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Where Do You Hold Your Tension? 6 Top Trouble Areas and How to Ease the Strain

Anna Greenberg of ABT's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, photographed by Jayme Thornton for Pointe.

All dancers have their go-to tension area: shoulders that creep up towards the ears, a hand that becomes a claw, or feet and ankles that grip. Yet "Just relax" can be the hardest correction to apply. We spoke with four teachers for their tips on releasing tension throughout the body—and how it's all connected.

The Face

A dancer's face is a frequent tension trouble spot, as eyebrows lift or furrow, jaws clench and tongues peek out. Hilary Cartwright, international guest teacher and creator of Yoga Narada, notices that, for many students, "all the tension goes into the face in their effort to achieve and please their teacher." Similarly, Seattle-based ballet instructor Stephanie Saland observes that dancers "demonstrate" their focus with their face instead of actually being attentive. "Does 'focus' mean bug your eyes and shove your chin forward to show interest, enthusiasm, volition?" she asks. "Or can you just be present and take the information in?"

Cartwright recommends taking a moment to "turn it around" and find your inner smile. "When you're feeling tense, think of something—a smiley face, your dog or cat—that brings back reality a little bit. Remember the good things in the rest of your life." If your inner smile turns into an outward one, even better. Smiling is a simple way to alleviate tension in your face and convey your joy of dancing.

Saland suggests visualizing a mask that's painted onto your face dripping off "almost in puddles down the front of your body." This relaxes facial tension and sends your focus inward. Remember that in class, sometimes, you can just make the effort without feeling that you have to project out.

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