The Dark Side of Muscle Memory

The human body is an amazing machine. There are so many, very incredible things about it. Muscle memory is one of those über awesome things. Simply put, when you move your body, you activate sensors – proprioceptors. The proprioceptors work like biological gyroscopes. How is that for cool! Your gyroscopes help detect movement, maintain your balance, orient your body in space, and they send messages back to your central nervous system. From here there is a loop of continuous information from muscles, joints, tendons to brain, from brain to muscles, joints, tendons, and back again. This loop creates a pathway of information and that, my friends, is muscle memory – the ability for your body to recognize certain movements and replicate them over and over again. This is how a person can be off from ballet class for a year and still remember how to tendu and plié without a hundred new lessons!  Whew! and isn’t that great news!

But… Saturday I took a more advanced class (my 2nd since I’ve been back) and I was having a GREAT time, everything was working and I was even turning! I didn’t turn this well before I went off on injury/dissertation! Then we got to a combination in center – a really simple combination, really, really simple. It started off with a simple pique to arabesque and then a little walk in the park and a change in direction and keep going. I couldn’t. Everything froze up and there was a sense of panic that I didn’t understand. It was the easiest combination of the day and I could not do it.  My Awesome Ballet Teacher just assumed that I was having some foot trouble so he told me to just walk it through on flat, which I did. But the very next combination had turns and small jumps and I was fine again.

Yesterday, it occurred to me what had happened. It was muscle memory. I went out on a pique to arabesque. That was my very last step in ballet class on July 5, 2012 at around 9:30pm. It was a Thursday. That isn’t what caused the injury but it was the straw that broke the proverbial back and that is what my body remembered. What we aren’t told about muscle memory is that your body also remembers injuries and what caused them; it’s more often refered to as muscle guarding. The only way to heal it is to retrain the pathway of muscle memory from “injury alert!!!” to pique to arabesque (or you know, whatever movement was directly involved with the injury). Physical therapists call this unwinding. So let the unwinding begin. I won’t be afraid of the pique to arabesque, it didn’t hurt me, it was just there at the wrong time and the wrong place.

Sometimes we do need to intellectualize  – a bit – enough to understand what is really holding us back. Sometimes it isn’t exactly what we think, sometimes it’s more, sometimes it’s less…but knowing is half the battle. If you’ve had a dance injury, maybe this information will help you get over some hurdles as well. Muscle memory is an amazing gift of the body but we still have to be the boss of it!

~Let’s dance. All will be well.

5 thoughts on “The Dark Side of Muscle Memory

  1. Oooo, what a great read! I experienced something similar when I hurt my knee last Spring – my body just didn’t want to do the things that caused the injury. Now I know why!! You’ve just inspired me to go read more about this – thank you! 🙂

    • You are very welcome! Glad this information is helpful! I know that it was very confusing for me at first but it makes perfect sense now and even though there isn’t an easy way through, at least knowing what is going on and that I can push through it (eventually) is of great help to me and I hope for you too! Sorry to hear about your injury… hope you are on the path to full recovery and happy dancing!

      • So true – once you know what is happening, you can push through more easily. My knee is much better, thank you. The injury actually made me respect the limitations of my body more, which is a good thing 🙂 Thanks again!

  2. That’s a very good point you raise. It could be seen as a good thing – you’re muscles remembering how not to get hurt but they often take it too far. 🙂 I hope the unwinding goes well!

    • Yes! Muscle memory, even of an injury, is a good thing because it is one more way the body tries to protect itself. But, yeah, it’s gone way too far this time. It’s terribly unnerving. So far, the unwinding is most definitely not going well but there is always another ballet class and I will keep going until I figure this thing out! Thanks! 😀

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