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The Appropriate Effort

This is an excerpt from Attention and Focus in Dance by Clare Guss-West.

In our endeavor to achieve the desired line and movement form as seen from the outside, we regularly adopt a more-is-more approach. We strive ceaselessly in Western dance to do more – pull up more, turn out more, hold more — with the assumption that more effort, more control, more hours and more repetition will eventually lead to mastery. This more-is-more approach persists even though we have the evidence from sport science that more conscious effort, more conscious control and more physical repetition lead us to more of the same result. It is counterproductive and inefficient and can lead to a global movement dysfunction (Wulf 2007) and pave the way for chronic fatigue, exhaustion and potential injury.

From an Eastern movement perspective, Western dance demands are seen as predominantly yang: poised for action, weight forwards on the balls of the feet, muscles engaged and high amounts of muscular control and tension. There is less emphasis in Western dance forms on counterbalancing yin qualities and fewer moments where energy is consciously replenished. An Eastern movement approach teaches that the dual polarities of yin and yang are synergetic and balance one another to facilitate maximum energy flow. Both are equally necessary for the development of stamina and staying power. These polarities are traditionally depicted as contrasts: as a black and white circle, as night and day, or as alkaline and acid. From a movement perspective, we might describe yin movements as expanding, receiving and replenishing; whereas yang movements are high-energy action, contracting muscles and thrusting outward power. Finding the yin moments in dance, in which our system can be replenished and muscular tension released – coming down off demi-pointe and connecting the weight momentarily with the earth, for example – are just as important as the explosive, powerful and sustained yang moments. Without consideration and respect for both, the organism will be rapidly exhausted.

Exploration 3.1 – Moving the Stone

Let’s take our attention for a moment to our own habitual more-is-more use of effort. Jump up and find a space in your room or simply engage your mind 100 per cent and imagine that right in front of you in the middle of your space is a massive stone – a huge boulder. Without preparation we’re going to push the stone as hard as we can for as long as we can and just observe or sense what happens in our body. Are you ready? One . . . two . . . three . . . push . . . push . . . push . . . and? What sort of posture did you adopt? How many muscles did you use? What did that feel like? Were you breathing? Could you have stayed for a long time? Were you effective?

In workshops I ask dancers to reproduce a similar action that requires what they consider maximum power. Spontaneously, without thinking, we move the imaginary stone together as a group, or we split off into pairs and try a traditional arm press contest. Almost all Western dancers spontaneously use a more-is-more approach. They hold their breath completely and adopt a fully contracted, static body posture using maximum muscular engagement and often involving muscle groups essentially irrelevant to the task, such as the face and neck, even the toes. As they run out of steam, energy and oxygen, they collapse and laugh as they realize they were not breathing. They say that it was exhausting, completely unsustainable, not at all effective. Some feel the energy boiling and circling inside their contracted muscles with no place to go. They realize that this more-is-more approach to effort is the approach that most of them have learnt in their culture or training and have imprinted in their minds and body as appropriate. It is the ‘hologram’ of appropriate effort that many Western dancers will adopt when facing challenging dance movements.

Exploration 3.2 – More-Is-More Arm Press

If you would like to do the traditional arm press with another dancer or with your students to clearly identify this learnt imprint of appropriate effort and its associated elements, here are some simple guidelines. One dancer becomes the ‘opponent’ and the other the active dancer; be sure to swap roles so that each can experience the active role. Ideally both partners should be approximately the same size and corpulence. Both dancers remain in an open, even, bent-leg stance or relaxed demi-plié throughout so that they cannot cheat or push one another by using the weight of the body. The opponent takes the active dancer firmly by the wrist, counts to three and, with maximum effort, tries to fold the dancer’s arm towards the dancer’s shoulder. The active dancer resists as best they can and simply observes what happens. The objective is not whether the opponent succeeds to fold our arm or not, but simply to observe the process and our body’s habitual response.

As the active dancer, were you breathing as you resisted? How many muscles did you engage? What was the quality of the energy? Was the approach effective? Could you have stayed for a long time? Could you have spoken at the same time? Jot down a few key words to describe what you felt, the sensations in the body and the quality of the movement and ask your opponent for any observations about your performance. This will consolidate your awareness so that you can easily recognize this more-is-more pattern of approach when you are dancing. Now swap roles so that your partner becomes the active dancer and can experience the physical outcomes of this approach for themselves.

We frequently see this use of inappropriate effort in Western dance training in a misinformed attempt to produce power, strength and stamina. Using inordinate amounts of muscle engagement in dance for simple tasks such as standing in fifth or balancing in fifth is like dancing with all the lights on in your house all of the time – it’s extremely uneconomic. We need to wisely select only the lights absolutely necessary for the task. Inappropriate muscular engagement drains energy from the system and produces by-products of acids and toxins that in turn need to be removed from the body because they constrict and cramp muscles. A loss of power and stamina is assured when inappropriate effort is used consistently and unnecessary muscle groups are habitually engaged. This alone would change the acidification of the body and lead to solidification of muscles and joints that become more prone to injury.

. . . any hardness in the body would block the flow of chi (energy) . . . the key to success is having no unnecessary tension in the body. (Brecher 2001, 157).

In chi kung, to bring awareness to unnecessary tension and holding in the body, we might use an analogy such as moving as if we are riding a bicycle. To ride the bicycle efficiently, you need to concentrate your power in the lower body and release unnecessary upper-body tension. You place the hands lightly on the handlebars using only the minimum amount of muscular engagement necessary to steer and to be able to respond to any eventuality the road presents. Similarly, in a simple balance in fifth, I ask dancers to scan their body and switch off all the lights in the house that are unnecessary for the task in order to be economic, or I ask them to imagine they have the choice of just three muscles to achieve the balance. So if they are already engaging the face muscles and have tension in the thumbs, that leaves them just one muscle to manage the balance! The number is not important. I am simply drawing their attention to what’s appropriate for the task so that they release unnecessary tension and awaken their consciousness to effort.

The less-is-more approach of Eastern movement training uses a series of techniques that lead with the mind and the conscious breath to dissolve blocks and obstacles in the body and mind. These could be muscular hypertension, holding and inappropriate use of effort, or disabling mental dialogue and distraction. Removing these obstacles prepares the path for maximum energy flow, fluidity, speed and precision and permits the development of stamina and power.

More Excerpts From Attention and Focus in Dance