Finding your center: Irene Dowd's article on pelvic structure and alignment

You are now centering your pelvis in relation to the rest of your body, but it is not in a position. It is an ever dynamic balance that allows you your fullest possible range of movement with the least possible muscle work.” (p. 27, Taking Root to Fly)


The pelvis is a bowl, or a funnel or . . . what DOES it look like? Check out these images (and the other thousands on Google):


Irene Dowd’s article, Finding Your Center, looks at pelvic structure and finding balance/alignment while moving. Dowd describes the pelvis as “the hub of a wheel . . . the point around which the entire body weight balances equally above and below, and to all sides” (p. 20).

The rest of the body is connected from this center by muscles, and when the pelvis moves, the rest of the body moves through space along with it. There are three bones comprising the pelvic girdle: the sacrum, and two os innominata (hip bones). The sacrum functions as the end of the spine and the back of the pelvis. The center of gravity in the body is located in front of the sacrum, in the pelvic bowl.

We have a less stable pelvis than animals that locomote on four legs because of the way the weight of the pelvis balances on the legs. “The spine must sit on the sacrum behind the point where the pelvis sits on the legs so that weight now transfers through it and forward, as well as down to the legs.  Thus the pelvis can still be centered over the legs and yet provide the base for a vertical spine,” but we need to fine-tune our alignment for maximum balance while we move.

The posterior arch of the pelvis

As we can see in cathedrals, an arch can hold up a lot of weight.  The pelvis forms an arch, with the hip bones as the pillars, leaning towards each other.  These are balanced on the femurs, with the hip bones rotating on and around the heads of the femurs. The sacrum is the keystone at the top of the arch.  The keystone is wider on top than on bottom, preventing it from falling out of place; the sacrum is triangular, with the wide end up. This arch transfers the weight of the upper body, through the legs and to the ground.


The anterior arch of the pelvis

The front of the pelvis needs to counterbalance that thrust of the spine through to the floor because, as we move, the spine, pelvis and legs move; this is not a fused system. On the front of the pelvis, the cartilage that joins the pelvic bones together, the pubic symphysis, creates the keystone for the anterior arch.  The pillars are the two pelvic bones again, but the front sections (look at that picture of the pelvis again).


The flying buttress

I couldn’t resist ;-)  In this case, the shape of the femoral bone/hip joint creates an upward and inward pressure on the pelvic girdle. Much like the shape of flying buttresses on cathedrals, this functions to brace the pelvic arch. The heads of the femurs pushing up and in counterbalances the downward and outward push of the spine on the sacral joints.


See-saw: pelvic balancing act

Since we have to move this delicately balanced structure (try moving Notre Dame!), things get a bit more complicated at this point. Dowd points out that most of the weight on this structure is on the back of the pelvis, with little weight on the pubic symphysis:

This would seem to create an embarrassing situation in which the front of the pelvic seesaw would fly up and hit us in the chin unless we exerted considerable effort with the muscles that pass from the front of the thigh to the front of the pelvis in order to hold it down onto the legs. (p. 22)


Luckily, there are strong ligaments that help with this process: the ileo-femoral ligament connects across the front of the femoral joint (leg to hip connection) and does a lot of the work for us. This allows the back of the pelvis to tip up slightly, to “balance the seesaw” of forces.


Fixing our old habits

Dowd’s assertion that “few of us, however, have found this state in which our pelvis balances on top of our legs and under our spine with only minimal muscular exertion” (p. 22) will be vocally agreed upon by most of my students! Most of us have spent a lot of time trying to “stand up straight” and “tuck it under” and “pull it in” until we’ve taught our body a whole bunch of inefficient ways to balance and move. Dowd mentions how relieved she felt when she started to learn correct alignment: “. . . it was certainly a relief to know that my inability to flatten my spine against a wall while standing with ‘good posture’ was not due to deformity” (p. 23), but to the fact that the spine has three separate curves that counter-balance each other.

The spine just doesn’t work right in a straight line! If you distort any of the three curves in the back, it forces your body to work overtime just to remain balanced while standing and moving.

If you tuck your pelvis forward to forcibly straighten your back, your hips are too far forward for easy balance. You create extra tension in the muscles of the front of the thighs and back of the calves. You also tense your buttocks more and tighten the muscles in the lower thoracic spine (above your hips). That’s a lot of extra work that gets in the way of ease of movement (or tango).

If you rotate your hips too far back, your lower back and the back of your neck take the extra pressure.  In either case, all that extra work does not make movement enjoyable.

Dowd notes: “Remember how your tower of building blocks in nursery school collapsed in a heap when you did not center the blocks directly over each other? This same principle applies to our body.” (p. 24)

If your bones are not stacked up correctly, you need to use a lot of muscle work to stay upright. This makes some muscles work all the time, becoming strong, but not flexible. Other muscles aren’t used enough, becoming too weak to function correctly.

Exercises for finding the right alignment

If it’s hard for you to find the right alignment, Dowd suggests that you rest with your back on a rug or towel (if the floor feels too hard for you), knees up and feet flat on the floor. Make sure your feet are placed so that your hip joints are still in comfortable alignment. Have about a 90 degree angle between your thighs and shins. Rest your arms either 1. above your head on the floor; 2. palms down at your sides; or 3. on your chest or abdomen: pick the easiest of the three positions for you.


  • Visualize the long, stretchy length of your spine. Remember that it has three curves in it: cervical (neck), thoracic (chest) and lumbar (lower back).
  • Imagine your sacrum moving down towards your feet and spreading out.
  • Let the floor support you.
  • Visualize your lumbar spine relaxing, letting a line of energy come from the center of your pelvis/center of gravity, up along the inside of your lumbar spine.
  • Feel how the heads of the femurs can sink deeply into the hip sockets, closer to your center of gravity inside your pelvis.
  • Remember how this feels when you stand up: you are aiming for this ease of alignment when standing!
  • Your deep core muscles do the work of this alignment: if you feel your abdominals on the surface working hard, you are using the wrong muscles. This entire work of alignment is about LESS effort for more balance and LESS discomfort for more mobility.


Feel the difference: memorize the difference

When you get up, get up slowly and stand with your eyes closed for a moment, feeling the alignment again in balance, as it was on the floor. All my dance perfectionists:  Here is what Dowd says about new body postures:

Stand quietly with eyes closed for a moment and be aware of how your body feels now without making any postural adjustments or self judgements [sic].  Sometimes we feel out of balance when we alter some of our habitual patterns of muscle activity, but our sensations can be deceptive. Ask a friend or look in a mirror and see if you are actually more or less centered than before. (p. 27)


 My favorite bodyworker in Eugene, Joe, told me it takes six weeks minimum for a new habit to begin to feel natural. Stick with it, dancers!