Dancing into Dressage

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By Katherine McFarland

I am not a flexible person – quite the opposite, in fact. I am not graceful and, sometimes, I forget where my body parts are. I run into things; I trip, fall, smack my face against door frames. My hips lock when mounting, and my legs seize and go numb. Long story short, sometimes I don’t feel like an athlete. Sometimes I don’t even feel like I fit in my own body.

Dressage changed this for me. I discovered that I can be tall and graceful. Riding horses gave me four legs instead of two and, frequently this allows me to move more freely. It is still a struggle for me to allow my body to move instead of lock up, and to use my body in unison with the horse beneath me.

So, when I was offered the chance to take a dance class as part of my school curriculum, I decided to go for it. I thought that maybe dance could help me figure out where to put my feet. I signed up for Dance Technique, a class taught by the wonderful Mrs. Clift , which teaches the basics and fundamentals of modern dance, as well as the more traditional ballet.

Some of the things I discovered while learning to dance seem pretty obvious now, but were almost revolutionary when my eyes were opened to them.

Right off the bat, I realized just how tense I was. Dancers stretch everything because they utilize their entire bodies and must be fluid movers. My muscles, especially my back, are so tight that it was painful to perform certain movements. Simple stretches were nearly impossible. That was when I realized, I never stretch. As a rider, I don’t stretch my legs before I ride. Isn’t that odd? I don’t stretch and loosen by back and neck. No wonder why I have so many back problems. And then, I wondered if I even let my horse stretch. He has even more muscles than I do, and is supporting my weight!

Naturally, some of my dance stretches have no bearing on the horse, but once I focused on my larger muscles I felt the tension leave, and my body felt better. I used to sit very tense and solid, but I slowly felt myself sink deep into my seat and relax my legs down.

Most of our particular dance instruction is focused on our body movement. This means that we focus on movements that come from the body. We have to be strong enough to pull ourselves up into a turn, and move our arms and head to complete the turn. Immediately, we have to be fluid enough in our transitions where the phrase looks effortless and a part of ourselves.

Katherine in Conyers, GA at the Labor Day Dressage Show with Kaitlyn Brittendal and Emma Klevesahl

Does this sound familiar? I would never ride an extended canter without my horse being collected and having enough support from behind. Transitions naturally score better when they are smooth and put together.

When humans leap, roll, and move in general, sometimes we are suspended on our shoulders, our legs, our feet, or our arms. We absolutely have to have enough control through our limbs, backs, and cores to fully support and control our movements. When we fall, it is controlled and relaxed. Applying this to riding, our horses can be suspended on two, even one, leg while performing movements. Riders have to be relaxed and controlled, to channel the energy and shock through ourselves. The horses have to be strong and supported, both by their riders and their own strength.

Recently, our class had the unique opportunity to learn about Gaga movement language. This language of dance focuses on inner movements and gestures, stemmed from feelings and the awareness of the body in space. This style of dance also forbids mirrors.

No mirrors? I’d certainly like to see where my leg is and how awesome my saddle pad looks on my horse. However, there is a method to the madness. Without mirrors, dancers don’t focus on a standardized image; they don’t make their movements planned and rigid. Rather, they focus on how they feel and how they are moving in relation to the space and bodies around them.

In the show arena, we have no mirrors. We have to focus on ourselves in the ring, blocking out any outside sources. Why not practice like this? We are also not on the ground, and we don’t have a trainer yelling at us to correct our circle sizes, and we definitely can’t redo a movement hundreds of times. Keeping this in mind, it revolutionizes training. To truly be aware of yourself and your horse together in the ring is a wonderful feeling.

Finally, dance has taught me to express my inner feelings. Each movement is a part of a larger piece, made to represent and express a feeling or event. To hold back, to not give it your all, makes the phrase look uninteresting and robotic. When your heart is truly in it, the mistakes look like a part of the dance and everything comes together beautifully. We dance because we love it; we ride because we love it. I throw my heart into my riding. I ride with my all, channeling my love and passion into every movement.

Dance has also pushed me to see things differently. We perform improvisational exercises where we move and imagine ourselves in different situations. We dance blind, with our eyes shut for entire routines. We analyze how people move and create movements from nothing. It’s a fantastic experience because we also become very aware of every surface on our bodies. It’s the awareness, feel, and perception of the space around us.

Overall, dance has made me far more aware of myself while riding. Sadly, my grace seems limited to the horse and dance room. However, I now feel lighter and more efficient in the saddle. At the pace of a snail, my muscles seem to be relaxing.

Dance has made me so much more aware of my own body and the body of my horses. The dance room has mirrored the dressage arena and vice versa. I now have a better understanding of space, the importance of strength throughout the body, and the importance of inner expression. I don’t see a future for myself as a dancer, but I do see a future of dressage, with dance influencing my body and understanding. I am excited to continue my dance instruction and even more excited to apply it to my riding.

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