Tension Troubles

Hello readers!  Today’s blog post is about tension.  It is one of those little things that slips through the cracks – it’s almost like your teacher will say, “Well, your technique looks perfect!” but you still can’t seem to do the step or turn at hand.

The key to fixing tension is not talking about what muscles to engage – it’s talking about which muscles to release.  This will be an odd blog post in that matter – we usually talk about strengthening – now we’re talking about relaxing.

So, without further ado, my tension blog post:

What’s so bad?

Dancers are the type to think, “The more, the better,” but when it comes to muscles – this is very wrong.  Over-engaging muscles increases body stiffness and produces many problems.

If this is so bad in itself, there must be some way to fix it so that it doesn’t happen – it can’t just be a natural trait.  If you thought this, you are correct.  So, where does it come from?

Your breath

This all starts with your breathing, believe it or not.  It’s true that breathing helps to engage muscles (such as your pelvic floor and your deep abdominals on exhale), but it also helps release muscles.  The exhale can help release tension in your upper body and make your dancing more breathable.

By not breathing, you create many problems – difficult petite allegro, tension, difficulty spotting during turns, decreased extension height, tight muscles, lifted hips, and more.  So, take a deep breath and only engage what you need to engage.

But, over-relaxation looses the muscles that you need besides the muscles that engage from breathing in itself.  So, you must learn how to maintain proper engagement of your legs and full core while breathing to relax some muscles.

This is very difficult and requires loads of practice.  The more you think about it, the more natural it will become.

What should I relax?

Obviously, you should keep your core engaged and the muscles that are obviously needed to support the movement (we’ll get into why knowing the muscles you need to hold is useful a bit later).  But, the most common area for tension in dancers is the upper body.  Whether it’s stiff arms, a stiff neck, overly held obliques, or an overly-alert facial composition, the upper body is VERY TENSE in non-breathing dancers.

Think about it – the upper body is where breathing happens.  By holding your breath, you’re naturally going to stiffen up where you’re holding it.

One of the main things I will discuss in regards to relaxing muscles is the superficial muscles.  If you study my anatomy Quizlet vocab, you know that there’s a difference between deep and superficial muscles.  By engaging the superficial muscles (which you don’t really need to use, you should always try to go as deep as possible), you create tension throughout your entire body that is visible.  By engaging the deep muscles and tensing those (we’ll talk about good tension and bad tension next), you can prevent the look of tension while maintaining the feeling and benefits of it.

Again, there are many other small muscles that I’m not going to discuss in detail that often produce tense dancers, but by common sense and muscle awareness, you’ll be able to eliminate these from the problem.

Visible tension and good tension

Now, you heard me say in the paragraph before last, “By engaging the superficial muscles, you create tension throughout your entire body that is visible.”  It’s time to explain the difference between visible (bad) and good tension.

If you engage a very deep abdominal muscle, like your transverse abdominis, whoever is watching your dancing won’t be able to see that holding or strict engagement of the muscle.  But, if you hold a more superficial muscle tense, like the muscle above your eyebrows, it is clearly visible because you’re raising or tightening something very visible to the body.

So, a good definition and clear definition of visible tension could be: “An unneeded engagement of a muscle that moves a physical and external object or area of the body.”

You can’t forget about the excess tension that the audience doesn’t see, though, because it does hurt your dancing in many ways.  But regardless, visible tension is definitely the worst kind of tension.

Good tension is simply the engagement, not the over-engagement or unnecessary engagement, of a muscle that is needed for the movement at hand.  It’s like engaging your quadratus femoris just the right amount to reach your natural turnout without CLENCHING it.  That is good tension.

Muscle awareness

Many teachers of dance will say that, “Tension often comes in dancers that focus too much on anatomy and not enough on sole visualization of the movement, not the direct muscles to engage.”

Well, this is true and false both at the same time.  It is true in the fact that focusing too much on the muscles you are trying to use can cause overuse of them, which creates excess tension.  Visualization does help with this problem.

But, visualization doesn’t deplete unneeded muscle tension.  What does is muscle and anatomy awareness that you can use to know which muscles to relax.  This works because, you know which muscles you need to engage, so you know which muscles you don’t.  It’s a bit difficult to understand, but once you have a grasp on it it becomes common sense.

Eccentric engagement and tension

Many people also believe that with eccentric engagement comes tension.  Again, this belief is incorrect because of the importance of muscle awareness.  If you know the purpose of eccentric engagement, the reasons of it, and the benefits of it, you can be safe from tension and overengagement.  You must know that you have reached your goal.

A summary

So, in a nutshell, tension can be solved with breathing and muscle awareness – engagement may halt and/or cease once the dancer is aware that they have reached their goal and the correct result with the engagement of the muscle at hand.


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