Rolfer, Dancer, Teacher

Posts tagged ‘Down’

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.

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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.

Contrasting Up and Down Orientation – Part 4: Modern Lindy Leads

Continued from Part 3: Modern Lindy Follows

So how does this up/down orientation affect dancing among leaders?  As someone who predominantly leads, I noticed in writing this that I had somewhat more concrete ideas of what a lead’s orientation should be.  My first lessons in Lindy actually came from a West Coast Swing instructor that involved a lot of anchoring and creating a grounded pivot point, etc.  Writing this post, I was reminded that there is a lot more room for variation than what I was originally taught.

As in the previous follower post, I’ll be using a selection of three modern Lindy leads to illustrate a very general idea of the differences that an up, down, or more evenly split orientation can produce.  Most of us will naturally be drawn more to one aesthetic than the others, but I recommend trying to watch this with a certain neutrality.  Each of these dancers and orientations has benefits and drawbacks and lend themselves to certain moves or visuals.

For the leads, I have selected Juan Villafane as a good example of upward orientation, Peter Strom as a representation of downward, and Skye Humphries as an example of a more evenly split orientation.  I think it is also worth noting that the clips of Juan and Peter have a second song where they were given a choice between neo-swing and club music.  Each of them end up dancing to a style of music that compliments their orientation (the up of Neo-Swing for Juan and the down of Super Club Jam for Peter).

Up Orientation – Juan Villafane

Watching Juan’s dancing, it is easy to see how he and Sharon Davis ended up paired together stylistically.  Juan has a similarly floaty style of motion driven by an upward orientation in his dancing.  Juan’s triples tend to move as if they are hanging from his body, giving an interesting sliding quality to his footwork.  On his rocksteps, you can see Juan’s foot tends to travel back more laterally, hanging in the air more than digging into the floor behind him.  This upward orientation also gives him some options to use his torso and arms more to drive motion.  On a few swingouts and side passes you can see Juan move as much or more than his partner and actually begin moving himself off of her before she begins to move.  On his spin around :59, Juan’s lightness helps him to move off of Laura’s anchoring and into a spin.  And finally, at 3:05 you can see how Juan uses more of an upward motion to recover from his split.  On his first attempt to come up, his arms are not involved, but on the second attempt as he starts to reach back and up with his right arm, he is able to pop up easily.  Overall, Juan’s up orientation lends a lightness to his movement and a strong ability to use his partner’s connection to aid in his own movement.

Down Orientation – Peter Strom

Peter Strom is someone I consider to have a strong down orientation to his dancing.  As you watch him move, you can see the dynamic and energy of his movement shift as he moves between an upright posture and a more down motion.  In a sense, Peter can cruise when he is more upright, but when he’s turning up the energy, he drops down more and gets a lot of his energy out of his legs and the ground.  In contrast to Juan’s rocksteps, you can see Peter’s rockstep tends to extend back a bit less but digs down into the floor more.  You can also see Peter really uses the floor more than his partner to make dynamic motion shifts, as in the fast direction change he makes at 1:30.  And in the club section, very little of Peter’s moves emphasize the up section of movement.  All of his solo dance moves tend to involve a sharper motion and emphasis on the down portion of the step.  Overall, Peter’s down orientation lends him a dynamic use of the floor and a sharper, more athletic sense to his movement and styling.

Evenly Split Orientation – Skye Humphries

Skye is another one of those dancers who has always seemed to make dancing effortless.  It occurred to me in writing this article that part of it, much like Mia, is that he seems to move up and down with an equal sense of comfort.  Skye flows through both jumps and drops at a pretty even rate and without hesitation in either direction.  He seems equally able to use his partner to redirect his movements (1:05 and 1:13) or use the ground to redirect (:49).  In many of Skye’s movements, you can see him actively extending in multiple directions simultaneously.  For instance, in the hopping section at :34 you can see Skye’s feet still reaching for and using the ground while his torso actively extends upwards.  Overall, Skye’s split orientation gives him the ability to make a wide variety of movements appear very relaxed and fluid.

As with the follows, none of these options are the right way to dance.  These are just three examples of points along a spectrum of what is possible.  It should also be noted that while I have referred to Juan and Peter as up or down oriented, it does not mean that Juan has no down and Peter has no up.  Simply that they have developed their ability to use one direction more than another.

Everyone has natural tendencies and styles of movement that come easier to them than others, but it is also entirely within reach to work on and develop your abilities with your less natural direction.  In my next post, I’ll talk a bit more about how to begin developing each orientation and how to assess your own natural tendency.

Continues in Part 5: Developing Your Own Orientation

Contrasting Up and Down Orientation – Part 3: Modern Lindy Follows

Continued from Part 2: Cultural Differences

So how do these up and down orientations apply to the modern swing dance world? The way most swing dances are taught now seems to emphasize down, pulse and grounding. But if you look at modern dancers, you can see many different levels of up or down orientation.

We are engaged in a dance with a history of downward orientation, as opposed to the “up” of many ballroom dances. Yet all of us come to it from our own backgrounds, cultures, prior dance training (for some), etc. and this can influence how we approach things. There is no right or wrong orientation but all those aspects influence how each of us dances and moves in general. In essence, your directional orientation can be both an aspect of technique and an artistic influence on how an individual dances.

In an effort to narrow this down, I have selected 3 follows who I think solidly represent a more upward, downward, or evenly split orientation. I made this selection purely on visual evidence from various youtube clips, so while they look one way, it is entirely possible that they may feel different to dance with. And while most of us will aesthetically prefer one movement style to another, this is intended to be a neutral assessment of what each style produces in motion.

So without further ado, representing up is Sharon Davis, down is Frida Segerdal, and the midpoint is Mia Goldsmith. As with previous posts, I recommend watching the video first to draw your own conclusions.

Up Orientation – Sharon Davis

Sharon, to my eye, shows a strong up orientation and an almost floating style of travel. Similar to Fred Astaire in my previous post, Sharon’s legs seem more to hang from her body and float down to the ground rather than being driven into it. While she is willing and able to sink into things, you can also see a certain hesitancy in her body to move in that direction. At :24 and 1:45 there are two downward level changes which Sharon floats into at first then has to shift for a moment before dropping into them. The floating of her torso also allows her to accentuate her hips in the swivels at :40. Overall, Sharon’s upward tendency offers her a very smooth and flowy look and stylings.

Down orientation – Frida Segerdahl

In contrast with Sharon’s floating pulse, you can almost immediately see a larger, sharper down in Frida’s pulsing. In the first 6 seconds or so when Frida is stood upright in closed, her motion seems a bit restrained, but as soon as she is released out into open, you can see her posture drop and a strong athleticism take over.  When Frida takes steps, you can see her feet driving down towards the ground, each step very deliberately pushed into the floor.  While Frida uses a lot of levels in her dancing, there is a sharpness to her downward stylings that I don’t see in her jumps.  Her drop/bend at :31 and the lock turn at :57 are prime examples of how she drives through her downward motions.  At around 1:30 you can see her swivels accentuate the knees and have a bit more of a lateral (side-to-side) motion.  Overall, Frida’s downward orientation gives her a strongly athletic look, sharp footwork, and helps her move across the floor very quickly.

Evenly Split orientation – Mia Goldsmith

Mia has always impressed me as one of the most composed looking followers in the Swing world.    In writing this post, I realized that part of it is that she appears to have an almost equal comfort level with moving up or down.  Mia seems at ease whether doing high kicks or bending down.  In some ways her orientation is less obvious because no one part of her styling stands out.  While her movements are not always as big as some of the more up or down oriented followers, she can flow through both up or down with equal ease.   Mia also exhibits something I often find true of more neutral orientations, she has a very strong sense of axis in her dancing.  The shared up/down orientation allows her to access both her arms and her legs equally and thus she always seems to have a solid sense of using her whole body in her motions.  Overall, Mia’s even orientation can make her motions less loud at times but also allows her to make a large range of movements seem almost effortless.

I do want to recognize that there are a lot of factors shaping each of these follower’s dances.  You have different body types, dance backgrounds, nationalities, etc. at work.  What I hope has come across though is the way that each follower’s orientation can in a very broad and general sense shape the way they move.  Again, there is no right or wrong orientation, just a spectrum of tools that can help you produce different results in your dancing.

Continues in Part 4: Modern Lindy Leads

Contrasting Up and Down Orientation – Part 1: Fred and Gene

It’s Gene Kelly’s 100th birthday today and it seemed like a good time to write a post that has been bouncing around in my head for a long time now. Lots of media outlets are already talking about Gene in eloquent glowing terms, so I’ll forgo that in favor of talking about one of the things that I believe made Gene an iconic dancer, his orientation to the ground.

Every one of us falls naturally somewhere on a sliding scale of orienting more to the moving up or moving down. Some of this is natural orientation, some influenced by culture, some influenced by training. You can particularly see it in yourself and others in how which direction we resource in a moment of stress. When suddenly forced to avoid someone on the street, do you tend more to duck (down) or jump (up). We all have some ability to access both but in almost all cases, we have a preferred orientation that we use more than the other.

I think at first, the concept of how up and down preference affects movement can be difficult to discern, so I’d like to present one of my favorite bits of contrasting film for this. “The Babbitt and the Bromide” from the film Ziegfield Follies features the film icons of up and down orientation, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, dancing together. Dancing side by side, you can start to see how they use the ground differently or rise differently. They even tend to shake hands in different ways (Fred reaching over top, Gene reaching from closer to the waist). I recommend watching this at least once before reading on to form your own impressions first.

Obviously both men are incredible dancers, but if you look for it, you can begin to see how their up or down orientation leadsthem to look better performing certain motions or moving in certain ways. Fred tends to float through the top of his leaps where Gene may not float as much but seems to land more solidly. Towards the end when they perform the ballroom and lindy-ish sections you can see each out of his element contrasted to the other in his. Gene doesn’t float through a waltz the way Fred can and Fred does’t achieve the athletic look that Gene does in the next section. Gene’s legs hold him up and drive him around the floor where Fred’s almost seem to hang from his body at times.

This is not to say that one or the other is correct, but rather to illustrate that both orientations have their uses, their pluses and minuses. As dancers I believe a great goal is to develop the use of both, to be “human being suspended between earth and sky” in the words of Hubert Godard. Fred and Gene are both incredible dancers because they can use both up and down in their dancing, but at the same time, their preferences to use one more than the other helps to make them unique, intriguing, and iconic.

Continues in Part 2: Cultural Differences

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