Old Joke:

Why was Ginger Rogers more talented than Fred Estaire? Because Ginger had to do everything Fred did, only backwards and in heels.

As a resident of New York City for over 30 years, I walked a lot of miles as a commuter. Over uneven sidewalks and landscaped paths through central park, up and down staircases to get from one subway to the next. When my daughters were little and attending a school on Manhattan’s upper east side (we lived deep in Queens), I used to punctuate their morning drop off with a mile walk down through Central Park just so I could get some quiet “green space” time before catching the next train down to my office in Union Square. I never needed the apps for “getting your steps in”. The proverbial 10,000 were guaranteed every Monday through Friday.

I’ve since moved to Long Island, and during the pandemic, the long walks through the hills in my neighborhood got me out of the house, kept me socially distanced and helped me work out my ideas about balance, coordination and gait which I was often teaching to my clients via zoom.

One of the most useful practices I began during those walks in my neighborhood was walking backwards. I didn’t invent the idea. I was enjoying a YouTube channel called “the knees over toes guy”, and got inspired by this man’s inventive training regimen that he created to improve his way out of his damaged knees and his doctor’s gloomy prediction that he’d never be able to jump or run again (remember, Moshe Feldenkrais, struggled through the same category). I watched, I learned, I chose not to do half of the much more challenging things he was promoting (the one’s requiring special equipment, splits, etc), and just began to engage with the pattern on the hilly streets around my house.

Now, before we get into the details of why to do it, let’s deal with the inevitable objections people raise: not seeing where you’re going, tripping and falling, losing your footing, the self conscious feeling that “people will talk” when they watch you “backing” by. These all go with the territory. Here’s my advice.

First: pick a quiet neighborhood. It’s too dangerous to walk backwards through the city. Instead, find a predictably empty area you can use. My neighborhood is perfect because it is tucked away from the busy commercial roads in the area. I have more privacy and safety to be a little weird. There has been an unexpected social benefit —I have actually met more of my neighbors walking backwards than I ever did walking forward. The novelty of it gets their attention and they feel somehow compelled to say something: “I heard about that, how is it?”, or they tease me “Hey! Now you can see where you’ve been…”. I even get the occasional “way to go” encouragement during the more strenuous exertion up of one of the steeper hills we have around here.

Second: get some experience doing it without headphones, eschew the music or the audio book until you get a little used to the practice. The loss of your innate echo-location skills raises the risk that you’ll back into a parked car. I have hit a few of them with a podcast interrupting “thwack!”. It’s little less embarrassing and more hilarious than you would think, and even educational for your ego with the right mindset. (Read the old zen story about the nature of emptiness and our easy propensity towards anger, where a man is rowing a canoe across a quiet lake. Suddenly there’s a rude bump as someone (he’s sure) crashes into him. He whirls around in anger, ready to shout and rail at the offender, only to find a drifting log has bumped into the canoe.)

Why walk backwards?

Two reasons: improving your coordination and building strength.

The pattern of walking backwards asks for a different coordination than you rely on for going forward. It’s really similar, and yet not quite. The typical scissoring that powers walking forward (flexing one hip joint as you extend in the other) gets reversed, asking the leg muscles to work under a different timing and load. Now it’s the foot-hold in front that supports the “advancing” leg backwards, etc.

Also, the novelty of the pattern challenges and trains your attention. The unfamiliarity makes you sense and consciously select your coordination in an activity you thought you understood. There is an exhilarating re-ordering of your kinesthetic self image that expands your repertoire of balancing and support.

Walking backwards on a relatively flat road is a good beginning. Feel free to squeeze all the challenge out of it that you can. But when you start walking backwards up hills, you are entering a starkly more low-gear, strength training practice requiring more power and skill (depending on how steep the hill). If you want stronger quads, calves, hips and buttocks, and more resilient knees, walking backwards up hills will give them to you. (Of course, like any kind of exercise or strength activity, accuracy and compassion matter.) In the beginning, I did hills very slowly, and took frequent “walking forward” breaks to get to the top. But in a matter of weeks, I found both my strength, endurance and elegance increasing. My muscle
mass in my thighs and buttocks grew, and my ankles got more and more stable and smooth no matter what direction I walked.

Here are some practical considerations: if you need to see behind you, turn your spine and look. Notice I said “spine” and not “neck”. Most people walking backwards tend to contort their neck to see, but the secret is to distribute the rotation more thoroughly throughout the spine and hips. It’s also possible to study “turning to see behind you” to understand the dynamic contralateral relationships that integrate spinal rotation into your walking. We examine these patterns all the time in Awareness Through Movement sessions that we do on the floor. Why not study them in the upright locomotive patterns you live your life with? As you practice, you’ll get more confident with looking when you need to, gauging the relative safety of the next 20 yards, and walking for a while taking in the receding landscape “in front” of you. Each backward glance should be another opportunity to improve the whole pattern of self-use.

For those of you who don’t feel “road worthy” yet, or just want to try things inside the house first, you’re not off the hook. Walking backwards down the stairs is a marvelous practice that smuggles in all the same eccentric, strength training and balance benefits as walking backwards does out on the street. Try it: for one week, every time you descend the stairs, turn around, hold the railing, and smoothly and elegantly lower yourself down the steps. Enjoy the feeling and discipline of learning something new. And when you’re ready for something harder: walk slowly backwards UP the stairs, too.

Let me know it goes.

Remember, Ginger would be proud of you.

“The comment that the dancer Ginger Rogers did everything that her partner Fred Astaire did, but ‘backwards and in high heels’ and therefore with extra difficulty, is often attributed to Rogers herself. Rogers, however, denied it, although she recounted an anecdote which gave force to the expression. In her autobiography My Story (1991), she said that she generally practised in low heels, and changed to higher heels when filming. When choreographing ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’, Fred Astaire forgot that she would be wearing high heels. As a result, trying to achieve ‘a backwards three-step turn-jump up the stairs, she nearly lost her balance. She believed, though, that the actual line was the coinage of the cartoonist Bob Thaves. Years after the near-fall she described, a friend sent her a cartoon by Bob Thaves, in his ‘Frank and Ernest’ series, from a Los Angeles newspaper. In the cartoon (which certainly popularized if it did not originate the saying), Frank and Ernest are shown gazing at a billboard announcing a Fred Astaire film festival. The caption reads: ‘Sure he was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did…backwards and in high heels.’”


About Andrew

Andrew Gibbons has been a sought after Feldenkrais teacher for over two decades. Known for teaching people a more precise functional performance, his clients include world class musicians, professional athletes, and people with persistent issues of chronic muscular and joint pain, injury, movement and balance restrictions, and neurological conditions.

His website is: https://bodyofknowledge.me/