“Learning better movement is more like sculpture than painting.
You improve your art by taking things away, not adding them.”
– Todd Hargrove, A Guide to Better Movement
As teachers we understand the importance of relaxing. We know that relaxation – both overall relaxation and the relaxation of specific muscles – allows students to learn better, feel more comfortable, move with greater efficiency and coordination, and learn proper dance technique.
But knowing its value often causes us to overreact to tension, rushing to instruct students to relax when other approaches may be more effective. Counterintuitive as it may seem, pulling out the “R” word is rarely the best way to relax the bodies and minds of our students. Not only do students typically react negatively to this advice, the advice itself usually doesn’t adequately address what is causing their tension.
Let’s explore the two main sources of tension – the natural effects of learning and the unintended consequences of our teaching – and then look at five ways we can relax students to maximize their learning and enjoyment.
The Natural Effects of Learning
When students are learning something new, they are thinking about a dozen different things at once. Even when our instructions are simple, students have to manage the following:
- Remembering and translating visual examples and verbal cues into movement
- Engaging the right muscles at the right time
- Feeling and responding to what their partner is doing
- Listening to, and corresponding their movement to, the music
- Navigating around other students on the dance floor
While students with movement backgrounds may have a head start with coordinating so many actions when learning something new, the average student will find it difficult to manage all of these things without tensing up. Even students who are generally relaxed about learning will find they have too much tension in certain areas just because the movement is novel and they haven’t yet learned where balanced control and power for dancing comes from.
In addition to coordinating so many actions, students also have to manage the emotions (frustration, fear, confusion, self-consciousness, etc.) that come from learning something new. These emotions are very common – and very normal – and can be triggered by the following, whether real or perceived:
- Making mistakes
- Not “getting it”
- Looking bad
- Comparing oneself to others
- Dancing with or being close to an unknown person or undesirable partner
- Being led into uncomfortable or potentially unsafe movements (for followers)
- Disappointing one’s partner
- Feeling pressure or receiving negative judgment from one’s partner
- Feeling pressure or receiving negative judgment from the teacher
When these fears and frustrations are strong enough and/or are not properly addressed, they can result in negative stress, which increases tension and inhibits learning.
The Unintended Consequences of Our Teaching
Oftentimes we focus so much on students’ tension that we overlook the very real role that we play in bringing tension or relaxation into our students’ minds and bodies. Without intending it or even realizing it, our class design, teaching methods, and language can activate or aggravate the natural learning consequences outlined above.
For example, using the word “resistance” in our instruction may result in tension and/or pushing on one’s partner, when we might do better to use the word “tone” or “delay.” If we decide to use the word “resistance,” or even if we choose a more neutral word, we need to be sure we are using definitions, metaphors, and exercises that clarify for students what we’re looking for. Paying close attention to the effects our language has on students’ bodies will give us clues to developing better language and instruction with fewer unintended consequences.
Unbalanced feedback increases the stress on leaders, and with a lack of instruction followers often become both tense and passive.
Another common cause of tension is a lack of balance in one of a variety of areas of class design and feedback. A typical one is giving more feedback and responsibility to the leaders, and less or even none to the followers. This increases the stress on leaders, and with a lack of instruction followers often become both tense and passive. Emphasizing the following aspects of leading and the leading aspects of following, not by preaching but by giving specific and detailed instruction, relaxes both leaders and followers and brings balanced power and responsibility to class and dance partnerships.
5 Ways to Relax Students
While relaxation itself may evoke calmness and positivity, as a command it usually elicits the exact opposite, adding to the tension by making relaxation one more thing they have to worry about, one more thing they’re being judged on.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t help students to relax; it means we should recognize that relaxation often comes from the right environment, from the resources and support to handle very real and sometimes difficult learning emotions, and from effective communication that addresses the root causes of tension, not just their symptom.
Here are five ways to reduce tension and promote relaxation without using the word “Relax”:
1. Set students up for success:
- Make sure exercises and goals are simple and clear
- Use logical, safe, and comfortable progressions, ideally layering one element at a time
- Allow a few repetitions for students to get settled before jumping in with corrections
- Give students a manageable (“actionable”) amount of feedback
- Make partner rotations clear, consistent, comfortable, and regular
- Use music that assists rather than hinders students in completing the exercises based on their skill level
2. Balance your instruction:
- Offer different explanations, feedback, and exercises to take into account the intrinsic dynamics and personalities of each student
- Balance the mechanics of movement and communication with how it should feel
- Emphasize what should be doing the work, not just what should not: “Man is so made that he can only find relaxation from one kind of labor by taking up another.” (Anatole France)
- Pair a method or correction with its purpose (to be balanced, to be comfortable, to allow for communication or improvisation, to feel and express the music)
- Balance feedback and responsibility between the leading and following roles, and balance the active and receptive qualities for each role
3. Anticipate, search for, and address unintended consequences:
- Define terms and concepts clearly
- Address the difference between how terms and concepts may be used in everyday life and how they apply to the dance technique in question
- Search for words and exercises that are more helpful and less likely to trigger unintended consequences, using their effect on students’ bodies as the measuring stick
- Receive feedback on your own dancing, especially your fundamentals, to identify any unnecessary tension that your students may be consciously or subconsciously imitating
4. Avoid common tension triggers:
- Don’t overteach, overcorrect, or micromanage students’ movement
- Don’t ask trick questions (questions that students will likely be unable to answer)
- Don’t ignore, dismiss, or belittle students’ questions
- Don’t mock or imitate students’ movement in a negative or teasing way
- Don’t put students on the spot unless you’re clearly setting them up for success
5. Model a healthy learning mindset:
- Normalize mistakes, not getting it right away, common learning emotions, etc.
- Use positive language and teaching methods, remembering that your students’ inner voice will be highly influenced by both
- Encourage and model healthy learning strategies:
- Focusing on one element at a time
- Trying a simpler version or one part of the whole to help manage a more complex idea
- Communicating in healthy ways with one’s partner
- Embracing mistakes (see Dancing With Mistakes: Why To Correct May Be Incorrect)