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Ballet Talk for Dancers

How to ease upper body tension-Help!


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My DD15 seems to have an issue with tension in her upper body/shoulders. This issue has been raised by her old studio AD and now her current one. She's been seeing a chiropractor who discovered some structural issues, and I believe it's helping, but her current teacher mentioned this again yesterday, so it's not completely resolved. She has beautiful, willowy arms, and yet they do appear a bit "stiff" (for lack of a better word) when she dances.

What's interesting is that if she's home, dancing around the house, showing me a combination, etc., it's not there. If she's marking (?) a combination during class, it's not there. It's just when she's actually doing the combination in class, or on stage.

In her early years, her teacher was very old school, and DD did feel somewhat intimidated by her to have everything "perfect" for fear of being yelled at. There was not to be a lot of movement with her arms at that stage of her training. She now does very advanced pointe work, but her arms seem stuck back in her pre-pointe days.


Is there some way to help DD loosen her arms and shoulders up a bit? She does see a stretching coach, who is working with opening up her shoulders, but this seems more of a relaxation issue than a flexibility issue. (I say this without knowing one thing that I'm talking about, as I have no ballet training at all)


I thought about it in terms of Downton Abbey: Her upper body is sort of like Carson, when it needs to be more like Lady Rose!


Any insights from teachers, moderators, parents, students would be a huge help. Physically, she is very tall, long-legged, thin...basically what would be considered ideal ballerina body. Thank you!

Edited by Happyfeet15
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Happyfeet, this is probably not a physical thing. It is mental/emotional. That is obvious from your description of how she moves when not in class. The tension factor is a much more difficult thing to deal with than if there was a physical restriction of some kind. The problem sounds like it was caused from her early training, and will not go away easily. It will take a lot of time, patience, and encouragement from her teachers. Hopefully, the classes she has now are also designed to teach them to "dance", not "pose", and it will begin to improve. When the upper body movement is not allowed in early years, it is very hard to put it there later, and it won't happen quickly. I have worked with this problem a LOT, way way way too much. Everywhere. It is not something you can do other than encourage and support and tell her how well she is doing. Part of it is confidence, a big part, actually. Hopefully, her teachers will realize that!

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Ms. Leigh: Thank you for your insight. What you've said is very helpful. Her new studio AD is wonderful, and definitely provides plenty of opportunities to dance, almost too many. DD went from doing very restrained choreography at her old studio (everything had to be perfect so the students all looked the same on stage) to incredibly advanced choreography at her new studio, where being perfect isn't as important. It was quite a jump for her, and while she's holding her own in the highest studio level, it's a lot more dancing and not posing, as you say.

I guess my question is will it come together at some point? Is there some type of visualization technique to help students with this issue? To tell her to "just relax" would seem to only add to the stress, but you are right, there was such a fear factor associated with performing at her old studio that I can see how that is impacting her now.

Perhaps I should talk to her new teacher? He knows her old studio very well, but perhaps doesn't realize how much this previous fear based training could be impacting her now...anyway, thank you for your response.

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No, telling her to relax is not the answer. The teacher needs to find the key. I have one like this whom I am working with now to find that key. Well, more than one, actually! One of the things I use is the music, combined with a kind of movement to encourage a lot of usage of the upper body and head. This area does seem to be neglected in a lot of early training, and something I have tried to stress for a very long time in my teaching. I have to use music that inspires me, first, and then try to show and impart to the students what I am looking for in this work. I use imagery sometimes, I use students who have the quality I'm looking for to show things I can no longer fully do, and I always keep trying to find new things, new images, new ways of saying something, new ways of lighting the path, so to speak. :) For me the music and the musicality of the dancers is a very, very important part of it.

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Once again, thank you. I actually think this is what her teacher is doing with her now. I see in other areas of her training where things have suddenly "clicked" and her confidence just soars. So hopefully, this will be one of those areas as well, although by the sounds of things it may take a bit longer.

Her previous teacher used to yell at the kids when they were younger if there wasn't "tension" in their arms. I'm not exactly sure what this means, but somehow my DD seemed to take this threat literally and tense up to avoid getting yelled at. In the early stages of training, what is the reason for having tense arms and not "loose noodles"?

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There is never any reason for teaching tension. Loose noodles can also be a problem. :) However, I will take that any day over excess tension, as is a lot easier to fix.

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It actually feels a bit sad, thinking of all the children trying to hold their arms correctly, tensing up so not to be yelled at, only to be told later on to loosen up.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could rewind time just a bit in order to avoid such things!

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  • 2 weeks later...

I am wondering if this is a problem seen more commonly in late starters. My daughter falls into this category in terms of getting serious about ballet comparatively late (12ish). Tension had been a struggle since then. She is now 15 yo, and has worked hard to "catch up." The other aspect for her, more along the lines of what Happyfeet says, is a compliant temperament with a strong desire to please. This is across the board - school, home, dance, etc. She sort of has the physique/look (although she would point to this and that - feet!! - that are less than what she would optimally desire). But upon becoming more serious about a possible dance career, she has been moved up through the levels fairly quickly - when I stand back and think about it. As technical demands went up on a fairly steep incline, she did not have the same the foundation as many of her peers who had been more focused at a younger age. With her struggle to stay with her same age peers, tension resulted. I think she is getting closer to "the pack" now and relaxing. This shows in her dancing.

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No this problem is not seen more often in late starter. It is seen more often in students who learn to work the steps of the legs at a faster rate than the correct understanding of good balletic posture, core strength with a stable understanding of shape of arms and coordination of arms with head and eyes.


Correcting this tension, as Ms. Leigh has said, requires a teacher who knows how to correct it, not just mention it. It is possible to fix, but both student and teacher need to slow down and relax it out. There are constructive arm exercises, but the students needs to first learn how to hold the arms in the back properly rather than the shoulders.


Generally speaking, the difficulty begins with poor balletic posture and progresses from there.

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My DD used to show similar tension in certain classes, but in other classes would completely relax and just flow. After time, I realized it had to do with intense concentration, and not feeling confident in specific areas of dance. Once she conquered those areas the tension loosened up and she did much better. It took a couple of years -different teachers, intensives, and settings before she finally rolled the tension out of her shoulders. I hope this makes sense.

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