Irene Dowd: The relationship of the scapulae and thorax whilst dancing. Reflections from the IADMS Annual Meeting, Houston, 2017

Author: Elsa Urmston on behalf of the IADMS Dance Educators’ Committee 

This is the first in a series of blog posts about the shoulder. The IADMS Dance Educators’ Committee will soon be publishing a new resource paper to help dance teachers, educators and students to understand the complex anatomy, function and mechanics of the shoulder girdle. We will include activities to aid your understanding in an applied context. Keep an eye out for our next post. Meanwhile, after attending a workshop focussed on optimising shoulder mechanics, specifically focussed on the relationship between the rib cage and shoulder blades, Elsa shares some of the outcomes of the session led by Irene Dowd. 

Irene Dowd

One of the invited speakers to the 2017 Annual Meeting in Houston was the acclaimed Irene Dowd, a respected teacher on the faculty at Juilliard teaching dance, composition, functional and kinesthetic anatomy, and neuromuscular re-education for dancers and movement teachers throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe. Irene is author of Taking Root to Fly, now in its third edition and also writes for various dance and sports journals. She has also recently published a useful, online resource titled From Spirals to Horizons: Choreographic teachings created by Irene Dowd, a digital archive of a number of her choreographies, created as fine-tuning and conditioning warm-up dances. This is a really valuable and user-friendly resource which highlights how anatomical knowledge and awareness can be integrated into movement, and provides free access to Irene Dowd’s teachings, great for teachers and dancers alike. It is an excellent example of the integration of research into practice and practice-as-research within a dance medicine and science domain. 

The focus of Irene’s workshop was on the relationship between the scapulae, or shoulder blades, and the thorax whilst dancing, a wonderful opportunity to apply our anatomical knowledge and awareness in practice, and aid full range of motion dancing in the upper limbs and trunk. The session was built on the premise that by maintaining appropriate contact between the scapulae and outer surfaces of the rib cage during the performance of arm gestures, we can find ease and control in port de bras and partnering, and aid in the speed and power of upper limb actions. When weight bearing on the hands, the thorax spins within the "embrace" of the scapulae, so forces transmitted through the supporting hand/arm can be spread over a larger surface area of the thorax, and more directly onto the trunk. Whether moving scapulae on thorax, or thorax on scapulae, an aesthetic desire for the audience to see the "line of the back" uninterrupted by the appearance of "winging" scapulae is served. In addition, by avoiding scapular winging the mechanics of the shoulder itself are optimized. No bony relationship exists between the scapulae and the back, and it is this that helps to provide such a large range of motion at the shoulder. When the shoulder is stabilized, the positions of the glenoid cavity (the socket of the joint) and the head of the humerus, or upper arm bone, (the ball of the joint) are optimized for maximum efficiency in the full range of movement of the arm. More on the anatomy and mechanics of the shoulder joint in later posts, although see the list of further resources below for more scientific explanations on the role of the scapulae and associated musculature. 

Our workshop began with a gentle raising of our awareness of the bones comprising the shoulder girdle by looking at models of the scapulae and humerus, to remind ourselves of the movement mechanics at the gleno-humeral joint. By observing and feeling a partner’s scapulae, we were able to notice the differences between us, how big or small this flat, irregular bone can be, and also the differences we have within our own bodies from right to left side. This multi-directional engraved image of a scapula helps to conceptualise the bone from numerous angles. Whilst looking at the image, have someone find the outside edges of one of your scapula, notice its inferior (lowest), sharp angle pointing down to the waist; trace the edge into the armpit area and upwards on the side nearest the spine; and find the top line of the scapula. What angle do you notice the scapula resting on your rib cage; and can you sense the scapula resting on the outer surface of the ribcage itself? 

Of course, as a dancer the trouble we have, is that we never see our own scapulae, we feel them, and more often than not the knots which can accumulate in the trapezius and subscapularis! By noticing our own shoulder blades through the touch from a partner, and seeing and feeling other’s scapulae, an immediate awareness to that area of the body was enabled. Irene was aiming to enhance our proprioception of when we are accurately achieving and sustaining scapular approximation with the thorax as it "orbits" around the rib cage, despite our inability to see. We have a really useful resource paper on proprioception if you want to learn more. 

Finding length and breadth
We found length through the spine by placing our hands onto our partner’s head, gently resting and noticing the curvature of the skull beneath our palms. As the hands lifted away, the sensation of release through the trunk brought about a feeling of lengthening and opening, and by placing the backs of the hands on the sides of the ribcage and releasing a low hum through gently pursed lips, we felt the ribcage widen and reverberate. These activities brought about an awareness of the outside surface of the ribcage itself, but also for me a sense of its volume too, rotating and encircling around the length of the spine. 

Getting the arms to 5th
Irene talked about rotating the scapulae down and under, especially when taking the arms up to 5th, envisioning the outside edge of the humerus dropping downwards, rather like the greater trochanter of the femur dropping down when we lift the leg to second position. By placing the partner’s hands on the scapulae as you perform this motion, the shoulders fall downwards implicitly, and the scapulae widen across the back rather than pinch together. 

Widening the scapulae to open the arms
A number of tasks helped to find breadth across the back and enabled the scapulae to widen, rather than pinch together, especially when raising the arms to second position. Again, we drew on our growing awareness of different bony landmarks and musculature through imagery cues and hands-on activity. This helped us to engage in open- and closed-chain movement of the scapulae on the thorax and the thorax on the scapulae, whilst enabling spine stabilisation and in particular, ‘wake-up’ the serratus anterior muscle. The aim throughout was to avoid the scapulae winging backwards and interrupting the line of the spine.  

1. With our hands on our shoulders and elbows out to the side and slightly forwards, our partners pressed on the edges of the elbow joint for a short time; the effect was that when the lower arms opened to second from the shoulders, the support was felt very firmly from the back and the arms felt broad and wide as the scapulae glided across the ribcage.

2. By gently pressing on our partner’s acromion process at the superior, lateral edge of the scapulae, we were encouraged to expand into the touch we felt; for me this was the most powerful image of the day, the widening of the front and back surfaces of the trunk, and rooting of the scapulae down and wide was very tangible. You can feel for your own acromion process - on many people it is quite prominent as the bony protrusion on top of the shoulder. 

3. By facing our partner and gently pressing our fingertips together, we were encouraged first to notice the subtle changes in pressure, warmth and constancy of touch. It was important to allow time for this tuning in to occur. We brought our arms up towards 5th position and gently opened the arms to 2nd, lightly pressing throughout. This time by focussing on the motion of the end of the limb, rather than the shoulder joint or scapulae/thorax relationship per se, again a widening sensation across the back was achieved. 

When the scapulae pinch together, or ‘wing’ it is often the serratus anterior which lacks strength or control and this can affect the line of the back especially when weight bearing or lifting. 

Strengthening the serratus anterior
By facing our partner again and placing both hands together, we stood arms length from each other. We let the elbows soften slowly and under control, rather like a standing press-up. My elbows touched my partner’s elbows, and all the time we focussed on the scapulae widening. The challenge was to try and maintain this width as we pushed away from one another with control. An advancement of the activity was to repeat the exercise with only our right hands touching, softening the elbow once more and aiming the elbow towards our hearts. Not only did this support the focus of the scapulae/ thorax relationship and begin to strengthen the serratus anterior, it also required trunk stabilisation and control.  

By introducing and consolidating our anatomical awareness, drawing on proprioception cues through our own touch or that of others, and offering imagery-based instructions, Irene demonstrated the importance of scapulae/thorax relationships in the effective mechanics of the shoulder girdle. Irene’s publications are an invaluable resource to draw upon in lesson planning, rehearsal and the creation of movement ideas, to be able to experience her wisdom in a workshop setting added a multi-dimensional and applied perspective to embedding the principles of anatomy and kinesiology to dance-based movement. This is the first in a series of blog posts about the shoulder girdle. The IADMS Dance Educators’ Committee will soon be publishing a new resource paper on the shoulder, to help dance teachers, educators and students to understand the complex anatomy of the shoulder girdle. We will include activities to aid your understanding in an applied context. Keep an eye out for our next post. 


Elsa Urmston MSc, PGCAP, AFHEA is a Dance Educator based in the UK. She is the Chair of the IADMS Dance Educators’ Committee and sits on the One Dance UK expert panel for Children and Young People. She works with a wide range of institutions including Trinity Laban Conservatoire for Music and Dance, London Contemporary Dance School and Bird College. 

Elsa's Wordpress 


Further Resources

Dowd, I. (1990). Taking root to fly. Northampton, MA: Contact Editions. 

Dowd, I. (2016). From spirals to horizons: Choreographic teachings created by Irene Dowd.  

Martin, R. M., & Fish, D. E. (2008). Scapular winging: anatomical review, diagnosis, and treatments. Current Reviews in Musculoskeletal Medicine, 1(1), 1–11. 

Paine, R., & Voight, M. L. (2013). THE ROLE OF THE SCAPULA. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 8(5), 617–629. 

Sweigard, L. E. (1974). Human Movement Potential: Its Ideokinetic Facilitation. New York: Allegro Editions. 

The Thinking Body website provides a range of information about Irene Dowd’s work specifically and other practitioners working in this field. It also charts the development of the work which informs much of Irene’s practice from Mabel Todd and Lulu Sweigard. A comprehensive bibliography of Irene’s writings is also annotated here

There are numerous clips of Dowd’s work on youtube as well.