Master Inversions With These Simple Strategies

March 18, 2009

An inversion, a moment of suspension during which your base of support is not your feet, can be an uncomfortable challenge to a new modern dancer, especially one who dislikes being upside down. Executing inversions doesn’t require incredible upper-body strength, but does call for solid core muscles. Here are some tips from modern dancers to put you in control of inversions for which your hands are the support base.

1. Overcome your fear of being upside-down

Heather Gillette, a professional dancer and Assistant Professor of Dance at Santa Ana College, says that the biggest obstacle to inversions is the fear of falling or hurting yourself. In order to overcome your trepidation, trust that you are in control and that your body is strong enough to support itself. Try using a wall for support until you become accustomed to being upside down. Stand in parallel facing a wall, and stretch forward with hands on the floor. Then, shift weight over the balls of your feet until your back is touching the wall. Let the wall take your body weight while you get used to the sensation of your weight being forward.

2. Take an under-curve approach

Beginning an inversion as if you were going to do a cartwheel will only emphasize the feeling of falling over. “Think of creating an L shape by moving down and out instead of over the top,” suggests Loretta Livingston, artistic director of Loretta Livingston & Dancers, based in Southern California. “It will minimize impact and make better use of your momentum.”

3. Focus on Alignment

Keep your shoulders, elbows and wrists in alignment. Livingston compares the alignment in your upper body to tracking your knees over your toes while doing a plié. Correct alignment will provide more support and prevent injury.

4. Let your hands become your feet

“Keep your hands flat and in contact with the floor,” instructs Livingston. Don’t cup your hands or let them pull up off the floor. Slide your hands across the floor; don’t slam the weight into your wrists.

5. Keep elbows in for more support

Pulling elbows in close to your body, rather than out to the side, will engage triceps and give you a more solid base.

6. Stretch your wrists

Gillette warns, “Your wrists are likely to tire if you aren’t used to taking body weight on your hands.” Be sure to stretch before and after class.

Strengthening Exercises:
Build core strength with these yoga poses.


Arms are perpendicular to the floor and shoulders are directly over wrists; the torso is parallel to the floor. Heels are off the floor, with weight held between arms and the balls of feet. Engage core muscles, hold shoulder joints in a neutral position, and think of stretching heels back and the top of the head forward. Maintain this position for at least 30 seconds, remembering to breathe. Then, rock weight back and forth between the palms of your hands and your toes. Lower your body down to the floor (as in a push-up), keeping your elbows close to your body and pointing back, not out to the side.

Plank Variation

A strength-building modification is to rotate to one side, one leg stacked over the other, so that weight is on one arm and the sides of feet. Lift the other arm toward the ceiling, keep the working shoulder directly over the wrist and don’t let hips sink toward the floor. (Imagine a string pulling your top hip to the ceiling.) Shoulders and torso should make a T shape. Return to plank position with both hands and balls of the feet on the floor, then rotate to the other side. For additional exercises, see “Walk the Plank” in the February 2006 issue.

Downward Dog

Start on your hands and knees, and then lift knees away from the floor. Lengthen your tailbone and lift sitting bones toward the ceiling. Straighten your knees and elbows, and press the base of your hands into the floor. Hold for at least 30 seconds, deepening into the pose with each breath.

Try This!

Heather Gillette’s Progressive Inversions:

From standing, drop into a ball shape with hands on the floor, head down and weight on the balls of feet. Slide hands forward and shift weight onto your hands, keeping a little weight on your toes. Gaze should be down and focused on the floor. Using your breath to engage abdominals, rock weight back and forth from the balls of your feet to your hands. Once you’re comfortable, practice moving fluidly from standing to the squat, shift forward, then back and roll up to vertical again. When you have mastered this, add an airborne moment. Melt into a ball, shift forward and lift your hips to jump your feet 2-3 inches off the floor.

Kathleen Edens is a freelance dancer based in Irvine, CA.