Tucking the Pelvis: Actual and Perceived Outcomes

Fall 1989, as I stood waiting for a train in London, I diligently reminded myself to tuck the pelvis under. I'd decided that was the way to counteract a tendency toward overarching, or being sway backed. Then, one day, after table work at an Alexander lesson, I stood up and the tutor said, "How do you feel?" I said, "I feel like I'm sticking my tail out." He said, "No, now you're aligned!" 

Later, in university classes, first-year students regularly came in straight from dance class, stood in first position, sternum dropped, and pelvis tucked. And I was trying to get them to lengthen and widen and free the voice! 

So my Pilates teacher, who also taught ballet and chaired a dance program, suggested I have the students stand parallel and relev√©, leading with the pelvis and making sure not to rock back on their heels when they came down. Almost instantly, the tuck was gone, sternum was lifted - and she assured me dancers needed to be able to work parallel as well as turned out. 

In an interview in New York in 2009, dancer/choreographer and movement analyst, Rusty Curcio, explained the physicality I'd observed in my students:

That's the old school ballet training, tucking the pelvis under, when they didn't realize you had the six deep lateral outward rotators, which connect to the ischial tuberosities, the femur and the sacrum. So they were using the quadriceps and the gluteus to do the turnout ... A lot of it is based off the fact that the Russians worked on a raked stage, so not on a level playing field ... On top of that, they told you to bring the tip of the ribcage as close to these bones [pubic symphysis] as possible, but it makes people go down and so you get this tucking of the pelvis ... You've actually got to release the pelvis slightly back, and then go in and up. Then you're totally free. The minute you tuck under, your legs become bound, which then will cause a binding in the hip socket restricting leg mobility and the ability to shift your weight and move through space.

Under "Posture Myths that Cause Mismapping" (What Every Singer Needs to Know about the Body, Plural 2009, 46), MaryJean Allen writes: 

[Tucking] the pelvis under ... ruins the rebound of the abdominal wall and pelvic floor and prevents spinal lengthening. It also tightens the hip joints as well as the buttock and leg muscles, compromising the movements of breathing and singing and all leg movements.

And in her classic text, Inside Ballet Technique: Separating Anatomical Fact from Fiction in the Ballet Class (1994, 39 - 40) Valerie Grieg says: 

[The] position of the pelvis ... affects the functioning of the entire body ... Anatomists ... describe the movements of the pelvis from the top of its front rim, so that when you drop your hip bones and stick out your tail, the pelvis is said to be tilting forward. Conversely, when you flatten your back and tuck your tail, the pelvis is said to be tilted back. Both of these aberrant positions are highly undesirable. 

The forwardly tilted pelvis, usually accompanied by flaccid abdominal muscles, results in a hollow back ... it causes a compensatory increase in the thoracic curve, which results in a protruding rib cage and impaired breathing ... Even more destructive is the tucked or backwardly tilted pelvis, which occurs almost invariably in response to the instruction "grip your buttocks." The lamentable effects are all pervading. The reversal of the curve in the lumbar spine causes the other curves to flatten excessively, reducing the spine's flexibility and capacity for absorbing shock.

Yet, many excellent singers, and even actors, tuck the pelvis as a regular part of their vocal technique. In a recent study (2010) involving professional performers from a range of vocal genres, participants were asked whether or not they tucked the pelvis and what they perceived as benefits from either tucking or not tucking. Several respondents indicated a perceived postural effect, as well as a connection to breath management and voice quality:

[Classical singer] I guess the reason for tucking is to get the whole body involved. As there are a lot of muscles in the pelvic floor, [tucking] acts as a support system to technique ... line, legato, breath control, etc., and makes it easier to sing because the focus is off the throat and the technique sits more into the body. 

[Actor] I was never told to tuck in dance or voice but to create a neutral spine. I think I may have done this by tucking a little bit due to the curve of the back. It does help alignment and my lower abs engage. 

[Musical theatre performer] Personally I don't use pelvic tuck. I think I engage the lower abdominal muscles a lot, but not quite pelvic floor. I do find that if I squeeze my butt muscles together I can have more strength in my sound ... but I don't use it very often. I just use a more general abdominal muscle support. 

[Crossover singer] When I first started movement training, it was my impression that I was out of alignment and that tucking the pelvis under was bringing it into alignment. I eventually went too far and since have come back. I think the tilt or tuck is a vocal thing ... and there are other ways of getting pelvic floor to happen.

Mention of the word tilt seemed to suggest the possibility of a different action. In Singing and Teaching Singing (Plural 2006, 27 - 28), Janice Chapman speaks of "slightly tilting" the pelvis without clenching the buttocks, which, in her words, "helps to engage the lower abdominal and pelvic floor muscles in a posturally advantageous setting." However, Chapman also advocates use of the SPLAT (Singers Please Loosen Abdominal Tension) in-breath, which requires a "flexible abdominal wall." Tight hip joints, buttock and leg muscles accompanying a pelvic tuck would seem to preclude that flexibility. 

Perhaps the critical difference between tuck and tilt is gripping the buttocks. In Your Voice: An Inside View (Inside View 2004, 103), Scott McCoy says, "Many singers and teachers attribute an expiratory function to ... the gluteus maximus, [although these muscles] have no actual ability to compress the contents of the abdomen [and] should not be considered legitimate expiratory muscles." 

Some respondents clearly differentiated between tucking and tilting

[Crossover singer] Tilting is a very specific and isolated movement that does not involve the buttocks. I often think of it as the "oo" moment in line dancing. 

[Pop singer] I definitely tuck when I anchor for a big note. I find this tightening of the buttocks enables me to have a stronger supported core. 

[Country/pop singer] Tucking gives my voice more strength all round. I find it easier to control my volume and my voice tends to be much smoother too. 

[Actor/director] If done subtly, tilting can improve posture ... Obviously, this can lead to holding, especially around the belly wall, and even up into the ribcage, so it's essential to appreciate the difference between folding everything up, as it were, and simply engaging the internal core muscles, isolating those as far as possible from the outer, more easily recognized muscle groups.

So, there are apparently two different, but related pelvic actions that may, in some cases, work on a continuum from subtle to gripping. And the performers quoted mention (overall) three specific aspects of vocal technique - alignment, breathing, and resonance - as being directly affected by the action(s) they choose to employ. 

Still others performers reported neither tilting nor tucking: 

[Crossover singer/teacher] Re tucking, I'm not one, but when younger dabbled until I realized what I really needed was better alignment. As a teacher, I find many young people with alignment issues that are very problematic (endemic probably of our computer/desk-centric lives). I tend to think of the tuck as a quick fix that doesn't help in the long-term. 

I also gave tilting a good go, being someone who had a sway back, but never really felt comfortable. There were many other things that needed to be done to align my body, and once they were dealt with ... success!

In Respiratory Function in Singing: A Primer for Singers and Singing Teachers (2006, 105 - 106), Thomas Hixon writes:

A common working assumption in singing pedagogy is that straighter alignment of the vertebral column and torso will ensure better respiratory function ... The vertebral column has natural curvatures in it and the muscles of the respiratory apparatus have certain preferred mechanical advantages in relation to those natural curvatures ... Not only does unnatural straightening ... affect the range of volumes, pressures and shapes that can be attained, it can also negatively influence the flexibility of performance.

Since both anatomists and movement specialists assert that tilting the pelvis either forward or backward works against efficient alignment and that tucking the pelvis (defined to include tightening the buttocks) restricts movement, the technical advantages provided by these pelvic actions would appear to be somewhat different from what is often perceived. 

As performers in any genre deal with far more than we can analyze in terms of mechanics, they frequently devise unique ways of getting the look and/or sound that they want. Whether or not there may be other ways to meet the same objectives is rich territory for research! 

As regards resonance, tucking or tilting can change the sound of the voice and in the process, may provide a feeling of security for the singer/actor. Performers mention strength, support, and control of volume and texture. However, what additionally may be happening, for example, in the larynx and vocal tract, has yet to be investigated. We do know that engagement of pelvic floor muscles does not require backward tilt of the pelvis or gripping of the buttocks, although pelvic floor may well engage in the course of tilting or tucking. 


References

  • Chapman, J. (2006). Singing and Teaching Singing: A Holistic Approach to Classical Voice. San Diego: Plural. 
  • Curcio, R. (2009). Interview with Joan Melton, "Relating Voice and Dance Techniques." New York City. Also, Melton, J. (2011). Interview with Rusty Curcio. Voiceprint 40, Melbourne: Australian Voice Association. 
  • Grieg, V. (1994). Inside Ballet Technique: Separating Anatomical Fact from Fiction in the Ballet Class. Heightstown, NJ: Dance Horizons. 
  • Hixon, T.J. (2006). Respiratory Function in Singing: A Primer for Singers and Singing Teachers. Tucson: Reddington Brown. 
  • Hodges, P. Melton, J. (2010). Breath Management Strategies of Elite Vocal Performers across a Range of Performance Genres. Brisbane, Australia: University of Queensland. 
  • McCoy, S. (2004).Your Voice: An Inside View. Princeton: Inside View Press. 
  • Malde, M, Allen, MJ, Zeller, KA.What Every Singer Needs to Know About the Body. San Diego: Plural.