Spotting & Why It Works

"You have to trust your body to take care of you." - A.J. Langer
 Dancers are taught to “spot” at a young age.  Hours are spent teaching this concept, visual aids are hung in studios, and many theatres have a spotting light at the back of the theatre for dancers. 

Spotting involves staring at a fixed point while the body is turning to prevent dizziness and loss of balance.  Clearly, experienced dancers believe it is a valuable tool since it is passed on through instruction, and it must work since dancers performing multiple turns on stages are able to continue dancing without pausing to regain balance or falling over.  What are the physiological reasons that spotting works?

The body uses three systems to establish balance – the proprioceptive system, the visual system, and the vestibular system.  

Proprioception is the body’s awareness of its position and movement in space.  There are sensory receptors located in the body’s muscles, tendons and joints that respond to changes in pressure and send messages to the brain letting it know where the different parts of the body are and how they are moving in relation to other body parts. 

The visual system helps determine where the body is in space.  Within this system is the body’s optical righting reflex.  This reflex helps ensure that we remain upright by working to keep both eyes on the horizontal plane. 

            The vestibular system helps the body maintain balance through the anatomy of the inner ear.  This system gives the brain information about the body’s position during movement.  The ear canals are filled with fluid and lined with cilia, or tiny hairs, that are sensitive to the movement of the fluid.  When the position of the head shifts during movement, the cilia send signals to the brain to activate the muscles that keep the head vertical.

            When a dancer is turning, obviously the body’s position in space is constantly changing, and the proprioceptive system cannot be relied upon to help establish balance until the turn is perfected.  Once it is perfected, the body's "muscle memory" (you can read more about that here)   can aid in helping the body to sense that it is balanced.  In the meantime, the body must rely upon the visual and vestibular systems.  Both of these systems involve keeping the head in a constant position that is upright and on an even horizontal plane.

            Staring at a fixed point keeps the eyes focused on one image.  If a dancer were to simply look at everything around him or her while turning, the brain would definitely be confused by all the input, but that is only a part of the equation.

It is imperative that the head be kept in a steady, level position while turning to prevent dizziness from occurring and to prevent the body from trying to “save itself”.  When the head tilts too much to one side, the visual system senses the horizontal shift, and the vestibular system signals the brain to force the body to right itself.  When this occurs, the dancer will either begin to hop to save the turn or fall out of the turn in an effort to re-establish the body’s vertical position in space.  It is important that dancers be trained to simply turn their heads while spotting and to eliminate any tilting motions.  Waiting to quickly rotate the head back to the focal point until the last possible moment will also ensure that as little movement occurs as possible.  By adding these two concepts to the idea of staring at a focal point, dancers can improve their turning technique immensely.

Our bodies have mechanisms that are useful and necessary to provide equilibrium and keep us safe on a daily basis.  It is important for dancers to understand these mechanisms so that they do not fight against them but, instead, use them to their advantage to improve technique and promote safe, healthy dancing. 

Using Knowledge of the Body to Teach More Efficiently

            "Repetition is the mother of perfection.”
                                                                             ― Ryan Straten

            In my last post, Learning and Remembering Combinations, I wrote about how the body processes new sensory information and commits it to memory.  This information is both important and extremely useful to dance educators.  By understanding how students learn motor patterns and commit them to memory, dance educators can adapt their teaching methods to create more effective classes.

            When taught, a new exercise is first committed to short-term memory.  After several repetitions the neural pathway (the route the brain uses to communicate with the body) that is formed when a new exercise is learned becomes a well-travelled route, and this exercise is sent to the long-term memory.  Once it is stored in long-term memory the exercise can be accessed quickly and repeated on demand.

            This knowledge can be useful when planning classes.  Since exercises can easily be accessed once they are learned, it makes sense to work backwards when planning classes and teaching new choreography.  If an educator choreographs the combinations that will be taught in class first, then he or she can work backwards and break the combinations into individual segments or exercises.  These exercises can then be introduced to the students during warm-up, in simpler form, or in smaller pieces when travelling across the floor.  A particular arm pattern that will be used in the final combination may be incorporated into a plié or tendu exercise, while a particular step like a spiral fall to the floor can be taught as a transitional piece of a developpé exercise. 

            Additionally, a step that may be done in a circular pattern in the final combination can be taught simply moving forward as a transitional phrase.  Once the motor pathway is established, it will be easier to manipulate it spatially, adding direction or using it to create new pathways.
This same principle can be applied when teaching choreography.  Rather than starting at the beginning of a dance, it can be useful to choreograph the piece first and then break it down into sections.  It will be easier if everyone first learns unison sections, then different groups learn their particular sections, and then the different parts can be woven together to create the final dance.  Once the phrases are learned, they can be manipulated to face different directions, can be slowed down or sped up, can be used in cannons, or can be layered on top of each other.

By working in this manner, dance educators can use information about how the body operates to make class time and rehearsal hours more productive and teach in a way that enables dancers to learn more quickly and experience less frustration when learning new steps and/or choreography.