Resistance is information

Published 22. November 2016.

Resistance is information.”

I said this during a class I was leading, applying martial arts concepts to dance improvisation. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but the leader of the group brought it to my attention the next time we met; the concept had resonated with her. Her mention of the phrase’s particular usefulness got me pondering it more.

Resistance is a feeling or sensation that is often seen as negative, and something to avoid at all costs. Having someone resist our ideas is frustrating; fighting against an opponent’s strength without success or feeling our partner actively resist a movement we're suggesting in a dance can be even more so.

But what I've learned from the martial arts is that resistance can be—and is perhaps always—useful and good. Resistance gives us tactile information about where the other person is. The more resistance and tension I feel through my sparring partner's body in a given moment, the surer I can be of where they are now and where they are likely to move next. I can instinctively feel the areas they’re taking special care to hold strong, which in turn allows me to feel weaknesses elsewhere.

The dangerous opponents are the ones who are relaxed. Testing their structure yields no resistance, so you have a more difficult time determining where they are, and where they will move. They are fluid, ready to shift and give ground as you attack and then to surge back with their own offensive move without warning. In the martial arts, where you want to trick or otherwise limit your opponent's ability to predict your next move, any resistance will telegraph your intentions about your own movement and your fears. Relaxation, by contrast, makes you opaque and difficult to read.

In dance—perhaps in any cooperative endeavor—resistance behaves in reverse. Resistance creates structure and a clarity of direction. If I'm sending tension into my palms and my partner is pushing back, any shift in direction or pressure is clearly communicated so that the other can respond. If one of us is too loose, that same signal is lost or delayed. Resistance here gives us the confidence to follow each other and take the risk of sacrificing our individual centers of gravity to the one shared between us.

Of course, the challenge in either case is that there's an ideal level of tension at any given moment, and that ideal level shifts depending upon the situation at hand. A complete lack of tension would have us in a heap on the floor, unable to move, while too much resistance makes us into unstable pillars, unable to move as well, but easy to topple. In a sparring session, you've got to be relaxed enough to conserve energy and remain difficult to read, yet you do sometimes need to resist in order to return to a space where you can relax. In dance, resistance as a source of structure is useful for weight sharing, but too much structure turns to stiffness and limits the creative avenues. A more balanced structure to the communication opens up opportunities for slow or fine movements to reveal themselves through a gentle suggestion from a change in angle and pressure from connected hands or shoulders, or even from the intent broadcast through gaze and body language.

With practice, we can take the principles of balancing resistance and relaxation from the dojo or studio into other situations, recognizing that resistance will give us information to clarify where we stand and help decide our next move.