Envisioning Sugarplums - Using Psychology to Improve Dance Performance

“If you want to dance seriously, do. You must think about it day and night, dream about it.” -Christa Justus

         Dancers dance.  They learn by doing.  They rehearse pieces over and over again, and when they are tired and their bodies are fatigued, they push themselves to dance the piece one more time because that is the only way the dance will improve, or is it?

         There are scientific theories and studies which suggest that envisioning yourself performing a dance piece, or mentally rehearsing it, can also improve the performance.

         When a dance or any type of physical activity is learned, motor pathways are created between the nervous system and muscular system.  Each time that movement is repeated, the motor pathway is reinforced until the movement becomes almost automatic.  This phenomenon is often referred to as muscle memory and was discussed in an earlier post on Dance, Muscle Memory & Neural Pathways.  The widely accepted Psychoneuromuscular Theory suggests that the same messages are sent through the pathway when we envision ourselves performing a dance as when we physically perform it, thereby further reinforcing the motor pathway.

         Envisioning a perfect performance can help even more.  The Self-Efficacy Theory is a psychological theory based upon the connection between imagining a perfect performance and expecting one.  If a performer believes he or she will perform well, personal expectations are raised, and he or she will.  Conversely, if a performer expects to do poorly, he or she will perform poorly.

         Studies have also determined that mentally rehearsing an activity can produce positive results.  A 1992 study of trampolinists showed that those who practiced a skill and then envisioned themselves performing that skill showed more improvement than those who only engaged in physical practice. (1)  A study done on 7-10 year olds determined that children who used mental rehearsal improved their shots in table tennis. (2)

         Mental rehearsal can be beneficial for all dancers, especially at this time of year when Nutcracker rehearsals and performances place stressful demands upon the body.  It would be worthwhile to encourage dancers to mentally rehearse their parts.  While mental rehearsal cannot replace physical rehearsal since it will not strengthen muscles, it will reinforce the motor pathways that are being used.  At this point in the season, muscular strength should be established, and the goals should simply be physical maintenance (see my post on Periodization Training in Dance), and an improved performance.  If dancers spend some time each day, both before and after rehearsals, with their eyes closed, envisioning themselves delivering a flawless performance, that may be just what the audience gets to see as well.

(1) Isaac, A. R. (1992). Mental Practice- Does it Work in the Field? The Sport Psychologist,
 6, 192-198.

(2) Orlick, T., Zitzelsberger, L., LI-Wei, Z., & Qi-wei, M. (1992). The Effect of 
 Mental-Imagery Training on Performance Enhancement With 7-10-Year-Old
 Children. The Sports Psychologist, 6, 230-241.

Oh no! My Child Wants To Major In Dance!!

            “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” ― Confucius

         As high school juniors begin to explore higher education choices, it is no secret that many parents hold their breath and hope their children will not choose to major in the arts.  Dance, music, art and theater are wonderful, but are they fields you can make a living in?  If someone majors in dance and it doesn’t work out, what will he or she have to fall back on?  Is going to college for something as “frivolous” as dance a waste of money?

            People tend to believe that majoring in dance simply means taking a myriad of technique classes for four years only to graduate and begin auditioning for a performing opportunity that may never come to fruition.

            The good news for college students who are passionate about dance, their parents, and everyone whose life has been touched by dance, is that this assumption could not be farther from the truth.
            As dance has grown and continues to grow, so has the number of possible dance careers.  Dancers will always have the option to audition for professional and regional companies, but there are also a multitude of other possible career paths available in the field of dance.

            Choreography:  College students who major in choreography spend time learning about dance composition.  They learn how to manipulate movement phrases in various ways, and they learn about different styles of dance, different choreographers, and gain a historical perspective on dance.  These students can go on to become company choreographers, free-lance choreographers, or musical theater choreographers and are also able to teach dance composition courses.

            Dance Education:  Students who major in this area will be required to take classes in educational philosophy and practice as well as dance courses.  Their courses may include dance history, music for dancers, anatomy for dancers, class and lesson planning, foundations of elementary education, foundations of secondary education and foundations of special education.  Many colleges also offer the option of state teacher certification to enable the graduate to teach in public schools.  These graduates can teach in private studios, private schools, or public schools.  A terminal degree such as an MFA would enable the dancer to teach at the college level as well.

            Dance Therapy:  Dance therapy combines the study of dance with psychology.  In order to be a practicing dance therapist, using dance as a form of psychotherapy, a graduate degree is necessary.  Dance therapists work in private practices, hospitals, schools and prisons.

            Dance Scholars:  Dance scholars study dance technique, dance history, and dance notation and can get jobs with dance companies, in the television or film industries, or in libraries and museums.  Their job is to preserve dance for future generations through research, writing, and recording dance.

            Dance Journalist:  A dance journalist combines dance studies with English classes.  Journalists get jobs writing about dance, editing books on dance, or as dance critics for magazines, newspapers and online publications.

            Dance Science:  Dance Science is a relatively new field of study.  It combines dance with the study of anatomy and kinesiology.  Dance scientists work with dancers to educate them about their bodies and healthy, efficient ways of dancing.  Those studying dance science often choose to pursue graduate courses in exercise science or physical therapy.  They may work with dance schools or companies, designing strength training programs, or in injury rehabilitation programs that work with dancers.

            Arts Management:  These students combine their love of dance with the study of business.  These majors graduate and become company managers, booking agents, grant writers, arts advocates, and community outreach activists.

               The career opportunities for dancers are numerous and all have one common denominator:  they require a love of dance.  A parent whose child decides to major in dance need not panic because dancers are not just performers anymore.  They are the people that keep the art form alive, and by doing so, they preserve a very important part of our culture.


Allowing Dance Science to Change How We Dance

“If we value the pursuit of knowledge, we must be free to follow wherever that search may lead us.” – Adlai Stevenson

            Everyone is given one body that needs to last a lifetime.  With lifespans growing longer, it is becoming increasingly important to focus upon the quality of life.   Living to be 100 years old does not mean much if the person is in constant pain and unable to complete the simple activities of daily living without the body rebelling.
            Daily, dancers place extraordinary demands upon their bodies.  There are the torque forces applied during turns, the constant impact of multiple jumps, and, for the ballerina, the demand placed upon the toes that must support the dancer’s body weight.  The human body was not created to endure these stresses, therefore, it is up to the dance community to train dancers in ways that will keep them healthy and limit the amount of stress placed upon the body.

            Although this ideology makes sense, it is an uphill battle because dance is based upon tradition.  Dance notation and videography have allowed us to record and preserve great works of choreography, but actual dance training is something that has been passed on from one generation of dancers to another.  The dance masters established rules, positions, and steps, and passed their methods of training onto their students, who then became teachers and passed the information onto their students.  Many of the original conventions of training are still present in 21st century dance technique.  Dance masters and teachers are respected individuals, and when a dance or exercise scientist suggests that some of these age-old traditions should change, her or she is understandably met with resistance.

            Change is always difficult, but there is a growing body of research, suggesting that changing the ways dancers train will keep them dancing longer, stronger, and healthier.  In order to implement these changes, the traditional dance class also needs to change.  Beginning ballet class with a cardiovascular exercise is still unheard of in many schools as is strength training for dancers.  Many dancers still believe that stretching should be done at the beginning of class as a warm-up and that cross-training to develop other muscle groups is taboo.  Dancers and dance educators fear that altering the traditional class will result in changed or compromised bodylines, and the artistry of dance will be lost.  Scientists have no desire to change the final product.  They simply hope to enhance and strengthen the process so that the dancers’ bodies are placed under less stress and can grow stronger and healthier.  Stronger and healthier bodies mean more efficient ways of moving, less time lost due to injuries, and better performers.

            Dancers in Canada and Australia have begun to embraces the changes that dance scientists are suggesting, and organizations like the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science are helping to promote awareness in the dance community.  An increasing number of college programs have begun to offer classes in dance medicine and dance science.
            Knowledge is a powerful thing and can be used to strengthen the field of dance.  Embracing the new findings in dance and exercise research will mean changing the traditional approach to dance but will serve to make dance a stronger, more viable art form.

The Healthy Dancer grew out of a desire to educate dancers, parents of dancers, and dance educators about how the advances in dance medicine and exercise science could benefit the dance community.  After only one year, The Healthy Dancer has grown quicker than I ever imagined possible when I began this blog last October.  Each week over 100 subscribers receive my posts, another 150 people follow the blog’s happenings on Twitter, an additional 900 people visit the site, I have a loyal following on Facebook, and I have begun travelling across the country to give lectures on dancer health.  I have made many connections with other dance bloggers, am grateful to my loyal readers, and am looking forward to where the next year will take The Healthy Dancer. 

Alignment: Developing a Strong Foundation

"When you find that your life is out of alignment with your grandest idea of yourself, seek to change it." -Neale Donald Walsch
         A contractor would never try to build on an unstable infrastructure, yet each day dancers attempt multiple pirouettes and complicated combinations upon misaligned bodies that provide a shaky foundation.
         Correct body alignment allows for efficient muscle use, encourages a less bound and more relaxed approach to movement, reduces the risk of injury, and contributes to ease of movement.
         Whenever a dancer has difficulty with balance or executing a step, which he or she should be strong enough to do, it is important to first observe his or her body alignment.  Just as a building will weaken if there is a crack in the foundation, the body is weakened by misalignment.
         Before each class a dancer needs to re-establish a strong base by being certain that all five toes are flat on the floor.  Body weight should be equally distributed on each foot in a triangular pattern formed by the base of the big toe, the heel, and the base of the pinky toe.  The ankle should be lifted so that the base of the tibia is not rolling forward and causing the foot to pronate, or roll inward.  Subsequently, the knee joint should be centered over the ankle, and the hip joint should be centered over the knee.  The base of the ribcage should be in line with the pelvis while the sternum is lifted and the shoulders rest on the body, similar to how frosting rests upon a cake.  The neck should be lengthened with the head lifting as if it were a helium-filled balloon.
         Dancers are often told to “pull up their centers” which often causes a disconnect between the upper and lower halves and the front and back halves of the body. When a dancer “pulls up” the stomach, the tendency is to “sit” or relax into the back of the hips and open the ribcage, resulting in a swayed back.  Dancers engage their abdominal muscles, tuck the pelvis, and hyperextend their legs and believe they are properly aligned.
         This ideology results in gripping muscles instead of lengthening them, stressing ligaments instead of strengthening muscles, and skeletal misalignment.
         Instead, dancers need to think of the ankle being lifted by the patella, or kneecap, and the leg being lengthened by the pelvis lifting and lengthening the quadriceps and hamstrings.  Dancers also need to remember to lengthen the back of the torso as well as the front as if the entire upper body were being sucked up through a straw.  Additionally, it is important for dancers to lengthen through the front and back of the neck equally to avoid the turtling of the head that often occurs.
         Simply thinking about dance posture differently will help align the body, engage the muscles in a different way, and produce a lengthening of the body which will increase the efficiency of movement, improve mechanics and balance, and lead to healthy dancing.