Hi, it's April. Welcome to Dancers call-to action. The place to be for the dancer looking for confidence, knowledge and tools for moving forward.
Dancers! We're back. The team and I took a few weeks off at the launch of Unify Dance Network, but we have reconvened and planned out a year of episodes based on your feedback. We have a ridiculous amount of exciting subjects in the works and dancers. They are all about making you a more confident and well-informed dancer because the happier and more knowledgeable you are, the more dancing you do, the happier you'll be.
The more dancing you'll do, the happier you'll be.
The more dancing.
Today we're going to talk about body awareness. What does that even mean? How do you develop it and why does its importance extend far, far beyond simply performing better?
Think for a second about the ways that dance reinforces the idea of isolations in the body; both directly and indirectly. We do isolations in our warmup. We teach by breaking down what's happening by individual body part. We use corrective phrases like release the back of the head or tuck the tailbone or engage your core. We look in the mirror and we fixate on a sickled foot or a broken line. You get the idea. But we rarely feel our full presence, the whole of our bodies at any given point in time.
Over time dancers develop a sort of nearsightedness, putting the blinders on and reinforcing this tendency to compartmentalize ourselves into pieces. There are a few ways that this keeps us hindered. The first is in performance. We rarely perform with total freedom, as we rarely feel the fullness of the body. We're usually worried about a ton of other items, an upcoming movement that we're nervous about or repeating a self correction or counting in our heads, whatever it is.
Our performance is hindered by these more narrow focuses. I, for me, sometimes performing feels like a wedding. It goes by in a blur and I can't say that I have.. I'm thinking about it right now. Honestly, on the spot. I can't say that I remember a time that I've performed, where I was so fully present that I can get back there instantly or that I can remember the full experience. It's, it's almost as if our has blocked out entire pieces of those performances.
Aside from learning, safety is a huge one as well. In my dance journey, I have heard the term body awareness so many times and it's usually pertaining to dancing bigger or hitting lines. You know, you'll hear teachers talk about be body aware, remember body awareness or spacial awareness or etc., so we have this relationship with those terms, but I didn't realize for years, that self awareness is the precursor to dancing safely.
It sounds so dumb, to say that out loud, but when you're in class that's too advanced for your current level. It's important to stay present, but you're scrambling to keep up. And that's how we find ourselves landing wrong or pulling something, because we're trying to remember more than we're safely able to stay aware of. And then lastly, muscle memory. In A few weeks we're going to have a whole episode about muscle memory and it's a great one, but body awareness, safety, AKA injury prevention and muscle memory, they sort of exist in a triangle that is forever looping around. Having the ability to stay aware of your body, how it's feeling, where the weight shifts are happening, what the desense and a sensor supposed to feel like. These foundational things need to be understood to start memorizing patterns in the brain. If you're even aware of what your body's doing, you've no way to create any sort of pattern recognition around it. It's just one big mess.
This issue of level appropriate classes; we're going to come to it quite a few times in quite a few episodes because this is an absolutely crucial link in our quest for body awareness. I teach intermediate classes and when dancers who are not ready for that level come in, my first panic is over their safety. I'm never stressed about whether they're going to look a certain way or you know, that's my movement what are you doing with it? When there's no basic skill or understanding and limbs are being flung around and they don't understand what's happening and the class is a whirlwind around them and the floor is being used incorrectly, there is no way for that dancer to experience a fulfilling class, because there are so many variables working against them. Trial by fire is not the way to advance your dancing.
We're going divide the next chunk of content into two categories. Physical exercises and tension. Physical exercises is a straight forward, actionable, executable way to start understanding body awareness a little bit more. I read this in an article and found it extremely useful. This particular article broke down body awareness into three categories; that was posture, angles and focus. I think angles can also be substituted for lines depending on what class you take, you'll hear both words, but I'm going to start with the easiest; which is focus. When you're watching a piece of choreography develop, especially one that hasn't gone through the cleaning process or been refined. One of the things that you'll immediately notice is that dancer's eyeballs are everywhere. They have different ideas of where their focus should be, at any given point in the piece. I can also tell when a dancer is pretty new to performing because they haven't quite mastered the up and outward focus.
I think you know what I'm talking about. Dancers are always being told, look up and out, up and out to keep the energy off of the ground and open, yet, you know; not have to dead stare audience members in the eye.. So the first thing that you can just think about on a practical level is your focus. When you're in class asking that question or watching the teacher or in the cleaning process, where should your eyeballs be because your eyeballs, being aware of what direction you're facing or looking at completely changes the way a movement looks. A side note, when I was just starting my dance journey, I had no idea what to do about focus. I had no idea. Focus was even a thing. I guess I had no body awareness and one of the things I would notice is I would, when I would perform in front of people, a simple class combination, that because I didn't know where to look, I would accidentally just keep looking at random people who are watching in the eye, but very awkwardly.
It's such an uncomfortable feeling. Umm, don't do that.
The second thing is: posture. And to think about how much posture effects the classes that you take, the way they look. I think I've seen this happen mostly, when I find someone who's a highly trained in ballet come into a hip hop class or come into a modern class where there's a lot of contractions and releasing of the spine. That posture and the way they hold their upper carriage really changes the way movement looks on their body. So on a just, a purely physicality level, that spine and the way it stacks or contracts or releases, will also change your movement. So paying attention to the way you're sitting into things is step number two for developing body awareness. Then step number three of the physical exercises is your ankle's or your lines. This is the one that seems most blatant to me in class when something is off.
There's a couple of ways I see it. To the two most common telltale signs that body awareness has not been developed yet, is in hyper-extension. So hyper-extension means when something is extending past what should be its natural alignment. And when we're particularly with the upper body, let's say if you reach your arm, wherever you are right now, if you just reach your arm directly out to the side of your shoulder, extend your arm; palm facing forward, and then take that same movement and pull the arm even further back behind you so it's still straight. But now you're pinching in the upper back and you should be getting a stretch along the chest.. That is a hyperextension and I see that a lot in class when dancers don't understand their bodies or their alignment that all of their lines will go behind themselves or get out of whack, in one way or another.
Then I also see this in bent elbows. So most movement requires a clean line of the arm. And in my class anyway, in contemporary, and I see a lot of like broken lines. I had a dancer.. I'm sorry, I had a dance teacher who once told me, pretend like there is light coming out of your fingertips, a beam of light and you want that beam of light to extend infinitely. So don't let it shoot towards the floor. Don't let it break off. And that really helped me to understand how I was making kind of awkward lines with my arms that were going in all kinds of fun directions. So our focus, our posture and our ankle's can be three fantastic ways to start in class, being aware of what's happening in our body. But even at that, these physical exercises are not nearly as important as the issue of tension.
Our unified members have a module that they go through that is solely about body awareness. So we guide them through very specific exercises on how to develop body awareness and how to detect spaces where you might be, leaving the present and worrying about things that are not going to behoove you in the long run. And I noticed that each time a strong number of them discover that they are holding tension in a way that they never realized they were, I once read that tension is like the hum of a refrigerator, over time we lose awareness of it, but it's always there. This low, white noise. And the tension that we don't recognize, is the hardest tension to address. I saw this in myself. I remember when I was in college dance and there was a recording of me doing this little performance, this spring performance that we had, and my hands were so weird..
It was as if a couple of my fingers [Clears throat]. Excuse me.
It was as if a couple of my fingers were glued together; it was so funny to watch and I definitely was able to overcome that issue. But I was holding this strange amount of tension just in a couple of fingers in my hand and never even realized it. So this issue of unrecognized tension, it is the reason that I fell in love with release technique. If you Google release technique or look it up, there are a lot of explanations, a lot of people's words and theories and it's just not codified enough to have a single definition or vocabulary, but no matter who is teaching it, there is, usually this principle that is always at play. That principle is how little tension can you use while dancing, while still executing beautifully and cleanly.
How can we let momentum carry us? How can we engage muscles only when they're needed and not ask any more of our bodies than what is required in that moment. I had this amazing teacher in college, Denise Donovan. There is, Denise, if you ever listen to this, which I don't think you're a podcast gal, but if you do, there is no one like you. I took tap from her and when teaching shuffles, this issue of tension becomes a really primary issue. You just, you hold all this tension in your ankle and it completely messes with the sound of a shuffle and she used to say, pretend your' ankles have nostrils, which was a really effective external cue for helping me chill out on the attack and just let the foot, do its job. I still use that imagery for any body parts, for any kind of dancing. I sometimes give myself the imagery that the whole body is a nostril or the arm is, and just feeling the breath and inhaling and exhaling. Letting that release of energy come through. Whatever limb I'm working with.. It is the greatest, release technique, I know. Be a Nostril..
Before the stress of picking things up quickly. We need permission to allow ourselves to get familiar with the feeling of doing less; to understand what a movement is asking of us and call upon only what we need, for that movement. And this can be practiced anytime, anywhere; Don't need a studio, Don't even need to dance when getting out of bed or sitting at a table. There's always the ability to stop and tune into the tension, the release, the engagement. This practice of awareness makes it easier and easier to call upon when we are in class to have a deep respect for our bodies and an appreciation for the ridiculous amount of work they do for us. It helps us to understand the differences in pain. When is pain a warning sign, and when is it an overused muscle? The more you familiarize yourself with your body, the more comfortable you become and the easier you can take on the role of its commander in chief, and therefore the easier it becomes to execute and let loose in dance.
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You can find me online at AprilMaclean.com or Instagram at @msmaclean.
See you next time, Dancers.