If you type «isolation exercises» into YouTube or Google image search, you will be rewarded with more images of enormous flexed biceps than you ever wanted to see. In bodybuilding, isolation exercises are movements that only target one group of muscles. Exercises that involve multiple joints or muscle groups are called compound exercises and there appears to be much shaking of fists and flexing of biceps over whether one is superior to the other for improving your biceps-flexing potential.
I don’t do bodybuilding. I dance. In my experience, dancers’ exercise goals tend much less towards The Hulk and much more towards Black Panther. Or Catwoman, if you’re more of a DC kind of person.
In the context of dance class, isolation exercises necessitate moving your hips, shoulders, torso or head without the rest of your body jerking along like a tangled marionette. Moving your head from side to side without turning or tilting it. Circling your hips without moving your upper body. Core contractions that don’t involve your shoulders. I have never seen them in ballet, but jazz, modern, hiphop and salsa all have them – and they don’t come naturally.
I was reminded of this in Wednesday jazz class. It has the highest student fluctuation of any class I’ve been to so far, because it is technically a new course every six weeks. This week was week one again, and three new people showed up. We always do isolation exercises during our warm-up. I love doing them and I love watching other people do them, so I snuck a look at the new girls.
To my great shame, I have to admit I experienced a moment of utter incomprehension. What were they doing? Couldn’t they see that their movements bore no resemblance at all to what the teacher was demonstrating?
But then, fortunately, I remembered. Remembered how I could not see what I was doing in my first few weeks of classes because I had to keep my eyes glued to the teacher to be able to do anything at all. And remembered how bloody awful my own isolations had looked when I had finally managed to look in the mirror without forgetting what I was supposed to do.
Core isolations were the worst: it took me a good long while to figure out which muscles to use for that weird, bellydance-y movement where you circle your upper body in a perfectly upright position while keeping your hips still. I remember trying to activate the right muscles at home and at work, just to see if I could figure them out.
In the end – and this is a thought that keeps following me around – we don’t just learn to move our muscles in certain ways. We learn to control our mucles with more precision, to tell them how to move – a sort of meta skill that is transferable between all kinds of dance. A skill best known, of course, as coordination. And while you may have more or less of it, it is acquired and trainable. Otherwise, you could never learn any kind of sport at all.
I have seen lots of people give up on dancing quickly because of poor coordination and I can’t help but wonder: what if they had stayed just two months longer? So, when I see someone struggling with coordination in class, I am often struck with a flaming desire to impart this great wisdom upon them. Unfortunately, the new gals ran off after class chattering and waving their mobiles around. Judging by their woeful smiles, two of them might not return.
Which is a pity, because I’m pretty sure isolation exercises can be mastered by any neurotypical individual who sticks with it.