Dance, Fitness & Wellness, Thoughts

Dance Lessons and Realizations

Dance Lessons and Realizations
by Teira Eri / Valerie Taylor

I’ve been offered a slew of tips and tricks for becoming a better dancer. Some advice was correct and helpful. Other words happened to hinder development of technique and had a negative effect on my physiology. I’ve met many dancers in a short time.  Each encounter taught me something important in both life and dance.

I’ve come to realize something important about dance. The epiphany was one that I’ve fought tooth and nail for some reason. Whether it was because I was afraid of being rejected and failing, my mind refused to realize the obvious. Dance is not dance without passion, and if you think too deeply, too fervently about the action, that is what it becomes. A robot can act well at a task, but a machine lacks emotion. A machine lacks depth.

You cannot be an exemplary performer without depth.

When I improvise, my movements become fuller and infinitely more daring. The exploration of the body entwines the mind, fusing these two worlds into one liminal state. There is no thought that takes place without an action. No movement is done without intention. Yet how these movements connect is what is the beautiful thing. Even though improvised, nothing is without meaning. I simply am.

Why is it then that I bar myself from such openness and fluidity during certain combinations going across the floor or during some floor-work? Why does my mind not accept my body and vice versa? Was it because I was forgetting something? Was I too caught up in fear and uncertainty to remember that dance is not about feeling unsure and weak but attacking, striving and leaping towards an unforeseen result? When I stopped thinking and allowed mind and body to settle, dance simplified.

Likewise, when I start worrying about what I look like or the difficulty of something I have yet to do correctly, my dancing deteriorates. Technique goes out the window. I stumble, I get sloppily, I lose focus.

Since coming to Japan, I have had the chance to reflect on the previous dance lessons and experiences I am slowly but surely accumulating. From the beginning, I was told to not overthink, to just enjoy what I’m doing. As long as you are having fun and don’t lose faith in yourself, you will dance well. I was also given amazing feedback on my technique.

Some tips I’ve deemed as consistent and healthy are: 
♥ Neutral spine is an important position, but if you have scoliosis like me or muscular imbalances in the torso or illiopsoas, have fun trying to find it initially. Unless you have a great Pilates or Yoga teacher or physical therapist whose eye is trained to spot misalignment of neutral spine, you may end up going too concave or convex, thus straining other parts of your anatomy.

That’s what happened to me. An instructor told me to press every inch of my spine into the earth. Because of the way my back is shaped, this ended up to be an over exaggeration of stability.

Now I know where neutral spine is, and my body has recovered from being pulled too taut. My extension, which had previously be hindered by strained hip flexors, has returned.

Release. This took me a while to fully comprehend. Essentially, release is achieved when there is nothing controlling a specific part in your body. For example, releasing the shoulder joint means removing tension from the neck, feeling the shoulder blades slide down and back into the spine, and an ease in the rotator cuff. You can initiate the feeling by slowly drawing a figure 8 with a hand in the air through the sagittal plane. Let your body swing naturally with the shape as it gets larger and begins to move through different levels. It is not a muscular movement. Rather it is a swing and catch. Give into momentum then decelerate to continue shaping the infinity symbol.

Warm up should include dynamic movement, not ballistic stretching. Work in range of motion, stability, active stretching and breathing practices.  Do not resort to static stretching, as this will simply elongate cold muscles and make them more prone to injury. Plus, research has proven that static stretching prior to big movements (like splits before grande battement) actually decreases muscular strength in the active muscle. Martha Graham and Lester Horton exercises are prime examples of how warm-ups should be done. Zumba also offers great ideas for heating up the body and getting blood to the muscles.

♥ Imagine extension as rays of light shooting through your body. And don’t concentrate so much on those lasers that you forget your face. Smile!

♥ When you hit a position, keep expanding. Send your atoms to far off places. Disperse. Scatter sunlight.

♥ Imagery is an incredible tool.

♥ Cou de pied is the shape of the foot in tendu, no matter the direction.

Knees glide out over the toes in plié.

♥ Turn out happens from the rotation of the head of the femur in the hip joint.

♥ Higher extension is achieved by allowing the quadriceps to relax and letting the head of the femur to slide gently into the hip joint.

♥ Energy through the hamstrings and gluteus medius is crucial of lengthening the legs, particularly in jumps.

♥ Standing in front of the mirror to watch your body as it moves through basic positions is something every dancer should do. Do it alone, before or after class, and take a moment to internalize what correct positioning looks and feels like. Then close your eyes, feel your body and imagine “correct.” After a while you will find yourself standing properly unconsciously. A ballet teacher of mine even recommended naked dancing in front of a mirror to see any idiosyncrasies you can’t view when clothed.

♥ Push down to go up.

Do not sink into the supporting side. Concentrate on shooting energy and intention into the ground beneath you with your supporting side. This will give you a sense of balance even as you move. Always, always ask yourself what foot you’re standing on.

♥ The pelvis is a three dimensional bowl. There’s a front and a back.  It’s full of stuff that you need to carry with you, so don’t leave the pelvis behind.  Doing Pilates, Yoga and Kegel exercises will make you more aware of your pelvic floor, giving you access to greater core stability.

♥ Squeeze a pretend lemon between your butt cheeks to activate the hamstrings when going up in releve.

♥ Never stop breathing. If you stop breathing, you will pass out or die. Losing awareness of the breath is a mistake that many dancers make. I’m terribly guilty of it. I get nervous, stop breathing, and then I jackhammer across the floor instead of dance.

♥ In ronde de jambe, the tail does not wag the dog. Your foot shouldn’t move your hips.

♥ Don’t forget to plié. Seriously.

♥ Wear knee pads.

♥ Give your body a little love once in a while. Dancers are artists and athletes. Your body will suffer from burnout. Your mind, too. Rest, repair and recover.

This will be an ongoing list, I’m sure.  Though this originally started as a why to remind myself of the lessons I’ve learned during dance classes, I think everyone can use it!  In life, in dance or anywhere in between, don’t forget to don your tiara (or crown, if you’re male) and keep smiling. Breathe deep.

May every dance be a journey.

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