Fri 08th December 2023

From Windows to Windscreen Wipers: a quick blog about Cueing

a thing said or done that serves as a signal to an actor or other performer to enter or to begin their speech or performance.

Can you roll your marble? Squash your ladybird? Draw a Chalk Circle?

And does just calling an exercise ‘windows’ actually help you at all?

Coming from a drama/performance background, I was quite surprised to discover that I would still be using ‘cues’ in my work as a Pilates teacher. I’m not sure the modern movement community has read the actual dictionary definition of late, as it’s not helping to throw off the outdated pre-occupation with Pilates having to be a perfect ‘performance’ of set exercises. But a good teacher-tool-box of cues is absolutely essential in our practice to getting the ‘best performance’ out of each exercise and can initially be separated into verbal or tactile cues.

At Vita Pilates, we really do embrace our mantra that Pilates is for Every Body, and thus we often have people getting down on their mat who have, for a myriad of reasons, not had a good positive chat with their bodies for a while, and asking them to ‘tilt their pelvis’ can for some seem quite baffling. We can’t demo every move so a wide selection of verbal cues are essential in helping teach, and learn, the brain-to-movement patterns to get the best benefit out of each move for your body.

When we were flung onto Zoom back in 2020, tactile cueing – that is the laying on of hands to literally move your body into the movement – flew out the window into facemasks and social distancing. So, Liz and I really had to brush up on our word-smithery to help all the people in the zoom gallery win at this new Pilates life.

But verbal cues come in a veritable Screwfix catalogue of toolbox colours. With something as simple as a pelvic tilt, an internal cue would be ‘move your pubic bone to belly button’, an external but metaphorical cue is ‘roll a marble from your pubic bone into your belly button’ and a more Franklin Method vibes visual cue ‘image a thick strip of elastic attached between your pubic bone and belly button and feel it shortening’. Or a simple ‘squash a ladybird under your lower back and release it’. Which type works for you?

Personally, I like the ‘feel the feels’ cues as they make you have to really connect with your body, thus encouraging the benefits of ‘attentional focus’ and the proven longer lasting effects on your brain-body connection of an hour of ‘thinking Pilates’ rather than just ‘doing Pilates’. I find asking clients to feel their ribs ‘sliding around the spine’ gets a much better rotation in a Chalk Circle. But also does ‘turn your face and chest to the ceiling’, an external cue. Your arm that is ‘drawing’ this Chalk Circle isn’t ever going to make a perfect circle and shouldn’t be the star of the show at all, but you can see how it’s a groovier name than ‘Spinal rotation with a full arm rotation’!  Liz and I love using ‘slide’ and a ‘melt’ as evocative cue words to help encourage smooth and relaxed and move flowing movement. Also, lots of soft stretchy dough, the occasional chewing gum and some blossoming here than there – all more internal feely simile cues to add to the toolbox.

There are, of course, plenty of exercises that supposedly help cue the movement, like ‘Windows’. Ah, ‘Windows’, a fabulous shoulder mobilising exercise that can have many a person close to tears for all the confusing arm flipping and the new addition of closing the curtains! It requires both some imagination, an understanding of geometry and basic window design. And proprioception – that is an understanding of where your body is in space – can you do it standing up but then resemble a baby octopus when trying it down on the mat? Quite frankly, telling people it is supposed to look like Windows, an abstract visual cue, often isn’t at all helpful! Even starting with hands above your head can honestly be confusing – which bit of my head? And when lying down, you can’t even see your arms to even know what they are doing! Even asking for a right angle in the elbows can baffle. What shapes are you actually trying to make to simply move your arm bone in your shoulder socket? Eventually we will have to dig deep into the tool box, sometimes wading into an old Western film with images of ‘don’t shoot!’ and something will eventually click in your unique brain-body conversation, muscle memory sets in and, boom!

And then we will move on to asking you to be a cat…a cobra, a pendulum, an oyster and whilst we rarely get spontaneous ‘knee rolls’, cue ‘windscreen wiper knees!’ and pretty much everyone leaps into their performance without hesitation!