Update: I remain deeply interested in how dancers modulate what we call “tension” and how that does or does not draw our eye. There’s seems to be a magic proportion of tension to movement. Of course, choreography matters. Watching Trisha Brown Dance Company at Jacob’s Pillow, I found a perfect example of the absolute minimum amount of tension needed to hold shape.
Reprinted from Dance Magazine.
When Ryan Corriston catapults across the stage for his dramatic entrance in Doug Varone’s Lux, the audience responds to his sheer abandon. Varone’s work demands flowing movement, so if a dancer has excess tension, the dance can lose its luster. “I tend to tense my shoulders and arms when a piece is new to me,” says Corriston, who is in his sixth season with Doug Varone and Dancers. “I need to move from my core, making use of my whole body, not just my arms.”
Tension often gathers first in the shoulders and neck. Even a dancer in top condition with strong technique cannot disguise the tension that builds up from overworking and imbalances. The solution does not lie simply in trying to “relax.” There are some quick remedies, however, as well as long-term ones. Armed with increased body awareness, somatic modalities, and on-the-spot fixes like a roller, ball, or massage, dancers can deal with tension in a way that does not interfere with their ability to learn and perform.
Tension refers to the action of muscles contracting. Dancing would be impossible without a certain amount of it. “We would be a puddle on the floor,” says Tom Welch, a professor of dance kinesiology at Florida State University. Peggy Gould, an associate professor at Sarah Lawrence College who teaches dance conditioning and kinesiology, defines it further. “Tension is muscle work that does not produce motion, but rather helps to maintain a stable or static situation. There is no change in muscle length, no change in relationship between the bones the muscle attaches to, no joint motion, no movement.”
Excess tension, which can make you look stiff, derives from the relationship between muscles and bones. “When we don’t make good use of our bony support structures, it’s often our muscles that wind up playing key roles in holding us up against gravity,” Gould says. “Treating a muscle like a bone generally leads to that muscle behaving more like bone, becoming stiffer and more resistant.”
Here’s the good news: There are numerous ways to relieve excess tension. Moving, stretching, massage, rest, or heat can help, suggests Gould. For Welch, the way you prepare your body for the job of dance can help. “Muscles have to be strong and long,” he says. He teaches a special Pilates class devoted to reducing tension. “It’s a two-stage process involving activation and strengthening, then releasing and stretching,” he says.
There are other ways to achieve similar results. Jennifer Williams, of Chaddick Dance Company in Austin, Texas, has struggled with excess tension all her dancing life due to structural imbalances from scoliosis. Technique class alone does not help. “I’m a firm believer in rolling out muscles, whether it’s a tennis ball or a foam roller,” says Williams. These provide feedback to the neuromuscular system—a dancer can sense her body against it, and become more aware of where she is holding extra tension. Massage can also play a vital role in releasing tightness. “I see a massage therapist every other week,” Williams says.
Though all of these methods can relieve tension, somatics training helps dancers get to the bottom of the tension cycle. “We must understand the origins of a tension pattern in order to let go of it,” says Gould. “I encourage students to think of this work as refinement in order to advance their technical capabilities.”
Many somatic systems aim at freer movement. Methods like Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique, and Ideokinesis allow students to slow down, make small changes, and discover the difference these somatic practices can make in their posture apart from the demands of dancing. Feldenkrais focuses on skeletal balance; Alexander, on the position of the skull; Ideokinesis enlists visualization and imagery to foster physical change. The ease, length, balance, and efficiency that these systems help dancers develop all lead to a reduction of unnecessary tension. Welch finds a multifaceted approach works best, one where a dancer can spend time exploring tension in a separate class. Then it can be useful to have the concepts reinforced in dance class through the verbal cues explored in somatic classes.
Dancing with the ideal amount of tension may be a career changer. “What we see when we watch a spectacular performer is the precise application of effort,” says Gould. “Not too much, not too little, but just the right amount to fulfill the technical and aesthetic requirements of the performance.”