An inverted balance that’s at once powerful and graceful, the shoulder stand requires a unique combination of strength and control. An increasingly common movement in modern and postmodern choreography, it’s a good skill to master. Here are some tips for performing the move efficiently and safely.
If you’re going to balance on the right shoulder, begin by kneeling on the right knee and planting the left foot on the floor next to it. Shift your weight into the left foot and begin leaning to the right. Place your left hand on the floor and bend your arm in a 90-degree angle, so your upper arm is parallel to the floor and your lower arm is perpendicular to it. “The left arm, with the palm on the ground, is a steadying force, and the right arm is tucked in close to the body,” says David Dorfman, artistic director of David Dorfman Dance. The right side of your face rests on the floor.
At this point, make sure your weight is distributed properly. Dorfman says it’s helpful to think of the right side of your face, left hand and right shoulder as a tripod, with each part bearing equal weight. Then, push through the left foot so the legs begin to leave the floor. Engage the abdominals and allow the pelvis to float up so your legs can extend straight into the air.
If the right shoulder isn’t working for you, try the left—everyone has a better side. Also, experiment with the position of your legs: Try a straddle or bent knees.
Holding the Position
If you’ve ever tried to do a shoulder stand, you know that getting into it is only half the challenge—holding the position can be equally difficult. To maintain balance with your legs extended straight, imagine your feet are being pulled up toward the ceiling. “As long as the energy is really flying upward through the legs, you’re likely to stay where you want to stay,” says Colin Connor, a dance faculty member at California Institute of the Arts. Feeling energy moving up through the legs will help you keep your pelvis floating over your shoulders, making the balance easier to hold.
No matter the leg position, your core muscles are extremely important to balance in a shoulder stand. San Francisco Conservatory of Dance instructor Hallie Hunt says that using your abdominal muscles will keep you vertical and prevent you from toppling over. Engaging your abs will also help you lift your weight out of the shoulder and arms.
Avoid becoming completely static. “Just like when you’re turning, you want to make slight adjustments all the time,” Hunt says. “You never want to completely tense up your whole body.”
For beginners, Dorfman recommends rolling out of the shoulder stand by rounding the spine, softening your back muscles, and drawing the limbs in toward the body, so that you end up on your back. Alternatively, Hunt suggests “melting” back toward the floor, using your core muscles to slowly lower your legs and pelvis, eventually returning your knee and foot back to the floor.
Going for it Gradually
If you don’t have the strength or balance for a shoulder stand, try modified versions that build strength and coordination. Connor recommends practicing with someone else helping to lift your legs. That person can help you push up into the position as well as maintain your balance.
Hunt suggests working through a progression of easier movements before attempting the full shoulder stand. First, get into the starting position and transfer weight into your hand, head and shoulder, keeping your feet on the ground. Once you’re able to do that successfully, try lifting just one foot, keeping the other planted on the floor. Next, attempt to raise your feet a few inches away from the ground. When you are strong enough to do this, try getting the pelvis above your head, but keep the legs bent and close to the body. This requires less strength and control than extending the legs overhead.
Proceed with Caution
Since shoulder stands do bear some risk of injury, here are some ways to get it right while playing it safe.
Dorfman suggests trying a shoulder stand on a lightly-padded mat before doing it on wood or marley flooring. He also says that wearing a long-sleeved leotard or a T-shirt that covers the shoulder can be helpful for a beginner.
If you sense you’re losing your balance when you’re in the position, tuck your chin into your chest and roll out of the shoulder stand onto your back, says Ohio University dance assistant professor Rubén Graciani. This protects your spine from injury.
Be aware of the alignment of your shoulder. Since it’s bearing weight, Hunt says rotating it forward or backward can result in injury.
Sarah Halzack is a member of the Washington, DC–based Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Co. She graduated from George Washington University with a degree in dance and journalism.