Rolfer, Dancer, Teacher

Posts tagged ‘relaxation’

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.

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.

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

Neural Mobilization Unit 2

 

At the beginning of December, I had the pleasure of taking another neural mobilization workshop with Jon Martine. This workshop dealt primarily with neural mobilization around the hips, shoulders, and spine as well as some visceral manipulation.

I was once again very surprised and pleased with how effective the work could be with a lot of patience but very little force. Particularly in working with the visceral components it often felt more like listening to the body take on a life of its own rather than making something happen. While I can tell there is still a long way to go with developing my skills around it, it does seem to be a great way to practice listening and following in the way I work.

I had some strong experiences in my own body related to the work as well. In particular, after having work around the collar bones and shoulders, I felt width in my shoulders on a level that I don’t think I have experienced before. It made me strongly aware of how often I hold postures that compress my shoulders or attempt to take up less space with my body than it actually occupies. While I’m fairly aware of having broad shoulders, it was the first time I can recall feeling them truly relax into their full width.

I also got lucky enough to be the demo body for the work on liver, lungs, stomach, and transversus thoracis. Because I have a mild-moderate pectus excavatum, the area of the middle and upper chest has always felt like a particularly problematic area for me to open up. Jon had me test with side bending before and after the work and the difference was pretty amazing. Before, I felt my ribs could side bend pretty readily, but something in the middle was hanging me up; but after freeing up the internal structures, it was like I could bend another 20 degrees further to each side!

I’ve since had an opportunity to play with this style of work with a few clients and I’m really happy with the results. I really like the effect it is having on my ability to listen better in fascial work too.

Neural Mobilization Unit 1

This post is imported from my original blog at RaleighRolfing.com

This past Thursday to Sunday I had my hands full… of nerves.  Inside Out Body Therapies of Durham hosted a workshop by Jon Martine on Neural Mobilization strategies.

The nerve fibers running through your body are not only surrounded by fascia, but also internally wrapped together by fascia as well.  Each nerve fiber is wrapped and then bundles of fibers are wrapped together eventually forming the full nerve.  Ideally, these layers of wrapping work together to allow the nerves to glide and stretch through the body the same way your muscles must stretch as you move.  This motion is beautifully illustrated in the video Strolling Under The Skin (Note that this video contains images of living tissue).

If the wrapping around the nerves becomes impinged or stuck, the nerves will signal muscles to contract in order to prevent the nerves from stretching too far or being damaged.  So sometimes what we may read as a tight muscle is actually a tight nerve using the muscle to protect itself.  By releasing the nerve and allowing it to glide, the muscles may be allowed to release their tone and move more freely.

Going into the workshop, I was not sure what to expect from this style of work but came out really thrilled with some of the results.  The workshop focused on arms and legs (Jon plans to be back in December for an axial nerves class) and I felt some incredible unwindings both in mine and other particpants bodies.

For me one of the strongest effects was felt in my forearms.  Having been in computer programming for 8 years, my forearms have taken on the inward roll of a keyboardist.  So when my arms would hand at my side, my thumbs would end up pointing at my legs rather than foreward.  This has contributed to other issues like rolled shoulders, a hunched posture, etc.  But with very little pressure, one of my classmates was able to unwind that twist by almost 90 degrees just by opening up the nerves in my arm.

I have since tried this with a few clients who had had limited response with fascial work and have been very pleased with the results.  For several clients who’s bodies were inflamed or wound up, neural mobilization seems to have been very helpful in allowing their bodies to relax, recharge, and hurt less.  It is really incredible to watch how someone’s body and entire system can settle with this work.

I’m very excited about adding this dimension to my work and grateful to Jon and IOBT for putting together this workshop.

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