• Expressions Dance Company’s Elise May performs in Natalie Weir’s ‘R & J’. Photo: FIONA CULLEN
    Expressions Dance Company’s Elise May performs in Natalie Weir’s ‘R & J’. Photo: FIONA CULLEN

Release technique is focused on the principles of “ease of movement” and “fluidity”. Dancers learn to minimise tension in the body to create freedom of movement. The release of body weight into the floor and the use of breath to instigate movement is part of the learning process. The style focuses on the use of energy, gravity and momentum to create dynamic movement.

Elise May is dancer with Expressions Dance Theatre in Brisbane. “Australian contemporary dance technique of today is really such an eclectic mix of styles,” she says. “Release seems to be a technique that has continued to adapt and transform as a result of many styles coming together to coexist and in some ways has become a language of its own.

“So, to be a proficient contemporary dancer in today’s climate, it is essential to know and understand release technique”.

May explains that gravity and momentum are foundational aspects of Release Technique. “Concepts such as moving in and out of the floor, articulation of the body, alignment, balance and ‘off-centre’, spatial relationships, direction of force and energy, all rely on these foundations. When utilised together they create quite an organic yet dynamic and articulate form of movement”.

In many cases, classically trained dancers find release technique challenging to master as it requires them to let go of
the control and exact body placement entrenched by their technique. Dancers have to learn to let go and allow the movement and energy to flow.

The style of dance often requires a sense of fearlessness and an ability to surrender fully to the movement. These can be difficult concepts for dancers who have been trained to contain their movements and work to a precise and exacting classical syllabus.

“In my experience teaching younger dancers, or in those who have had extensive classical training, there is often a misunderstanding of release technique,” May says. “There is a difference between dancing in a way that ‘feels good’ as opposed to using correct release principles. It may ‘feel good’ to let go of the pelvic alignment, relax the spine and move from impulse but actually release technique is more demanding.

“In a neutral stance, the spine should remain long with the head and neck lifting upwards towards the ceiling with the coccyx or tail bone working in opposition to create length along the spine. It can be challenging to carry these principles through into dynamic movement. Release technique is not just about learning to relax. It is about learning where to use tension or ‘torque’ in the body, and where to release it. The deep abdominals are responsible for strength and control of the pelvic alignment and your ‘centre of gravity’, whereas areas like the arms, neck, head and lower legs can all be released in such a way that creates a relaxed, organic and articulate quality of movement”.

In order to release tension from the joints and muscles, dancers must first learn to recognise tension. Body awareness and the mind-body connection is the key to becoming mentally aware of tightness in the muscles and joints. Body awareness or “somatics” is the foundation on which contemporary dance is built. Understanding the impetus and motivation for movement engages the brain and draws a link between intention and movement.

How do you establish a mind-body connection? Elise May provides the following insight into the techniques that she uses.

“When I develop beginner contemporary dance workshops I like to focus on the foundations. Many teachers start class with a ‘roll down’ or ‘spinal roll’ exercise which not only prepares the body for movement but teaches the importance of spinal articulation and stills the mind and encourages an inward connection  with the body.

“As students progress, I focus on moving in and out of the floor by dedicating whole exercises to elements of floor-work, such as rolling, counter-balance, rising and falling into the floor and upside down movements such as handstands, ‘lilts’ and shoulder stands. The movements require body awareness and the ability to relax specific muscle groups while working others to maintain the correct form.

“Travelling sequences really put these release principles to the test, with high order movements and more complex combinations for more advanced students. A good indication of a student’s skill level is their ability to maintain good technique through a range of dynamic movement. Relaxation techniques, use of imagery, sensory techniques and also the use of touch can help students to grasp some of the concepts of release technique”.

Body awareness can be learned through a number of different practices, from Yoga to Feldenkrais and Alexander Technique. The use of breath, focus and visualisation can be used to become aware of tension in the body. “I think body awareness is the key to fluid, connected and engaging movement,” May adds.

When dancers fully commit their bodies to the choreography they can achieve exhilarating results. It can be thrilling to watch a dancer move with a very connected and articulate quality of movement. Often we are drawn to particular dancers without being able to put our finger on why. They just seem to have that special something; beautifully articulate yet relaxed and easy to watch.

“I have always observed that great dancers work from a very centered and intuitive understanding of their own bodies,” May says. “They can harness aspects of technique such as suspension, release, timing and dynamics to create unique qualities. It is not something that always comes naturally.

“Training the body in this way is a long process, which is why it takes a long time for dancers to reach a professional level.”

May offers the following advice to dancers trying to improve their release technique: “Dancers who seek out classes and/or body treatments by allied movement practitioners will often find new ways of thinking about and understanding their bodies. It is also important to find ways to bring those new thoughts and ideas back into their movement practice and work (often individually) to find these mind-body connections through movement.

“Working from an internal mindset is the key. For example, following an image or impulse from the body is always better than simply seeking to create shapes and lines.

“The best place to start is to cover up the mirror and begin to trust your own movement intuition. Improvisation exercises are often useful. Start with simple exercises to connect the mind and body.” 

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