watching your rivals dance in YOUR final round.

MEN! Before you turn to the Sports Page, there is something here for you as well. You play an important role in helping the lady achieve a beautiful top line, as well as helping prevent injury. Please hang with us while we explore this topic!

The neck is really just an extension of the spine. It has seven bones, 32 muscles, and it supports the head, which weighs about 11 pounds. The weight of the head needs to be supported through elongation, proper balance over the foot, and abdominal support of both partners. The position needs to constantly ‘breathe’ and be alive so tension and stiffness don’t come into play.

Neck injury most often happens during competition or in rehearsals. We tend to push our physical limits more in these scenarios, where the stresses are greater, physically and mentally. Interpersonal stresses, combined with the competition environment lead to increased anxiety, improper breathing, occasional dehydration and low blood-sugar. With all this pressure, something is likely to snap. In many cases it is the lady’s beautiful neck!

• Physical stress ~ repeated actions which require neck strength
• Mental stress ~ fear, anxiety, fatigue, partner-wars... all cause neck, shoulder and jaw tension
• Environmental stress ~ “ballroom-fatigue”, cold or dry air, irregular meals, etc.

Stress causes tension, particularly in the neck and shoulder area. Tight muscles don’t move well, and when we attempt “the usual” feats or movements, our bodies just don’t go there! Instead, you pull something. We often get tight in the jaw when we’re under pressure. Check yourself next time you’re stressed. Jaw tension reduces the range of motion in your neck. Opening the mouth wide like in a BIG yawn helps to alleviate it. Try doing this between rounds for stress-relief.

Neck injury often starts out as neck fatigue. A fatigued neck is vulnerable. When a lady’s neck starts to feel tired from dancing, even the normal centripetal force created by pivots or a telespin is enough to make her head feel heavier. You may even see the lady’s head tip back as she is unable to support the head in those quick spins and pivots. This is where injury is about to happen. She really cannot support her head through elongation of the spine, and her normal routine becomes un-danceable because she truly cannot keep her head out. All it takes now is one quick move and ***SNAP*** you have an injury.

The most common type of soft tissue injury experienced by ladies who do Standard is muscle strain. The symptoms are weakness, pain, muscle spasm, and reduced range of motion, or “frozen neck” syndrome. This is your body putting you into a splint to keep you from moving the affected area.

If you are at a competition and this happens, you should stop dancing. I have seen women dance anyway, but you are really risking hurting yourself further, and your dancing will be guarded and disappointing at best. You need to treat it (see below) and rest.

Ordinary muscle soreness (“delayed onset”) is usually experienced 24-48 hours after the neck is stressed. This can be from one “snap” in tango, or several hours of dancing. This pain goes away in a couple days, and does not limit your activity as much.

• Take mild pain and anti-inflammatory medicine like acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
• Apply ice for the first 48 to 72 hours, then heat after that. Heat may be applied with hot showers, hot compresses, or a heating pad.
• Perform slow neck range-of-motion exercises -- up and down, side to side, and from ear to ear.
• Have a partner gently massage the sore or painful areas.
• Rub Arnica cream into the muscles.
• Try sleeping on a firm mattress without a pillow or with a rolled up towel.
Hotel pillows are WAY too fat and you get worse neck strain just from the pillow!

If you have tingling or pain down your arm or fingers that lasts more than an hour, you should see a specialist, as nerve root compression in the neck is serious and should not be ignored.


When you feel fatigue in competition, your technique starts to crumble. Your usual "fluid" dancing gets a bit stiff, and it’s all you can do to make it to the end of the dance, much less showcase how beautifully you usually dance in practice!!

Here are some things you can keep in mind during a whirlwind round where your neck is failing you:
• Keep your center pulled up no matter how tired you are.
• Keep a strong shoulder lead, so you don’t become back weighted, especially your head. This is especially important in figures with a lot of centripetal force.
• Keep using your feet well so you don’t get ‘dragged around’ by your partner. Try to stay in your legs and match his energy. BREATHE!!!
• Let your partner know if your neck is giving-way. You should decide if you can ‘play it safe’ and still feel good about your dancing. You won’t be the first lady to miss a round due to a strained neck, nor the last.
• Keep your neck warm in the ballroom. Keep a towel or shawl around your neck in shoulders between rounds.

Continuous dancing will strengthen your neck. Do practice rounds if you have the opportunity. Look for that fatigued-feeling in your neck and see if you can employ the above suggestions.

Lie on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor.
Turn your head completely to the left.
Place your left hand lightly on your neck/throat.
Lift your head an inch off the floor. Feel your neck muscles tighten with your fingers.
Set the head down and relax the neck.
Keeping the head turned completely to the left, do this again, picking the head up higher this time. WITHOUT lifting the shoulders off the floor. This is not a sit-up. It is a ‘Neck-Up’.

SLOWLY lift and lower your head 10 times (facing left).
Then, turn your head completely to the RIGHT and do 10 repetitions slowly.
Learn to isolate the muscles so just your head comes up. Keep your fingers lightly on the neck muscles for awareness. Don’t over-do this... gradually build up your ability to do more.

Stand tall, put your hands on your hips and don’t move your body at all. Turn your head to the right as far as it will go. Then, use your own neck muscles to turn it a bit farther. Gently try to turn it a teensy bit farther again. Breathe! Once you’re completely turned to the right, tuck your chin down, and feel the muscles stretch in the back of your neck. This unusual exercise stretches some muscles while simultaneously working/strengthening others. Do to the left as well.

As part of an overall fitness program, you should be stretching, with special care for the neck. Gently go through your range of motion, spending more time in positions where you feel tightness. Ear to the shoulder, chin to the chest, etc. Don’t tilt the head straight back. Yoga is good, but don’t force positions on days when you are feeling tight. Be even more gentle on those days. BREATHE while you stretch. Exhale long and slowly. You can’t hurry a stretch. The muscles need 30+ seconds of gentle stretching before they'll release. Don't ever bounce.

Serious athletes and dancers should be getting bodywork to support the demands on their bodies. As a lady with an overworked neck, be sure to get at least a good neck and shoulder rub once a week, especially if your are dancing hard or if your neck is tight or sore.

Everyone has stress; try to learn some HEALTHY ways of dealing with it. Practicing stress-management can help you prevent injury, so it’s worth taking the time. Meditation, yoga, going to the gym, being outdoors, cooking, reading, socializing, are some options many people use. If you happen to like a drink at the end of the day to ‘unwind’ just be aware that alcohol is dehydrating, and your muscles need adequate hydration to maintain suppleness, to recover from trauma, and function optimally. If you do chose to drink, have a full glass of water with each drink of alcohol.

THE LAST BAD NEWS about dancing and your neck is this: The demands made on the lady’s neck in ballroom dancing (both standard and Latin) are intense. Over a lifetime of dancing, you can expect some structural damage. Even in non-dancers, by the time they are 35, X-rays show evidence of wear and tear, some slight arthritis, occasional bulging disks and even pinched nerves. Now imagine a slender neck that has been snapped to Promenade 10,000 times. Be gentle, dear men! Learn good technique. Listen to your body. Respect your partner. Relax... strengthen... stretch... de-stress... open your jaw wide, and B-R-E-A-T-H-E... (I’m going for my massage now!)

In Joy and Good Health,
~ Bija

*************** To discuss THIS or other fitness issues with Bija, call or send an email to bija@bodiesbybija.com.

Bija Satterlee