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  • Anna Mayer, MA, R-DMT

Stress Can Serve You: Lessons from Dance

As a dancer, I see no separation between dance and life. All that is true in dance is true, in its own way, in life. Some of the most important lessons I've learned as a human have come from my training and practice in dance.

Luckily, you don't have to be a dancer to use these lessons to live a more fulfilled, joyful life!

Let me fill you in on a life lesson I learned from dance lately:

An engaged, ever-shifting balance of tension and relaxation is key for fluid, powerful movement.

Here's the translation for everyday life:

Sometimes stress actually serves us in moving toward our growth, when stress is used in the needed time and needed amount – the key lies in being able to relax fully when the stress isn't needed anymore.

Last weekend, I attended a contact improvisation class here in Boulder, CO – it's a well-established, beautiful form I don't do often, and in which I've have had only a little training. When I arrived, I had the divine fortune to immediately partner with a man who has over 20 years' experience in contact improv, and was more than happy to share his wisdom with me as we danced.

(Another lesson learned from dance: look for teachers everywhere. But that's a post for another time.)

two people doing contact improvisation

dancers: Alicia Grayson and Steven Homsher | photography © J. Akiyama,

As our arms, held aloft, touched at the wrists, he asked me, "Do you feel how much tone," (meaning tension) "you're holding in your arm?" I did. I was stressed from life's demands, I was nervous to be dancing with someone new, I was in a new setting with a lot of strangers... and my body reflected that held tension without my even realizing it. Until he called it to my attention.

Next, he asked me the crucial question, "how much tone do you need in this moment?"

How much tone, tension, or stress was actually serving me in that moment? How much effort did I need to make to hold my arm aloft, and still stay in contact with him?

It turns out, I didn't need nearly as much tension as I was holding. And holding that tension was preventing me from a dance full of ease and connection.

As we kept dancing, he went on, "you can turn your tone on and off when it's needed, like this," and suddenly contracted his muscles and pushed into my hand, sending me half-flying, half-running backwards. When I got my feet under me again, he was standing there smiling, just as relaxed as he had been several moments before.

Tone, tension, stress – it's incredibly powerful and useful, when applied intentionally.

The problem is, we can get stuck in a holding pattern of too much stress, and we go rigid – achingly tense inside and out, unable to move out of that state when it's no longer needed.

This is where we get into the world of stress-relief, ways to lower anxiety, radical self-care... all wonderful things, which plenty of folks have written about very eloquently. I won't be doing that here, but do want to note briefly:

If you find yourself continually stuck in the stress mode, to the point where your body and brain don't even recognize you're holding unnecessary tension (like I was, in the beginning of our dance), therapy could be helpful. There are some amazing somatic (body-based) approaches to help you move from too-stressed to an engaged, balanced state, and I would be happy to guide you in them.

On the flip side, there's the possibility of too much relaxation. (I know what some of you are thinking – too much relaxation?! Sign me up...)

Some people, in an effort to tame the tension monster, try to chase a relaxed state all the time. Trouble is, without the dynamic engagement that healthy stress can bring, we just end up in a state of collapse – checked out, passive, detached and disengaged from the things that are most meaningful to us.

Our pursuit of relaxation can be harmful, when out of balance, as it turns into escapism. It might look a lot of different ways: avoiding what needs to be done or said, making excuses for not pursuing what's meaningful to you, 'checking out' through distraction rather than enduring the discomfort of stress, problematic substance use... only you know what form this overly-relaxed collapse takes in your life.

In contact improv, and other partnering forms, this looks like a very floppy partner – a 'wet noodle', if you will, with very little support from their own body, and little to no muscular 'push-back' against their partner. This isn't a very fun partner to dance with (though, of course, neither is one that is unyieldingly rigid).

In contact improv, the engaged balance between as-needed muscle tone and relaxed release creates a dynamic, resilient, flowing dance between partners. And suddenly, the dance becomes a lot more interesting and enjoyable.

In each of our lives, this engaged balance between stress and relaxation is the sweet spot. This is the space between being 'on' and unwinding. This is the balanced interplay between our sympathetic (fight or flight) and our parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous systems, which (as I teach my couples & sex therapy clients) is also the space where pleasure and orgasm most readily arise. In short, it's the place to be.

This life lesson from dance has two sides to consider: Do you tend towards over-pushing constantly? Or do you tend to collapse and detach?

Engage in your life with tone – use stress, as needed, to serve a meaningful purpose.

Where in your life can you intentionally engage, with a sense of 'push'? What pursuits and values are important to you? And how can you channel the needed tone to cultivate these areas? Where and when is this 'push' energy most usefully spent?

Release held tension when it's not needed – when you can be at ease, be fully at ease.

Are you aware of your held tension? Or is it so constant that you've become numb to it? Check in with your jaw, face, neck, shoulders, and stomach – are they braced or clenched? When you're unwinding at the end of the day or between to-dos, do you truly rest into a restorative activity, or is your mind and body still in a half-clenched state? When the time comes to relax, how can you relax and nourish yourself most fully? How can you find small micro-moments throughout the day, in between pushing toward your goals, to release?

Ever heard that expression 'work hard, play hard'? I'm shifting it a bit:

Push hard, Relax fully. Repeat.

With love,


image of the author

Anna Mayer, MA, R-DMT, is a body-based counselor and dance/movement therapist based in Boulder, CO. She offers individual sessions, embodied couples therapy, and dance/movement DBT skills.

If you would like more support in finding this balance – if you're either wanting to engage more purposefully in your life, or if you need support to move out of constant stress and to relax more fully – I would be honored to guide you in that exploration. Please feel free to contact me for a no-charge, 20-minute consultation.


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