Siobhan Camille of Greenstone Belly Dance (MSc, BPhEd, BA, CSCS)
In addition to being the founder and director of Greenstone Belly Dance, Siobhan Camille is a Rehabilitative Exercise Specialist and Strength & Conditioning Coach. This blog post was originally written by Siobhan for her Safe Dance Column in the Middle Eastern Dance Association of New Zealand (MEDANZ) October 2019 Newsletter. You can join MEDANZ to access their newsletters and find out more about MEDANZ here. Photo by Nathan Pigeon.
Knee injuries are relatively common both in and outside the dance world. If you’ve experienced knee pain or knee injuries, you’ve likely been told “move it or lose it” by your healthcare provider or physiotherapist. We know that one of the worst things we can do for an injured joint or body part is to stop moving it.
Why is movement and strengthening so good for our joints? As I’ve touched on in previous columns, muscles are designed to be the main stabilisers of our joints. Ligaments and tendons are part of the system that keeps our joints stable, but these big, trainable muscles that cross the joints are essential for keeping our joints healthy and strong. For example, for the knee joint, we often recommend quadriceps (front thigh muscle) strengthening, because that muscle is important in keeping the patella (kneecap) tracking through the femoral groove (the groove in your upper thigh bone). So strong quads aids in keeping your kneecaps stable, giving you more confidence to dance and move strongly!
If you’re looking for some easy body weight exercises to incorporate into your dance warm ups at home to keep your knees happy and healthy, here are a few good starting exercises.
Bodyweight Exercises to Keep Our Knees Strong
These are a classic for strengthening the quadriceps muscle, and they’re also great for general leg strengthening and challenging our balance for level changes in dance. If you’ve got a lot of knee pain, start with low repetitions, keep the movement small, and alternate sides. An example could be 2 sets of 10 lunges, swapping legs on each rep. If you’re feeling stronger, you can stay on one leg for a full 10 repetitions before switching to the other side. Be aware that a fitness lunge is different to a yoga lunge; only step back so far that you end up with both knees coming to 90 degree angles at the bottom of the movement. Remember, it’s fine to make this a mini-lunge, or to hold on to something stable, while you’re starting out with this!
See an example of the lunge below, plus a little option to make it challenging for the arms if you’ve got a couple of water bottles or weights at home!
One-legged bridge lifts
This is a great way to strengthen your hamstrings, the rear thigh muscles that cross the knee joint (and therefore play a role in stabilising that joint!). This one is also nice because it usually doesn’t cause any pain for knee injuries. If you’re just starting out, you may want to do regular bridge lifts to begin (both feet flat on the ground). Otherwise, try 2 sets of 10 on each side. See an example of the one-legged bridge lift exercise below.
One-legged calf raises
As belly dancers, we spend a lot of time in releve, so calf raises are great for making us stronger for dance, and they protect both our ankles and our knees by strengthening the muscles that cross those joints. I generally recommend working up to being able to do 25 one-legged calf raises each side, but you can start with two feet on the ground, with 2 sets of 10 calf raises to begin. Try not to let your ankles collapse inward or outward as you do this, and to ensure that your knees stay aligned, you can squeeze your glutes in the upward movement. See an example of calf raises below.
Femoral neural glide (“nerve flossing!”)
This can be particularly helpful if you experience pain in the knee cap or just above it, where the quadriceps muscle meets the knee. Unlike the first three exercises, this exercise is better as a cooldown, and I advise you to do this very slowly, very gently, and with very few reps to begin. Generally we recommend you start with 1 set of 5-10 reps each side, only bending the knee to the point of slight discomfort. You are literally gliding the femoral nerve through muscle here; a nerve that innervates the quadriceps. Sometimes this nerve can get a bit caught and cause a funny tingly pain further down the front of the leg. Even if you think you have not felt any effects, start easily and gently with this one, and then see how it feels later. If you’ve got a lot of nervy pain around the kneecap and find that this helps you, still stick with just 1 set of 10 gentle “flosses” at a time, but you can repeat this 2-3 times a day. See an example of the femoral neural glide below.
Looking for personalised advice to keep your knees (or anything else!) strong for belly dance?
Siobhan Camille offers personalised strength & conditioning programs for dancers, and periodically runs the Dance Strong 6 Week Fitness Challenge for Belly Dancers. Set up a 15 minute call to chat with Siobhan Camille and see how she can help you feel stronger in your body and in your dance!