Rolfer, Dancer, Teacher

Archive for the ‘Dance’ Category

Making Better Use of Your Lats

It’s another one of those often used, but tough to execute, pieces of advice, “use your lats.” I hear it a lot in the swing dance world and in the fitness world and while it seems to be a simple idea, many people struggle with it. Often, the issue is not that the lats aren’t active, but that other muscles are preventing the lats from fully activating. So here’s a quick run-down on how you can gain better access to this muscle.

lat-extensionWhat are Lats?

Just a quick definition for those of you unfamiliar with them, your lats, or latissimus dorsi, are the main power muscle involved in retracting the arm from an extended postion.  So if you are is out in front or above you (flexion) and you want to pull it into back towards a neutral position by your side (extension), that’s the job of the lats. The lats are also used for a few other movements but pulling in (extending from flexion) is a primary issue in dance and athletics.

Extending to Activate

When attempting to engage their lats, most people (and most of their instructors, coaches, trainers, etc.) try to go at it directly. “Find your lats and squeeze them” can work, but most people struggle with this version. I have found that taking a more 3-dimensional, indirect approach helps many people to more effectively engage their lats, allowing them to get greater power and range of motion out of the muscle.

The basic idea is to think about expanding the muscles of the anterior (front) chest and sides (pectoralis major, pectoralis minor, and serratus anterior). Instead of focusing on your back and trying to squeeze from there, put your attention on the front of the body and allow the chest muscles to expand as you pull. Rather than initiating from the back, imagine the force starting from the chest and wrapping around and under the armpit and through to the low back. As you do this, be aware of the head and neck which have a tendency to push forward in response; keeping the head upright will help the chest to expand, enhancing the engagement of the lats.

wide-lapels-bow-tieIt also helps to work on keeping the space around the clavicles (collar bones) spacious and wide.  Imagine wearing a jacket with extra wide lapels that extend into the space of the shoulders.  The more the shoulders settle wide and back, the more it will help you to engage the lats when using your arms.

Why Extension Helps

The rigors of modern life (computers, driving, etc.) frequently put us in an arms forward position for extended periods of time. This means that their chest muscles are often stuck in a contracted position. As a result, many people become habituated to a posture that involves some level of collapsing in at the chest.  So when they attempt something like a lat pull or retracting in from extension, the anterior chest muscles tend to stay contracted.

metal-pulleyThis contraction of the front muscles causes an inhibitory effect in the lats. This response, known as reciprocal inhibition, causes muscles with opposing actions to be prevented from contracting at the same time. Similar to how you can only move a pulley rope by pulling on one end at a time and allowing the other end to move, a joint only moves effectively when muscles on one side expand, giving the opposing muscles room to contract. By focusing on expanding the chest, you allow room for the lats to contract and prevent the reciprocal inhibitory effect.

Beyond Just Lats

This expansion tactic can be used to aid in movements throughout the body. By lengthening the antagonist muscle to a movement, you can provide more space for the acting muscle to contract, adding to both potential for power and mobility. The more you work with activating your body in a 3-dimensional fashion this way, rather than isolated muscles, the more freely you will be able to move across all your joints. So the next time you are having trouble executing a motion, try finding the opposing muscles and allowing them to expand, using space over effort to move.

Video

Jamming

This is a really well put together video on jazz as a metaphor for sex and using lessons from musical jam sessions as a way to inform how we approach sex.  Anyone who’s been in my classes for very long knows that I use dance & sex as crossing metaphors a lot.  So, to me, this video makes perfect sense for dance as well.  You get better with practice (both solo and partnered), just because you danced once doesn’t mean you get to dance every time, and it’s not ok to force a move.

This ties into something I’ve been noticing in dance lately too that people seem to think social norms don’t apply just because someone agreed to dance with them.  For instance, it’s generally considered not ok for me to berate a woman into doing something for me, yet I’ve come across plenty of leads who seem to think it’s ok to just crank up the power if a follow doesn’t do what they expected on the first attempt to lead a move.  I think the more we view music, dance, and yes, sex, as a collaboration instead of a give and take, the more amazing things can happen.

And perhaps my favorite idea in here is that pleasure is a renewable resource. 🙂

No Dancesplaining, Please

scolding_child

Dancesplain

  1. To provide negative, and typically unsolicited, feedback to a dance partner with an attitude of superiority. Can be given on or off the floor by men or women and conveys that the recipient of the feedback is the sole cause of any problems in the dance.
  2. The gender-neutral equivalent of mansplaining in a dance context

This past weekend, I was teaching a beginner Lindy workshop with my partner, Lindsay. About halfway through the class, she leaned over and whispered to me “there are a lot of guys telling the follows what to do, can you say something?” I got on my soap box for a minute, made a little speech about it, and class moved on. But given the number of times someone has mentioned something like this to me in the last month, I figured it was worth putting into post form.

Let me preface this by saying I do not think this behavior is limited to men. I have seen women do the exact same things in a dance, and other contexts. It just so happens that I have heard complaints on at least 4 or 5 separate occasions in the past month of leads, without establishing any permission, telling follows they are doing a move wrong. I will give some benefit of the doubt and say that this may sometimes be people thinking they are being helpful, but it’s rarely as helpful as they think it is.

And a caveat, the following ideas should be superceded in cases of physical danger.  If someone is hurting you, you have every right to tell them without asking permission and if they don’t listen, I believe you have every right to end the dance immediately.  That said, there are still more and less effective ways to have that conversation that will be discussed below.

The Issue

I think there is an underlying fallacy that “If I know better than my partner, then I should help by telling them they are doing it wrong.” The problem with this is that it assumes you are doing things perfectly. This assumption is just inherently incorrect, you can always do things better. And the better you do something, the more naturally it sets you partner up to do their part better. For instance, I spent years watching body flight (ie. continuing momentum) be drilled into dancers and thinking it was just something follows had to be told to do. In recent years, I have started to recognize that there are ways to follow through that even most complete beginner follows interpret as “keep going.” If I hadn’t continued to refine my leading, I would have just kept assuming that every partner I danced with would have to be told to travel through. It reminds me of something Michael Mathis had said to me years ago, “I find that as I become a better lead, my partners just seem to magically be better.”

One_way_signsIn addition, immediately blaming your partner builds a wall between you. Rather than two people having a conversation, things become a lecture. And the typical accompanying tone of these lectures is scolding. When you tell someone, unbidden, that they are doing it wrong, you break down the partnership and lose out on hearing what your partner has to say.

I find blaming your partner and teaching on the floor tend to happen more often with dancers (and teachers) who have stopped growing. If you are a very predictable lead, your regular partners knowing your moves can make it easy to think that you have totally nailed leading them. And if you are a follow with the attitude of “I can follow perfectly if I have a good lead,” you may not notice that those good leads are making a lot of subtle adjustments to make the dance work with you. Both of these archetypes place blame squarely on their partner and, in a sense, minimize the importance of skill in their own role. Approaching  dance with this sort of attitude turns it into a binary system of “one person is right and one is wrong,” with a corrolary of “I always do it right, so guess who the wrong is…”

The Underlying Issue

Similar to mansplaining, I think the underlying issue here is abuse of a power differential. That is to say a perceived difference in skill (I’m the better dancer) is used to keep the other person down (You’re doing it wrong) rather than help them to be on the same level (could you try this, I would appreciate X, etc.) The sad part to me is that it happens often enough around me that it made sense to come up with a word to shorthand it. I have had follows come to me saying they had 6-8 guys in a night tell them they are doing something wrong. And before you think this is limited to bad dancers, I’ve seen rockstar dancers treat their partner or students similarly at times too.

I think the core of this is typically that when something doesn’t work, the conscious mind goes into overdrive trying to figure it out. The job of the conscious mind is to parse things down and put them in boxes with labels. A couple of the more readily available labels for problem situations are me/them and right/wrong. Since it doesn’t feel good to put the wrong label on me, we look for somewhere else to put it. Having someone dancing a different role right in front of us makes it that much easier to slap the “wrong” label on them, saving the embarrassment of putting it on ourselves. What we forget in doing this is that partner dancing is not just a me/you dance, but it’s an us dance and if we start using me/you labels, then we break the us. And in breaking the us, we often end up giving ourselves permission to crap on the newly labeled them.

Creating a Better Way…

So how can we move towards creating a shift? When I look at how mansplaining is being approached, I mostly see a continuation of the us/them mentality. It’s easy to lash out and call a dancesplainer an asshole and perpetuate the cycle. It is challenging but potentially much more productive to address the issues in a way that leads back to an “us” solution. With that in mind, here are a few communication skills I think are particularly effective in enhancing my own learning and effectively communicating with dance partners when there is an issue.

Look to Yourself First

One of the most effective tools for advancing my own dancing has been the idea that I can always do something better. As I lead, I look for where I may be miscommunicating or temporarily stopping/losing communication with my partner. Early on it was easy to get so wrapped up in what I was doing that I had no spare attention for my partner. The more I have worked on finding the holes in my connection, the more it has also made me better aware of what I am actually leading versus what I assume myself to be leading.

The same things goes for following. “He’s not leading it,” is legitimately true sometimes, but it also can become an easy out from figuring out how to connect better. When I’m working on following, my general goal is to work on sensitivity and reaction. If a move isn’t working, I do my best to follow what I perceive in the lead so that we can get a sense of where things are breaking down. The same way I have found holes in my connection as a lead, I’ve been able to find and improve on my communication as a follower by focusing on what I can do better first.

I try not to think of things in dance as your fault or my fault. In a sense there is only our fault. Looking to what you can fix first is not a matter of taking blame, but rather looking for what you can contribute to improve the situation.

Establish Permission

It’s generally kind of shocking to be dancing along and have someone, out of nowhere, tell you you need to fix something. Not only that, but it can easily shatter whatever happy bubble you’ve had yourself in, which has a tendency to piss people off. So even if your intent is to be helpful, unsolicited feedback often raises the fight or flight response and runs a risk of coming off as an asshole. We all blurt things out occasionally, and I know I’ve had occasion both to irritate and be irritated by friends when one of us just assumed feedback was welcome. It can help a great deal to find ways to prep for feedback and allow it in without breaking the happy bubble.

Both as a teacher and as a student, I have found it is often really helpful to approach first with a question along the lines of “Can I make a suggestion?” If he or she says “yes,” then we can proceed to having a discussion about it. If he or she says “no,” then I keep my opinion to myself unless that person is causing serious harm (in which case I might have led with something more direct like “I need to talk to you”). The act of asking for permission can feel a tad cumbersome but it respects the other person’s boundaries and gives them a moment to adjust to a state of readiness to hear feedback. It is the dance class equivalent of inviting someone to a performance evaluation rather than barging into their office and telling them they need to shape up or ship out.

Use Positive & Open Language

Even a cute bunny does not make this a fun statement to hear

Even a cute bunny does not make this a fun statement to hear

“You’re doing this wrong,” is a rather unhelpful statement and has a strong tendency to make the recipient feel lousy. It also introduces a level of certainty into the conversation that very few of us can truly live up to. Again, the conscious mind looks to be able to slap a label on something, but if you convince yourself you already have it figured out, then you shut down the opportunity to learn. Instead of approaching with a “You are/aren’t doing X,” wording, you can open a dialogue by describing what you feel or simply expressing that something doesn’t seem to be working. “I feel like we are losing connection here” or “I think we are are behind the beat” are far more friendly wordings that invite your partner to explore the issue as an equal.

If you approach things as equals then you can give feedback as a potential experiment rather than a command. “What happens if you lean back more?” is a sentence full of possibility and potential avenues for learning. “You need to lean back more,” shuts down the possibility that anything other than your idea could be correct. When you use an open question or statement, it creates space for both you and your partner to learn together. When you make a closed statement, you not only are shutting down your partner’s opportunity to explore, but you are effectively saying you have nothing to learn from the situation.

Building Something Beyond Yourself

We all dancesplain occasionally. I’ve certainly done it and times and had it done to me. The world we live in is rife with opportunities to make one group right and the other wrong. But when we do this, we drive a wedge between ourselves and our partner. Judgmental feedback can cause people not just to take issue with us, but to fear judgement from every lead or follow they dance with. If you want to help your partner grow, then help them to feel safe and free to play and grow and you will reap the rewards of having great partners to dance with. And if you can’t say it with respect and love, then please don’t say anything and ask for help from someone more skilled in giving feedback, because the fear of judgement has a far more potent effect on most people’s dancing than any bodily technique point you can offer them.

In the last two years I have talked to a lot of long-term intermediate/advanced dancers and noticed a great trend towards self judgement and less talk about loving the dance. I know this doesn’t apply to everyone, but I think the more we treat each other with respect and love, the more the dance will grow. If we treat each other with judgement and fear, noone’s going to want to dance with us. That said, I’d like to leave you with a talk from one of the great lovers of this dance, Dawn Hampton (click the link below to hear Dawn deliver this as only she can):

I really want you to love the dance, to love the music, to love yourself. The only thing that I can say to you is when you get out on the dance floor, is let go.

The Power of Reflective Practice

Lodge_cameraIt’s an idea many of us have heard or even expressed ourselves in learning to dance: it’s important to tape yourself. While it’s an easy concept to understand, I have never seen it illustrated so clearly as I have recently with a couple of new students. Working with them has been a great education for me in seeing how powerful the idea of taping yourself can be.

Dr. Lodge McCammon and soon-to-be-Dr. Brandy Parker joined my classes at The Lindy Lab about 3 months ago. Lodge is an educational expert who helps teachers flip their classroom and introduce the idea of Reflective Practice to student’s learning skills. The essential idea is to tape yourself performing the skill or talking about the material you are studying and then review the tape of yourself to connect with your own progress.

3 Weeks

Lodge and Brandy started with one Lindy class on their first week and were pretty much hooked from the get-go. Lodge has described it to me as finding something he feels like he should have been doing all his life. After the first week, they upgraded to an unlimited class package and were practicing, like most beginning dance students, based on feel alone and occasionally going dance.  After 3 weeks of that and a total of 13.5 classroom hours, they decided to tape themselves for the first time and posted this video:

It was after this first taping that they realized that Lodge’s work with flipped classrooms and reflective practice could be applied to their dancing as well.  Following the taping of this first video, they began spending more of their practice time taping and reviewing their dancing.  Lodge has said that this taping was actually a great tool for building confidence as he found his taped dancing looked a lot better than he would have expected it to.

6 Weeks

A few more weeks passed and we were into the Christmas break.  Lodge and Brandy were stoked to keep learning so we switched to doing a couple of private lessons to bridge the gap until January classes.  At their request, we taped the entirety of each private lesson and Lodge and Brandy would review the lesson later, practice a bit, then send me a video talking about what they were working on before the next private lesson (Click here for an example recap video).  They have both commented that these videos were extremely helpful, noting that they often picked up some major concepts from rewatching the videos that had not landed for them during the lessons.

After a few more weeks of dancing and about 5 hours of private lessons, Lodge and Brandy recorded and posted the following video, dancing to a tune they wrote and recorded by themselves.

For a difference of 3 weeks, the shifts in fluidity and energy are pretty impressive.  They also changed where they were dancing because we figured out that Lodge was originally ducking his head a lot to avoid hitting the ceiling fan in the middle of the room.  My favorite thing about this video is that at 6 weeks, Lodge and Brandy’s own creativity and personality are already coming out in their dancing.  The choreographed break away parts are things I hadn’t taught them, so it’s awesome to see them already starting to show off their own ideas.

At this point, Lodge and Brandy asked me to add that teaching style has had a lot to do with their ability to integrate reflective practice into the growth of their dancing.  In the past year or so, I have focused classes on first principles of motion with an emphasis on encouraging creativity, musicality, and general experimentation with one’s own motion.  Lodge and Brandy both feel that emphasis on creativity and personal experimentation have helped a great deal in inspiring them to move forward in their dancing and to try mixing in their own educational models.

10 Weeks

January group classes were a bit more Charleston heavy and Lodge and Brandy took everything again.  They also had one extra private lesson with me and one from Nelle Cherry while she was in town.  At this point, they’d taken on a lot of information and were spending more time on integrating, so towards the end of 10 weeks they were starting to slow down on classes and ease up on practicing a bit.  At about the 10 week mark, they recorded another original song and posted this video:

I think it’s best to let the last video speak for itself.  Especially in comparison from Week 3 to Week 10, the difference is really impressive.  Working with Lodge and Brandy has inspired me to start taping myself again and to get a camcorder setup for the dance studio to make this kind of practicing available to other students.  If you are interested in learning more about Lodge’s work on education and practice, check him out on facebook at FIZZ Education.

This Music Sucks: Personal Movement Style in Dance Music Appreciation

SwingSucksAlbumCoverI recently DJ’d a 20’s themed holiday party where my partner and I had been hired to teach a Charleston lesson and follow up with 20’s music, eventually transitioning into modern pop music. Due to a  few delays, and performances running long, we were eventually asked to scrub the lesson and move straight into playing music. Within the first song or two of 20’s music we immediately had people coming up to not-so-subtly ask when we would start playing modern music. The subtext of the request was pretty clear “We think this music sucks.”  We scrambled a little bit, threw on some club type music and the once empty floor was suddenly packed.

The variety of perceptions people have for the same tune was always been intriguing to me. It amazes me that someone could love the Cupid Shuffle or hate Jumpin’ at the Woodside. I was aware that I started dancing liking Neo-Swing but as my dancing grew I started to prefer first groove, then vintage, but I didn’t have a solid reason why. I’ve heard some great talks on this subject, from a musical perspective, by DJ and historian, Kyle Smith, and I’m in absolute agreement that there are a lot of factors to how we perceive music. For this post, I wanted to pick out one that I see as a particularly strong influence in what people will or won’t dance to: their own default movement.

All of us have our comfort zone and at the center of that comfort zone is our default. If we count ourselves off, we each tend to count off at a certain speed, syncopate a certain way, use a particular energy, etc.  If every song sounded the way that default song does, we would kill it every time we hit the dance floor.

Of course, not every song fits our comfort zone.  The vast variety of music defies our comfort zone, falling somewhere away from our default towards uncomfortable, or even inaccessible territory.  And this is where I think a breakdown occurs for a lot of people.  When the music no longer supports the way your body wants to dance, you have two choices, recognize the limitations of your body or blame the music.  I think the common “I don’t like this music,” is often an indication of people choosing the latter.

This isn’t to say that all music preferences are based in this, but whether or not the music supports your movement is something I don’t see many people pay attention to.  So in an out of sight, out of mind sort of way, it makes it easy for our comfort zone to flavor a lot of our stated musical tastes.  If your movement and the music don’t have a common thread to them, it begins to make dancing feel like an inappropriately soundtracked movie scene.

From the musical side, this is how I tend to approach things when I am DJing and want to fill the floor regardless of what music it takes (as opposed to wanting to play within certain genres).  I watch the way people move, particularly when they aren’t dancing, and try to figure out what would make an appropriate soundtrack.  I think most DJs do this to some extent when they talk about reading the floor.  Coming up with someone’s soundtrack is just one of the ways I conceive it and a way I have found translates well when helping new DJs develop their own feel for the floor.

Sometimes the music is just bad.  But most of the time, I try not to be like this guy.

Sometimes the music is just bad. But most of the time, I try not to be like this guy.

As a dancer, I certainly have the option to just stick to my guns that X music sucks and not dance to it.  But I would prefer to dance more and dance better to the music I already like.  So from that perspective, my goal becomes expanding my movement repertoire and getting better at moving based on the music rather than moving based purely on my preexisting habits.  It can be a challenging process at times, but I find a great deal has opened up in my dancing as I developed a willingness to move with the music and move to more types of music.  Here are a few things that helped for me:

Stop and Listen

One of the things that locks us into old patterns is jumping the gun because we feel like we have to move immediately.  When they connect with a partner, most people will start in dancing almost immediately because waiting could create the dance equivalent of an uncomfortable silence.  Starting simply with pulsing to the music and letting the music fill that silence does a lot, both for the musicality of the dance and for making the partnership feel like you are on the same page.

Move By Yourself

In dance classes, when I put on a swing song and ask people to move on their own, inevitably, some percentage of the class will start doing nothing but 6 and 8-count footwork in place.  The whole of the music is there for the taking but they have become so deeply patterned that the first instinct is to do something completely by rote.  As you spend time just getting used to moving alone, you can put more focus on deepening the relationship between your body movement and the music.  The stronger that relationship gets, the more you will be able to take it back into a partnership.  This tends to involve a lot of trial and error and may be uncomfortable at times, but the dance rewards are well worth the effort.

Find Transitions

If I’m DJing a mixed genre night and I want to go from funk to charleston, it would be a rather jarring transition in most cases to do so in one song.  If I find an intermediary song or two that allows me to shift the genre over time rather than a straight change, the energy of the night can be maintained and dancers are better primed for the genre I’m heading towards.  The same goes for your body and your own dance development.  Knowing where you are and working towards other styles of movement piece-by-piece allows you to make use of the resources you already have.  If you like dancing to neo-swing and want to get a feel for vintage, try starting with neo, moving to more modern swing bands, and then working your way back to vintage music.  Whether or not your dancing “feels right” to the music or feels jarring will be a good indicator of when you’ve got it and are in a solid position to expand your comfort zone further.

So the next time you think the music sucks, take a minute and consider how your dancing may or may not line up with the music.  You certainly don’t have to like anything you don’t want to, but if you are willing to step outside of your comfort zone you might find that you can enjoy dancing to something that didn’t grab you at first.  And if you’re of the “I’ll dance to anything” variety, you can use the same tools to deepen your connection with a variety of musical genres and find deeper inspiration in the music.  Whatever your choices, just keep in mind that your musical taste is often as much or more about how the music makes you feel than it is about the music itself.  And whatever makes you feel like you want to dance, start there, and you can use it to grow beyond.

When “Relax” Doesn’t Work (and 3 simple things that do)

tight stone fist

“relax”

“Relax”

“RELAX”

I cringed a little watching this exchange between a massage therapist and a client. The massage therapist was trying to get her client to release tension in her arm. The woman on the table was having trouble relaxing and the massage therapist was becoming frustrated by the client’s lack of response. The client, not too surprisingly, seemed less and less relaxed as the therapist became louder and more insistent.

I have seen similar situations play out in dance classes where well-meaning instructors have created traumatic situations for students by pushing them to relax. I have talked to students who were reduced to tears after a private lesson where they were just told over and over to relax. And I recently had a student who really needed to relax thank me for finding more active release-oriented ways to cue her because a previous ballroom teacher had essentially beaten her over the head with the word “relax” to the point where she hated/feared hearing it.

“Relax” can be an extremely difficult instruction to execute. It seems a great many instructors, students, and people in general don’t have alternative strategies to try when “relax” isn’t effective. So when “relax” doesn’t work, they don’t have a backup wording and just keep saying the same thing that didn’t work the first time. Then they go on repeating “relax” like a mantra until they give up or manage or contort themselves into something that looks close enough that they can move on.

What makes “relax” so hard?

For starters, context. People typically get told to relax in situations where they are already tense, meaning they are under some sort of stress or sense of danger. Telling someone to relax in such a situation is essentially asking them to turn off a defense mechanism when they feel threatened. Frequently, people who are tense because of some fear of judgement end up tensing even more when told to relax because they fear being unable to comply and being judged further.

Relax is also a fairly complex concept, when you think about it. Not only does it involve a change in physical state, but also a mental/emotional shift. And for relaxing to make sense to your nervous system, you need to view your current surroundings as non-threatening. If any of these tensions are habitual, it can even be difficult to tell that you are tense in the first place. With all these factors involved, relax becomes more a state of being than a simple action.

Many people seem to conceptualize relax as the absence of doing something. In the US, the tendency to fill our lives with doing things can make the idea of relaxing seem to equal doing nothing or even being viewed as a negative. Rather than viewing relaxation as a lack of doing, it can be far more productive to approach it as an active releasing of tension. The following few ways can help you to physically and mentally achieve relaxation more effectively than just thinking “relax.”

Breathe

breathelungsOne of my first cues anytime I find myself tense is to extend my breathing. Taking a longer breath, and particularly a longer exhale, activates the relaxation response. Under the sort of duress that causes tension, most of us will shorten or even hold our breath, reinforcing the tension. Deep, slow breathing helps to settle the nervous system and bring it back to a state of ease, leading the muscles to relax without direct, conscious effort.

You can also direct breath towards particular areas that need help relaxing. Shoulder tense? Try focusing on the area in your chest near that shoulder and imagine directing your breath to it. The expansion of the lungs is a great way to passively expand muscle groups and give them more space to settle into more comfortable and relaxed positions.

Think Down

The body responds much better to simple directional ideas than it does to complex concepts like “relax.” The end goal of relaxing can often be achieved by thinking about letting the arms (or whatever body part) sink down.

melting_womanIn many dance contexts I’ve seen teachers repeatedly asking students to relax their arms, often with minimal to moderate success. Often, this arm tension is based on the idea that someone needs to hold their own arms up. So a great deal of tension is a result of fighting gravity to keep the arms at some specific height. By thinking about allowing the arms to sink down, the body can surrender to the effects of gravity and work with it, rather than constantly fighting it. I often use the idea of melting like candle wax to enhance this effect in relaxing. Because a relaxed arm will more effectively transfer motion, this sort of release is integral to creating natural connection in dancing.

ghostbusters-floating-danaI see the same effect on my Rolfing® table where many people’s bodies tense away from the table almost as if they could levitate themselves by sheer force of will. When I prompt them to recognize that the table can support their weight and to let themselves sink into that support, their bodies relax and their mental state follows suit shortly after. In standing, a similar effect is achievable by becoming aware of the bones in your body and allowing weight to carry through bones rather than be held up by muscle.

Tense & Release

One of the more counter-intuitive moves for relaxation is to tense up first. Most of us, when told to relax, will aim to go directly towards some sort of relaxing attempt. stress ballHowever, it can end up more effective to tense muscles first, hold that tension for a few seconds, and then allow them to relax. In essence, taking yourself into greater tension allows for a better release.

Because many of us carry constant tensions, it can be easy for the brain to begin filtering out these sensations. I often hear people remark that they had no idea they were tense in so many places. By creating a conscious tension in the muscle first, the difference between tense and relaxed can become more apparent, which helps you feel yourself relax. This technique is also used by some physical therapists, terming it Progressive Muscle Relaxation, to treat general anxiety issues.

The 3 ideas above are just starter ideas, feel free to modify them or come up with your own. The more tools you have, the more you can help someone else relax or have options to try when someone tells you to relax.

In any case, keep in mind that attempting to produce a relaxed state involves physical, mental, and emotional aspects. Shifting any one aspect can help to shift the whole.  So when you are having trouble relaxing, focus on a simpler version of it, releasing a part of the body, slowing your breathing, calming your thoughts, instead of trying to do everything at once. And just like working out a muscle, the more you work with these ideas, the stronger they become and the more readily they will help you to achieve relaxation.

Is Your Dance Partner Dangerous?: Swing Dancing and the Fight or Flight Response

Remember the first time you held hands with a boy or girl you were interested in?  The moment of tension when you first make contact, waiting to see if he or she will pull away, holding your breath, the fear of having made the wrong move, and then finally relaxing into the contact.  A variation of this sequence happens every time you make contact to start a dance with someone.  But many of us miss the relaxing phase and get stuck somewhere in the “eek” territory.

The sympathetic nervous system at work

A visual approximation of the sympathetic nervous system response 😉

Whether you call it nerves, intimidation, needing to relax, etc., that moment of tension is an activation of the sympathetic nervous system.  This activation is also referred to as the fight or flight response and can involve a number of physiological reactions including increased heart rate, sweating, and increased muscle tension.  When we view something in a dance (or elsewhere for that matter) as a potential threat,  we often resort to a form of the sympathetic nervous system response, mitigating our anxiety by shunting the emotional reaction into physical tension.

Threat Assessment

When you first contact another object, whether it’s an inanimate object or another human being, your body goes through what is essentially a threat assessment.  This is a very primal reaction seen in even simple organisms and is a very important survival instant throughout the animal kingdom.  You can think of this like the bouncer at the door of a club.  Situations that the brain deems safe get past and the body relaxes; threatening situations are tagged “not on the list” and the body reacts to prevent them getting in.  Because this reaction needs to be a very rapid response, in survival situations most of this assessment is based on past experiences.  Like the bouncer’s list, situations are either on the list (safe) or not on the list (potentially dangerous).

In it’s origins, this threat assessment related primarily to physical danger.  As organisms became more complex and eventually developed social groups, potential threats to survival became more complex as well.  While they do not pose immediate physical threats, things like judgement and rejection have become very real fears that can elevate stress levels and activate the sympathetic nervous system.  When this system is activated, a number of physical effects are kicked off that can interfere with dancing.

Fight, Flight, or Freeze

Each time you start a dance with someone, your body goes through this threat assessment.  If you are well accustomed to dancing and the contact that goes with it, relatively sure of your partner’s skill to not injure you, etc. then dancing makes the “list” and you can relax into the experience.  For most advanced dancers, this assessment often happens so quickly that it can be easy to forget that it even happens.  However, if any of a number of factors are unfamiliar, the situation may be deemed “not on the list” and the body will respond by elevating stress levels and activating the sympathetic nervous system.

waking-the-tiger-healing-traumaWhile we typically know the sympathetic response as “fight or flight” there is a third option to the response, the “freeze” response described in the book Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine.  The freeze response can be useful in nature as a “play dead” reaction or going limp in the face of overwhelming trauma can sometimes help minimize otherwise catastrophic injuries.  In the dance world, I think the freeze response is highly prevalent in the form of reactions like the “deer in headlights” look or the “oh crap, someone better asked me to dance and I don’t want to screw up their cool moves” sorts of thinking.  I believe the freeze response is what many instructors are seeing when they ask students to relax.

The involvement of the sympathetic nervous system is one of the reasons that the oft-given “just relax” advice can be difficult to put into practice (more on that in another post).  If your mind/body views a situation as dangerous, it would be essentially an illogical move to relax into a dangerous situation.  Rather, the goal the I find works better is to find ways to rewrite the “list” so that the situation is no longer viewed as potentially threatening.  Simply being aware that you have the “freeze” reaction in dancing can help to calm it.  Bringing attention to the threat assessment stage helps you complete it rather than becoming stuck in a tense state.

Where I think many dancers find it difficult to relax is because they actually fail to recognize that they see a threat in the first place.  In the non-dancing world, the level of contact you have with the average dance partner (holding hands, 3+ minute extended contact, inside normal conversational range) would be reserved for extremely close friends or often exclusive to someone you are in a romantic relationship with.  Because a new or even experienced dancer may be unfamiliar with a partner or not used to the closeness, the nervous system may treat this extended close contact as a potential threat.  Or even if you are familiar with your dance partner and close contact, anxieties about potential judgement, rejection, or imperfection can easily cause the same subtle assumption of threat.

Redefining Boundaries

So how does one handle these assumed threats?  Simply put, by redefining how you think about them so that you can view them as safe rather than threatening.  The rules of contact, that may work in the social world, operate differently in the context of dance.  Where a stranger touching your back could be a danger signal on the street, dance (and respectful dance partners) provide a space you can use to redefine that contact as a safe form of touch.  When someone approaches or touches you in a dance and you notice yourself tensing, take a second and remind yourself that it is not causing you any immediate physical danger.  Actively recognizing that you are in a safe space will help your nervous system to stop reading contact in dance situations as dangerous.

Note that most people do not make this face when dancing with you

Note that most people do not make this face when dancing with you

In addition to changing your response to touch, it is equally important to redefine the social assumptions.  This can happen to dancers at any level, but I find many beginners tend to believe that people are judging them or dislike dancing with them.  The assumption that people are judging your dancing often makes people tense, rigid, and represses the joy in their dancing.  I find the simplest practice to change this is to reflect on whether or not you are judging other people.  Many of us assume we are being judged, yet when we think about it, we spend little to none of our time judging others while dancing.  You probably don’t spend entire dances rolling your eyes about your terrible dance partner, so why expect that your partner is rolling their eyes about you?  Recognizing that you don’t spend every dance constantly judging your partner is a good first step towards breaking the assumption that your dance partners are constantly judging you.

I think that for most people, the most effective way to deal with these stressors is to start by acknowledging them.  If you are aware that your sympathetic nervous system response is making you tense, you can take steps to shake it off and remodel your thinking to consider certain situations safer.  Being aware of these mechanisms can help all levels of dancers to better settle their fears and gain comfort and confidence in various dance (and other) situations.  While the strategies for building confidence are varied, I think the following video does a solid job of breaking down the general idea of stressors and how to change your thinking around it.

Starting with simple awareness of the sympathetic nervous system reaction can do a lot towards helping shift the reaction.  There is a lot more to be said about how to work with it further, but in the interest of keeping posts to a readable length, I’ll end here and write more about that in the next few weeks.

A Brief History of Rent Party

Monopoly ManI’ve been fielding a lot of questions recently about why RDU Rent Party came about and how various things work.  So in the interest of not repeating myself too often, I figured I’d put the basic history and premise down in a post.  I have some other things to say about why I love running it and why I think it has been such a successful venture, but for now I’ll just stick to the basic story.

Humble Beginnings

The first RDU Rent Party, although it didn’t go by the name Rent Party at the time, happened as a result of a last minute need.  Solomon Douglas was on tour and had been booked by the local swing dance society on a Sunday (not their normal Saturday night).  At the time, TSDS was struggling financially and made a last minute decision that they would have to cancel the Sunday dance.  Suddenly gigless mid-tour, Solomon called Laura Windley, who then called me and asked if I could help put something together to host a dance so that the band could make some money and not have to eat an entire night’s wages.

I’ll back up just a sec here to say that up until this time, I generally avoided anything akin to organizing like the plague.  I didn’t want the responsibility and as much as I might have gained some comfort teaching dance classes, you couldn’t pay me enough to make me want to talk on a microphone back then.

In this case, though, the situation just seemed to demand that someone do something.  So, we quickly booked a room at Triangle Dance Studio and being that it was just the two of us, we decided to just put out a hat box (no surprise Laura had several handy) and take donations on the honor system.  At this point, the specifics of the night are lost to me, but I definitely recall enjoying myself and a great sense of accomplishment in helping the band bridge the gap and giving the local scene a chance to dance to a band they would have otherwise missed out on.

Edition 1: A New Hope

Robot Chicken Star Wars imageBased on the success of the dance with Solomon Douglas and the struggling state of TSDS at the time, Laura and I got it in our heads to try our hand at running a few more dances, aiming to work with musicians who we felt brought a kind of energy that the Triangle scene had been missing for a while.  It made sense to continue using the pay-what-you-can honor system with the hat box as we didn’t want to wrangle door volunteers.  Neither of us wanted to make money off of it, so we opted in the early days to pay for the space and give the remainder to the band.  After the second or third dance we ran and some nights making less for the band than hoped, I decided to start funding Rent Party out of pocket and since then the space rental for Rent Party has been sponsored by one of my businesses, Raleigh Rolfing or The Lindy Lab.

It’s funny looking back how small moments created bigger themes, but the whole edition/theme flavor of our ad copy came about from the simple act of Laura Windley buying cookie cutters.  At the time, Laura was singing with the Atomic Rhythm All-Stars and occasionally with their smaller combo George Knott’s Square Trio.  Because our attendance was smaller back then, we tried to hire small groups to make sure we could pay the individual musicians decently.  So we had offered a gig to the Trio and it just so happened that Laura had purchased Star Wars cookie cutters around the same time and was looking for an excuse to use them.  The entire “Star Wars Edition” idea was born out of those cookie cutters and went on to inspire a DJ/lightsaber battle and someone bringing a Death Star themed pie.  It seemed to engage people and I found myself surprisingly enjoying writing ad copy, and so the idea stuck.  Every dance since has had some sort of them that gives us a chance to make the dance feel like a special event and gives me a creative writing outlet.

One, Two, Skip a Few…

With some initial success, Rent Party got on a roll and was able to host some fantastic bands and artists who had never played in the triangle before.  We also got to try some ideas that might not have otherwise have flown or been disruptive to a typical dance night.  I have loved every Rent Party we’ve thrown, but a few of the highlights for me have been

  • Catching Glenn Crytzer mid-tour for his first Triangle appearance and a Gatsby Edition party where we got in trouble for serving alcohol.
  • Another first for the Triangle with Meschiya Lake and the Little Big Horns with a prohibition repeal celebration.
  • Rent Party’s only DJ’d night, the Inappropriate Edition, which featured nothing but sexual, drug referencing, or racist songs.  This night also raised funds to help pay for the Triangle Tap Project’s band battle between the Russ Wilson Swingtet and the Atomic Rhythm All-Stars.
  • The Ragtime Edition dance where Ethan Uslan was massively entertaining on piano alone, something a number of people told us wouldn’t work for a swing dance.
  • And my absolute proudest moment with Rent Party so far, the Floyd Council Memorial Edition featuring 4 exceptional local blues musicians, who were phenomenal to dance and listen to, plus we nearly had a fight break out and one of their non-dancer fans offered me moonshine. 🙂

To Infinity and Beyond (Maybe)

One of the great things to me about Rent Party is that there is no schedule.  We run it because we want to run it, and if we ever get burned out, we feel free to stop.  Plus, we only run it when bands are available, so if none of the bands we want to work with are free, no sweat, we just wait until a good one becomes available.  That said, as long as the bands keep bringing it and people keep showing up and paying for great music, we are more than happy to keep Rent Party going.  We’ve found a great niche in the scene at this point as the small flexible counterpoint to TSDS.  We don’t expect we’ll ever have the clout to pull big bands on a Saturday night like TSDS does, but we can host great bands on off nights, be a testing ground for bands that don’t fit a larger dance, or even work with current dance bands in new and different ways.  I’m happy to have found a niche for our “little dance that could” and as long as it’s fun and interesting, we are thrilled to keep producing it.

Laura and I both greatly appreciate the support that the community and musicians have shown to Rent Party and we look forward to producing more awesome and weird and awesomely weird dances this year. 🙂

Swing Dance Frame as Non-Newtonian Fluid

As a dancer and Rolfer®, I find myself constantly searching for simple, elegant ways to describe complex concepts in movement.  One such concept that often seems difficult to describe in swing dancing is frame.  Most often I hear overly simplified images like “Barbie doll arms,” or models like “relaxed but with tone” that involve complex ideas and can be confusing.  So in my search for a singular concept to encompass all these pieces, I have found myself over the past year drawing on a concept I first encountered during my training to be a Rolfer.

The way I currently approach swing dancing frame is that it behaves like a non-Newtonian fluid.  Since most people are not immediately familiar with what that means, let’s start with a definition.

A non-Newtonian fluid is a liquid which has a variable viscosity depending upon circumstances.  In simple terms, this means that the substance behaves like a liquid under some circumstances and more like a solid under other circumstances.  The common example that most of us will be familiar with is ketchup.  Glass bottled ketchup will tend to behave more like a solid when you first turn the bottle to pour it, but once you start it flowing by shaking it or poking it with a knife, it will continue to flow smoothly.  For the purposes of describing frame, I will be using a different non-Newtonian fluid by the Dr. Seuss inspired name Oobleck.

Oobleck is a soupy suspension of cornstarch in water that exhibits shear thickening, meaning that under pressure the fluid behaves temporarily like a solid and then returns to a liquid state when the pressure releases. So with a tub of Oobleck, if you were to say, punch it, you will essentially bounce off as though the material is a rubbery solid, whereas setting a hand on it and simply sinking, the Oobleck will remain in a liquid state.  This effect often gets used in science shows as a way to “walk on water” as you can see below.

This change in viscosity occurs due to what one scientist refers to as the “Three Stooges Effect” which is to say that under pressure, the molecules in the Oobleck are trying to move too fast through a space together and get stuck, as in when all three Stooges attempt to walk through a door at the same time.  So the material changes it’s state in response to force, reactively instead of proactively.  It is this combination of fluidity and reactivity that, to me, makes it such an apt image for swing dance frame.

In a dance context, I use the idea of non-Newtonian fluid to influence any point of contact I am using with my partner.  When we are in a neutral state relative to each other, shoulders, arms, forearms, and hands remain in a relaxed fluid state.  But when our bodies move closer or further away from each other with a strong force, the arms react by acting more solidly to resist the change.  I don’t think about actively relaxing or tensing my arms with these changes, I think of them as constantly seeking a fluid state, but reacting under pressure to resist change when force is applied.  By doing so, my arms communicate the motion of my body relative to my partner.  Rather than being instruments of leading or following, when the arms behave like a non-Newtonian fluid, they simply become a way to transmit force from one body to another and can communicate equally from lead to follow or follow to lead.  And as an added benefit, it leaves my muscles feeling good after a dance instead of worn down by constant work to maintain a specific shape or create constant tension.

This is not to say that frame behaves this way at all times, I think there are always exceptions (and there is probably an exception to that) but this idea of non-Newtonian fluidity in frame is an underlying principle of how I think of frame in swing dancing.  Non-Newtonian fluid is, at this point, the best single image I have come up with encompass the use of both ease and tension in creating connected frame.

Note: If you want to try making your own Oobleck to get a feel for how this material behaves, simply combine 1 cup of water with 1.5 to 2 cups of cornstarch and mix thoroughly.

Contrasting Up and Down Orientation – Part 5: Developing Your Own Orientation

Continued from Part 4: Modern Lindy Leads

So where does all this talk about up and down get us?  Much like a number of classes that I’ve taken recently from Bobby and Kate or at The Experiment, the idea here is that self knowledge allows you to better assess both strengths and weaknesses.  By knowing your strengths, you can pick motions and stylings that appeal to your natural tendencies and by knowing your “weaknesses” you can start to view them as simply areas for improvement and then work on them.  For instance, I recently realized in the course of writing this article, that the way I originally learned Charleston lacked up energy.  For years my Charleston has felt heavy and clunky and it wasn’t obvious why.  When I began working with including Up in my Charleston, my dancing immediately began to feel lighter and more dynamic, and my pulse felt more in-tune with the music.

Developing a stronger vertical orientation tends to work best through the cultivation of imagery. While you can get some benefit out of simply thinking “There’s no place like up,” most people find that creating more detailed imagery helps them make progress faster.  Below are a few examples of such imagery which you can use as is or to inspire your own imagery.

Accessing Up

My favorite image for accessing up is a variation on Christmas ornaments.  Imagine a string suspending you from the ceiling or some other imagined point above you.  Start with the idea of a string attached to the top of your head that is being pulled gently upwards.  As it pulls upwards, allow your body to hang from the string, dangling freely beneath your head.  Notice if your spine or neck lengthen or relax and how your weight shifts on your feet.  As you get comfortable with the lifted feeling in your spine, you can begin to play with adding imaginary strings to the arms, legs, feet, and hands, imagining yourself as a marionette.

Up imagery can also be used to exhance down movements.  Most of us find our shoulders creeping up towards our ears in times of stress.  In such situation, it can be difficult to directly push the shoulders back and down.  However, allowing your shoulders to actively rise up can prime them to relax and sink back to a less strained position.  To try this, create an image of your shoulders being suspended from strings then imagine the strings pulling upward, lifting your shoulders towards your head.  Settle into this lifted feeling for a few breaths, then slowly imagine the strings releasing downward and allow the weight of your shoulders and arms arms to sink with them.  Keep imagining the strings slowly releasing downward until you reach an end point and notice if your shoulders have changed position.

Accessing Down

Down is an idea that shows up a lot in Lindy.  Concepts like pulse, using the floor, and counter-balance all require use of down energy, typically in ways that we don’t necessarily practice in daily life.  I find most people can conceptually understand the idea of using the floor or grounding, but it frequently takes some deeper work to be able to feel down energy for themselves and understand it on a visceral level.

The image I like to use to access down energy is growing roots.  Start from standing or sitting, preferably in bare feet and a comfortable position.  Imagine your feet or your tailbone beginning to grow long tap roots down into the floor.  Allow the image of the roots to expand at it’s own pace and notice if your posture shifts or settles in reaction to the image of roots.  As they grow, you can imagine the roots going deeper or spreading outward with a wider reach.  Allow the root image to expand to a comfortable distance and settle into it for a minute or two.  Notice any energetic or emotional shifts, for instance many people find a strong down image helps foster a sense of calm and stability.

As you gain confidence with the down imagery, you can start taking it into motions like walking, imaging roots reaching into the ground with each step.  The better you get at pushing or rooting through the ground this way, the more it can support upward movements as well.  For instance, in jumping, you can get more height by pushing off the floor as if you were pushing through it rather than pushing at the surface of it.  And serious power lifters derive their power in moves like squats not just from pushing at the floor but pushing through it.

How these images work

The general concept of these images is to help create attention beyond the physical confines of your body.  This expanded attention helps gives you more sensory input which helps with orienting motion and creating extension in movements.  By expanding the sense of space that your body can move in, more of your muscle becomes active in creating motion and the outward attention helps to activate deep postural muscles.  The more comfortable your sensory system is extending attention beyond your body, the more readily your body will create action into those spaces.

While these exercises may not immediately seem dance related, the concepts they help you access can be seen in many great dancers.  They won’t make you an amazing dancer overnight, but consistent practice will help open up new avenues for movement and expression.

I would like to leave you with an image of what is possible with this sort of expansive attention and presence.  Mikhail Baryshnikov at 5′ 6″ was not a large man, but his immense presence on stage gave him an amazing ability to seem as if he could fill the whole space with his dancing alone.  I could go into detail describing this, but I think it’s best to let his dancing do the talking.

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