Rolfer, Dancer, Teacher

Posts tagged ‘Lindy Hop’

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 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

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