Unleash Your Personality onto the Stage

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of watching the Pina Bausch company, Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, dance at BAM. The performance was fun, strange, disturbing, and delightful. But what touched me most were the strong personalities of the dancers onstage, particularly the women.

Joan Acocella’s review of the performance noted as much, that the dancers’ demeanor was “comfortable, unleashed. They want to be onstage.” Their diverse looks and personalities kept my eyes glued to the stage, even in moments when I felt the choreography was thin or discordant. It almost didn’t matter as long as I could keep watching them communicate with us.

I cannot remember the last ballet performance I saw where true personalities shined brighter than the choreography. It makes me wonder why that is. Why is it that ballet dancers often show glimpses of who they are onstage, but those moments are fleeting- almost like we’ve been let in on a little secret and then- poof, it’s gone. The person disappears behind the ballerina, the danseur, or the choreography.

What about unleashing who you are and letting that fill the space? What about letting the dancing be a vehicle for your full-fledged personality? It’s definitely not necessary to cover up who we are in order to be ballet dancers. The truly great dancers of the past were great in part because they unleashed their personalities on the audience and we wanted more: Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Maya Plisetskaya, to name the obvious ones.

It has been my experience that students wait to get onstage before they work on their stage persona. This is much too late. Who you are must come through the technique- it is not separate or distinct from what your body is doing.

YOU are the vehicle for both who you are and the dancing itself; YOU are the reason people will buy tickets to your performances and will love watching you.

I would love to hear from some of you: how do you think about this challenge? Do you find it difficult to express the full range of your personality in your dancing?

Need Inspiration? Go on an Artist Date.

Late fall is the time of year when dancers can start to feel overwhelmed with rehearsals and school work. It is, after all, a short semester, at the end of which is usually a big performance as well as exams. Ack!

Add to that the sense that Thanksgiving  and the holidays are a little too out of reach to feel comforting… If you are feeling a little drained or tired, here is some inspiration.

Schedule an Artist Date

One immediate and easy solution to these blues is to have an Artist Date. Julia Cameron, who may have coined the phrase in her excellent book The Artist’s Way (now an online course), describes this as a block of time set aside and committed to nurturing your inner artist.

It’s a kind of play date with yourself that gives you the opportunity to engage with art in a way that will fill your soul. She says that you should go on this “date” alone – just you and your inner artist. If you go with someone else, you will probably get distracted by the social element and the date will not have the desired effect. (If you need to get to your artist date with someone, that’s okay, just make sure you have some 1-on-1 time with the art, so that you can really observe and reflect.)

Tips for Your Date

  • Visit a museum: What kinds of art inspire you? Classical? Ancient? Modern? Spend some time looking at the art; maybe write down some thoughts or sketch in a journal.
  • See a live performance: In your discipline, outside of your discipline, or even way outside of your discipline. Try theatre, classical music, jazz music, cabaret, blues, or experimental dance. Try something you’ve been curious about or think might be fun.
  • Visit a gallery and see what today’s artists are making
  • Take and architectural walking tour
  • Visit a garden or park- if you’re in NYC, check out the Botanical Gardens or Central Park.

Too Busy! Really?

I can already hear some of you saying that you don’t have time, but I know that isn’t true. If having an artist date were as important as taking technique class every morning, then you would make time. So look at your schedule and find a little window where you can feed your artist’s soul. Think of it as putting savings in the creativity bank.

After you have your artist date, I’d love to hear where you went and what you saw!

Mindful Breathing Relieves Performance Anxiety

Those of you who have taken a yoga class or meditated know the positive effects of mindful breathing. An article in the Pacific Standard Magazine confirms those effects, reporting on a recent study out of the University of Sydney. The study shows that 30 minutes of mindful breath before performance steadies the heart rate and calms down the nervous system.

The Study

Psychologists Andrew Kemp and Ruth Wells lead a research team that experimented on a group of 46 musicians and singers. After being hooked up to a device that measured changes in their heart rates, the musicians were asked to perform a difficult piece and their heart rates and anxiety levels were measured.

Then, the musicians were divided into three groups.

  • The first group performed a slow, deliberate breathing exercise for 30 minutes
  • The second group did the same and stayed hooked up to the device to see the results of their breathing
  • The third group just relaxed on their own without special breathing instructions.

The musicians then performed a second, equally difficult piece of music.

The Results

The results showed that the musicians who felt anxious during the first performance experienced lower anxiety after doing the breathing exercises- much lower than those who simple relaxed.

The researchers suggest that slow, mindful breathing helped the musicians regulate their physiological stress levels. That is, it helped regulate their shaking hands, sweating palms, and butterflies in the stomach – all physical traits of anxiety.

It seems that emphasizing the exhale during slow breathing also helps. Our heart rate can increase with inhalation, and decrease with exhalation. So focusing on a long, slow exhale helps decrease the heart rate and thus lowers the amount of anxiety that we feel before a performance.

The Takeaway

So, remember those breathing exercises you learned in yoga or wellness class? Start using them! They are an easy, effective way to calm the mind and the body before class, rehearsal, auditions, and of course, performance. Remember that it takes a little time to master, so start practicing now to become a master by the time you really need it.

 

Inside-Out Process-Oriented Attention

An inside-out approach can change the way you think about your distractions.

A common concern among dance students is that they lack focus and concentration. Many students claim they get easily distracted, either when learning a new combination or doing the exercise.

Those distractions can take many forms. Some I’ve heard about are voices coming from outside the studio, having the artistic director suddenly walk into the studio, or letting your mind wander when watching your peers do the steps.

It happens to all of us, and as long as it’s rare, it shouldn’t worry you too much.  But if you find that you are consistently distracted when you would like to be focused, then you might want to consider reframing your approach.

Outside-In

The outside-in approach to focusing means that your attention is directed outwards, away from you. That means that you are highly influenced by what is going on around you.

You might be hyper-attuned to what other people are thinking when they watch you dance. Maybe you want approval from your teachers and peers, so you actively notice whether they are watching you or not while you’re dancing. Your attention is not on what you’re doing, but on what’s happening outside of you.

It can be very easy to get distracted or to lose focus when your attention is directed outwards.

Inside-Out

The opposite, recommended approach, is to work inside-out. Inside-out means that your attention is focused on what you are doing in the present- right now. You are focused on the process of learning the combination, taking the correction, or doing the steps. Being process-oriented means being in the moment, rather than outside of it.

When you are process-oriented, it is amazing what can happen around you that you are totally oblivious to. For example, can you recall a performance or audition when you were “in the zone”? Maybe someone told you there was a crying child in the audience, or a problem with the sets, but you never noticed. That’s focusing from the inside out.

As an exercise, try to notice what distracts you and how often. Sometimes just recognizing it is a big eye-opener. Stay tuned for tips on how to be more present and get that inside-out approach.

Lessons from Yoga – Lesson 2.

This is a continued post. Part 1 is here.

Lesson 2: There are no corrections in yoga.

Lots of Corrections

Getting corrected by the teacher is hugely important in ballet: dancers look to the instructor constantly for feedback. Students rarely complain about getting too many corrections, and in fact, they usually correlate being corrected with being a good dancer- isn’t that strange?

One of my students put it perfectly: she said, if you get corrected, then there’s hope that you’re worth correcting!

No Corrections

Well, imagine my surprise when I started taking yoga classes 3 years ago and the yoga teacher didn’t correct me; she didn’t correct anyone really. I was shocked.

Over the next few months, I experienced varying emotions:

  • surprise (How was I supposed to fix things without corrections?)
  • anger (It’s your JOB to help me!)
  • curiosity (Wait, she isn’t correcting anyone, and no one seems to mind…)

I started to notice that the other yoga students were not looking around at each other, or waiting for corrections. Everyone was focused inwards and negotiating the poses mostly on their own. The instructor would intervene if someone was in danger of hurting themselves, but otherwise, she would let us figure it out.

She kept describing the ideal position to be in and how it should feel, and then she gave us all the time and space we needed to negotiate it.

A-Ha!

After getting over my initial shock, I had an A-Ha moment one day. I realized that if I had a good or bad practice, the only one affected was me. The motivation to practice, the quality of the experience, and its outcome were all up to me.

The best way to describe this realization is Liberating and Terrifying. Liberating because no one was judging me, which made me feel light and free. Terrifying because I had never worked purely for myself before.

I realized that as a dancer, I always had one eye on the teacher or artistic director, ready to gauge their reaction to my every move. With no one watching, where would the impetus to work hard and improve come from?

Adjusting

It has taken some time to get used to this new arrangement, but I have found motivation to have a good practice every time I go to the yoga studio. Having to work without cheating, even though no one is watching or correcting me, has changed my relationship to my practice and to myself.

The biggest lesson I have learned is to work honestly. Gone are the days of seeing what I want to see in the mirror, and consequently being happy with my work. Now it is all about how it feels: am I doing the pose correctly? Is it coming from an honest place? Am I making my best effort or just going through the motions?

Having only myself to answer to, rather than a teacher or director, has made my yoga practice a lesson in truth. And that is a lesson I could have used many years ago.

Lessons from Yoga – Lesson 1

Three years ago, I started to practice yoga. It was something I had always meant to do, but somehow never got around to it. After I was diagnosed with arthritis in my feet and it became too painful to do ballet classes for fun, it seemed like a good time to give yoga a try.

Now I cannot imagine NOT practicing yoga. It has changed my body, my strength, and the inner workings of my mind in ways that I could not have imagined. I’m going to share some of the lessons I have learned from practicing yoga that you might find applicable to your ballet training. Let me also say that if I had practiced yoga as a dancer, I think it would have helped me enormously. If only I had known…! *

First Lesson: Yoga is a Practice.

You might have noticed that I used that word a lot above: I practice yoga; I have a yoga practice. It took me a while to stop saying “I do yoga” or even “I take yoga.” “Practice” just sounded weird to me, but now I get it. Doing and taking aren’t the right words for yoga: we come to the studio and we practice. Which suggests a few things that are worth considering as a dancer:

  • We don’t expect perfection. The word practice gives us permission to work for something other than perfection. We don’t expect someone who is practicing piano to be perfect. Same thing here. In some ways, we almost expect mistakes, right? After all, we’re just practicing! What a relief both mentally and physically.
  • It’s a process. Practice implies a process: we are where we are, but we’re working to get better. It’s not about being able to do the poses, it’s about the daily process of getting there. I find this relieves pressure; if I don’t get it today, maybe tomorrow will be better.
  • Progress is ongoing. I have yet to hear a yoga teacher compare one day’s success with another day’s failure. In fact, they never say the word “can’t”- instead, they say things like, “Move into full lotus, if you can access it today.” Or “Just do headstand prep if your headstand isn’t available today…” Isn’t that a great concept? That some days, certain things just aren’t available? They’re not gone forever, you didn’t lose them, they’re just not always available on demand. It’s a much more gentle approach to progress than perhaps we allow ourselves in dance. I remember the frustration of feeling like I had lost my pirohuettes to the left- the agony! It was truly devastating.

I think this approach could have some major benefits for dancers. I also think the idea of having access to different areas of technique at different times is much more realistic than what we’re used to. Why not demand a little less in terms of outcomes and focus a little more on the process of our training? It might relieve some of that internal pressure we put on ourselves to be the perfect dancer every day.

 

* Or if only I had listened to my mother who suggested yoga on many occasions to me, but for some reason, I never listened. Argh!

 

 

The Trouble with Transition

Isn’t it strange how powerful a transition in environment can be?

It’s the beginning of the school year and so many students have embarked on new training programs in new studios. In a class on self-talk this week, someone mentioned how being a new student can really change how you dance- and not in a good way. Most agreed that the newness of the space and the sudden pressure of unknown faces watching you takes its toll physically.

Why is it that class, which you did successfully two weeks ago at your old studio,  is suddenly giving you so much trouble?

The students came up with some interesting answers:

  • Comfort Level: It’s true that most of us feel good in our own space after awhile; that comfort level allows us to let go of our physical tensions and mental anxieties. The mind relaxes and the body follows. It is surprisingly difficult to accomplish much when the body is tense; yet so much of ballet is about letting the dancing happen rather than over-thinking and over-muscling. It takes time to transition and feel comfortable in a new space- to reach that level of being able to relax into yourself again.
  •  Being a little fish for the first time: This is one of the most challenging parts of transition in general. And yet, moving to a bigger pond is such an important part of pushing ourselves towards our goals. But even with that knowledge, the mind can still talk us into a hole about it. Comparisons can become constant and distracting; telling ourselves that we aren’t good enough only feeds the fire.
  • Adjusting to new training takes time: The first time you’re told to change something about the way you dance, the experience of applying that correction can be frustrating. Although your mind completely grasps the concept, the body often does not follow. Brain: Adjust arm. Body: I like it the old way, thanks. Brain: No, adjust arm. Body: No thanks, old way is a-okay. What is that? It’s muscle memory and it takes a while to change it. If you have been holding your arm the same way for years, your body will not just adjust to the new way because you tell it to. Getting frustrated, while natural, won’t help. Your muscle memory doesn’t respond to emotion, only to repetition and re-training.

Self-Talk

These are just a few examples of triggers that can challenge our self-talk. It’s easy to let the situation take control and to allow yourself to be dragged into negative thinking because you feel helpless. Instead, try to actively use your self-talk to help you through these challenges. Reframe negative thoughts to make them more positive. It might feel silly at first, but trust in the process: your mind and body are listening all the time to these messages. How you feel at any given moment during the transition can be managed by sending positive messages to your brain.

And slowly, the transition will become smoother. You’ll soon find that comfort level that allows you to push forward again. Just hang in there!

 

A Dancer’s Mind: Using Psychology to Dance Better

Dance Studio Life Magazine just published an article about the mind of the dancer, which I interviewed for over the summer. They also interviewed Gelsey Kirkland and some of the students from my wellness classes. For your convenience, I’ve pasted the entire article here.

You can also find it here or  go to http://www.dancestudiolife.com/ and search under issues by date. It’s from September 2012.

A Dancer’s Mind: Using psychology to improve physical performance

By James Careless

Dancers tend to think in physical terms when it comes to self-improvement, practicing more and eating less and trying to convert their bodies into ideal “dancing machines” through sheer will and perseverance. Often, the result is that dancer psychology gets very little attention; let alone respect. The expectation in the dance culture is that performers should “tough it out” not only physically but emotionally, despite pain, fear, and fatigue.

This macho approach to achieving dance excellence mirrors how things used to be done in sports. But no longer. Top-level professional and amateur athletes have long understood the importance of psychology’s role in attaining peak performance. And now many people in the dance community are adopting the sports-psychology model.

One is Elizabeth Sullivan, a former dancer with Boston Ballet and Cleveland/San Jose Ballet (now Ballet San Jose) and founder of Creative Compass, whose thesis for her MA in arts administration from Columbia University was on pre-professional dancer wellness programs. Sullivan, a certified health coach, now serves on Dance/USA’s Taskforce for Dancer Health. In 2010 she collaborated with psychologist Elisabeth Morray, PhD, who worked on the Boston Ballet Center for Dance Education’s Wellness Initiative, in designing a wellness curriculum.

In 2011 the two presented an overview of the Creative Compass program to Gelsey Kirkland, a former principal dancer with New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. She embraced the idea, and a pilot program ran at Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet in New York City for 16 weeks from January through May 2012.

“The high standards set by the teachers, and indeed the art form itself, pale in comparison to the stress that most young dancers place on themselves to be perfect in form and technique.” —Elizabeth Sullivan

Meeting weekly with students from all three levels for one hour each week, Sullivan introduced the concepts of self-talk, positive visualization, centering, relaxation methods, food preparation, balanced eating, goal setting, and positive coping mechanisms. The discussion-based classes offer students the opportunity to “address the ‘mind side’ of traditional performing arts training, which includes mental and emotional health, as well as techniques for performance success,” as described on the academy’s website, with a focus on self-identity, self-confidence, and the development of the dancer as a whole person.

Asked whether personal experience contributed to her decision to implement the wellness program, Kirkland says, “My experience as a student and as a professional have gradually formed my [thinking] on what training is best for students, both the ‘what’ and the ‘how.’ I would like to think my decisions were formed not as a reaction to the past but more from the increasing clarity of vision that comes with time.”

Paying attention to the mental, emotional, and spiritual health of the Academy’s students is crucial, Kirkland adds, with good communication being key to the health of the students and the school as a whole. “We get to know more about the students and their needs,” she says. “The students get some idea that some of their problems are common to other dancers and in fact to many human beings and do not feel as isolated.”

Sullivan believes that addressing the psychological challenges of dancing is central to training emotionally robust, artistically confident dancers. And discussion-based classes are important, she says, giving dancers an “opportunity to express themselves verbally, something that traditional dance training has not offered.”

The emotional challenges associated with dancing—relentless practicing even when injured, competition against other highly motivated dancers, body image issues, and demanding teachers—are pervasive, from Moscow to Minnetonka.

“Most of us are well aware of the physical stresses of dance training, ranging from overuse injuries such as Achilles tendonitis to more debilitating ones like stress fractures,” Sullivan says. “Few of us, however, are as aware of the mental stresses that are just as prevalent in the lives of dancers.”

Self-doubt and self-criticism are among the most common mental stresses dance students face. “The high standards set by the teachers, and indeed the art form itself, pale in comparison to the stress that most young dancers place on themselves to be perfect in form and technique,” Sullivan says.

Based on the responses of Kirkland Academy students, the program is making a difference. “The class taught me the importance of positive self-talk,” says student Esmae Gold. “With this knowledge, I’ve been able to change some of my old habits and become a happier and healthier dancer and person.”

“My favorite part about the wellness class is how we all get to share our thoughts and questions,” says student Eden Orion. “It’s comforting to know that your peers are thinking the same things as you.”

Kirkland says, “We have realized the great pain some dancers carry and that the support and knowledge of a professional such as Elizabeth are essential to them. She has eased our burden enormously. We look forward to developing this program so that it is an integral part of [the school’s] daily life.”

Stress in dance

Geoff Greenwood, a UK-based performance psychology consultant, identifies five areas of stress associated with dance: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and technical. His performance psychology practice—which covers business, sports, performing artists, surgeons, and military commanders—focuses on overcoming these stresses to achieve success. The five elements listed below apply to all of these groups.

  • Physical: In addition to experiencing the all-too-common weight and body image problems that can lead to serious eating disorders or poor nutrition, dancers sometimes fail to pay attention to healthy sleep patterns. Add to that the combination of constant exercise and injury and the stage is set for an operatic set of problems.
  • Mental: Dancers, Greenwood points out, often ignore the mental components of dancing—things like attitude, goals, motivation, intensity, self-confidence, psychological preparation, concentration, emotional control, thought and visual control, mental toughness, and team dynamics and cohesionuntil they get out of hand and get in the way.
  • Emotional: Feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and disappointment are inherent in dance. “Many dancers struggle with understanding and overcoming emotional aspects of their lives and profession when they arise,” Greenwood says. “Again they are not aware of the relationship between thoughts, emotions, and behaviors and how to deal with them when they are not supporting their dance. Self-awareness and training in this area can help the performance and even enjoyment of their art.”
  • Spiritual: “When we talk about spiritual aspects of dance we mean the whole reason for being,” says Greenwood, describing dance as “a life choice all leading to a desired outcome that makes life worth living for the person.” Acknowledging the meaning of dance in our lives can make many of its difficulties seem much less daunting.
  • Technical: Although technique is essential, honing it is stressful. “All of the above may be irrelevant if the dancer has no technical ability or the desire to improve in all the technical aspects of their profession,” Greenwood says. He links self-awareness strategies and imagery work in the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual areas into technique-related timeframes: practice, performance, and post-competition. “The concept of deliberate practice is instilled into the dancers [by their teachers],” he adds, “because focusing on the effective areas saves learning time [and decreases] physical demands and burnout.”

Constructive strategies for teachers

Most teachers know that psychological wellness is central to improving a dancer’s physical performance, and they want to help their students become the best dancers and people they can be. But, short of hiring a sports psychologist, how can they do it?

“I think where teachers sometimes struggle is in how to support their dancers emotionally,” says Chantale Lussier. “I believe most dance teachers care deeply about their students’ physical and mental wellness.” A retired professional dancer and former studio owner, Lussier founded Elysian Insight, an Ontario-based performance consulting company that has worked with Manitoba’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet School and The School of Dance and Allegro Danceworks in Ottawa, as well as with athletes and other performing artists.

To help the dancers she works with, Lussier uses a two-pronged approach she calls “Quality Mental Recovery.” These are “strategies that will help dancers take a mental break from being at the dance studio, and even thinking and perhaps worrying about dance,” she explains. “I wholeheartedly believe that those who practice mental recovery return to the studio the next day or next week reinspired to enjoy their dancing.”

The first component of Lussier’s Quality Mental Recovery strategy is Quality Solitude, a time for dancers to take much-needed time alone. “All techniques of self-care should be considered, from a bath to reading a good book or napping, to prayer or mediation,” says Lussier. “For example, mindfulness-based practices of meditation and breathing techniques help to facilitate an awareness of the present moment. In doing so, dancers learn to notice all the thoughts and feelings that are on their minds and in their hearts and learn to return to the spacious, peaceful place that is now.”

By contrast, Quality Support means relying on others for help. “Sometimes the best thing we can do to mitigate the negative impact of stress is to get quality support—share and debrief our experiences with a trusted family member, partner, or friend,” says Lussier. “Other times, the best way to recover from stress is by taking time off from thinking about it. In such cases, perhaps a group of dancers who decide to hang out would all agree to no ‘shop talk’ and just enjoy laughing, sharing, and doing a pleasant non-dancing activity together.”

Quality Mental Recovery and the focused self-awareness Greenwood advocates are two ways dance teachers and studio owners can use psychology to help their students to cope better, and improve their physical performance—by teaching them to “get out of their own way.”

Sullivan points to outside resources that can support young performers and relieve physical and emotional stress. “Teachers and schools don’t have to take on that responsibility themselves. They can develop supportive policies internally, and also encourage students to seek support from external resources.” She says initiatives like the wellness program require “a shift in the philosophy of dance education—an understanding that the traditional training model can benefit tremendously from supplemental teachings coming out of the fields of sport and performance psychology and holistic wellness.”

The bottom line: “Dancers tend to be perfectionists,” notes Dr. Kate Hays, performance psychologist and owner of The Performing Edge consultancy. “When they follow this tendency without considering their psychological needs, all sorts of things can and do go wrong for them. At the same time, dancers who tend to the entirety of their being—not just technique, but their state of mind and overall health—can actually move closer to achieving their goals.

“This is what dance teachers need to instruct their students in, and model through their own behaviors and attitudes,” Hays continues. “This may seem quite a stretch for those educated in the ‘tough it out’ tradition, but trust me: this approach is delivering results in sports, and it can do the same in dance at any and all levels.”

Experimentation Can Free You Up

And it won’t be as hard as this…I promise!

Creatures of Habit

Dancers tend to be fearful of experimentation and strong creatures of habit: we eat the same foods, go through the same warm-up rituals every day, and gravitate towards the same routines. In some ways, these habits help us stay grounded and keep our bodies happy and our minds calm.

In other ways, the habits we adopt can limit our ability to move forward to discover better routines and solutions. I know that when I was dancing my routines came both from a sense of ritual that kept me focused and calm. They also came from a sense of fear: if I changed my routine, would I be able to perform to the same high level?

Often, I was not courageous enough to experiment because of that fear. And yet, experimentation is so valuable, and such an important part of the artistic process.

Routine: Mix It Up

As we start up another school year, I encourage you to take a look at your routines and habits. Ask yourself what is really working and what might benefit from some new input. Be honest with yourself. Then, try something new- experiment.

Tired of your diet?

Maybe you’ll undertake a physical experiment by changing up your diet.

  • Try adding vegetables you don’t usually eat
  • Add a whole grain breakfast to your routine
  • Try a new snack and see if it helps with your energy and focus.

Tired of mind games?

Maybe you’ll undertake an intellectual experiment. Think about something in a new way.

  • How do you handle corrections? If you usually get upset or frustrated, try forcing yourself to remain calm and even smile.
  •  How do you work with your image in the mirror? Try not looking at all, or looking only at port de bras, if you’re a feet and legs person.
  • How do you react to the energy around you? If you are usually pulled into the gossip or drama of the moment, try experimenting with the opposite. Have a plan for responding to situations that bring you down. On the other hand, if you rely on other people’s energy or teacher input in order to dance well, try looking inside yourself instead for motivation.

Nothing is Permanent

The good news is that nothing is permanent! Your experiment will open you up to something new: if you like it, great. If not, you can try something else until you find the result you are looking for.

And remember that in order to grow creatively and artistically, we can’t be afraid to be wrong. Instead we must embrace experimentation with a courageous spirit and see where it takes us.

Cheating: Why We Do It & Costs

We have all had days when we felt ourselves cutting corners and “cheating” here and there…it happens, right? You fudge your turnout a bit by rolling your arches a little; you manage to get up to speed in allegro by not pointing your feet all the way.

Sometimes this seems to work just fine, and we let ourselves “get away” with it. But let’s just stop and think about what’s really going on when we cheat or practice mindlessly.

The Cost of Cheating: Poor Muscle Memory

First off, in dance, much of our training comes down to muscle memory. The repetitive nature of daily class and practice is to train the body in the technique so that it knows what to do when we perform.

After a certain level of training, no one goes onstage thinking about every technical feat they are about to do- they just take a deep breath and do it. They trust their bodies to perform as they have been taught.

When we practice mindlessly, we undercut our ability to create proper muscle memory. And once we learn something incorrectly, it can take a really long time to unlearn it and reprogram the body properly. So practicing mindlessly isn’t just a bad idea, it’s a Terrible Idea, which interferes with your progress in a real way.

Mindfulness and Muscle Memory

We can avoid this trap by practicing mindfully. What that means is being 100% present when you are dancing, even if it’s just another class or rehearsal. Every step is an opportunity to program your instrument the right way.

Usually, we get distracted by our minds, not our bodies. We let our minds wander forward to what’s coming up in the class or later in the day, or back to what’s already happened. We can also get distracted by things or people around us.

Sometimes, we have an out-of-body experience when our minds start thinking about something completely disconnected from what we’re doing, like what we’ll have for dinner and what movie we want to see over the weekend.

When the mind starts to wander, we are no longer connected to what we’re doing. Try some of these simple techniques to bring your focus back into your body.

Tips to Increase Mindfulness

  • Focus on the breath.

When you breathe mindfully, it is very difficult to let the mind wander. If you can count the breath while practicing, try counting your exhales 1 to 5, and then starting over again. Once you count past 5, you know your mind has wandered. If counting the breath throws you off, just stay mindful of your breathing as you practice; when you lose your sense of it, go back to it. Feel the inhales and the exhales and don’t lose track of that rhythm.

  • Repeat a cue word(s).

Like mindful breathing, saying a cue word on the exhale can keep you in your body. Lately I’ve been using “My mind is on the breath” during yoga when I start to wander. A directive can be helpful too, like “Get in the body.”

  • Push yourself out of your comfort zone.

Sometimes we get so comfortable with what we’re doing that we are lulled into passivity, and we start to go through the motions. Mixing up the routine, like letting go of the barre on difficult combinations, or changing your place in the center, can be enough of a shift to get you back into your body.

Pace Yourself

Sometimes it isn’t possible to be 100% present, particularly when we are overtired, which is why it’s important to know how to pace yourself. Pacing is a crucial aspect of mindfulness and injury prevention, but it’s a big enough topic that we’ll talk about that in another post- keep your eyes peeled!

Until then, start to notice how often you practice mindlessly.

Ask yourself, what is it costing you to not practice mindfully?

Give yourself at least one good reason to make mindfulness part of your routine. Then try some of these techniques to bring yourself back into your body and be fully present.

Feel free to let me know how it goes in the comments section.