Rolfer, Dancer, Teacher

Posts tagged ‘connection’

First, Make It Not Suck

The title of this article is my Rule #1 that I give new dancers who are worried about being desirable to dance with. It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that you have to be a great dancer to be fun to dance with and, in my experience, it’s simply not true. Some of my favorite and memorable dances are with total beginners who were just having so much fun that they couldn’t be bothered to worry about whether they were doing it right or not. I generally tell people that if you can make the dance not suck, then it’s already in C+/B- territory and anything beyond that is gravy. And making it not suck is typically as simple as the following three factors.

It Sucks If It Hurts
It Sucks If It’s Creepy/Threatening
It Sucks If There’s a Weird Power Differential

Generally speaking, if it doesn’t suck it’s pretty good. You can be off-time, you can only have 2 moves, etc. and you can still be plenty enjoyable to dance with. I tend to remember this best from a friend in tango who put it as something like “Sometimes it’s great to just walk”. To be clear, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have dances that suck once in a while, but if you keep these three things in mind, I think you’re already ahead of the game for being a delightful person to dance with.

It Sucks If It Hurts

no-painThis one seems simple and obvious, but it’s amazing sometimes how easy it is to forget. I see a lot of this as stemming from “I have to get the move right” style thinking with dancers, really at any level. Trying to forces moves or movements runs a high risk of doing something that doesn’t jive with yours or your partner’s body and worrying about making the move work or end a certain way lends itself to forcing it. Yes, it’s lovely to hit that 32 count sequence just the way you thought or simply finish a basic turn on time, but doing so at the expense of your body or your partner’s body kind of ruins the moment.

I work with this in beginner lessons by building moves off of natural movement and teaching the dance with people moving together throughout rather than dividing leads and follows, teaching them a specific movements separately, and then pushing them back together and expecting them to suddenly match each other. While it can be more complex learning this way, it focuses the learning on partnership instead of individuals and helps make lead/follow interaction the primary energy of the dance rather than footwork. If people are thinking about their feet first, they tend to lose sight of the fact that there’s another person attached to them. If you focus first on that human interaction, it’s much easier to avoid hurting each other or be aware of it and shift when it happens.

And to be clear, this can happen at any level and with both genders. I regularly hear complaints about painful leading from several male instructors in my area and I’ve chosen to stop dancing with one female instructor who routinely gripped my hand so hard that I would worry about having to work with it the next day. Pain or comfort are achievable at any level of dancing, choose comfort.

It Sucks If It’s Creepy/Threatening

no-creepingIn the context of dance I think this mostly translates to “don’t assume you have the right to anyone’s body, time, or social interaction”. It’s easy and rather enticing to say things like “the boundaries are just different in dance” but I believe this often gets taken as “the rules of engagement around consent are different too”. The act of dancing with someone is just as much a negotiation as any other social interaction. The more it’s a balanced interaction where “no” is treated as a completely legitimate answer, the less likely this is to be an issue.

Again, I think this boils down to making the interaction human first and dance second. It’s easy when you’re in a new social environment to start to compromise on boundaries, particularly if you’re worried about seeing the other person on a regular basis. This may be different in other scenes, but I think the influence of Southern culture in my area means you often see people avoid challenging the few creepy apples at a dance because they would rather put up with the behavior than deal with a potential conflict. I don’t think there’s some singular right answer to this, but as we as a society are starting to talk about boundaries and consent more, I hope to see these conversations start happening one-on-one in the dance world more and hopefully enough of those will lead to some really great shifts.

It Sucks If There’s a Weird Power Differential

power-differentialThis is probably the most pervasive but also the most subtle one and therefore easier to overlook; enough so that I spent most of a year saying the first two make it not suck aspects before I thought of this. As much as we love to talk about equality and togetherness in the dance scene, there can also be a lot of hierarchy at play, partly real partly in our own heads. When you set up a perceived power differential between lead and follow or experienced dancer and newbie it makes the dance more about roles and less about humanity. It also makes it much easier for things like dancesplaining to occur and for dancers who feel they are in the less powerful position to be less likely to hold their boundaries if one of the first two ways of sucking occurs and less likely to speak out for what gives them joy in the dance.

I had lunch a couple days ago with a former dance student and we got talking about the challenges of this when he was a beginner. Now, for context, this is someone who routinely speaks in from of large groups of people and performs original songs in public; I consider him to be incredibly brave, creative, and very willing to engage with the challenges associated with growing in any skill. He told me that he found there tended to be two types of dancers offering him feedback as a newbie, those who’d ask if they could make a suggestion and others who would launch unprompted into critiquing his dancing or telling him “you know what you should do…” Watching him talk about it, I could even see his body shrink in on itself as he talked about the second type and the memory of being criticized.

Don’t get me wrong, criticism and understanding what and how to do things better is an important part of growing as a dancer. However, there’s a time and a place for it and more and less effective ways to communicate these concepts. I see lots of “better” dancers telling newer dancers what they should do without realizing that they are presenting the information in a way that widens the gap between them rather than bridging it. Ineffectively worded or improperly timed feedback like this tends to create a subtext messaging of “It’s not OK for you to be new or learning; you should be better” and even without poor feedback this is the sort of message that I see a lot of people telling themselves.

It’s normal for there to be a difference in experience, you just don’t have to turn it into a difference in power or value. Feedback can be a tool to raise people up but it can also be a tool to bludgeon them into being less than. And again, this can happen at any level; there are several instructors in my scene who I routinely observe and receive complaints about dancesplaining through entire dances on the floor. When you drive this kind of wedge between yourself and your partner, it pretty much kills the team vibe of a dance partnership and turns it into two lonely people holding hands and doing moves at each other.

If It Doesn’t Suck, It’s Generally Pretty Good

There’s an old Woody Allen joke that pizza is like sex “Even when it’s bad it’s still pretty good”. While I like the idea of the joke, I think it’s a bit off the mark. I look at it through a bit more of a lens of pizza or dancing or sex don’t have to be the most amazing pizza/dance/sex I’ve ever had to be good, but if something sucks there’s almost an addition of insult to injury that makes it all the worse. Having recently had the worst Chicken and Dumplings of my life a couple weeks ago, I can say that, like most comfort foods, when it’s decent dance is kind of inherently good, but if you make it terrible it will irritate people enough that they’ll shut down from you, talk about it to their friends, or post about it on the internet.

At it’s core, partner dancing is a shared experience. So long as you aren’t doing any of the above and putting your partner or other dancers around you on guard then it becomes easy to step beyond our standard social boundaries and create a shared experience. If the dance turns to suck in one form or another, then those boundaries tend to harden into barriers and both partners (and the floor around them) lose out on that social interaction.

Making it not suck also frees up a lot of energy and attention for learning. When something sucks, and even when it’s just a sucky feeling of your own creation through self-judgement, there is so much time and energy spent by the mind in either defending or reinforcing that sucky feeling that much less learning/growth occurs. When it doesn’t suck, there’s a lot more room for empowerment, for focus on the task being learned, and while not always completely safe there is a lot more safety available to take the risks and push into challenging territory that growth and learning requires.
dont-hurt-them

And the TL;DR version of all this, summed up much more succinctly by the Dalai Lama: “Our prime purpose in life is to help others. And if you can’t help them at least don’t hurt them.”

 

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The Basic as Savasana

Last night I taught a class for the first year anniversary of Cirque de Vol studios staff holiday party.  It was a group of all teachers in various circus arts (hooping, aerial silks, trapeze, etc.) so they were taking to the lessons and within a few minutes, happily spinning, twirling, and flinging each other around the floor.  Things got rowdy and raucous and I wanted a way to introduce a texture of calmer energy into the mix.  So, given that the crowd would all be familiar with various movement forms, including yoga, I decided to tell them to think of the basic like Savasana.

Thinking about it this morning, I felt like it was a pretty good analogy.  For the beginner, the basic is a place to rest and reconnect before going out and doing the next crazy, new set of moves.  And as a growing dancer, the swingout, like savasana, becomes a place to deepen practice and feel out both the holes in your dancing and the beauties in it.  And as the swingout becomes ingrained, it is something you can always come back to and a place where there is almost an infinite space in which one grow and evolve for as long as you continue to dance/practice.

Engineering a Friendlier Dance Scene

I’ve been thinking about writing this for a while, and based on a recent discussion on Facebook, I figured I should go ahead and do this.

First off, I will say I see it thrown around a lot that a given scene or venue or event is more or less welcoming.  I’m not really convinced that it is an inherent trait of a scene so much as something very malleable.  Over the past 2 years, I have, on various nights at our Thursday night dance, received comments that people felt like it was the most welcoming dance they had ever been to but also seen people walk out within 20-30 minutes having barely danced or engaged with anyone at all.  I think the experience can be awfully subjective and all one can really do is try to improve on the overall experience.

I have been running the primary Lindy night in the Raleigh/Durham swing scene and playing with a number of options to turn the experience into one that is more welcoming across demographics.  Much like in my dancing, I tend to think a lot of the things new and returning dancers are looking for are relatively inherent but easy to trip ourselves up on.  The studio I run, The Lindy Lab, has given me a lot of opportunities to play with setting up a space to encourage socialization, so I want to share a few of the things I have tried, learned from, and am currently experimenting with.

Right Size Your Space

I have observed a curious phenomenon with dance classes where no matter what size the room is, the couples in rotation will always seem to move out towards the walls until they have as much space as possible between themselves and everybody else.  The same often happens with dances, where people will expand away from each other until they reach a sort of equilibrium of space.  Along these lines, I find there is “critical mass” of people that it takes to build energy in a space (without being too packed and going nuclear).  If the space is too large for the number of people, it becomes easy for everyone to just seek their own comfortable space or group of friends, but when the available space is sized about right, a curious chemistry starts to take over.

Right size the spaceFor most of 2012, our Thursday dance was in a space that was too large.  ~2000 sq ft. for an average of 30-40 people left a huge gulf of space that people would have to cross to go ask someone to dance, and made it more effort for people to interact.  To counter this, we simply moved the chairs from the back wall about halfway into the room, creating a more intimate space and the energy of the night improved.  This was an adjustment we had to make every week and sometimes several times in the night, but making sure the space was close enough to keep people from disconnecting tended to drive energy, not just on the dance floor, but also in terms of interaction around the edges.

Ask Me To Dance Table

I consistently hear people throw out the idea of having dance captains/ambassadors/courtesans/whatever to either seek out newbies or to be hunted down and asked for dances by them.  For me, I like to be efficient, and the idea of trying to assign ambassadors each week or weed out the right people to hold up as ambassadors, struck me both as a lot of extra busy work and the sort of thing that was likely to end up landing in the laps of a small handful of folks most of the time.  So rather than base the idea around people, I decided to base it around an area, specifically, a table with a sign on it that simply read “Ask Me To Dance Table.”

Even different species will ask each other to dance if prompted well ;)

Even different species will ask each other to dance if prompted well 😉

Not unlike a taxi stop at an airport, this creates a very egalitarian way to connect people offering a service (asking to dance) with people of any level wanting said service (to get a dance without having to ask).  Anyone of any level can have a seat and be sought after by anyone who feels in a mood to currently do the asking.  We put out “newbie guide to the swing scene” pamphlets as well, which offer tips on making friends in the dance scene and encourage them to try asking someone after they have been asked to dance.  There is a pretty brisk turnover, and I rarely see anyone sitting there for more than a song before they are asked to dance (the only exceptions have been people who were painful to dance with or solely relied on the table to get dances).  Plus if a few people are at the table together, it often emboldens one or two of them to ask one of their compatriots to dance.

Have a Seat, Make a Friend Area

While at any given time, most of us have periods of “OMGIWANTTODANCEEVERY SONG!!!!”, most dancers’ typical night goes something like “do some dancing, do some chatting, grab some water, rinse and repeat”.  And sometimes we want to be among friends but don’t want to dance for one reason or another or are new and just want to observe, etc.  So for a while, I tried out having a “Just Feeling Chatty Table” which did OK, gave newbies a place to hide for a bit without being total wallflowers, and gave the tired or overstimulated a place to crash but still be at the dance.  This worked for a bit until I saw this video:

So, based on this video, I have changed the goal of that table from “feeling chatty” to “Have a Seat, Make a Friend” and am starting to stock the table with things which I feel engage a sense of childhood while also giving people something to do together (not all of of us comfortable just holding a straight conversation).  So I have been getting things like Legos, Lincoln Logs, Puzzles and games that can be played a couple turns at a time and paused readily (like Connect Four or Checkers).  This idea has just started to come together over the winter break, so I don’t have good data yet on whether or not it works, but I can say that generally when I have mentioned it, people are excited by the idea, and this has generally helped elevate the appearance of the dance from just being another “here’s music, now it’s up to you” dance to something that offers a sense of community.

Let People Make it Their Own

My goal as an organizer is to try to take things like the idea of an ambassador program and make occur in a way that feels seamless and natural.  In essence, I believe that most people are naturally friendly, given the right circumstances, and my job is to try and create those circumstances, rather than asking people to be more friendly.  By finding ways to lower the barriers to entry to talk or dance with someone, everyone can become an ambassador for the scene, including the new dancers themselves.  My feeling is that if I empower people to be outgoing rather than tell them they need to be outgoing, there is less chance of people feeling singled out or burdened with trying to make someone else’s experience enjoyable.  Rather, my aim is to try to even the playing field so that each experience becomes a shared one and each person’s input (regardless of their level, age, race, etc.) becomes an important and integral part of the stew.

As the name of my studio, The Lindy Lab, implies, all of this is an experiment and I am eternally playing with these ideas: putting tables in different places, feng shuing the room to fit the vibe of a given night and any number of other versions of poking at variables to see if they have any effect.  I encourage anyone who is looking to make a scene better to think about the things you think will help, and then try to think of things you haven’t thought of before.  I have seen the discussion of how to make dancing more accessible come up year after year and it often devolves into placing blame on one group or another.  I will admit to having felt that way at times myself, but the more I have expanded my view and tried different things, the more I think that this is a challenge that is best solved by making it enjoyable for people to engage with each other and leveling the playing field to include everyone as equal partners in creating the community.

Following as Active Choice: An Experiment in Wording

A few years ago at The Experiment I had a conversation with a follow who said that while she felt like an equal partner in her marriage, she did not feel like an equal partner in dancing.  My experience dancing with a significant number of follows is that they view the dance as if their part is somehow less important or requires less attention than leading does.  While I have been aware of this issue for years, it has recently occurred to me that some of this attitude could result from the passive language that is often used in teaching follows, especially at early stages.

Over the last few months I have been working intently to  rewrite my teaching language to clearly present following as a role with equal importance in the dance.  I have found that a few key wording changes have produced very different results in the way student followers dance, at least in the short time that I have been experimenting with this.  While I’m aware that these results are by no means a clear indicator of long-term success, given the current national online conversation about gender relations in the swing scene, it seems beneficial to share what I have found so far.  Given the current experimental phase, I figured I would write this up like a high school chemistry experiment rather than a lecture.

I’d also like to give a quick thanks to everyone who has helped me work through how to talk about this, and to all the leads and follows who’ve given me feedback to help me refine ideas to this stage.

Examining Effects of Active Choice In Following

Introduction

Following in dance is often presented to beginners as a purely reactive role.  Analogies for following often involve passive objects on frictionless surfaces, and follows are told to “wait for the lead.”  More attention is given to leads in most classes and follows often receive praise for doing things as expected rather than for following what was actually lead.  After months or years of working to become a “good follow,” follows may suddenly be thrown the idea that they should start adding creatively to the dance, which can seem counter to the skills they have spent their early dance career developing.  It can be a treacherous cocktail of mixed messages about doing what you’re told while being creative and matching the lead, yet also being yourself.

But what happens if we teach following as a “choice” rather than a “should”?  Instead of presenting following as doing what the lead says, what if we present it as listening for the lead as a suggestion or invitation and choosing how to respond?  By altering language and presenting the role as equally capable of influencing the dynamic of the partnership (rather than exclusively reacting to the movements and signals of the lead) we hope to see a rise in confidence of the follows as well as a greater sense of “team” in dance couples.

Methods/Experiments

In teaching private lessons, both experienced and new follows were presented with the idea that following is a choice.  Of particular note is one follower with several years experience who, while commanding in her daily life, has always seemed to lack confidence in her dancing.  This student was asked to think of following as a matter of interpreting the lead and choosing to execute her interpretation as explicitly as she wanted (i.e., purely following), rather than thinking of following as doing it “right” or “wrong.”

In group classes, focus was placed on the follow’s ability to control their own side of the connection (i.e., their own arm) and their ability to suggest ideas in connection or pulse simply by altering their own movements.  Time was spent asking the leads to dance with no pulse or off time and for follows to exhibit strong pulse and rhythm to influence the lead into matching, bringing the couple on beat together.  Followers were presented with the idea of being able to use stretch in frame to generate energy for their own movement, and both lead and follows were taught that they could stretch their own frame individually and as a means of communication to their partner.

Test wordings and exercises were used over approximately 20 follows in 3 months of classes.

Results

In response to this style of teaching, follows have generally been very appreciative of the use of active wording.  They have also advanced faster and appear to be actively engaged in trying to understand how to follow movements rather than asking “what am I supposed to do?”

Follows have exhibited greater flow of motion and more willingness to put their own energy into movement, plus greater trust of support from the lead.  Multiple follows are also exhibiting spontaneous creativity in following and footwork within the first few months of learning to dance.

Dancesplaining has been nearly non-existent in the classroom setting during this experiment.  There has been more positive partner interaction in rotation, such as discussing how to make a move work rather than assigning blame if it doesn’t.

The most dramatic result occurred with a private-lesson student.  Immediately after introducing the idea of interpretation and choice, the follow’s movements became significantly more confident (or actually read as confident for first time that we ever observed); movements became fluid, and she began to smile and have fun.

graph

Conclusions

Presenting following as an active interpretation and choice to respond appears to help follows feel more confident in their dancing and less nervous about doing it “right.”  They also appear more comfortable with the idea of shared responsibility for creative aspects of the dance.  Preliminary results seem to indicate that they are also more interested in continuing to learn and improve than in past classes which used more passive wording.

This style of wording also appears to reduce pressure on the leads by giving them time to integrate their own material while follows work on new material, and by presenting the dance as a shared creation rather than content purely dependent on the lead.  Leads are also able to focus attention in different places when follows are empowered to share responsibility for concepts like pulse and rhythm.

Overall, dances in this experimental mode have exhibited more teamwork and less “2 people holding hands and dancing around each other.”  Both roles seem more excited, less fearful of each other, and less worried about judgement.  Students appear to be approaching the dance and learning as a team rather than as isolated individuals.

While it remains to be seen how this will affect dancing in the longer term, preliminary findings show a great deal of promise.  Feedback from each side has been positive, both in terms of how students feel about the dance and how they feel about the instruction.

In Defense of the Rotator Cuff

This post is being written at the request of a lovely Aussie follower who has suffered multiple rotator cuff tears in the course of her dance life. While not all dancers suffer from rotator tears, it’s a fair bet that almost every dance will run afoul of their shoulders at some point. The following ideas should help you minimize your chances of injury in those moments of potential crisis. Note that while I will give some specific lead or follow examples, all of these should hold mechanically true for both leading and following.

A quick note before anyone jumps up to tell me that their instructor told them to do it differently, I’m speaking here from a biomechanical and injury-proofing standpoint, not an aesthetic or stylistic standpoint. I personally find that solid body mechanics tends to translate to great aesthetics for me, and I try to base my dancing first and foremost on things that I think will allow me to keep dancing for the rest of my life. These are the best safe & effectively connecting body mechanics that I have come up with in 11 years and if I develop or encounter a better idea, I’ll definitely post about it.

Anatomy Time!

rotator cuffThe rotator cuff is the group of muscles connecting the top of the upper arm bone (humerus) to the shoulder blade (scapula).  The reason these are important is that the shoulder blade is a relatively mobile and therefore unstable joint. The surface of the shoulder joint (glenoid fossa) is essentially a very shallow bowl that has been overfilled with the head of the humerus. This makes the joint very mobile, but also vulnerable to sliding around or out of the socket (one of the reasons shoulder dislocations are far more common than, say, hip dislocations). The muscles of the rotator cuff are all oriented closely around the joint to rotate the humerus in the joint, provide stability, and protect against injuries like dislocations.

Dancing Based on Natural Angle

Based partly on the rigors of modern life, most of us have become habituated to some less-than-natural positions for our arms. The arms-straight-ahead position that most of us spend a lot of time in (driving, typing, etc.) rolls the shoulder in a way that compresses the front of the joint and, over time, tends to make the shoulders stick forward even when our arms are at our side. Many people, either by instruction or habit from daily life, learn to dance with their arms straight in front of them, reinforcing this compression, and putting the shoulder in an unstable position to deal with strong pushes or pulls. I feel that opening the shoulder up to a neutral and balanced position makes it both more stable and far more functional at handling the demands of swing dancing.

To reacquaint yourself with this position, first hold your arms up around belly button height then slowly move them from reaching straight ahead to straight out to the side. As you swing through this range, you should notice that the level of tension in the shoulder lessens as you move towards the middle of the arc, hits a point of minimal tension, and then the tension starts to increase as you continue towards the end of the arc. You should also notice the position of tensions shift as you pass to either side of that middle point. This point of minimal tension is what I refer to in classes as the natural angle of the shoulder. It is the angle at which the rotator cuff is most relaxed and therefore most able to react to various forces. The exact angle varies from person to person but typically falls somewhere between 30-60 degrees from straight out front and places the hands in a position wider than the shoulders.

When I’m dancing, part of protecting my shoulder is that I consider this angle to be home base for how I orient to my partner. I remember as a newbie being taught things like spotlighting or to “square off” to my partner and it always felt a bit forced. I have found orienting myself to my partner based on the natural angle of my shoulder to be far more connected and comfortable and consequently safer for my shoulder. My hand and arm move to follow or lead my partner and I adjust the angle of my body to keep my shoulder in an open, relaxed and ready position. It can be counter-intuitive to the way many of us orient to our hands, but once you get used to it, it should make a lot of sense for your body.

Chest Up, Shoulders Down

The other typical position that can compromise the rotator cuff is the overhead lift of leading and following turns. Many dancers don’t just bring the hand and forearm up when they turn, they also raise the shoulder blade. Lifting the shoulder blade off the ribs puts the shoulder in a vulnerable position by disconnecting it from the support of the ribs. Without the support of the ribs, it becomes much easier for a pull at the wrong time to bend the shoulder into an angle that will injure it. I have found the next two concepts to be exceptionally helpful in keeping the shoulder in a safe position during spins and turns.

Paint the Fence (aka NO ROTATION)

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????A common stressor that many dancers put on their shoulder is trying to rotate it out as they lift. While I realize it is a fairly common cue, I find the “checking your watch” method of leading turns does not make kinesthetic sense to me. Rotating the arm to look at your wrist forces the elbow above the shoulder blade which then pulls the shoulder up with it. The more the elbow flairs away from the body, the more the shoulder separates from the ribs, reducing both stability and connection.

A far more effective method of raising the arm comes in an approximation of Mr. Miyagi’s paint the fence exercise from The Karate Kid (the original, not the remake). Keeping with the natural angle of the shoulder, the motion of the arm is basically just “Uuuup…, Dooown…” and the torso moves to create the turn.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R37pbIySnjg]

Unlike Daniel-san, for dance purposes you’ll want to let your elbow be loose, relaxed, and weighted so that it stays low as your arm comes up. But notice in the motion of the movie that this is a whole body motion. You can see the muscles of the chest flex and relax with the motion and you should be able to feel them activating. If you try to same “look at your watch” motion, and feel your pecs, you’ll notice they have almost no activation. Keeping the arm rising and falling and making adjustments with the torso rather than the shoulder rotation will put you in a much safer position and typically keep you more connected to your partner (which also helps you be safer). By maintaining the connection of the arm to the torso, you can also effectively lead turns by initiating small rotations from the chest and spine rather than large motions from the arm.

Scapula as Counterweight (or Turns and Trebuchets)

The other issue I often see putting shoulders in harm’s way is the tendency to think that everything needs to go up. People become so focused on their hand that they forget there is a wrist, elbow, shoulder, and ultimately, spine attached to that hand. So if your only awareness is the hand needs to go up, everything else in that chain tends to go with it. Again, the shoulder rises and you are suddenly in the vulnerable position of having your hand above your head with only your rotator cuff actively holding the shoulder in the socket.

trebuchetWhat has served me best is to bring an awareness of my shoulder blade and to think of it as a counterweight to the arm, similar to but not quite as unbalanced as the counterweighting found in a trebuchet. When I want my arm to rise, I don’t think about taking my hand up, but rather, I think about initiating by allowing the scapula to slide down (inferior) my back and away from my head. This serves to stabilize the shoulder in several ways. One, it insures that my arm does not come up without my scapula being solidly in touch with my ribs and it additionally eases some of the effort of lifting my arm, meaning my hand goes up with less muscular effort and I have more freedom to adjust in case of emergency. One of the easiest ways to experience this is to stand with your back against the wall and try both lifting your shoulder blade as your arm rises or letting it slide downward as your arm rises. With the downward slide, you should feel more of the engagement in your chest and back and your arm should feel much lighter and floaty than when you lift the shoulder blade with it.

incline_pulleyThe counterweight idea is not only useful for turns, but can also be applied to protecting the shoulder from collapsing forward when stretching out in swingouts, tossouts, rocksteps, etc. In a stretch where the arm is not going to come up above shoulder level, think of the shoulder blade as a counterweight to the front of the chest and allow the chest to rise and open as the shoulder blade descends. In the inclined pulley illustration, think of M as the shoulder blade and m as the arm. So long as M is weighty enough, it will resist being pulled up and over the top by m. But if the force of m wins out, then the shoulder blade (M) will be pulled up over the top of the pulley and it will all tumble down the slope. By letting your shoulder blade remain weighty when stretching (at a natural angle) it will prevent a lot of potential strains and sprains that can occur from collapsing and hyper-extending the shoulder.

Keep it Personal

There is no one right way to do this. There is a great deal more variability in human anatomy that a typical textbook will not show and as such, there is a great deal of variability in function as well. The safest angle for one dancer may feel very unstable for another and so on. The more you can create ease in your body, the more ready your muscles will be to keep itself in safe and comfortable positioning. Similar to the non-Newtonian frame concept, the more you are in a fluid, rather than rigid, state to start, the more readily you will be able to react both to potential threats and to communications from your partner. In addition, the safer your body position feels, the more it will free up your attention to try more awesome things. Use the above as suggestions to play with your own angles and ways of conceiving of motion and use whether it feels more tense or less tense as the metric for more vulnerable or less vulnerable.

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.

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.

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