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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.

Neck and Shoulders

Whether you hunch, hike or just seize up, a tense neck and shoulders can really get in the way: You won't be able to spot freely or bend fully, limiting your expressive possibilities. Saland believes that inflexibility in the upper spine often results in tension in the neck and shoulders. "Emotions get expressed through the arms and shoulders rather than through the midline," she says.

Finis Jhung, longtime ballet teacher at the Ailey Extension in New York City, adds that our smartphone obsession isn't helping: "People are so used to being caved in, they have this hunch."

"The best thing to do," says Saland, "is go to the side of the room and actually increase the tension." Scrunch up your face, pull up your shoulders, ball your hands into fists. After a moment, relax. You should feel a new freedom in your neck, upper back and shoulders.

Jhung encourages dancers to literally dance from their heart: "If movement is not coming from the center of your body, it looks shallow." Saland agrees, adding that "not everybody is ready to have their heart open." To help her dancers address both issues, she gives a special reverence. While breathing into your back, imagine pulling a golden thread forward, offering something precious "from the back of the bottom of your heart."

To deal with smartphone-related posture and tension, Jhung gives the following exercise: Interlace your fingers and place your hands at the back of your head. Push forward, and then press your head back into your hands. The muscles in your upper back will engage as your head finds its place atop your spine.

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