Get Your Oxytocin!

Ever heard of the “cuddle chemical” AKA the “trust hormone?” Nature’s gift to new mothers, particularly when it seems that deep, unbroken sleep will never come again, the hormone oxytocin issues from the pituitary gland and does its part to ensure birth, breastfeeding and the ultimate survival of the species. Warm, positive feelings of connection and happiness accompany an oxytocin hit. It also plays a part in romantic/sexual bonding, delivering feelings of contentment, trust, security and reduced anxiety when with a mate. Not least of all, oxytocin plays a role in social bonding with a group, with interactions and formation of trust. Lacking proper receptors in the body for oxytocin has been linked to serious aggression. And, researchers are finding some promise in using synthetic oxytocin to help patients with autism and severe social phobia.

You don’t have to parent or mate or get a prescription to enjoy oxytocin’s feel-good benefits. Simple touch triggers low level releases of oxytocin. A handshake, a hug, a pat on Spot’s head– they all do it. And, quite logically, so does partner dancing! Since a lesson usually lasts about an hour and social dancing could go on even longer at a studio party, private event or nightclub, you can get a steady stream of the good stuff. Just by putting on your dancing shoes and being patient with yourself and friendly with others.

Most adults spend a huge amount of time working in litigious No-Touchy zones. Older adults and empty nesters may spend even more hours of the day and night touch deprived. In these odd Digital Days, even the young, who once spent happy hours in rough-n-tumble play early on and then continued to cement bonds with organized dances each weekend, now spend countless minutes hunched over phones and keyboards. Is it any wonder that their few dance-related events, such as prom, resemble clothed orgies more than safe places to enjoy social touch, warm friendships and the gentle budding of romance? High tech is killing high touch. But it doesn’t have to be that way!

The ballroom awaits! There truly is a dance to suit every personality. The torrid tango, the romantic rumba, the elegant waltz, the playful swing dances and many more. That said, you don’t have to feel romantic to rumba or torrid to tango. Simply enjoy the element of “pretend” missing from work and domestic responsibilities. The rudiments of the most common dances (waltz, foxtrot, tango, rumba, swing and cha cha) can be learned with just a bit of patience and persistence. Group lessons are usually a steal, compared to other venues for entertainment and exercise. My metro area, a mid-sized city, offers group classes and socials that range from $8 to $14. Try getting popcorn and a movie for that amount!

The relaxing, happy hormone will float you along, without undue effort on your part. Perhaps because men aren’t as aware of the automatic release of calm and happiness to be found on the dance floor, there are usually more women than men in classes and at socials. The beauty of the studio scene, however, is that Wallflowers Are Not Allowed. Everyone dances. Most classes work on a rotation basis, so you don’t have to bring a partner. A few times, you may be repeating your steps alone, but not for long, as you change places down the line of partners. Even at socials, there is a charming, unspoken etiquette that you don’t dance only with the one who brought ya. Rarely will you encounter a pair who refuse to dance with others. Perhaps they fear the joys of friendly touch and believe it’s reserved only for special partnerships. They are missing out! Equally rare is the predatory social dancer who comes in with ulterior motives, risqué remarks and wandering hands. The tribe — and especially its leaders, the studio staff– will not tolerate that. Off the island!

Now, if you want to increase your skill, hone your technique or get into competing, yes, you can feel some stress in the studio. Oxytocin mitigates that, too. Pity the poor soloist or corps member in other dance forms who performs under pressure without the reassurance of touch from another dancer.

So many people tell me they wish they could dance or had danced or wish they had time to dance. The joys of social dances have not left the collective consciousness yet!

If you’re a firm believe in stellar ROI (return on investment), going dancing makes even more sense. What you could get from partner dancing: Fun, physical exercise, stress relief, anxiety relief, conversation, brain exercise, emotional expression, entertainment, weight control or loss. What partner dancing mitigates or outright cures: Loneliness, boredom, sadness, excessive solitude, disconnection, anxiety, lack of fitness, lack of confidence. Among private lessons, group lessons, dance socials and competitive dance, there is a dance prescription for every person. It’s just what the doctor ordered!

You do not have to bring a partner to most dance studio classes and events. The beauty of it is that students change partners frequently so no one is ever left out or excluded. Oxytocin for all!

You do not have to bring a partner to most dance studio classes and events. The beauty of it is that students change partners frequently so no one is ever left out or excluded. Oxytocin for all!

Can We All Get Along?

Oh, “As the Ballroom Turns” be getting juicy!

Here are the main players in competitive ballroom in the US, for newbies: USADance is a nationwide organization that promotes ballroom for all, from social dancers to dancesport athletes, and it runs an extensive circuit of amateur ballroom competitions. “Amateur” AKA student-student/amateur-amateur couples. It’s popular, respected, and the fees to participate are very approachable for a middle-class budget. While serious amateur couples run up costs for teachers and special coaching and costumes and travel, competition entry fees are not terribly high and you aren’t having to pay a professional per dance to be on the floor with you.

NDCA, National Dance Council of America, is the primary organization for pro competition in the US and for “pro-am” AKA student-teacher couples. (NDCA does run amateur couple heats in its competitions but they are usually very scarcely populated. Scarce as in one couple per heat. The entry fees cannot compare to those at USADance and it shows.) Overall, the naked truth is that there are so many more women than men in competitive ballroom that it’s DANGED hard to find an amateur partner. Last time I looked at the roster of pro-am competitors in the US, there were over 3000 amateur women compared to only 300 amateur men. This lines up pretty accurately with the female: male ratio you’ll find in the average ballroom studio’s social dance party night, 10 to 1. So, pro-am can be a godsend for the professional and the amateur. One male pro can dance many female students in a given comp, so more women have the opportunity to dance. It can be very hard to make a good living in dance, so pro-am, with its competition fee system, is good for the pro’s earnings, too. However, the pro-am circuit is expensive for the students. Very!

These separate systems are now shaking and quaking with earthquakes of territorialism that have been reverberating for a few years. From what I can glean, at the center of contention has been the projected transformation of competitive ballroom or dancesport into an Olympic event. When the Olympics were clearly for amateurs, things were simpler. Amateurs over here. Professionals over there. Now, with Olympians being drawn from professional sports teams — basketball, anyone?– things are not so clearcut. Groups that used to be just about volunteers and amateurs or “hobbyists” (said in whatever tone of voice you prefer) now can involve pros without fear of cutting off access to the Olympian dream. And, groups that used to center around the pros and the making of money by dance professionals can feel acutely the potential shift of power and money and status. The urge not to let that shift happen might feel like survival of the fittest. Definitions of art versus sport are bandied about. Sports have an easier time receiving government funding and other sponsorship. Art possesses an elevated, unquantifiable status. In the world of hybrid artistic-sports, for instance gymnastics or ice skating, judges follow a strict set of judging guidelines and bias controls aimed at keeping the system fair — such as discarding high and low scores from a panel. In the world of dance as ART, a number 1 ranking in a competitive heat is a number 1 ranking because the judge said so. The. Judge. Said. So. Period.

Recently NDCA forbade its judges from participating in USADance events. Judges, all former champions, lend prestige and validation to competitive events. Not incidentally, they are paid to be there and share their hard-earned knowledge. And, while there, they network extensively with dancers and dance teachers with whom they may later do paid coaching. Ohhhhhhh! Ouch! Who took one in the breadbasket? Today, USADance announced it will allow a student-teacher (pro-am) division. Ahhhh! Touche! Is that a knick slashing through your bronzer? This surely will be good for students, the consumers who have been caught in a near monopoly situation where you pay what they ask in NDCA pro-am or don’t play at all. (Assuming USADance keeps its historically lower fees for its pro-am division.) Will lower comp fees hurt the pros? Maybe initially, but as this new pro-am arena allows a wider swathe of students to participate, pro-am earning options for the teachers could actually increase exponentially.

As in other soap operas, could a kind of Love Child spring from this wild relationship between competing organizations? Picture a future, darling dance organization that promotes the success of all dancers and all kinds of dance businesses, including– don’t get me started– same-sex dance competitions, which now thrive in a small but glam wilderness apart from the mainstream. I’ve read that there used to be so many “governing bodies” for boxing that there were once nine World Champions at the same time. If the Fathers of Fisticuffs can learn to get along, surely the Devotees of Dance have a chance, too?

The Work: Increasing Flexibility

One dear BFF calls me “Gumby” and it ain’t because I’m green or own a horse named Pokey! While I’m naturally bendy, especially in hips and low back and legs, even I have suffered negative stiffening and weakening from many hours a day spent sitting at a keyboard or thumb-typing on my iPhone. Training to teach yoga over the past 15 months really helped counteract that. (Before, my yoga practice was sporadic at best and I primarily stretched with old gym-style classics.) Chest-openers, forward bends,  backbends and spinal twists in yoga help keep the upper body relatively free-moving and supple. Not to mention significantly strengthening the body. Downward-facing Dogs that went on and on really challenged me not all that long ago, but my shoulder girdle never complains any more. I also credit yoga with major advances in core strength. But, not to wander too astray with all the bennies… we’re talking flexibility.

Today, my ballroom teacher, Ian, remarked in my private lesson how extremely flexible pro dancer Edita Daniute’s upper back is. We have been working to maximize my natural flexibility in big lines and it’s very gratifying and exciting — a new avenue of expression. Observing Edita’s flexibility, I can see hers really is at another level. The suppleness as she moves through changes of shape and direction leaves me in awe. As I tell my yoga students, there is a range of development for anyone’s flexibility and a lot of it is down to genetics such as your individual skeletal structure. Most people live within a fraction of their range and can increase it with time and practice. As for me, my range is relatively big. Can it get even bigger? I’m betting it can!

Mr. Google helped me out today in hunting down stretches for the upper body in general and ones specific to the upper back. As do so very many people, I store tension in upper trapezoids and scalenes and jaw. Tension AKA stressed-out rigidity is the enemy of beautiful dancing. (“Dynamic tension” is a horse of a different color.)  I will continue to enhance my flexibility with regular yoga practice, but I’ll be adding some all-new and old-friend stretches to the mix as well in an effort to find the outer edge of my range of motion for upper spine.

From a ballet blog, here’s a handy checklist of muscles to work on for back strengthening and flexibility: Low back extensors; Lumbar rotators and hip abductors; Lumbar lateral flexors: Hip adductors: Hip rotators: Hip flexors: Hamstrings.

Here are some exercises/stretches that may prove useful. If you have any additional ones to suggest, please do comment. I’d love to learn from other dancers’ experience, too!

Going to experiment with these from Dragon Door: http://pccblog.dragondoor.com/get-stronger-improving-back-flexibility/

And, this from a sports med group: http://www.nismat.org/services/orthopedic-surgery/therapeutic-exercise-programs/upper-extremity-and-neck-flexibility-program

FYI for readers, this orthopedic page contains many moves found in a yoga class, too: http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=A00666&grpwebid=20D9E1

I promise to deliver BEFORE and AFTER photos of my flexibility changes.

For inspiration, here is video of the aforementioned, amazing Edita Daniute, one of my favorite Standard dancers, with her partner, Mirko Gozzoli.

What A Feeling!

Fourth-wave feminism rippled, rolled and crested in an auditorium packed with 800 women experiencing a weekend conference equal parts sisterhood, laws of attraction and self-liberation. Mama Gena’s School of Womanly Arts. You kinda have to see it to believe it. And, a lot of what goes on is confidential, as we dig deep, searching for understanding, expression and connection. One of the many shining moments for me individually exploded like a supernova when we “danced our rage.”

Women’s anger unsettles people — perhaps especially themselves. Often, it just gets bottled up, rather than receiving a righteous release that one can move past. In short: Feel it to heal it.

In dance, we move to express, to connect, to be fully in our bodies. We spend hour after hour in fierce discipline, building muscle memory, learning to move efficiently, perfecting dozens of aspects of technique from which square inch of which part of your foot is pushing against the floor to how light is your connection to your partner to how sexy is your look, is it goofy or compelling? On top of that, feelings fully expressed comprise the individuality that, I have heard many times, are what separate a principle dancer from a corps member, a world champion from an also-ran, a superstar from a back-up dancer.

What my dancing has always lacked is truly powerful expressiveness. Some of that is the confines of how ballroom is taught to amateurs who dance in pro-am, I believe. And, many times, in my head, I grumbled, “He won’t let me dance the way I want to dance!” Oh, no, no, no, no, no, darlings. The dance of rage showed me that I won’t let me dance the way I want to dance.

In that moment, during that song, everything broke loose. Releasing anger, old stored-up, rancid rage, I danced more freely, more powerfully, more fully than I have ever danced before. Without feelings– all of them– dance is nothing more than steps and gestures. Thank you, Mama Gena, for bringing me to the threshold of this new world.

Willpower

Anatomy is destiny. Extraordinary height is a prerequisite for playing in the NBA. Unless you’re Spud Webb, 5’7″. Ditto for being a supermodel. Unless you’re Kate Moss, also 5’7″. Besides stature, what do those two share? Ah, easy answer. Unquenchable desire. And, the power to follow through with persistent, determined thought and action. They shaped their own destiny.

Media inundates us with images of unreachable ideals, of perfection. Unless we buy a certain product, then we just might inch closer to someone else’s natural destiny. Blindly accepting external nostrums, however, only weakens attentiveness to the internal compass.

Where do you want to go? What will it take to get there? Whose advice will you heed? Whose will you cast aside? Dozens of possible answers exist. Dozens of realities could be yours for the taking, with willpower, work and some rudimentary ingredients. Become a dancer? Can anyone do it? Yes, at some level. We have a range of potential development that’s highly individual. What fools so many people is that the range is far wider than they can imagine. They get stopped by a contradiction. They get stopped by temporary strain or pain or doubt or ridicule. We have to experiment with what is possible. Be open to a wide variety of answers and directions. The Universe has many ways of saying “yes.” There are no wheelchair ballerinas–as far as I know– but there are wheelchair ballroom dancers. You may never get en pointe if you have a small range of natural turnout in your hips and did not build the proper support musculature from a fairly early age. But, tap shoes are there for the taking. The salsa club is open to all. The Zumba class welcomes you.

Creative visualization. See yourself as a dancer now. And follow through with the action that makes it so. How? Willpower. Easier said than done? Yes. Do it anyway.

Ballerinas Misty Copeland and Misa Kuranaga created a way to their dream. They saw it, believed it and lived it. Before the dream was fully realized for others to see, the dream lived and grew within them. The wonderfully inspiring videos below were indeed developed by clever marketers, for athletic wear and for skin care. All that production value usually doesn’t arise from non-profit ventures. Instead of the usual aspirational “buy this and be this (even if it’s photoshopped and NO ONE actually is this),” there is a more subtle “you can be anything; errrm, you might also want to buy the product made by folks who believe you can be anything you want to be.” I, for one, can overlook the product marketing because I am so grateful for the exposure to the inspiring stories of these two paragons of willpower.

Days 2193 & 2194: The Work

Day 2193, Saturday, January 17, 2015

REST. It’s gotta happen some time!

Day 2194, Sunday, January 18, 2015

*Dance practice: 1 hour. Back around Thanksgiving, I had a try-out session with a potential, amateur competition partner who contacted me from dancepartner.com. It was spellbindingly odd. In a three-hour session, he never truly danced with me. He acted more like he was my coach and I had never danced before — but I had some raw material. Ahem. I should’ve cut the try-out short but I was fascinated to see what would happen next and if we’d actually dance any of the Standard dances or even a song’s worth of a Smooth dance. Nope! Even so, he left me with one “coaching” that really stuck and has helped me not only in dance but also in my running! Most amateurs have been told repeatedly by dance teachers to “stick your butt out” or “keep your hips back.” This guy specified to draw low abs (below navel) in, back and up. And, keep it there. There was a time just a few years back, when I took my first Pilates group class, that I suspected I didn’t even have those muscles! They seemed to have been left out of my Build Your Own Dancer kit. Now, I do a good bit of ab work, so I can access those muscles when I focus intensely. It is completely possible to stick your butt out or push your hips back without using those deep muscles — they just won’t stay back!

Moving fairly straight down line of dance, my low abs will hold, but give me a change of direction or a significant change of height, and a pelvic tilt sneaks in there. At the beginning of our Gold Waltz routine, there’s two beats of drawing up and shaping back for the lady, followed by a one-beat forward step with right foot. Today, I had the idea of practicing that rise and lower with my hips pressed to a wall, hoping to create muscle memory of NO-TILT on the lowering. The backbend makes it more complicated than a regular rise-fall situation. Fingers crossed my little exercise will make a difference! And, thanks across the miles to Mr. Odd Try-Out.

Timing is improving for Gold Tango. Body is memorizing its Perfect Promenade position in the left hip and right ribs.

*Cardio: Running on treadmill. 4 miles. EZ pace. Very EZ. My last race, a half-marathon in late April, I ran a 9:50 pace, my PR. (Not a speed demon. Yet.) So, my EZ pace should be 10:50. But, in my last 3-mile run, 10:50 was very draining and I had to take two water breaks (drinking and walking for about a minute before resuming run pace). Today, I cut back all the way to 11:03 pace and it was comfortable the whole time, running 4 miles. No breaks at all!  Well, it has been many months since I consistently trained my running, and I have gained 3 pounds, so that slowing of pace is pretty predictable. I’ll bring it back up!

*Yoga: 30 minutes. Restorative practice. Legs and hips need special attention with the return to half-marathon training this week.

Days 2191 & 2192: The Work

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When your compress that much arm and leg into the forward position of rowing, it looks pretty darn spidery!

When your compress that much arm and leg into the forward position of rowing, it looks pretty darn spidery!

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DAY 2191 January 15, 2015

Cardio: Indoor Rowing Machine. 25 minutes. 5010 meters or about 3 miles. Around 15-minute mark, I found the GLIDE. I ❤ this feeling. Sometimes I get it on the treadmill, too. Sad to say, have not found this gear yet on road-running. It feels like Buttah!

Yoga: 20 minutes. Short practice at home. Need much, much more.

DAY 2192 January 16, 2015

Dance: 2 hours. Practice alone at DanceSpace. Although I don’t compete in Rhythm, it is fertile ground for teaching, so I almost always warm up with American Rhythm Rumba. Rest of the time reviewing Gold Waltz and Tango routines. Trying to cement Perfect Promenade Position into my left hip.

Cardio: Running on treadmill. 3 miles. Not a great run, really. Poor energy. Maybe dehydrated?

Yoga: 30 minutes. Reviewing Level 4 & 5 practices from my YogaFit teacher training. I spend so much time teaching beginners, I have neglected my own practice. Not surprisingly, given how little weight-training and advanced yoga practice I’ve done, my arm balances aren’t terribly strong.