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Murphy, Thomas H. (ed.) / Wisconsin alumnus
Volume 82, Number 3 (March 1981)

Murphy, Tom
Rebel with a cause,   pp. 12-15

Page 13

           Dance Prof. Judy Alter
is taking on the athletic Establishment
      on behalf of your aching back.
                   By Tom Murphy
f Judy Alter keeps on the way she is, she
     may soon be looked on by every
     steely-eyed coach, any grimly
dogmatic phy ed teacher as the Tokyo Rose
of the athletic world. For she is rebelling,
loud and clear, against one of their most
tradition-bound subjects, the how-to's of
conditioning. We're a nation of sprung
backs and mashed knees, Prof. Alter says,
because the one with the sweatshirt and
whistle makes the footall team duckwalk;
because pretty little eight-year-olds are
taught backbends; because we are all sup-
posed to jump out of bed and touch our
toes. She makes no claim to discovery in the
sense of a Charles Atlas and his "dynamic
tension" or whoever blasted into our na-
tional consciousness with such fads as iso-
metrics and aerobic dancing. Rather, she
says, she is trying to get us to heed the
cause-and-effect reports that have been in
the medical literature for years. She wants
us to listen to the orthopedist who tells us
what to stop doing if he gets us before we're
coiled like a cinnamon roll. She wants
coaches, phy ed teachers and dance faculty
to read the warnings in their literature. But
first you have to get their attention, as the
saying goes, and to this end Judy is writing
not one book but two, is a popular subject
for interviews on local and state radio, and
is talking to audiences of her peers at the
drop of an invitation. Prof. Alter is an as-
sistant on our dance/phy ed faculty, with an
M.A. in dance from Mills College and a
Harvard Ed.D in philosophy and educa-
tion. She began relatively advanced dance
training in 1952 at the age of fourteen, has
taught it to students age three on up, and at
Tufts University for three years before she
arrived here a year ago. It was at Tufts
where, in addition to dance technique and
dance history, she taught a subject particu-
larly germane to her present intensity;
dance anatomy and kinesiology.
    An interview with Prof. Alter necessar-
 ily zigs and zags. Halfway through a discus-
 sion of low-back injury, she is perforce
 taken up with the structure of the stomach
 muscles or the sins of yoga. Still, there
 come through five fundamentals which il-
 lustrate her convictions. Says Alter:
 1.) Exercise designed to stretch or
strengthen the muscles is ineffective if done
2.) Any exercise-any movement, really-
which habitually arches the back, whether
done in the gym or before the morning
shower, can be a prescription for eventual
low-back troubles.
3.) Most of the old warhorses-situps,
pushups, toe-touches, etc.-are being done
wrong, and are therefore potentially harm-
ful. True, we all should do them, and daily,
but correctly.
4.) The coach's pet phrase, "If it hurts, it's
good for you," is dangerous hogwash. If
we're sore after exercising (It's usually the
bouncing, swinging activities that do it.)
we've done something wrong.
5.) Never lock a joint while exercising.
   Last spring she lectured before the
American Dance Guild at a national meet-
ing in Minneapolis. She talked for an hour,
and they kept her on for another hour.
"Dance teachers and coaches are irrespon-
sible if they're demanding the wrong kind
of exercises," she told them and now tells
us. "They're asking people to harm their
backs and knees permanently. Maybe they
teach in innocence, but innocence is no ex-
cuse. There's plenty of source material on
the dangers of those exercises, but they
don't question; they teach what they were
taught. Some have stopped doing what
hurts them, but they go right on requiring it
of their students. This horrifies me! At that
ADG meeting I asked my audience for a
show of hands from those who don't hurt
somewhere, and nobody raised a hand!
They all hurt. Well, we have to stop this. I
feel the same screaming way about
coaches. They should read their journals!
And parents should walk in and say, 'If you
haven't stopped teaching this, stop it now!'
Kids should report teachers who don't stop
it. Take gymnastics. All those lovely little
kids. They don't have modern dance
classes, they're bored with ballet because it
isn't spectacular, they want activity. So they
go into gymnastics. They love it. They're
rubbery. But they are heading for perma-
nent damage! You can't strengthen the
back. There's only one muscle that ties it
from stem to stem, and that's not a postural
muscle; it doesn't control the verticality of
the body. The only protection for the lum-
bar spine and the innards are the three
stomach muscles. Putting it simply, one of
them goes down the middle, the other two
come out from under it and wrap around
either side, on the bias, and connect to the
ribs and hipbone. If you arch your back you
overload the spinal discs and overstretch al-
ready lax and weakened muscles. If you
bend forward without tightening the stom-
ach muscles, you allow the innards to pull
down on the lumbar spine. Damage to the
spine is permanent because discs don't re-
generate. That's why eight out of ten peo-
ple have low-back problems. I did all those
backbends and walkovers, and I'm per-
manently injured, like half the dance
teachers in the country. I finally had my
back X-rayed, and they said, 'Yes, L5-Si
are practically on top of each other. No
wonder you hurt.' "
   She brought with her to the interview a
sports medicine book that's currently a big
seller, and a page of exercises torn from a
runners' magazine. She pointed to a draw-
ing, the how-to for the bentleg situp. "It's
correct, as it says here, that the stomach is
the only part of the body that ranning
doesn't strengthen. This says to lie on the
floor with your knees up and your feet close
to your buttocks, come to a sitting position,
and keep doing that till you've reached
twenty or can't do any more. I disagree!
First, it implies speed, which is ineffec-
tive-I'll explain that in a minute. Then, it
has you go all the way to the floor, and most
people don't have the strength to come
back up without a heave or a jerk. This
makes the center stomach muscle grab, and
a grab builds bulk, not pliability. And this
situp doesn't do anything for those two
muscles at the side of the stomach.
    "Here's the way I teach it. (And, inci-
 dentally, it's the way advocated by a very
 authoritative publication, Research Digest.
 They compiled eleven years of research in
 stomach exercises.) You start from a sitting
 position. You round your back and you
 tuck your head. You hold your middle
 stomach muscle in. You go down slowly,
 vertebra by vertebra, and not all ihe way,
 for about six counts. S-l-o-w-l-y. And then
 you come back, six counts, slowly. That's
 one-third of the job. Now you have to work
 the side muscles. (By the way, there's a
 fiction in common exercises where you bend
 sideways to trim your waistline. That's just
 stretching a bias; doing the opposite of what
 they say it is. There are a lot of mistakes out
 there!) Ok. To get to the side muscles: you
 tilt your whole body-bent knees, rounded
 back-toward the left and go part way
 down and back up at the same slow count.
 So, down, two, three, four, five, six; now
 up, two, three, four, five, six. Then tilt to
MARCH / APRIL 1981 ( 13
Prof. Alter, here in class, is bent on
shaping us up.

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