Not a piece I would typically post on the DTP blog, but you know sometimes I write stuff that isn’t purely dance and fitness related. I think you’ll enjoy it all the same.
This piece gets a bit personal, but I think, if you have been practicing yoga for some years now, you’ll appreciate what I have to say. I’m no yoga teacher, but I’ve been practicing the Sivananda style for about 7 years, and it has since served me as both a barometer and a method for taking care of my mental and physical well being.
The title isn’t exactly what is seems. Give it a read and let me know what you think.
While I was in Chiang Mai just over a month ago the most valuable experience hands down was studying and receiving Chi Nei Tsang.
Studying Chi Nei Tsang at Blue Garden. Here is our teacher, Remco, getting all up in this lucky student’s left kidney.
If you don’t know what Chi Nei Tsang is, I for sure suggest you read more about it. If you really care to, you can read about my fun times learning CNT HERE (it’s a pretty long, rambling post though so save it for when you have a coffee and 10 minutes to kill).
In a nutshell, Chi Nei Tsang is an abdominal massage based in Chinese Medicine. As the story goes, negative emotions are stored in our organs. Our gut is our “second brain”, the small intestine in particular. And much like the food we eat, when we are unable to digest and deal with our emotions they are stored in the second brain. Apparently even in our bones.
And likewise, when organs (or bones) are squished into awkward positions because of poor posture and movement mechanics, this can also cause negative emotions and stress to manifest, along with degeneration of the organs.
Chi Nei Tsang can be a pretty intense experience for some people. Especially if you’ve got a lot of pent up emotional shit or funky movement and postural patterns (dancers… Just sayin’!).
So anyway, learning this massage was a blast. Helped me with many things. And I miss having my belly rubbed everyday. Any takers? 😉
But now, over a month since my last belly-rub session, I’m learning how I can apply Chi Nei Tsang principles to movement related issues, particularly those rooted in poor breathing patterns.
And so, the topic of today’s post is on learning how to first breathe and then move from the tan tien.
What’s the tan tien?
The lower abdominal tan tien is an important place in the body in Chinese Medicine. This point is located roughly 2cm below the navel, deep in the abdomen, and correlates to your center of gravity.
In yoga, this point correlates roughly to the sacral chakra, and in Japan is referred to as hara.
Your tan tien is your energy center, where “life force is stored”.
Sorry, guys, if I’m not using science words. Just deal with it for now. Science isn’t always everything.
Tan tien is an important reference point in activities like Tai Chi, Qi Gong, and many martial arts. In dance, I reckon that when teachers and choreographers want you to stay more “grounded” it would be helpful to be connected to your tan tien.
Unfortunately in dance, and other bendy-people-activities like gymnastics and yoga, we put so much emphasis on being able to bend backwards and doing crazy twists, it becomes easy to lose the connection to the center of our bodies. This can be a cause of lower back pain (much like they say about imbalance of the sacral chakra).
Many of us, and non-dancers too, lose connectivity to our tan tien. You can blame stress, poor spinal stabilization patterns, unresolved emotional issues, or poor organ function due to lifestyle. The result is the loss of ability to breathe into the lower abdomen favouring a paradoxical breathing pattern instead. We forget how to contract the tan tien, relax it, and move from it.
The image on the bottom represents a paradoxical breathing pattern, with the belly sucking in with inhalation, air going first into the chest, rather than both expanding together.
In Chi Nei Tsang, the practitioner will first “clear” the tan tien to allow chi (energy) to flow more freely to it, and open it, bringing more awareness to the area.
It is possible to achieve similar effects by yourself through moving and breathing mindfully.
Some people who know pretty well will remember that I used to refer to my lower abdominal and pelvic region as a “black hole”. Literally had no ability to connect my brain to the black hole (tan tien!).
After having received Chi Nei Tsang I was finally able make a connection to my lower abdominal area. After waking up tan tien, things starting feeling different. Much different.
I was able to breathe into my lower abdomen, whereas before I was a paradoxical chest breather (still mostly am…Workin’ on it,guys, ).
Because my breathing was coming more naturally, I felt my inner core activate more reflexively- I no longer had to brace so much to stabilize.
I felt my hips were able to extend fully, whereas before I could not, or had to actively contract my glutes to get to that range of motion.
I was finally able to maintain a neutral spine and pelvis without tucking under and reduced my normally uncontrollable pattern of resting in a heavy anterior pelvic tilt.
All former pain symptoms disappeared (knee, hip, hamstring, lower back, shoulder).
Amazing mental clarity and calm.
Finally could get full cervical spine (neck) flexion
Felt my weight shift more posteriorally onto my heels, whereas before I had a tendency to shift onto my toes and make every movement super quad dominant.
Felt grounded into the earth, lighter.
These improvements lasted for weeks, and now, about a month after returning to the cold north, not getting regular Chi Nei Tsang, and doing several dance classes (loading the dancer-dysfunction back into my system), I can feel these effects leaving me. Noooooo…
I just want to be able to move like her:
Oh my God that single leg landing in deep plie… One day.
There is, however, a technique I’ve been using to try to hold on, and this is to do tan tien focused breathing.
How to do tan tien breathing?
It’s super easy and effective. If you do it regularly.
I taught one of my dance clients how yesterday. After a few rounds her neck alignment improved (now getting full left cervical rotation! BAM). She noted similar things as I had: Felt more grounded, calm. Good things for a dancer to feel.
How to breathe into tan tien (a self Chi Nei Tsang technique):
1) Find your tan tien with your fingers and get comfy poking into it.
The easiest position to start in is lying on your back, knees bent or with pillows supporting under your knees.
Remember your tan tien is about 2cm below the navel and deep in the abdominal cavity. Place your fingers there and on an exhale, press into your belly until you can’t poke in any deeper. This may feel weird. Good. Go with it.
Take note of how it feels in there. Do you notice if it feels cold or warm? Can you feel a pulse? How far down can you get before you meet resistance?
2) Breathe into your tan tien!
Breathe into this special place that stores your life force. Put some awareness into your center of gravity.
With your fingers still poking into your belly, inhale and try to push your fingers out. As you exhale, allow your fingers to sink deeper into your abdomen. See how deep you can go. Hold your breath at the bottom for a few seconds. Repeat for a few minutes.
Aim for your exhalation to be 3 times as long as your inhale. Get out all your air, and then some more. I like to work with an in 4 out 12 count. You can start with a 1:1 ratio and move up to 2:1 until you can handle 3:1 exhale to inhale.
An Ayurvedic doctor once told me to work on a 30 second inhale, 30 second exhale pattern. I managed to do this once. I almost passed out. On the bus.
Be aware of where your breath goes first. You will likely feel that as you inhale, it is difficult at first to guide the breathe into your fingers, but it will become easier each time.
You can also try humming, or making a “shhh” or “chooo” sound as you exhale. This will ensure you are truly getting a full exhalation. Auditory cues don’t lie. Often there’s more air left than you think. These are also healing sounds used in Chi Nei Tsang and Qi Gong.
3) Repeat a few time a day. Experiment with different positions. Try it while walking.
Much like any skill (chin-ups, push-ups, speed reading), the more you “grease the tan tien groove”, the easier it becomes. You don’t need to spend 30 minutes working on breathing all at once, because that sucks. Just break it up into mini sessions throughout the day (especially before dance class, dancers!).
I like to attempt tan tien breathing in positions that I know are challenging for me. Like in a supine hip bridge. God it really sucks. Just try it.
Another fun challenge is to breathe into your tan tien while walking, without your fingers for feedback. I attempt this quite often and find I have to slow my walking wayyyy down to do it properly.
When you are able to bring awareness into your tan tien, it’s almost like you’re not even breathing, but like the breath is moving you.
By having this energy channel open, the breath will flow there naturally. You don’t need to use any effort. Rather than forcing through muscular effort, the breathe simply moves you into the correct place. It’s magical.
It’s Wu Wei– Action through non-action. Allowing what feels spontaneous and natural to occur. What if your dancing could feel like this? It was rare for me, and probably the cause of my many injuries, always relying on excess muscular effort.
Try tan tien breathing while doing inversions- Head-stand, hand-stand or shoulder-stand. That takes some mad skillz.
Try doing this focused breathing in dance positions like an attitude line, or to initiate a turn.
The more you try to play with breath and gravity and allow yourself to be moved in new ways into new positions, the more fun you can have with movement.
The trouble with trying to teach movement and posture to people, I think, is that it isn’t easily possible to describe how to do it in terms of muscular execution. The person has to feel it for themselves by directing their breath into the right place, helping them to naturally move into the appropriate position.
This can’t truly be taught, but only offered to them through a learning experience. It is up to the student to be open to it and allow it to happen.
This can be frustrating.
I often want to resort to more obvious ways of cueing, like, “shoulders back”, or “squeeze your butt”.
What I try to do more often is direct the client on where to breathe. If they direct the breath into the right area, at the right time, the movement and the posture becomes natural. The breath dictates it so.
So I suggest you try building a tan tien awareness practice. Make it a regular part of your day. Just for fun. Poke your fingers into your belly and breathe. It just might change your life.
Have a listen to master Mantak Chia talk about tan tien and the second brain. Cool stuff!
Soooo my computer, which is finally demon malware-free, is now doing more silly things. The TAB key will randomly decide to activate (a lingering demon, I imagine), causing me to delete random sentences, insert words in the wrong places, and making my writing-life a veritable pain in the acetabulum (haha get it??).
So I apologize if I’ve missed any typos. Did my best.
And thank goodness I didn’t have to write this blog post!
Today I have a guest article from Andrea Albanese, former dancer, mother of a dancer, and a strong woman who is quite passionate about dancer wellness.
In particular, the competition world of dance.
I was never a competition dancer. Sure, I competed in municipal and provincial dance festivals where we would receive a grade, compete for scholarships etc, but there is, from what I understand, a marked difference between this kind of event and a real competition competition.
That’s why I’ve asked Andrea to write on the topic.
This past September I met Andrea in Vancouver at the Healthy Dancer Canada Conference where I was speaking. We had a long conversation about her own competition experience, or, her daughter’s, rather. She had not much positive to say.
As Andrea also happens to be a something of a writer, I asked her to share her experience in the world of dance competitions so you can, as Andrea begs of parents and dancers, make an informed decision about whether competitions are really the right thing for you (and your wallet).
To avoid a lengthy intro, I’ll just hand it over to Andrea now. Ready?
Dance Competitions: Enriching Experience or Cash Grab?*
Dance competitions… No matter how you slice it, the competition season brings mixed feelings to both parents and dancers.
On one hand competitions can be a great team-building exercise, a chance to meet new friends, learn new things and push yourself to your limits as a dancer. For parents, it can be a wonderful opportunity to see your child doing what they love in a variety of venues.
Furthermore, if you are a true dance aficionado, competitions are an opportunity to see a whole lot of dance in one place.
On the darker side of the competition world, it can be extremely stressful and tiring for the dancers competing in multiple competitions. It can also be a discouraging experience for some dancers as there are studios that take competitions very seriously, doing choreography in the summer and perfecting routines for months prior to competition season.
For parents, competition season can be stressful if their child is unhappy or does not handle pressure well. To top it off, competitions can be a significant financial and scheduling burden with extra classes and rehearsals, more costumes, and more entry fees.
My daughter danced at a suburban dance school doing local competitions and RAD ballet exams from 2004-2012. She’s now sixteen and only takes class because she enjoys dance—not to perform or compete.
To Compete or Not to Compete? It’s Your Choice
When my daughter started competing at age seven (2005), there were two types of competitions available locally—the commercial (privately owned businesses) competitions and the provincial dance festivals. In BC, the Performing Arts BC Association hosts dance and music festivals that culminate in a final competition for those that qualify, to compete for a provincial title in Ballet, Modern dance and Stage. These provincial competitions had a bit more cache and were attended, for the most part, by the more serious dancers.
The other competitions- Peak, Dance Power, Shine etc.- offered various levels of adjudication by dance teachers, choreographers and professionals. For the most part, we parents enjoyed the experience and especially being able to see the kids do their routines more than once.
Backstage at a BC dance competition
Things have changed a bit since I was a dance mum in the competition scene. I remember actually having a conversation with some parents (our seven year-olds were doing their jazz routine at two competitions) who were thinking it would be great if they could a couple more competitions to get our money’s worth out of the $90 costume! Oh, how things have changed.
How is the Desire for Competition Success Changing the Dance World?
Dance is now big business.
In BC there are almost 30 dance competitions, with possibly double that number in Ontario, and the other provinces falling somewhere in between (of which you can see a list here, courtesy of just dance! ).
The sheer number of competitions available highlight the fact that dance is big business, not that that is necessarily a bad thing, but it’s very important, as a parent especially, to keep the end in mind and be a wise and educated consumer as the rise in popularity for dance competitions has resulted in some other changes in the dance world.
Increasing Number of Half-Day Programs:
More and more dance schools offer half-day pre-professional training programs which often necessitate leaving school in the early afternoon. This type of schedule used to be reserved for serious, elite athletes and dancers; now this type programming is found at many suburban dance schools.
Again, this can be a positive experience, akin to being on a high-level sports team, developing teamwork and camaraderie while learning and experiencing a sport (yes, dance is a sport) that you love.
However, parents need to ask the hard, un-sexy questions when considering these schools:
What training, experience and qualifications do the teachers have?
Do they have any training or qualifications in physiotherapy, anatomy or physiology?
What type of floors does the studio have?
What is the goal of the program?
It is interesting to note that there are no provincial or national requirements needed to be a dance teacher or studio owner. You’ll find many teachers and studio owners are ex-dancers with no teacher training.
The number of program hours is also a consideration in terms of risk of injury and stress on the growing body, particularly if there is not a trained and accredited physiotherapist overseeing the program.
The time commitment also needs to be evaluated in terms of schoolwork. Most dancers in these programs love dance and would prefer to dance more than anything; however, parents need to consider the potential academic consequences of an intense dance program.
Doing homework backstage at a comp, because real life doesn’t stop for a dance competition.
If your child truly wants to be a professional dancer and has the talent, the mental and physical strength and attributes, and the drive, you need to do some serious research on the best type of program for them. Odds are that it is not at a small suburban dance school, though there are exceptions.
Insidiously Rising Cost of Competing:
“Back in the day” (before 2006ish) competitions used to charge per routine entered. For example, if your daughter was in a jazz routine with 10 girls, the $250 entry fee would be split by 10 girls making the cost $25 per dancer. For small groups it was more, for larger groups it was less.
Now, competitions charge per dancer for group routines and the rate ranges from $30-40 though it is extremely difficult to find this information online. Doing the math, you can see it’s a lot more lucrative to charge per dancer.
This fact alone does not make an enormous difference to the final cost for parents, but the overall trend is to enter more competitions since more are available. Many average families with keen dancers who compete are paying out thousands of dollars for competitions.
For example, a 12-year old girl (my friend’s daughter) competes jazz, hip-hop, tap, stage, lyrical, large group hip-hop and one trio. Cost per competition averages approximately $300. The studio entered four competitions locally and one away. Competition fees alone (not including travel, hotel, costumes and extra classes) are close to $2000 on top of the $450/month for regular classes.
High level dance is definitely not for the faint of pocketbook but it’s a bit sad that this type of financial pressure is found at most suburban dance studios.
Blatant Focus on Competition and Winning:
Competitions focus on competing with others and dance is really about competing with yourself. This is hard to remember when you are constantly being compared and judged against others, often by people who aren’t truly qualified.
When kids are this focused on competing, with the main focus on winning, at best it overshadows what dance (and life) should truly be about, at worst it can cause injury or an overinflated sense of self.
Many dance studios cater to the competition scene by creating teams that win because that is what many parents and students want. And studios need business—they are simply responding to a need in the marketplace.
Some studios recruit dancers, train them excessively, and compete aggressively because it attracts business to their studio. The problem with this single-mindedness is that young, developing dancers need to train the majority of the time. Rehearsing and perfecting choreography is not training. Many dancers can do the moves in their routines perfectly but this cannot be mistaken for careful and deliberate training to create a strong and well-rounded dancer that isn’t easily injured from performing the same tricks over and over.
“The problem with this single-mindedness is that young, developing dancers need to train the majority of the time. Rehearsing and perfecting choreography is not training.”
Winning at competitions can also create a false sense of expertise for dancers but often winning these events does not mean much in terms of a future dance career.
To be a dancer, you need a strong foundation with solid training and performance skills. Genuine artistry. Many competitions highlight the performance skills at the expense of the other important components of dance.
I was once at a competition where the adjudicator (a former cruise ship dancer) actually told the dancers that they weren’t looking at technique, it was all about showmanship…this was a dance competition, not drama or theater.
Increasing Drama- Parents and Politics:
The elephant in the room…the dance parent. Indignant at unfair judging or scoping out a better teacher for their child.
We’ve all seen Dance Moms on TV, watching with horrified fascination, knowing we would never allow our child to be treated so hideously by the likes of Abby Lee Miller.
Or would we…if they were winning and she was the best teacher in town?
Some parents view competitions as an opportunity to comparison shop local dance schools and check out the ‘competition’ though this is STRONGLY discouraged.
To thwart this type of reconnaissance, most programs do not list the dancer’s school alongside their name though there is always a list of participating schools in the program.
However, a determined dance parent will not be easily dissuaded. Many dancers sport their studio logo on jackets, T-shirts and dance and garment bags, and many parents will simply approach the dancer or teacher and ask—though this is considered a bit of a faux pas by many teachers and certainly by event staff.
In terms of judging, it is NEVER ever acceptable to rudely critique another dancer under any circumstances. Every dancer is someone’s child and is on stage trying their best. Oddly, people often overlook this and freely speak badly, in public, about another dancer.
Competitions are often judged unfairly by people who know very little about particular types of dance who have allegiances to various choreographers or studios. It simply is what it is and is one of the main reasons why it’s important to truly take the whole competition scene with a very large grain of salt.
It’s also the reason why I pulled my daughter out, mid-season even though I didn’t get a refund.
In dance, as in life, balance is everything. Competitions can be a great team-building experience. A lot of fun for kids who love to perform. A great opportunity to hone your skills on stage. A venue to meet other dancers and work with new teachers. An opportunity to win scholarships and cash. However competitions can also be expensive, confidence-busting, opportunistic events that feed off of dancers and parents who will do anything to get ahead in the dance world.
So What Can You do as a Parent?
Do your research.
First, choose a dance school that is in line with your child’s goals, talents and commitment level. Make sure it is staffed by trained teachers with a balanced and safe program that will not harm their growing bodies and that leaves time for friends and homework.
Check out their competition schedule and see if it’s realistic in terms of finance and scheduling. As a parent, you likely have little to no choice in which competitions the studio chooses to enter but you can research the adjudicators and their background.
“Competitions are not a true representation of the dance world—it’s a very specific type of dance only—and the opinions of the judges are just that, opinions.”
Make sure your child understands that competitions are not a true representation of the dance world—it’s a very specific type of dance only—and the opinions of the judges are just that, opinions.
Is it worth getting upset when an LA B-Boy gives you a low mark for performance in a classical ballet variation or, conversely, when a ballerina marks your form badly in a street jazz duo?
Competitions are a lucrative business and it’s worth remembering they are a business first and foremost. Choose wisely.
*Note from Monika:RE the “cash grab” remark. That was just a tactic to make you feel something. Maybe it made you angry? Or nod enthusiastically? GOOD. I’m glad you have emotions. Let me know how you feel about this post in the comments below.
Andrea has always had a burning need to communicate, to share knowledge, to inform, and to persuade if need be. Although writing is what Andrea enjoys and does best, painting, film, dance, music and sculpture are all vehicles by which she believes we can share ideas and communicate.
Andrea’s own dance career started with a bang on the stage of Metro Theatre at the age of six with Betty Tufts ‘Once-a-Year’ night. She fell in love with ballet at the late age of 18 and took classes furiously whilst attending university, until practicality won over, though she continued to dance taking classes at Harbour Dance Studios in Vancouver.
Fifteen years later, Andrea’s own daughter is now taking dance classes, beginning humbly at the local rec centre, moving up to a well-known suburban dance school, and finally studying ballet exclusively and attending summer school at Canada’s National Ballet School in Toronto.
In 2012, Andrea was one of the start-up partners of just dance! magazine, though she now pursues freelance projects and helps her daughter with her career as a model. Andrea is still involved in the dance world as a supportive audience member and occasional writer.