Understanding Yoga for Dancers
By Katherine Moore of Dance Informa.
It seems that everyone is doing yoga these days, and dancers are no exception. In New York City, yoga studios are cropping up on every corner, offering a myriad of class options and styles, all with a different heritage and place within the tradition of the yoga practice.
Despite differences in approach – most forms of yoga are in contemporary – western life all promise the benefits of improved strength and flexibility, which also happens to be two of the most common cornerstones of most dance techniques. It’s no wonder that the physical component of the yoga practice is a natural draw for many dancers to get on the mat. But you might ask – what keeps them there? How does yoga actually contribute to a dancer’s technique and performance skills? Is there something more to the picture than the physical training?
TaraMarie Perri, an experienced yoga practitioner and certified teacher, is also a lifelong dancer and faculty member at the Dance Department of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. While pursuing her MFA in Dance Performance and Choreography at NYU, Perri began looking for outlets to experience her body in new ways. Perri, a self-professed “nature nut,” had always been interested in alternative practices of connecting to nature and energy, and she reasoned that the physical element of yoga would probably pique her artistic and athletic curiosities as a dancer. But when she took her first yoga class at a studio in New York’s East Village, she did not expect that a whole new world of understanding the mind and the body would become available to her.
“Yoga was way more intellectual than I’d ever imagined. It was so vast. It taught me about my body in a different language,” says Perri.
This language proved to be a new and valuable tool she could use on the mat in yoga practice, or off the mat in dance class or performance. Eventually, Perri received her yoga teaching certification, and when she began teaching, she realized that there was an opportunity and need to share this valuable information to performers and non-performers alike.
“When I started teaching yoga, I started to realize there were some core lessons and ways to compartmentalize the information to share with others,” Perri says.
In 2009, Perri founded Mind Body Dancer ®, “a community for teachers and students of yoga.” Offering classes and workshops internationally, around the country, and throughout the city in studios such as Steps on Broadway, Mark Morris Dance Center and Broadway Dance Center, Mind Body Dancer ® specializes in teaching mindful, Vinyasa-style yoga classes that emphasize sustainable movement pathways and overall mind/body wellness. Mind Body Dancer ® is also part of the curriculum at the dance department of NYU. With ongoing research and education in the arts and sciences and an active teacher-training program, Mind Body Dancer® offers dancers, and non-dancers, the opportunity to observe and learn about their bodies and minds in a safe environment.
Perri says, “While dance training can often be product-oriented, yoga can be more experiential. It can give dancers a new framework to view their instrument, which frees up the performer self to be an artist.”
One of the ways in which this framework can help dancers is an understanding of individual anatomy and how it functions uniquely for each person. Perri recommends that, even though the student is ultimately responsible for his or her own body in any class, it is important to practice yoga with a teacher who understands anatomical alignment and the limitations that are possible. This will allow students to learn about anatomy with a fresh perspective outside of dance vocabulary, and it will also help students to find a balance between strength and flexibility, which can combat the repetitive stress training that sometimes occurs in dance.
For example, Perri looks to the hips and a classically-trained dancer’s constant concern with turnout: “Alignment-based teachers know that external rotation of the femur in the hip joint does not equal turnout. There are many possibilities between internal and external rotation, and within that range you can find stability in the joints. It’s about protecting your alignment AND finding better function. Where can you function best within your rotation and still maintain the aesthetic of the dance form you are in? It’s about finding the balance and intentionally standing there that way,” she says.
Beyond the hips, Perri acknowledges yoga’s power to support dancing bodies in a myriad of ways. A consistent yoga practice can teach students how to stabilize their joints at the barre, how to harness the upper body’s strength in floor work and partnering choreography, and how to tell the difference between hypermobile joints and true muscular flexibility. In effect, moving through a balanced, creatively-sequenced Vinyasa class ends up working the entire body.
Perri says, “Take the feet, for example. Through the cycle of postures, especially the Warrior postures, the foot works in so many angles, and the foot is taught proper support and stability. The foot gets a chance to move in all the ways that it can, which can support dancers of all training and backgrounds.”
Additionally, the yoga practice teaches the coordination of the breath with movement, so that breathing and movement become a dynamic system that work together to support the body and the mind.
“Part of yoga is training the body, part is training the mind, but training the mind body connection is a different instrument,” Perri says.
With this perspective, Perri affirms that there is much more to yoga than understanding anatomy and the physical body.
“The yoga practice should be viewed as support for life, as opposed to support for dance training. It is cross training, but it’s also something else. Looking at it simply as cross training limits yoga’s capacity to go into cultivating the artistic side of the dancer…There is an energetic, subtle metaphysical experience that can happen that is not at all about cross training,” she says.
For dancers of all ages, whether their dance study is recreational or professional, a life in dance can be full of stress, pressure and demanding schedules. So while the additional physical support that yoga can bring dance students is important, Perri recommends that students practice yoga that includes restorative postures, breath work and lessons in self-care.
“A dancer’s life is crazy and erratic. It’s hard to manage class and rehearsal with school or work. Skipping the self-care aspect of the yoga practice will lead to injury. A power yoga class will teach the same information that dancers are already receiving in their dance training. The best compliment to a long day of dancing is restoration and care,” she says.
Perri also brings up some special concerns for young performers. In most dance training, teachers and directors expect progress in a student’s technique to be linear, but adolescent dancers are going through growth spurts and hormonal changes that may affect how their dance technique progresses. Yoga can be a place where linear goals are replaced with experiential learning that teaches dancers about their changing bodies while giving them a place to also learn about their minds. Additionally, there can be a lot of pressure on young students to begin deciding if dance is a recreational or professional path. Perri says that the yoga practice can help young performers manage the stresses and trials along the path of a possible dance career.
For dancers of any age, but perhaps especially for experienced veterans, Perri asserts that yoga can also be a way to become re-inspired. Dancers are typically not strangers to difficulty, so the yoga practice can feed their love of challenge. In a Vinyasa class dancers can find real enjoyment and comfort in the connected movement from posture to posture, not unlike a dance sequence. The lessons in mindfulness and observation can directly translate to a dancer’s experience on the stage and open up a new awareness of performing. At any point in a performing career, professional or otherwise, yoga can feed and care for the total artist.
Perri says, “Yoga can awaken you if you’ve felt bored. You become curious about digging in. It can be this playground you can always come back to that is endlessly fascinating.”