"The dance, just as the performance of the actor, is kinesthetic art, art of the muscle sense. The awareness of tension and relaxation..." - Rudolf Arnheim
Dance can, undoubtedly, be classified as a sport, and dancers are definitely athletes. The difference between dancers and traditional athletes, however, is that dancers need to be concerned about the aesthetic lines created when they move. Although dancers must have strong muscles, it is also imperative that their muscles be long and not bulky. This length preserves the aesthetic appearance, creates healthier muscles that are less likely to tear, and provides the dancer with a greater ability to move.
One way to encourage the development of longer muscles is to discourage gripping in any of the muscle groups. A body that is properly aligned should be able to stabilize itself by lengthening rather than tightening muscles. If a dancer has previously been gripping muscles to maintain stability and hold positions, he or she will have a very difficult time breaking this habit, and will need to be educated about thinking of dance in an entirely new way.
The dance educator can help by always emphasizing proper alignment and presenting technique in a different way. If we begin to think about approaching an exercise in a new way, our muscles will begin to activate and work differently. A dance educator might tell a student, who is waiting for an exercise to begin, to imagine his or her pelvis lifting the kneecaps while the kneecaps lift the ankles and the feet press down into the floor. Newton’s third law states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, therefore, pushing energy down into the floor results in the body lengthening upward. The dancer should also imagine his or her torso being lengthened equally in front and back as if it was being sucked up through a straw while the sternum lifts toward the sun and the neck lengthens as if the head was a helium filled balloon.
All of these suggestions will result in a longer, aligned body and are much more effective than asking the dancers to straighten their knees, which encourages hyperextension; tighten their bottoms, which limits range of motion; and pull up their stomachs, which often results in an opened ribcages and raised shoulders.
Simply presenting exercises in a different way, using new imagery, can change the way a dancer performs. Body lengthening frees the muscles to move without being bound, which is physically exhausting, limits a dancer’s range of motion, and does not feel good.
My next few posts will address specific exercises and the imagery and wording that can be used to encourage dancers to stop gripping and begin to dance by lengthening and elongating their muscles.