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.