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Neuroscience Letters 369 (2004) 80–84

Multi-joint coordination in ballet dancers

Francine Thullier∗ , Hicham Moufti
Laboratoire de Neurosciences de l’Homme en Mouvement, UPRES EA 2131 and ModeSCoS, Maison de la Recherche en Sciences
Humaines UMS CNRS 843, Université de Caen Basse-Normandie, Campus II, Bd Mal Juin, 14032 Caen Cedex, France

Received 6 February 2004; received in revised form 9 August 2004; accepted 9 August 2004


In upright posture, we analyzed the multi-joint coordination during drawing ellipses with the foot in a horizontal plane in classical ballet
dancers (Elite) and gymnasts who had no dance training (Novice). In both groups, the stability of the head and the trunk was similar.
Furthermore, a comparatively simple synergy inter-relating the movements in the hip, knee and ankle joints, was revealed by the kinematic
analysis. However, novices made larger errors in the eccentricity and orientation of ellipses than ballet dancers. Ankle angular excursions
were smaller in novices than in dancers whereas hip angular excursions were larger. This study illustrates some rules underlying the ability
of the nervous system to integrate multiple degrees of freedom of the body to master body balance while producing complex leg movement
trajectories. This study offers a dynamical approach of the problem of redundancy.
© 2004 Elsevier Ireland Ltd. All rights reserved.

Keywords: Foot-drawing; Kinematics; Motor control; Redundancy problem; Synergies; Dancers

It has been shown that the shape of complex hand trajecto- As proposed by Bernstein [1], the abundance of mechan-
ries, for example, during drawing ellipses in a required plane ical degrees of freedom is vital for the ability to form mo-
varies from a near circular to an almost straight [6,12,13]. Fur- tor skills. This ability is associated with the capacity of the
thermore, the spatial orientation errors of the ellipses largely nervous system to solve motor problems imposed by the
depended on the orientation of the plane in which the draw- biomechanical constraints, the task demand, and the environ-
ing was produced. Errors were maximal for horizontal planes ment. Specifically, we tested how highly skilled individuals
and minimal for planes oriented sagittally or frontally. These who might have excelled in the ability to stabilize postures
findings suggest that the error results from an anisotropic (dancers and gymnasts with no dance training) exploit the
representation of egocentric peripersonal space [4]. redundancy in the number of degrees of freedom of the body.
Previous studies tended to avoid the influence of con- This study is thus relevant to the classical problem in motor
straints related to body stabilization on motor skills [6]. In the control regarding the relationship between posture and move-
present study, we analyzed the skill of the production of foot ment [14] as well as to the problem of multi-joint redundancy
movement trajectory in standing subjects. Dancing drawing- [1]. In the framework of the concept of referent configuration
like movements resembling the “rond de jambe” were ex- [2,10], we deciphered the production of this motor form by
amined. These leg movements required appropriate temporal subjects with different skill levels. This study thus offers a
and spatial coordination of multiple segments of the legs and dynamical approach of the problem of redundancy and pro-
the whole body while strictly respecting the task demand of vides an appropriate context for an examination of dexterity,
drawing with the foot tip an ellipsoidal figure with the pre- which has to do with the transformation of an uncontrollable
scribed eccentricity in a horizontal plane [10]. system into a controllable system [1,5,10].
Experiments were performed on subjects who might have
excelled in equilibrium: six classical ballet dancers (Elite)
∗ Corresponding author. matched by age, height and weight with six gymnasts with
E-mail address: (F. Thullier). no formal dance training (Novice).

0304-3940/$ – see front matter © 2004 Elsevier Ireland Ltd. All rights reserved.
F. Thullier, H. Moufti / Neuroscience Letters 369 (2004) 80–84 81

Fig. 1. Schematic illustration of the placement of the 17 markers at the level of the head, trunk and upper and lower segments (A) and orientation of the ellipse
in the horizontal plane (B). In (C) definition of the orthogonal projections in the sagittal plane of the angular rotation of the shank relatively to the thigh (α)
the foot relatively to the shank (β) and the thigh (γ) with respect to the vertical, in relation with the ground reference, the reference plane, the position and the
length of the major axis (MA) of the ellipse. The orthogonal projection in the frontal plane of the angular rotation of the thigh with respect to the vertical (φ)
does not figure here.

The subjects, wearing ballet shoes and gazing ahead hori- In order to provide an overall estimate of the stability of
zontally, stood upright with their arm down, their hands along the trunk and head, a consistency index of body stability was
their thighs without visual guidance. They were asked to draw computed [9] in the horizontal and sagittal planes by dividing
a single ellipse with the right or the left foot tip in the horizon- the length of the trajectory pathway of the barycentre of the
tal anatomical reference plane (RP) that was parallel to and trunk or the head by the movement time and by the height
20 cm from the floor (Fig. 1C). The eccentricity of the ellipse of the subject. This index has been calculated during the foot
(ε) was 0.87 (major axis = 50 cm, minor axis = 25 cm). The movement time (mean value: 3.1 ± 0.3 s). To compare with
major axis was directed along the posterioanterior (Y) axis the situation of quiet standing, this index was also calculated
(Fig. 1B). Movements were produced in counter-clockwise for the data obtained 3 s before the onset of foot movement.
direction. The starting position of the foot was identical for In order to determine how accurately a RP was reproduced
all the subjects (Fig. 1B). in drawing, we computed the trajectory plane (TP) of the foot
Initially, the experimenter showed (during 5–10 s) to the tip. The TP was defined for each ellipse individually as the
subjects an ellipse template oriented in the RP, within the best-fitting plane for the trajectory in a least square sense
limits of foot reach. Few practice trials were allowed to the (see1 and [4]). The angle (ρ) between the TP and the RP was
subjects before the start of the experiment. The template was used to characterize the subject’s orientation error.
then removed and the subject reproduced the ellipse at a self- Estimated by the consistency indexes (see above), the
paced rate (movement time was about 3 s) without visual body stability in the two groups of subjects was similar (U
guidance. The drawing movement was made far from the Mann–Whitney test, NS) and during the test movement was
biomechanical constraints that could affect the shape and the higher than during quiet standing (see Table 1). During foot
orientation of figures. For each subject, ten movements were drawing, head and trunk motions were indistinguishable from
recorded. those during the control periods when the leg was motionless.
The 3D body motion was recorded using a Vicon 3D- It was found in both groups of subjects a substantial dis-
motion analyzer (sampling rate 50 Hz). Four TV cameras parity in the performance of drawing movements. For exam-
were used to record the movements of 17 markers placed ple, Fig. 2A shows that the figures drawn, the eccentricity (ε)
at the level of the head, trunk and upper and lower segments of the ellipses drawn by subjects was significantly smaller
(Fig. 1A). After reconstruction of the stick diagrams repre- in the novice group (U Mann–Whitney test, p < 0.01). In
senting the movement of the leg and the body, we calculated
the orthogonal projections of the angular rotation of: (1) the
1 The equation of the PT is the first order polynomial fit to the ellipse in
thigh in the frontal (φ) and sagittal (γ) plane with respect
3D space: nx x + ny y + nz z + d = 0, where n = (nx , ny , nz ) is the normal to the
to the vertical (Fig. 1C); (2) the shank (α) relatively to the PM, and x, y, z are the coordinates of any point in the plane. We measured
thigh and the foot (β) relatively to the shank in the sagittal the angle ρ between the normal n to the PM and the normal m to the RP, m
plane. = (mx , my , mz ) and ρ = arccos(m × n)/|m||n|.
82 F. Thullier, H. Moufti / Neuroscience Letters 369 (2004) 80–84

Table 1
Index of head and trunk stability (mean ± S.D.) in the horizontal and sagittal
planes during foot drawing in the two groups (elite/novice)
Head stability
Horizontal plane Elite 45.70 ± 4.43 NS
Novice 44.22 ± 8.53
Sagittal plane Elite 47.70 ± 9.45 NS
Novice 50.15 ± 5.43
Trunk stability
Horizontal plane Elite 35.50 ± 4.91 NS
Novice 34.18 ± 3.43
Sagittal plane Elite 34.98 ± 4.07 NS
Novice 37.20 ± 5.09

Table 2
Maximum angular excursions (mean ± S.D.) of α, β, γ and φ in the two
groups (elite/novice)
Elite 33.93 ± 2.01 p < 0.01
Novice 53.68 ± 2.96
Elite 103.85 ± 1.80 p < 0.01
Novice 59.82 ± 3.74

Elite 31.52 ± 1.11 p < 0.05
Novice 26.67 ± 3.75
Elite 20.07 ± 1.40 p < 0.01
Novice 43.12 ± 3.56

other words, the ellipses were deformed in the novices: the

minor axis was more than 45% greater than that in the elite
group. This deformation was associated with a substantial
abduction–adduction movement of the thigh in novices, as
estimated by the angular rotation (φ) of the thigh (Table 2). Fig. 3. Kinematic of leg and trunk movements during drawing an ellipse
Fig. 2B shows that the angle (ρ) between the actual and the with the tip of the right foot for an elite subject (solid line) and a novice
referent planes of drawing increased in the novice group (U subject (dashed line). Temporal evolution of α, β, γ, and φ showing mean
Mann–Whitney test, p < 0.01). This error in the orientation of (thick line) and S.D. (thin line) for a block of ten trials. For each block the ten
trials were scaled to a standard duration defined by the shortest movement in
the plane of motion resulted from an upward rotation of the
the block and then averaged. The three vertical lines indicate, respectively,
ellipse due to a decrease in the ankle excursion in the novice from left to right: the onset, the reverse phase (i.e. distal end of the ellipse)
subjects compared to the elite ones (Table 2). and the end of the foot drawing.

In Table 2, the maximal angular excursions of the hip (γ,

φ), knee (α) and ankle (β) reach during the motor task per-
formed by the two groups are compared (see Fig. 3). The
maximal excursions of γ, φ, α, and β were significantly dif-
ferent in the two groups (U Mann–Whitney test, p < 0.05,
<0.01, <0.01, <0.01, respectively).
Thus, the major finding in this study is that although
dancers and gymnasts are equally stable, dancers were more
successful in reproducing the orientation and shape of the
referent ellipses. The errors in the orientation and shape of
movements might be an indication of some imperfections in
the internal representation of the template and/or in the trans-
formation of the representation into specific motor control
Fig. 2. Average eccentricity (ε) and orientation error (ρ) for elite (filled bars) signals eliciting the multi-limb movement [7,11]. Although
and novice subjects (open bars). the present study did not address the problem of space rep-
F. Thullier, H. Moufti / Neuroscience Letters 369 (2004) 80–84 83

resentation, two points could be emphasized. First, in our referent body configurations that tightly relate motions in the
study, subjects had no on-line visual information about spa- leg joints. Our results show that this task was performed dif-
tial localization of the foot tip. Second, they drew ellipses in ferently by the two groups of subjects—the novices produce
a plane which is known to induce maximal orientation errors more large movements in the hip, knee and ankle joints, es-
characterized by an appreciable upward rotation of the distal pecially in the ankle joint. This result might be also relevant
end of the ellipses about the mediolateral axis, as has been to the recent suggestion [8] that multi-joint coordination can
previously demonstrated for arm drawing [3,4]. be subdivided into two groups “controlled and uncontrolled
Interestingly, the kinematic data in our study support the manifolds” one of which is most essential and the other less
existence of a relatively simple but robust synergy underly- essential for reaching the motor goal, respectively, a hypoth-
ing planar extension–flexion of the thigh, shank and foot in esis that can be tested in our ongoing studies on dance move-
combination with a hip abduction–adduction. According to ments using principal component analysis [15].
Bernstein [1] the nervous system has the capacity to interre- We have thus outlined a dynamical approach of the prob-
late the central influences guiding different degree of freedom lem of multi-joint redundancy. Interpretation of these data
(d.f.) and thus coordinates their motions. These constraints solution does not reject the notion of synergies. Rather, our
may be specified in a task-specific way and co-exist with the data suggest that synergies or manifolds, like trajectories and
biomechanical constraints associated, in particular, with the forces, may be an emerge property of the neuromuscular be-
body geometry and limitations in the range of joint motion. havior resulting from the response of the system to changes
So coordinated, multiple d.f.’s of the body are controlled as in control parameters in specific environmental conditions.
if they were reduced to a single joint. Such coordination is
called a unit or a synergy. It was assumed that the system may
organize several synergies and employ them in isolation or in Acknowledgment
combination depending on task demands. This idea has ob-
tained a substantial empirical support illustrated by synergies The author would like to thank Professor Anatol Feldman
utilized during head movements accompanying shifts in the and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful and construc-
gaze [9]. Head movements in 3D-space involve a complex tive comments on the manuscript.
biomechanical system. This system complexity is especially
striking at the level of the upper cervical vertebral column that
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