"You have to trust your body to take care of you." - A.J. Langer
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.