• Melissa Mansfield

A Dancer's Rant: Stop Telling Me to Relax!

Updated: Jun 13, 2018


The mantra of the dance world: “relax”.

“RELAX.”

Talk to anyone learning a partner dance and they will hear this over and over and over.

And sometimes I just want to scream, “Stop telling me to relax! That's NOT helping!

...You don't know what's going on inside my heart and mind that is transferring tension to my body. It is likely that if we're dancing together and I'm not “relaxed”, there are many good reasons for it, 99% of which cannot be solved by my partner TELLING ME TO RELAX."

Take it out of your vocabulary. In #dance - as teachers, as partners. (And while we're at it, in life - as family, as friends, as lovers.)

Here are some of the reasons I am not “relaxed” when I'm dancing with a partner (many of which I've experienced JUST THIS WEEK alone):

  • I feel scared or nervous about pleasing my partner.

  • I feel self-conscious about people watching.

  • I'm sad, hurt or angry about something that's happening in my life.

  • I'm in physical pain.

  • I'm confused about the technique and what I'm supposed to be doing in that moment.

  • You're not relaxed and I'm feeling your tension.

  • Your dancing style makes me feel unstable and uncertain and I feel that I need to protect myself.

  • I don't trust you.

  • I am focusing on other parts of my body that need to be strong, stable, pushing, pulling, lifted, moved, etc.

  • I DON'T KNOW WHY I'M NOT RELAXED, I'M JUST NOT, OK?

Relaxing is important in dance. It is. What makes dance so beautiful is GRACE. Grace is the perfect balance between strength and softness. It's intentional and relaxed. It's focused and surrendered.

That is also why dance is challenging, AKA so damn hard.

That is also why LIFE is challenging. AKA so damn hard.

Relaxing IS NOT EASY for many of us in the modern world. “Helping” someone by saying “just relax” implies that it is. It simplifies something that is quite complicated. And for a perfectionist, self-critical person like me it often just sends me off in a shame spiral and disconnects me from my partner.

MAYBE I relax a bit, but I don't like you for it!

We all need to relax – it's essential to our health as human beings and our growth as dancers. But there are two things to think about when you notice someone is not relaxed and you're tempted to TELL them to relax.

Think about: 1) Who you are and 2) How you say it

1) Who you are: Are you a dance teacher in a class in which people are paying you or expecting you to tell them what to do? Great, definitely tell them to relax if they are tense and it is affecting their dancing. They want your observations and instructions.

Are you anyone else? Please be quiet.

For example, if you are a stranger I just met who I am in an embrace with for the first time, it is very unlikely that I want your advice on what to do with my body. I am already feeling nervous enough trying to make this a good experience for both of us, I don't need you pointing out my deficiencies (which, surprise – will not make me feel more relaxed!).

Also, you're not my teacher and I'm not yours. Our job, our journey together, is to connect on whatever levels we can in that moment. To be students together. To discover each other. To have a conversation. Unless one of us is physically hurting or endangering the other, there is no need to SAY anything. Just breathe, be, connect, and trust that we're having the experience we're supposed to have with each other.

This goes for friends too! If you're not my teacher, giving me unsolicited advice and feedback is very likely going to break our connection as dancers. All of a sudden, I'm in a class with you. A class I didn't choose to be in.

2) How you say it: Teachers, I love you, I honor you, I admire you and I know you've got a hard job. So here's some unsolicited advice ;) Consider expanding your vocabulary.

YES, talk about relaxation, we know it matters. And the more we grow as dancers, the more we learn how to identify tension in our bodies and self correct. But there are other ways to talk about it which could be more productive at times.

For example, mix it up with words and phrases like “soften”, “breathe”, “you're doing great, you can relax into your body”, “notice how your ___ [shoulders, hands, arms] feel”, “trust your body”, “it's OK to make a mistake”, “keep your frame but let your body relax into it”.

This goes for any setting – the classroom and social dancing. Teachers, we want to please you! We need all the help we can get to feel confident while also learning. It's a delicate balance, I know. But the more you can say “relax” in different ways that get us IN our BODY instead of in our heads worried and tense about the fact that we're tense, the better.

Anyone else: please be quiet. (This includes me, I know I've said “just relax” too!)

Unless explicitly asked, no one wants your direction.

If you want to talk about your dance with your partner, do so AFTER you dance and have an actual conversation. Start with, “how did you feel dancing?” Do not offer constructive criticism unless they ask for it. Compliment them on something they're doing well and then encourage them in their future studies. I bet they will feel more relaxed after that!


I know that for me, when I've had teachers and friends who have created an environment in which I can relax, rather than telling me to relax - it has made all the difference!


****

What do you think? Are you told to “just relax” when you dance? Does it bother you? Or does it help you? (Or maybe a little bit of both?)

© Follow My Lead and Melissa Mansfield 2010 - 2018

Photo credits: Sophia Heinke and Diana Manning

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