Who hasn’t heard these cues at some point in their dance training…
imagine a $100 bill between your bum cheeks
squeeze the back of your thighs together
get your knees over your toes
tuck your bum under
lift your pelvic ﬂoor
use your core
…and this can be just to stand in first position!
While helpful, these type of cues can invite us to use considerable effort or power to hold a position or force movement. Muscles become short and hard when contracted, and although they can provide us with control and strength, there are a number of ways that contracting more than what we need is not to our advantage.
Think of a horse who has both reins pulled tight. It cannot move freely, it’s stuck in the middle. By pulling one rein harder without relaxing the other you may turn the horse but you have added extra force and compression on it’s neck. Just like reins, our muscles move our body. When we squeeze unneeded muscles, we create compression and hamper movement.
Our muscles also effect how we breath, transfer weight and balance on one leg. Over-tightening again hampers movement. How can we breath freely when our chest and back is tightened? How can we jump high if we don’t lengthen our muscles first before take off? How can we balance on one leg if muscles are pulling us off center? Over-tightening, like a rigid building in an earthquake, makes the body prone to breaking down when movement occurs. When it comes to dance we must first let go, breathe, and lengthen to allow room for movement to take place. And who doesn’t want more freedom, longer lines, higher jumps, breath and joy in their dancing?
“Recent research supports [the] notion that movement skill is inversely proportional to the unnecessary muscle activity that occurs during its performance.” 85
In other words, by only using the muscles you need, the more efficient your body becomes and the more your technique and performance improves.
From an intuitive sense we know this is true. A new dancer often uses much effort to attempt a movement, squeezing muscles in various ways, perhaps holding their breath. A masterful dancer makes it looks easy, only using the essential muscles needed while breathing freely and easily.
This is also why we breath in preparation for movement, why our turns are better when we’re relaxed, why we shake our jitters out or mentally prepare before going on stage. Because we know that if all our muscles “tense up”, our performance suffers and we appear stiff and heavy.
So if you’re struggling with getting your leg higher, controlling turn out, or even pain, what’s the solution? Rather than trying harder by squeezing harder (which can create an endless source of frustration), check your body’s range of movement passively with good alignment (usually lying down or have a therapist check) and find out what is limiting your movement. Address this first.
If you have great range when stretching or relaxed but this isn’t translating into class, you may be using your muscles in a way that isn’t taking advantage of your full range. This is where dancers may want to squeeze or try harder to get what they want from their bodies.
Pain and injury often result.
Squeezing the right muscles is just as important as being able to lengthen, soften and relax the muscles you don’t need. In this way you can truly find out what your underlying weaknesses are. The focus should then be on training these weaknesses without compensation. Sometimes you may find there are no underlying weaknesses, just good technique that awaits you.
Come see Rachael Corbett to learn more about your body, prevent injury, and discover ‘good technique’!
You may also be interested in reading Rachael’s article ‘Troubleome Turnout’.