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Discovering Release Technique: A guide to fluidity, momentum, and effortless movement

Updated: Nov 16, 2023


Photo from a release technique dance class, showing dancers doing floor work
Release technique at Move Through Life (now Dragonfly Dance). Photo by Cat Leonard.

Release Technique is a sub-branch of the broader genre of contemporary and modern dance. Release Technique has an emphasis on fluidity, efficiency, somatic awareness, and attention to breath and relaxation. If you are in a contemporary dance class and it has not be labelled as a specific technique, such as Cunningham, Graham, or Limon, there is a very good chance you are doing Release Technique.


The style of movement in a Release Technique class feels wonderful for the dancer, and can look effortless to the audience. In this post, we'll explore the characteristics, its appeal to dancers, and history.


Why dancers love Release Technique


Dancers love the release technique for several reasons. First and foremost, the technique allows them to move more freely and organically, exploring movement in a more authentic and personal way.


Additionally, the emphasis on somatic awareness and breath can help dancers develop a deeper understanding of their bodies and how they move, leading to greater technical proficiency and injury prevention.


The release technique also encourages dancers to let go of any unnecessary tension in their bodies, which can be especially beneficial for dancers who have suffered injuries or experience chronic pain


Additionally, dancers love the release technique for its emphasis on breath and mindfulness. The technique encourages dancers to connect their movements with their breath, which can help them to become more present and focused in their dancing. The release technique also encourages dancers to be more mindful of their movements and to explore


Finally, the release technique can be a great way to cultivate creativity and experimentation, as it encourages dancers to explore new movement possibilities and find their own unique movement style.


Example of a Release Technique Class by Lorenzo Koppenaal


Characteristics of Release Technique


At its core, Release Technique is about releasing tension and using the body's natural momentum and weight to initiate movement. Unlike other techniques that emphasise muscular control and tension, the release technique encourages a more holistic approach to movement, using breath and visualisation to facilitate efficient and fluid motion. Training in Release Technique encourages dancers to move with ease, fluidity, and freedom, and allows for greater expression and creativity in their movement.


In release technique, movement is initiated from the core, with the spine serving as the primary mover.


Some key characteristics of the release technique include grounding, floor work, breath, somatic awareness, use of momentum, dynamic range, and a focus on alignment. Let’s explore each of these in more detail.


Grounding


Grounding refers to the physical and emotional connection that a dancer has with the ground beneath them. It helps dancers to find stability, support, and ease in their movement. It is achieved through a combination of physical and mental processes.


Physical grounding


Physically, grounding involves creating a stable base of support through the feet and legs, allowing the weight of the body to sink down into the ground. This is often achieved through exercises that focus on alignment, such as standing balances, pliés, and footwork. Dancers are encouraged to connect with the floor and use its support to facilitate movement from the feet up.


Mental grounding


Mentally, grounding involves cultivating a sense of awareness and presence in the body, connecting with the physical sensations of weight, pressure, and energy. Dancers are encouraged to let go of distracting thoughts or emotions, and to focus their attention on the present moment, allowing them to connect more deeply with the movement and the space around them.


Effect of grounding


When a dancer is grounded, they are able to move with greater ease, fluidity, and control, as they are able to draw strength and stability from the ground beneath them. Grounding also helps to create a sense of balance and centering, allowing dancers to maintain their alignment and avoid injury.


How grounding is practised


In Release Technique, grounding is often practiced through a series of exercises and movement sequences that focus on connecting with the ground and developing a sense of stability and support. For example, dancers may work on exercises that involve rolling and spiraling movements on the floor, or standing balances that require them to maintain a stable base of support through the feet and legs.


Grounding and improvisation


Grounding is also an important aspect of improvisation and composition in Release Technique. In improvisational scores, dancers may be asked to explore different qualities of movement, such as lightness, heaviness, or fluidity, while maintaining a sense of grounding and connection to the ground. In composition, dancers may use grounding as a starting point for creating movement phrases or sequences, building from a stable base of support and using the principles of Release Technique to create dynamic and expressive movement.


Floor work


Release Technique includes a lot of work on the floor, with dancers often using rolling and spiraling movements to transition between different positions.


The technique encourages dancers to explore movement on the floor, using the ground as a way to support and enhance their movements. This allows dancers to move more fluidly and freely, exploring movement in a more grounded and organic way. The emphasis on floor work in Release Technique contributed to the developing of the Flying Low technique.


Breath


In Release Technique, the use of breath is a fundamental aspect of the movement practice. The technique emphasises the importance of conscious and controlled breathing as a means of initiating and supporting movement, as well as a tool for connecting the body and mind.


Purpose of using breath


One of the main goals of using breath in Release Technique is to encourage a deep connection between the breath and the movement. By using the breath to initiate movement, dancers can create a sense of flow and continuity in their movement, as well as a sense of ease and effortlessness. In Release Technique classes, dancers may start with exercises that focus on the breath, such as breathing exercises, vocalization, or chanting, to help them connect more fully with their breath and establish a foundation for their movement practice.


Breath and movement


As dancers begin to move, they continue to use their breath to support and guide their movement. For example, inhaling can be used to expand the body and prepare for movement, while exhaling can be used to release tension and initiate movement. By using the breath in this way, dancers can create a sense of connection between their bodies, their breath, and the space around them.


Breath and somatic awareness


The use of breath in Release Technique is also closely tied to the concept of somatic awareness. As dancers become more attuned to their breath, they also become more aware of their bodies and the sensations they are experiencing. This heightened awareness can help dancers to identify areas of tension or restriction in their bodies and to release these areas through the use of breath and movement. As a result, the use of breath can help to promote physical relaxation and release, as well as a sense of mental clarity and focus.


Breath and emotion


Another important aspect of the use of breath in Release Technique is its connection to emotion and expression. By using the breath to connect with their emotions, dancers can create movement that is expressive, authentic, and deeply felt. The use of breath can help dancers to access and express a wide range of emotions, from joy and excitement to sadness and grief. By connecting their breath to their emotional states, dancers can create movement that is not only technically proficient but also deeply meaningful and personal.


Breath and mindfulness


In addition to these benefits, the use of breath in Release Technique can also help dancers to develop a greater sense of presence and mindfulness in their movement practice. By focusing on the breath and the sensations in their bodies, dancers can become more fully present in the moment and more attuned to the space around them. This sense of presence and mindfulness can help dancers to perform with greater clarity, focus, and intention.


Somatic awareness


Somatic awareness refers to a heightened awareness of the body and its sensations, both internally and externally. This awareness is essential to the practice of Release Technique because it allows dancers to explore movement with greater depth and sensitivity, and to cultivate a more embodied and authentic approach to dance.


According to Mary Fulkerson, one of the pioneers of Release Technique, somatic awareness involves "paying attention to the felt sense of the body" and becoming more attuned to the subtle sensations and movements that occur within it (Fulkerson, 2011, p. 53). This involves not just a physical awareness of the body, but also a mental and emotional awareness of the thoughts, feelings, and experiences that are associated with movement.


Developing somatic awareness


In Release Technique classes, dancers may use a variety of somatic practices to develop their somatic awareness, such as body scans, guided meditations, and other exercises that encourage them to focus on the sensations of their bodies. These practices can help dancers to develop a deeper understanding of their bodies and how they move, and to connect more fully with their physical, mental, and emotional selves.


Somatic awareness is also closely tied to the use of breath in Release Technique. As Barbara Mahler, another pioneer of the technique, notes, "the breath is the vehicle that carries the somatic experience" (Mahler, 2014, p. 31). By using the breath as a tool to connect with the body, dancers can deepen their somatic awareness and create a more integrated and expressive approach to movement.


Personal growth and awareness


In addition to its practical applications in dance training, somatic awareness is also seen as a valuable tool for personal growth and self-awareness. By developing a more nuanced and embodied awareness of the body, dancers can gain a deeper understanding of their own thoughts, feelings, and experiences, and use this knowledge to inform their creative work and personal lives.


By cultivating a deeper awareness of the body and its sensations, dancers can create movement that is more expressive, dynamic, and meaningful, and develop a deeper connection to their physical, mental, and emotional selves.


Use of weight and momentum


Rather than relying on muscular force, the release technique emphasises using the body's weight and momentum to generate movement. The use of weight and momentum is a fundamental principle that is used to create movement that is fluid and expressive. Release technique takes advantage of the effect of gravity on our bones and muscles by allowing the weight of the body to initiate and sustain movement.


Letting go of tension and effort


Dancers in Release Technique classes learn to let go of tension and effort in their bodies, and to use the weight of their bodies to create movement that is both powerful and effortless. By allowing the body to respond to the pull of gravity, dancers are able to create movement that is grounded and rooted, while also being dynamic and fluid.


Shifting weight


Another way that dancers in Release Technique classes use weight is by shifting their weight from one foot to the other. By shifting weight, dancers are able to create a sense of flow and continuity in their movement, while also using the weight of their bodies to initiate and sustain movement sequences. This results in movement that is fluid and organic.


Weight and momentum


In addition to the use of weight, dancers in Release Technique classes also use momentum to create movement that is dynamic and expressive. Dancers in Release Technique classes may work on exercises that allow them to build momentum gradually, using the weight of their bodies to create a sense of flow and continuity in their movement. One way dancers might harness the power of momentum is by using the body's natural spiraling motion.


By letting go of tension and effort, and allowing the weight of their bodies to initiate and sustain movement, dancers are able to create movement that is both powerful and effortless.


Dynamic range


Dynamic range refers to the ability of a dancer to move fluidly and effortlessly between different levels of energy, intensity, and emotion in their movement. This concept is closely tied to the use of breath, weight, and momentum in movement, and it is an essential aspect of creating expressive and dynamic performances.


Exploring dynamic range


Exploring dynamic range helps a dancer move effortlessly from soft to loud, fast to slow, tense to relaxed, and emotional to neutral, according to Mary Fulkerson. It is similar to dynamics in music, which refers to the volume and intensity of a musical performance, and it emphasizes the importance of creating contrast and variation in movement to keep performances interesting and engaging.


Dynamic range and breath


Breath is a big part of developing dynamic range in movement, as Barbara Mahler outlines in her book "The Creative Companion: How to Free Your Creative Spirit."


"The breath can help to expand the body's dynamic range... Breath can help to create dynamic, multi-dimensional movement by expanding the physical, emotional, and spiritual qualities of our dancing" (Mahler, 2005, p. 15).


By using the breath to connect with different levels of energy and emotion, dancers are able to create movement that is rich and varied, with a wide range of expression and intensity.


In addition to physical exercises, Release Technique also points to the importance of mental and emotional preparation in developing dynamic range in movement. Dancers may work on mindfulness exercises, meditation, and visualisation techniques to help them connect with their emotions and develop a deeper understanding of their own inner lives. By developing this awareness, they are able to bring a greater sense of depth and authenticity to their performances, and to create movement that is truly expressive and engaging.


Focus on alignment


Release Technique stresses the importance of ‘proper’ alignment and posture, with a particular focus on the relationship between the pelvis, spine, and legs. By maintaining correct alignment, dancers can move more efficiently and with greater ease.


Alignment in Release Technique


In Release Technique, alignment refers to the positioning of the body in space, with an emphasis on maintaining a neutral spine, relaxed shoulders, and engaged core. This alignment means the body is positioned in a way that facilitates efficient, expressive, and injury free movement. The spine is in a ‘neutral’ position (with its three natural curves), the weight is distributed evenly throughout the body, and there is no unnecessary tension or effort. The bones are ‘stacked’ on top of each other in a way that works with gravity, rather than relying on muscular tension to maintain it’s position.


Alignment and energy flow


Proper alignment facilitates the natural flow of energy through the body. It supports the use of weight and momentum, because weight can be used efficiently and without strain. The result is movement that feels both natural and effortless.


*


In conclusion, the release technique is a contemporary dance technique that emphasizes fluidity, efficiency, and somatic awareness. It was developed in the 1970s by Joan Skinner and draws on influences from yoga, tai chi, and modern dance. Key characteristics include grounding, breath, somatic awareness, use of weight and momentum, and dynamic range. While the release technique fits within the realm of contemporary dance technique, it is by no means the only or dominant approach to the genre. Dancers are drawn to the release technique for its liberating and expressive qualities, as well as its emphasis on somatic awareness and creativity.

References

Forti, S. (1995). Handbook in motion. Nova Scotia: Press of Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.


Fulkerson, M. (2008). A Choreographic Mind: Autobodygraphical Writings. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.


Fulkerson, M. (1996). Effortless Mastery: Liberating the Master Musician Within. Hal Leonard Corporation.


Fulkerson, M. (2002). Dancing with nature: A somatic approach to contemporary dance education. Journal of Dance Education, 2(2), 52-57.


Fulkerson, M. (2011). Somatic awareness in Release Technique. Journal of Dance Education, 11(2), 52-58.


Hanna, T. (1988). Somatics: Reawakening the mind's control of movement, flexibility, and health. Da Capo Press.


Laban, R., & Lawrence, F. C. (1974). Effort: Economy of human movement. Macdonald and Evans.


Lepkoff, B. (2006). The nature of release technique. Contact Quarterly, 31(2), 16-22.


Levy, J. (1995). In the spirit of inquiry: Learning and teaching improvisation in dance. Congress on Research in Dance.


Mahler, B. (2008). Release Technique: A Conversation. Dance Research Journal, 40(1), 42-46.


Mahler, B. (2005). The Creative Companion: How to Free Your Creative Spirit. Dance Horizons.


Mahler, B. (2008). The principles of release technique. Dance Spirit Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.dancespirit.com/the-principles-of-release-technique-2326212485.html


Mahler, B. (2014). The role of breath in Release Technique. Journal of Dance Education, 14(1), 30-35.


Schnabel, A. (2019). Choreographic practices for grounding and embodiment. Dance Research Journal, 51(3), 82-97.


Skinner, J. (1999). Release Technique. Dance Research Journal, 31(1), 14-19.


Skinner, J. (2008). The origins and evolution of release technique. Dance Research Journal, 40(2), 31-47.


 

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