Today Amy Griffith is back with more technical posture info. I pray you grasp the value in proper posture, and now we’re going to discuss the role of expansive movement and tension. And I also pray that you correlate once again our physical posture and movement with our spiritual posture and movement. While this was initially written for dancers, it so applies to our movement in barre and in every day life. We appreciate your contributing all your experience and info with us, Amy!
“Even though we may focus on a specific muscle group, you must also consider the whole body’s coordination.”Zena Rommett
Tension ultimately resides in the mind. Mental stress and muscular tension usually work together to our detriment, whether you’re a mover or not. Even though everyone has mental stress, we as dancers can become very aware of our bodies and can learn to let muscular tension go.
Many dancers have a mindset to control or to “muscle” their movements and balances. When tension is repeatedly inserted into movement, that tension becomes a habit. Take a moment to think through this description and see if it sounds and feels familiar: “tension causes bones and joints to be held rigidly and limits the coordination, flexibility, and power of movement.” If that is how you feel when you move, you know all too well that tension is a vicious cycle to live in. It erases fluidity and ease of movement…which leads to the inability to turn, balance, etc….which leads to frustration and, with a sad ‘huzzah!’ we’re back at tension again. So how do we get rid of this frustration? It’s easy to say but takes time to do: you develop a conscious and deep mind-body connection.
First and foremost, you need to understand that creating new patterns of movement with expansion instead of tension will take time. You have to be okay with the time your nerves and muscles need to slowly and correctly develop this skill; I promise it will be worth it!
Here’s the battle plan: in order to get to the point of erasing tension from your dancing, you need to start at tension headquarters – your brain. Did you know that when you break a habit you are physically changing a pathway in your brain that can be seen on a brain scan? Super cool, right?? Someone gave me a great example of what mental pathways are like on your brain.
If you walk through your yard every day to get to your mailbox, you will eventually wear a pathway into the grass. That’s what a habit looks like to your brain.
Think of it like this:
Unconscious Trigger: you hear the mailman
Action: you take the same habitual pathway to get your mail
Consequence: that path gets more worn down
However if you decide to change paths:
Unconscious Trigger: you hear the mailman
Action: you consciously take a different pathway through the yard to get your mail
Consequence: you eventually wear down a new path in the grass, and the old path grows over
So that’s what you need to focus on when you’re doing those slow and repetitive movements at ballet barre. You need to be mentally present at all times and be on the watch for tension so that you can catch it and retry the movement again without allowing the tension in. If you’re used to all of your muscles being gripped at the same time, your movements will feel (and possibly look) weird and wrong. That’s okay though, because you’re un-learning while re-learning and your muscles and joints will throw a fit. You need to learn to isolate muscles instead of moving them all together like they’re in a vacuum sealed shrink-bag.
Where do you start, you ask? I’d suggest starting with your shoulders. Shoulder tension might seem like a small issue that doesn’t really affect anything but your arms. So wrong. Shoulder tension will affect your arms, yes, but everything from your spot during turns to your ability to use your turnout and hip’s range of motion will be limited by it.
Fun Tip: if you feel like you’re not able to simply hold your shoulder and back muscles instead of gripping and tensing them, try relaxing your tongue. This will relax your jaw, which will relax your cervical spine (neck), which will allow you to relax your shoulders.
Here are a few exercises you can do before classes to increase your awareness of tension vs. no tension before you start moving. These are taken from Erik Franklin’s wonderful book, Conditioning For Dance:
- Focus on the neck while moving the head forward and backward.
- Clench the jaw, shut it tight, and move the head forward and backward again. Notice how the jaw affects the tension level in the neck.
- Relax the jaw again. Rotate the head to the left and right. Then clench the jaw and notice how this affects the rotation of the jaw.
- Lift the right arm and move it around while noticing the flexibility of the shoulder.
- Make a fist with the right hand and notice how this affects shoulder flexibility. Release the hand, shake it, and move the arm around again to feel the freedom in the shoulder’s movement.
- Repeat this exercise on the other side.
- Rotate the torso to the right and let. Feel the flexibility of the spine.
- Lift the shoulders and rotate the torso again while noticing what happens to the mobility of the spine.
- Slowly drop the shoulders and rotate the torso to the right and left again. Discover how shoulder positioning and tension relate to spinal flexibility.
- While standing, lift the right knee by flexing the hip joint. Then lower the leg.
- Tighten the shoulders, lift them up a bit, and lift the right leg again. You may notice that the movement in the right hip joint is more restricted.
- Drop the shoulders, relax them, and life the leg again. If you are warmed up, perform a grand battement with lifted shoulders, and notice the restriction in the hip joint.
- Lift the shoulders and drop them slowly, and as they arrive at the lowest, most relaxed point, perform a grand battement with the same leg. The leg will go higher and move with more freedom in the hip joint.
- While standing, imagine a force pushing the head down, compressing the spine.
- With this image in your mind, swing one leg forward, and notice especially the effect on the hip joint and the hamstring muscle at the back of the leg.
- Imagine the head floating upward and the tailbone dropping down. Imagine that the spine is a flexible chain of pearls.
- Swing the leg once again and see if you feel any difference in ease of motion and flexibility in the hip joint and hamstrings.
“By habitually putting consciousness before control, you make controlling the body’s movement more flexible and alive, ready to respond to the realities of the moment. If your only resource is control, then you will dance through tension…The more tension you develop, the less you feel the flow and rhythm…
If the dancer trains the muscles consciously, he will achieve his technical AND aesthetic goals and he will make long-term changes, creating more efficient movement patterns that will also reduce the chance of injury.
…optimal flexibility is a product of good alignment and the resulting muscular balance. Good alignment reduces the stress placed on muscles and increases elasticity. In faulty alignment, too much weight is held by the musculature, increasing tension and reducing flexibility.”
Conditioning For Dance by Eric Franklin