Ignoring Your Body - Part 2

        My previous post, Why Dancers Need to Ignore Their Bodies – Part 1, explained that when dancers focus too much on controlling their bodies, they prevent the body’s automatic, reflexive responses from working. These responses help us to maintain balance and to move efficiently and effectively. When we override these responses by trying to control every single movement we make, we cause our bodies to work twice as hard.

        Researchers have found that by directing attention away from the body and toward an external focus, dancers and other athletes can work more efficiently and effectively while also improving.

        Imagery has been used in dance for a long time. There is the type of imagery that serves as a mental rehearsal of a combination or dance, the type that envisions success on the stage that can reduce performance anxiety, and there is metaphorical imagery that can be used in class and rehearsal to help dancers understand a concept and improve upon technique.

        Metaphorical imagery is the type that provides the dancer with external foci and draws attention away from the body. My last post mentioned increasing jump height and technique by trying to jump higher than something on the wall of the studio, and using a sticker or post-it note to work on turning. Instead of focusing on getting the body to turn in space, dancers should concentrate on the sticker “spotting” the wall or mirror. It is important to note that even when the sticker is removed, the
results should be reproducible.

        Many throughout the years have used metaphorical
imagery. Lulu Swiegard is well-known for the imagery she used to teach proper alignment, and Eric Franklin has published articles and books on the subject of imagery in dance.

        Below are some examples that dancers and educators can begin using in class. These are only a few suggestions, and this list is by no means exhaustive.  If you have any examples of metaphorical imagery that have worked for you or your students, I hope you’ll share them with us in the comments below the post.

Imagine being sucked up through a soda straw – to teach students to lengthen through the back and sides of the torso as well as the front.

Imagine your head floating up like a helium-filled balloon ­– to teach spine lengthening and alignment.

Touch the edges of a bubble surrounding yourself – to teach students to extend themselves in every direction when teaching a circular port de corps.

Trace the rainbow -  to teach port de bras side

Imagine yourself wearing a sandwich board – to teach the students to bend directly side without leaning forward or backward.

Imagine water spraying out of the top of your head and arching backward
Arch up over a brick wall behind you – to teach port de bras back

Imagine yourself breaking through the top of the water in a lake or pool – when opening the arms to 2nd from 5th position.

Draw each circle on the floor larger than the one before – to achieve a lengthened leg in rond de jambe par terre

Allow your leg to go over a speed bump and not into a pothole ­ - to help with the movement of the leg from 2nd postion en l’air to an arabesque position and from arabesque to 2nd position.

Let your knee open the door – to achieve a turned out retiré or passé.

Envision a telephone pole in front of you & wrap your arms around it – to help with holding a balance with the arms in first position.

Drill a hole down through the floor – to help teach strength of the standing leg and alignment in turns.

Jump over a hurdle – to teach grand jetés

Why Dancers Need to Ignore their Bodies - Part I

        Dancers’ bodies are their instruments. They know which muscles are tight, they know how flexible each body part is, and they know the difference between sore muscles and injured muscles. They can concentrate on and control each and every movement their bodies make – that’s a good thing, right? Maybe not…

        Scientists are spending a lot of time researching exactly how our bodies learn to move and perform, and there are some interesting findings. When we move, our bodies are programmed to respond automatically.  They respond quickly, reflexively and without any thought on our part. These responses are there to keep us balanced and to keep our bodies operating efficiently and effectively. When dancers or any other athletes begin to think about and analyze movements, they interfere with the bodies’ automatic responses and actually hinder motor performance. An example from every day life would be running up a flight of stairs. It may be something we do each day automatically. The minute we begin thinking about it, we find ourselves tripping and maybe even falling because we have interfered with the body’s automatic motor responses.

        Imagine the dancer who is working on turning. She tirelessly concentrates on alignment, arm placement, balance, the strength of the relevé and spotting and yet falls out of the turn. She prepares again, concentrates even harder and falls again. It seems that the more she concentrates, the harder the turn becomes. She believes she is working on controlling her body, and she may, instead, be fighting against herself. The more control she attempts to exert over the turn, the more she impairs her body’s automatic muscular and balance responses to turning.

        How then does the dancer stay in control of his or her movements without interfering with the body’s automatic motor learning responses?

        Studies have shown that when dancers focus on something external, rather than on their bodies, their bodies work automatically and efficiently. When we stop thinking about controlling our bodies, we use fewer muscles more effectively, our heart does not beat as fast and we do not breathe as hard. All of this means that our bodies do not have to work as hard and undergo less stress which are two great goals to achieve.

        Studies that involved jumping found that subjects who focused on jumping higher than something in the room achieved greater height than subjects who thought about the muscular effort of their feet and legs.

        A study conducted on gymnasts introduced the use of stickers to help with turning jumps. The sticker, although placed on the gymnast’s body, served as an external focus. The gymnasts were working on half turns and were told to concentrate on which wall the sticker would be facing when the turn was complete. The subjects who wore the stickers improved both jump height and movement quality of the turn.

        By using an external focus, dancers can use the body’s automatic motor responses to their advantage while also using tools to improve their technique. 

The next post in this series will discuss how metaphorical imagery can be used by both dancers and dance educators to create external foci for dancers to use.

Guss-West, C., Hum, B., & Wulf, G. (2016) Attentional focus in classical ballet a survey of professional dancers. Journal of Dance Medicine and Science, 20 (1), 23-9.