A Newbie's Guide to Release Technique
"Imagine your bones spilling across the floor like water."
"Your body is buoyant, afloat atop an airy cushion."
"Think of the skull and torso as two vast spaces filled with soft light."
Imagery and metaphors like these are staples in a collection of styles generally called release technique. They help dancers find new ways to initiate movement, leading to endless possibilities in choreography, improvisation, and improving technique. There's no one way to release, nor is there one person to credit for this approach to movement. Rather, a whole range of 20th-century modern dance techniques and somatic practices have brought release into relief.
The Roots of Release
The word "release" has been used in dance for quite some time. In fact, the mother of modern dance, Martha Graham, recognized the power of release by making the contraction—a two-part process of contracting and releasing the core—the foundation of her style.
Graham wasn't the only modern master to focus on release. Some say the floating, fluid technique created by Erick Hawkins (the first male in Graham's company) is the precursor to release techniques. José Limón's technique, based on Doris Humphrey's notion of fall and recovery, dynamically releases weight into each movement. And Trisha Brown's dancing has often been described as release-based—though she rejected the term, saying instead that her dancing was "the line of least resistance."
In the 1960s, movement artists began exploring release to open up new approaches to dance. Joan Skinner called her approach "Skinner Releasing Technique"; Marsha Paludan's was "Anatomical Release Technique"; and Lulu Sweigard and Barbara Clark developed "Ideokinesis." Teacher and choreographer Mary Fulkerson defined
release technique as "a body/mind integrative technique through which engagement with imagery enhances and inspires imaginative responses and bodily movement."
Skinner Releasing Technique
Skinner Releasing Technique (SRT)—developed in the early '60s by Joan Skinner, a dancer for Graham and Merce Cunningham—is one of the most practiced release techniques worldwide today. Lizzy Le Quesne, an SRT facilitator in the UK and internationally, says Skinner's practice offers dancers awareness of deep, unconscious holding patterns. Dancers of all styles can benefit from studying SRT because it elaborates on fundamental principles of dance, including suspension, alignment, economy and efficiency, sustainable breath and energy, spontaneity, suppleness, balance, grounding, and dynamic stillness.
"Imagery is crucial for transformation," says Stephanie Skura, a dance practitioner and choreographer who's led SRT trainings and teacher certifications. "Our senses feel the image, and for a time, we are free."
While observers of an SRT class might see bodies in stillness on the floor, that doesn't mean dancers are relaxed or napping. Rather, they're going deep into layers of consciousness beneath the waking state to release new ways of moving. In an SRT class, students lie on the floor to quiet the mind and enter deep states in which senses are open and learning is enhanced.
Lionel Popkin, choreographer and chair of the World Arts and Cultures/Dance Department at UCLA, says responses to the instructor's guidance vary by dancer. "Individual creativity is emphasized over mimicry of a shape. In some ways, people who aren't familiar think SRT looks like improvisation class."
Through detailed, hands-on partner exercises and vigorous, technically demanding movement explorations, "people find themselves doing things entirely new for them, or they didn't think they were capable of, moving with an ease they didn't think possible," Skura says. Through training in SRT, "you let go of habitual ways of thinking in order to let something new happen."
It's beneficial for dancers to study a number of release techniques and experience how the information interacts. "These techniques expand possibilities, letting you investigate how your body exists in space," Popkin says.
A version of this story appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of Dance Spirit with the title "Demystifying Release Technique."