I am a great believer in the benefits of relaxation skills for dancers. Dancing with muscles that are full of excess tension is like dancing with big heavy boots on. And the more you do it the more your body tries to adapt to accommodate the tension. The problem here is that you get so used to dancing with excess tension that you don’t realise that the tension is there. So learning to recognise muscle tension is vital if you want to reduce it.
Using the tense and release relaxation technique helps you to develop awareness of varying amounts of tension in your muscles. It is useful to practise recognising three different levels of tension:-
- strong – this is where you tense your muscles as much as you can
- medium – this is where you use roughly half of the available muscle tension
- light – this is the minimal amount of tension when you are hardly tensing your muscles at all
Begin by making yourself comfortable. This can be lying on a mat on the floor, sitting in a supportive chair or even lying in bed. You want to feel that the floor, chair or bed is supporting you. And give a sigh to begin the release of tension. Before beginning the tense and release technique take a moment or two to focus on the rhythm of your breathing paying particular attention to the ‘out breath’. Close your eyes if you wish.
You can work through the body from the head to the feet or from the feet to the head – whatever you prefer. I am going to begin with the feet and lower legs.
Tense your right lower leg and foot by pointing your toes as strongly as you can – feel the tension then let it go. Repeat on the same side again but this time use medium or half tension – again feel the tension then release it. Repeat once more on the right side but use only the lightest or minimal tension that you can – feel the tension then relax and let it go. Repeat all the above on the left side. Remember to breathe and focus on the ‘out breath’.
Then you are ready to move to the next area – the upper legs. Strongly tense your right thigh and buttock – feel the tension and then let it release. Repeat on the same side with medium tension – feel the tension and then let it go. And then repeat once more with minimal tension – feel the tension and then relax. Repeat all three levels of tension on the left side remembering about the breathing.
Repeat this triple pattern of tension and release with the arms on one side and then the other – tensing and releasing the arm and fist.
Then move to the abdomen – tense your abdominals by drawing them backwards towards your spine, feel the tension and then let it go. Repeat for each level of tension.
Moving to the neck and shoulders. Tense the muscles around this area by lifting up your shoulders towards your ears (shrugging), feel the level of tension and then release it. Repeat for each level of tension. Continue to let the breathing help you to relax by focusing on the ‘out breath’.
The last area is the face. Create strong tension by tightening your jaw and screwing up all the muscles in your face – feel the tension and then relax. Repeat for medium and minimal tension.
When you have completed the tense and release technique throughout the body then focus on your breathing and enjoy the relaxation. When you are ready, gently start to move your feet by stretching them away from you, open your eyes if they are closed. If you want to get up then do this gradually in your own time.
Regularly practising this tense and release technique will help you to develop your awareness of the level of muscle tension when you are dancing. And if it is too strong then you will be able to explore reducing it until you achieve optimal tension. Once you have begun to master all three levels of tense and release you can experiment with just using one or two levels instead of always using all three. Developing good awareness of the lightest level is particularly useful. Some headaches develop from muscle tension and if you develop say, your awareness of excess muscle tension around your neck and shoulders then you can begin to feel this type of headache when it first starts and then use some breathing and release of tension skills to help to relieve it before it gets worse.
Another use of tense and release technique is to help to improve your quality of sleep. The idea is not to make you fall asleep but to relax muscle tension before you go to sleep resulting in improved quality of sleep – try it really does work. You may need to practise these skills for some time before you get most benefit but it is worth the effort.
So this technique can have positive benefits for dancers and dance teachers too. There are ways to develop this technique for use in dance and performance and I will explore aspects of this another time.