Easy Does It: How to Release Extra Tension and Find Proper Muscular Engagement

August 19, 2021

When you think of tension, you may think of a clenched jaw or the general feeling of strain. As the body’s response to physical and psychological stressors, the muscles can remain in a partially contracted state for extended periods of time, often leading to quicker fatigue and physical discomfort.

However, some muscle tension is not only required but useful. Whether a choreographic choice or simply the physical requirement to complete a particular movement, tension—if used properly—can be your ally. The trick lies in finding the ideal balance between proper muscular engagement and overuse.

Identify Your Tension

Knowing when and how to cultivate good muscular engagement and release unhelpful tension starts with recognizing where you actually hold tension in your body. New York City–based movement analyst Deborah Vogel recommends rolling out on a foam roller to assess what is tender. “When you have chronic tension, your body starts to shut down the neurological feedback so you don’t feel as much,” she says. “Foam roller massage can open your somatic awareness to see what’s going on.”

Once you understand where you have a tendency to tighten up, prioritize breathing into those places and moving efficiently. Harness momentum when appropriate and take moments of rest when you can. “Even if the whole body is tense, there are always moments for breath,” says New York City–based ballet teacher and Pilates instructor Sharon Milanese. “Constantly explore finding length, volume and width in the body.”

Deborah Vogel squats to demonstrate something on a student's hamstrings. Several other students look on.
Courtesy Vogel

Move Efficiently

Often, excess tension takes the form of muscling through movements that don’t require so much effort. “When we’re talking about bad tension, we are talking about too much muscle engagement for the task ahead of us or something that is being held for too long,” says Vogel.

Vogel uses the example of the common correction “Pull up your knees.” This can lead to dancers grabbing in their quads continuously, which Vogel equates to doing a bicep curl and holding it for an hour. “I encourage them to think about stacking the bones instead,” she says. This way of thinking about alignment—the ear over the middle of the shoulder joint which is over the middle of the hip, knee and ankle joints—requires minimal muscular engagement to support yourself while standing.

Similarly, Milanese instructs students to move from their breath and their bones. “I think of tension as bearing down or compressing,” she says. “Instead, I talk about expanding the volume of your body.”

Sharon Milanese smiles and reaches for a student's arm. The student stands in first position, with her arm in second position.
Scott Shaw, Courtesy Milanese

Balance Contraction and Release

Finding the appropriate amount of muscular engagement for a particular action is a constant exploration of balancing the contraction and release of reciprocal muscle groups. It takes trial and error. “When the muscles are being asked to do something, they should turn on. When not, they should turn off,” says Vogel. Work on engaging correct muscle groups as you hone your technique.

When It’s an Artistic Choice

Muscle tension can be a powerful tool for artistic expression. This may manifest through gesture, facial expression, partnering or any number of choreographic tasks. But just because the movement has an aesthetic of tension for drama or punctuation’s sake doesn’t mean you actually should be holding excess tension in the body. For dance teacher and locking expert Dennis Danehy, relaxation is essential to give the impression that the joints are locking in place. “If you tense up, the energy won’t move,” he says. “You have to be able to stay relaxed.” Like other street styles, such as voguing and krumping, locking utilizes brief moments of stillness to create an aesthetic that gives the illusion of tension without any unnecessary tensing. “You should be able to dance all night,” says Danehy.

Embrace moments of tension, and know when to let them go. “If the choreography calls for tension, there is going to be that tendency for intense muscular engagement in certain places,” says Milanese, advising dancers to try finding a sense of muscularity in the arms and legs while maintaining a sense of breath along the midline. “Not everything has to be tense the whole time.”

Teachers: For tips on helping your students release extra tension, visit dance-teacher.com.