Belly Dance Anatomy: The Erector Spinae Muscles
Your mother told you to stand up straight. Your dance instructor reminds you to check your posture. Thanks to your erector spinae muscles you can do these things! The erector spinae is actually a muscle group made up of many smaller muscles and tendons that attach them to your bones. The erector spinae group begins at your sacrum, the back portion of your illiac crest (hip bone) and your lumbar vertebrae at the lower back. It runs in two bundles up along both sides of your spinal column. Along the way different portions attach to vertebrae and your ribs from the mid-back up to the neck. These many attachment sites allow it to effectively support the entire length of the spinal column, and in cooperation with the rectus abdominus muscle on the front of our torso, keeps us standing tall and stable.
Any time you bend over at the waist, it is the erector spinae muscles that contract to bring your spine to an upright position – this is called spinal extension. They are also responsible for maintaining a “flat back” position when we are bent at the hip. This group works to bend the spine to the side and to rotate it, with assistance from the oblique muscles. Think of those graceful reaching lunges that extend the arm and ribs to the side or posing with your lower body on a diagonal and your ribs facing forward. (It’s a very body flattering position, try it!) If you are fond of those big, bent-over hip circles (think Dina) these muscles are very important because they keep your upper body from flopping over uncontrolled, which makes this movement look sloppy rather than big and emphatic as it should be.
The variety of attachment sites also helps us articulate smaller movements of parts of the spine, as we do in undulations or rib slides. Ask a dance friend if you can put your fingers on either side of their spine while they do an undulation or a rib circle and you’ll be able to feel the erector spinae in action.
Warming Up The Erector Spinae for Belly Dance
It is important to include some dynamic warm up of this muscle group at the beginning of your dance class or personal practice. This is easy to do with a few simple movements such as cat/cow pose or rolling the spine down slowly bringing the hands down toward the toes and rolling slowly back up “vertebrae by vertebrae” as we instructors are so fond of saying! Remember to drop the chin as your roll down to include the upper portions of the muscle in the warm up. Gentle overhead reaches that bend the spine to alternate sides and reaches across the body that twist the spine will round out the warm up for the erector spinae group.
Strengthening the Erector Spinae for Belly Dance
Paying careful attention to our posture as we sit, move through our day and our dance will naturally help strengthen the erector spinae, as well as the abdomen in general. If you feel that you need a more direct approach, the “superman” exercise or the Swan Dive or Swimming exercises from Pilates are good choices. As always, if you have any known spinal issues or pain, you should follow your physician or physical therapist’s recommendations for exercise.
Stand tall and dance proud… Team Erector Spinae is on the job!