Tag Archives: Dance Magazine

Your Body: Tension

Doug Varone and Dancers in Chapters from a Broken Novel (2011)” Credit: Photo by Bill Hebert


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.”

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Dancehunter interviews herself, again

Dancehunter: Again, why do you interview yourself once a year?

Dancehunter: Because someone has to, it might as well be me. It keeps me from talking about myself during interviews.

DH: What is Dancehunter?

DH: An imaginary feature movie where I, along with a motley crew, hunt for dance. Like a bounty hunter, except no one goes to jail. It’s my twitter handle and also a largely abandoned blog, which is used as a storage facility for stories I publish elsewhere.

DH: How do you describe yourself?

DH:  A dance writer with a weakness for theater, music,  film and football.  I should add that I was recently called a “fame whore.”

DH: You do endlessly hawk your stuff.

DH: And why shouldn’t I? I write so someone besides my mother will read it.

DH: Blogging?

DH: Having a blog is not a life sentence.  Sometimes, we finish out our urge to share, or get busy with paying deadlines.  Project blogs work well.  Set a realistic goal and stick to it.

DH: Artists blogging?

It’s not mandatory, or even advised if you don’t much like writing.  If it feels like a chore, don’t do it.  For long term projects, tours and such, a blog can be useful to document your travels or process. Wendy Perron addressed the subject of over-sharing artists, touching a nerve or two.

DH: The state of dance writing?

DH: We are like Conan O’Brien. You can’t kill us. We just keep coming back. There will always be people who choose to write about dance. Whether we will ever have a critical mass of people making a living writing about dance is doubtful. I am not sure we ever did.

DH: Why did you stop writing reviews?

DH: For a variety of reasons: There are other people to write them; I find the form a tad lifeless; I am not very good at it. All that said, read the New York Times piece on why we still need literary criticism. It feels relevant.

DH: Where can we find your writing?

DH: Culturemap, Dance Magazine, Pointe Magazine, Dance Spirit, Dance Teacher, mostly. Here and there in other publications.

DH: Where can we find your most unfiltered voice?

DH: Culturemap, but more and more in other places. I am starting to sound like myself everywhere. It’s a function of age.

DH: Aging?

DH: I don’t recommend it.

DH: What blogs do you read?

DH: Wendy Perron’s Dance Magazine blog, Arts Journal Blogs, Debra Jo Levine’s Arts Meme, Nichelle Strzepek’s  Dance Advantage, Andrew Sprung explains politics to me on xpostfactoid , to see all that I am missing in New York, Susan Yung’s Sunday Arts Blog on Thirteen New York Public Media,  my son’s blog, The Shape of Junk to Come for amusement and to see the gaps in my parenting. I skip about without much consistency. Mostly, I wait until someone sends me a link telling me to read something. I am of the obedient persuasion.

DH: So we are all front page editors now?

DH: It’s a “my body, my newspaper” world out there as so many people now have a service that aggregates pieces from their twitter lists.  I don’t miss the real front page that much. I’m not remotely nostalgic for print. Read Interviews with Notable Aggregaters in the Future for what happens when we take that too far.

DH: How can we get more arts writing?

DH: Hellishly simple, read more arts writing. Your eyeballs are being counted now, and so far, they don’t hold a candle to stories about Kim what’s her name.  Share arts stories you like. These days, numbers generate stories. Put your eyes where your desires are.

DH: Facebook?

DH:  The fact that we know more about one another is generally a good thing. I have a Facebook page, which will one day have every story I have ever written and will free up a lot of space in my house.  Please “like it.” I appreciate that Facebook is always working on its face.

DH: Most people don’t like that. Twitter?

DH: I like that Twitter makes us work on our sentences.  I have a Dance Magazine story coming out about how dancers and choreographers use Twitter. I started following every dancer I could find and still do.  It’s a marvelous way to get the pulse of a field. Twitter reminds me of dinner time when I was growing up, where everyone fought to be heard. It’s also a great way to keep up with life outside of Houston.

DH: What of Houston?

DH: It’s a love the city you are with situation. It’s impossible to keep up with my field here, not enough dance comes through here, or really ever did.  So I go see opera, classical music, theater, film and visual art.  Dance is always my home art form, though.  I look at all other art forms from a motion detector lens.

DH: You fussed like a maniac over Black Swan before you saw it, then fussed like a maniac afterward about how much you hated it. What gives?

DH:  All true. (I imagine I will be soon fussing over Emily Blunt’s performance with Cedar Lake in The Adjustment Bureau.) I had no problem with Black Swan’s depiction of the ballet world. Heavens, we don’t need to go Hollywood movies to find that out.  I did not like the movie because it was boring and oftentimes silly. Although, the scene where Barbara Hershey was about to throw the cake in the trash was priceless camp.  Also, Natalie Portman was terrific.  She got a boyfriend, a baby on the way, and most probably an Oscar out of the deal. And, yes, she almost looked like  a dancer.

DH: Sugarplum gate?

DH: Do we have to go there?

DH: Yes, we do. All dance people are required to chime in on the “too many sugar plums” fiasco. It’s a law.

DH: I wonder if Black Swan had not been in the air if there would have been such a fuss. Here’s what’s interesting to me in all of this: regular people now know how screwy ballet can be. Jenifer Ringer is a household name. People who never go to ballet were asking me what I thought about it.  Ballet seems nuts to them.  It’s as if the bubble burst into middle America’s living rooms.  Even Katie Couric had to blab about it.  What is also curious to me is how our brains are hard wired to prefer certain bodily proportions. I found myself attending to my own attention during a recent performance, which included larger than usual bodies.  Dancing, more than the body doing it, is always more engaging to me.

DH: Do you think the ballet buzz will generate bodies in seats?

DH: I  hope so, but its hard to predict. If you read Jenifer Homans’ book, she dissects the dance boom, and it’s not so simple, as it was tied to a confluence of events, both artistic and political.

DH: What did you think of Homans’ book Apollo’s Angels?

DH: I could not put it down. Darren Aronofsky should have read it before he made Black Swan. The history of ballet is like a Matt Damon spy movie, just terrifically exciting. The last chapter declaring ballet dead hit me hard.  History tells us if you want to wake something up, call it dead.  If ballet is dead, then I love a dead thing. Besides, vampires and zombies are all the rage.  I am less enthusiastic about that last chapter, but the rest is just a thrill fest. Ballet in light of the politics of the day makes great reading. I want Ken Burns to make a 10-part PBS series based on it.  Oh, and a coloring book.

DH: What about the politics of this day?

DH:  If it weren’t really happening it would make a good book.  It’s maddening mostly, impossible, depressing as ever.

DH: Obama?

DH: He had a strong close of 2010, thank god, because it was rough going before that. His speech on the tragedy in Tuscon will go down in history. Otherwise, Wall Street likes him.  I am reminded of Jim Hightower’s book, There’s nothing in the middle  of the road except dead armadillos. It’s a difficult situation.

DH: What were the most difficult stories you worked on in 2010?

DH:  A Dance Teacher story on the top ten dance injuries. No one could agree on a top ten.  A Dance Spirit story trying to define contemporary dance. The term really sets people off, mostly due to how So You Think You Can Dance uses it.

DH:  Dance on TV?

DH:  It’s here to stay. Let’s hope it gets better. I covered my own addiction to it.

DH: Most fun story?

DH:  It’s a story about ballet dancers married to normal guys in Pointe. There was lots of laughing on the phone. Writing the piece was better than therapy, very fun and hopeful. It’s a sweet piece, much like the one I did on the Secret Lives of Dancers.

DH: Most poetic?

DH:  A Culturemap essay on what is seen and what is hidden.

DH: Bubbly?

DH: My Dance Spirit Cover story on Lauren Froderman, a  bubbly dancer.

DH: Funniest?

DH: My deep cover investigation of young professional arts groups.

DH: Most rant-ish?

DH:  It’s a tie between my Art has Value story,  which I yelled more than wrote, and my Dance Civics 101: Being a good dance citizen story in From the Green Room, Dance USA’s e-journal.

DH: Painful?

DH: The Hurt Factor, about chronic pain, in Dance Magazine.

DH: Heartfelt?

DH: A story about Houston Ballet, Society for the Performing Arts and Houston Grand Opera’s outreach programs.

DH: Silliest?

DH: My reception diet story.

DH: Most in over your head?

DH: A story on Wordcamp, which is what led me to break up with blogger, a profile on Salman Rushdie, a story on Fashion and dance and my adventures in film at the Cinema Arts Festival.  Sadly, for me readers, I like being in over my head.

DH: Clunker?

DH: My story on Justice John Paul Stevens read like a book report.

DH: Story with the strangest start?

DH: A dance studio window with a sign reading “Ballet, Tap, Jazz, Drill Team, Kathak”  led to The Global Dance Studio in Dance Teacher.

DH: Dreaded year end lists and wrap ups.

DH: My year at Culturemap, A Year in Culture (dance),  A Year in Culture, (theater).

DH: Words that need to die?

DH: “Hot” and “edgy” are zombie words. They will not go away until they have completed their mission in this world.  “Curate” is on overuse probation and “buzzy” needs to meet me behind the barn.

DH: What most infuriates your editors?

DH: Making no sense gets them. My unwillingness to ask artists about what they do besides make art. I rarely have any interest in what they do outside of making art. Often, they have no interest in what they do outside of making art, so they make things up. I am more of an art person than a people person. It’s just me, others do this really well.

DH: Best dance moment of 2010?

DH: Chatting with Marge Champion, the Hollywood legend and model for Disney’s Snow White at Jacob’s Pillow.

Watch the magic below.

DH: How best to contact you?

nmwozny2@gmail.com, @dancehunter, 832-326-5234, at Caroline Collective on some days, where I co-work and when inspired, dust.

DH: Ideal job?

DH: Clicking “like” for a living.  Being a designated art witness.

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Teacher’s Wisdom: Claudio Munoz

Claudio Muñoz doesn’t mind throwing in a little physics lecture during barre if it proves his point. Known for his humor and honesty, Muñoz, ballet master of Houston Ballet II, has been shaping bodies and minds at HB’s Ben Stevenson Academy since 1999. As a dancer with Chile’s Ballet de Santiago, he performed principal roles in works by John Cranko, Balanchine, Ivan Nagy, and Ronald Hynd, partnering Natalia Makarova in Hynd’s Rosalinda. He taught at Ballet Nacional Chileno, Ballet de Santiago, and Ballet Nacional del Perú before coming to Houston. Recently his students have placed in the top ranks at the Prix de Lausanne (including Emanuel Amuchastegui, who won first place as well as the “Audience Favorite” award this year). Nancy Wozny observed Muñoz’s class at BSA in March.

The barre seems like a good place to start. What’s your philosophy? Ballet happens with the entire body; the barre needs to reflect that. Also, whatever I do in the center I prepare at the barre. It’s like being a good cook. You can’t be chopping fish and making filet mignon. You have to make the connection.

Can you talk about the relationship between stamina and technique? Without stamina, no one sees your wonderful technique. When Emanuel was getting ready for the Prix this year, we did the diagonal phrase in La Sylphide every day for three weeks. He could not understand why at first. You need to make the steps look easy, so no one realizes that you are dying.

What’s the biggest technical issue for students today? Port de bras. I work on it all day every day. Dancers are too focused on their legs. Putting the legs before the upper body is like a fly on top of a beautiful cake.

Holding props, like a water bottle, helps students bring awareness to their arms; sometimes they pass the water bottle between hands during turns. With some weight on an arm, they can better sense what they’re doing.

Finding their center is another challenge. Sometimes I have them balance on a stool, so that staying centered actually feels easier once they get back to the floor. They need to understand the physics of dancing—where our energy and force need to go. Once they have a concrete experience with that, they get it.

You are so amusing in class. How is humor a useful teaching tool? When my students relax, they begin to listen and get out of their own way. In this demanding profession, where the brain works so hard, humor helps you to let go of that, to see a problem from outside yourself. I am still the teacher; students respect that. Yet I never want them to feel like they can’t ask a question. A sense of humor reminds them I am approachable.


Who influenced your teaching style? Ben Stevenson had a way of approaching dancers so they would relax. From him, I learned to never scare a student. From Ivan Nagy, I learned the discipline it takes to dance. It is a vocation more than a profession—like being a priest.

HB II dancers look so at ease in artistic director Stanton Welch’s intricate partnering. Do you enjoy teaching pas de deux? I love it. It’s such a central ingredient in ballet, like a conversation—two bodies, one breath. We start teaching partnering in level five, so by the time students get to HB II, which is level eight, they can do complex contemporary lifts as well as classical work.

Do you see more boys interested in ballet these days? Absolutely. It used to be that every mother wanted her child to be a doctor or lawyer. Now we have all these dance TV shows and YouTube. Boys see that being a dancer can be a great profession.

HB II is like the United Nations right now, with students from all over the world. How do you deal with cultural differences? It’s hard sometimes because cultural habits differ vastly. For example, Japanese dancers have a different relationship to authority, so they are less likely to ask a question, while Latino cultures are more open. Everyone brings something from their country into their dancing. To truly cross cultural divides it comes down to coaching. We work so personally with each student here.

Your classes are a final polish for HB II students before they embark on professional careers. What do you hope they’ll accomplish by the time they leave your nest? There’s a thin line between academy student and professional. Yet it’s also a big cliff. We try to make HB II exactly like being in a company, to ease the transition. We give our dancers many performance experiences, and we work on their emotional maturity as performers. They have to know how to create the illusion of a story, or the audience will never buy another ticket. The audience has to have a spiritual break from the busy world. Any HB II dancer should be able to make that happen.

Photo by Bruce Bennett, courtesy Houston Ballet

Reprinted from Dance Magazine.

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