When Doing Less is More.
By Kathleen Hughes
Making my transition from Ballet to Modern was a long one. Logically, I knew the mechanics and understood what was expected of me to; however, it was very difficult make my body do what my mind wanted it to. So, I worked harder. The Professional Training Program at the Toronto Dance Theater was filled with days of dance class (barre and Graham), rehearsals, and composition with little time to rest in between; and I looooved it. However, in the evening, when I wasn’t waitressing, I went to the gym or a yoga class or even did both. I was obsessed with conditioning my body and because I had the sort of body type that was considered very mobile I assumed I my musculature was very weak – it wasn’t. My first clue was when one of my teachers, Kenny Pearl, had asked me why I was shaking while doing a deep plie and I responded “because my legs are weak”. He laughed and said “Ah, no you’re definitely not weak. Maybe find a different way to approach it.” At the time, I had no idea what he was talking about. I had done hundreds of deep plies for as long as I could remember, just as all my teachers I’ve ever had taught me, so how can I approach it differently?? Not being able to answer that question, I continued on doing hundreds of sit-ups, cardio, lifted weights, Pilates, yoga etc... all for the main reason of figuring out how to accomplish a simple Contraction. The Contraction was my modern dance nemesis. It was always there, hanging in the air, taunting me. I faked the movement as best as I could but I knew I was only making a shape and wasn’t truly contracting. And as a result, in my self-inflicted boot camp style training, my High Lift was suffering too. The two basic movements of the Graham technique - and I couldn’t do them – it was very frustrating.
Then finally, my chronic hip flexor injury was acting up and one of my teachers Trish Beatty suggested I go see a woman called Ann Tutt who’s a practioner in Mitzvah technique – she was also a dancer. So I did. Well, Ann’s diagnosis was nothing less than a surprise. The Mitzvah technique deals with breaking habitual movement that causes stagnation/compression in the body. Apparently, I was working too hard (“Wait, Is that even possible??? I am a dancer you know”) She said that because of all the jogging, weights and sits ups I was doing, I had compressed my upper back and made my lower abdominals to the point that they lost the freedom to move within my torso. This resulted in the inability to contract or release properly. So Anne’s suggestion was to continue to see her for release work (‘No problem there, I love receiving body work’), hold off on the gym for while (‘Well, okay if you think that will help’), and let your belly hang while in class for the next few weeks (“WHAT?!?!?!!!”).
So, reluctantly I did as she suggested. I saw her every other week at first then once a month, then less and less after that. And yes, for the first few weeks after my first session I let my belly hang in class. Trish had no idea what I was doing (I had failed to tell her, which in hindsight probably wasn't the best choice), and she wasn’t sure what to make of me. After a few weeks of ignoring Trish’s scoffs, disappointing head shakes, and any ‘pull up’ comments that she gave, I slowly started to rediscover my abs. I could actually feel them move!! I literally felt my abdominals slide up under my ribcage while my shoulders, chest, and rib cage slid down over them as I was contracting! It was one of those 'angels singing and a white light beaming down on me' kind of moments. Then I tried out my new torso on the high-lift, and yes, it was just as glorious! After that, the connections all fell into place and my contraction felt like it reached all they down to my toes and past my head! It was exactly like they said it would be, but up until that point it all sounded like an old scripted myth that only the dance Gods of the past were able to achieve. The combination of strength and agility I experienced after that was something I had never experienced before, and I finally got a long awaited “Good!” from Trish which was something she never gave lightly. She would say “It’s coming!” or “almost” but to get a “Good!” was like receiving a Grammy…at least it was to me.
Now, I’m not saying that you should ignore you teachers and let your belly hang during class, every dancer has their own journey towards developing his/her technique – this was one of many for me, but it was a pretty significant one. I guess it’s true what they say, if what you’re doing isn’t working try the opposite. Don’t ignore your what your body is trying to tell you. If you pay close attention, it will let you know exactly what you need. Like Martha said “Dancing is just discovery, discovery, discovery”. Enjoy and cherish your dance adventure dancers! It’s no doubt a priceless one.