Grace Under Stress: Your Average Dancer

 

A diamond is just a piece of charcoal that handled stress exceptionally well. 

Among the many things dancers are gifted at, hiding stress is one of them. How many times have you been nervous or scared, and someone has said to you afterwards that you looked relaxed and nonplussed? This still happens to me now, years after my dance career ended, and I attribute it to my dance training.

Unlike athletes, dancers can’t show exertion or pain on their faces. Remember the Olympics last summer? The fierce determination, the anguish in the faces of the athletes- it really struck me that as an observer, I could almost read their minds because of how much showed on their faces.

Dance isn’t like that: dancers are trained to minimize natural expressions of pain or exertion so that they do not distract the audience from the art form. Keeping stress under the radar does not, however, mean that dancers handle it effectively. I have found that most dancers either ignore their stress, hoping it will go away on its own, or they are completely consumed by it.

Here are some tips for dealing with your stress so that you can respond like the diamond pictures above: clear-minded and beautiful!

  1. First, start paying attention to it: how does it manifest in your body? (i.e. no appetite, shaking, extremely tense muscles, dry mouth?) How does it manifest in your mind? (i.e. replaying mistakes in your head, self-criticism, obsessively checking things like your hair or your text messages?) Often, just noticing what is happening to us is a strong step towards managing the stress and preventing it in the future.
  2. Don’t wait until you’re stressed to practice self-care. Think of one thing that calms you down when you feel stressed, and add it to your daily routine to stop stress before it starts.
  3. Breathe. Deep, mindful breathing has been shown to lower the heart rate and slow down the release of stress hormones. Try counting your inhales and exhales, “inhale 1, exhale 2; inhale 3, exhale 4.” Count up to 10, and then start over. Doing this 2-3 times should help you feel calmer and more in control.

Understand that everyone experiences anxiety and those who come out the other end looking shiny and bright probably spent some time “in the wings” dealing with it. So, the real secret to handling stress is to not keep it a secret: acknowledge that you will have stress at some point, and make a plan to deal with it that involves prevention as well as treating the symptoms.

Auditions: More Prep is Better

Dress the part.
Arrive at destination.
Put on a number.
Enter a room with hundreds of people who want what you want.
Audition (i.e. Dance your heart out.)
Do your best.
Hope for the best.

It’s enough to freak anybody out, right? It can feel like jumping off a mountain! Everyone says not to worry, just dance, and if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. While that’s partially true, it’s not all there is to being prepared.

In my opinion, more is definitely better when it comes to preparation.

That’s why I created an Audition Package, just for you.

Here are some of the things that I address when helping my dancers prepare for auditions.

  • Rationally assess what’s expected of you beforehand.

Too many dancers don’t think this one through and get bombarded by all kinds of emotions when the audition is already underway. Instead, I like to anticipate these emotions and explore what’s coming up. Who expects what? Can they meet the expectations? What would it mean if they did or didn’t?

This kind of pre-audition thinking can relieve a lot of pressure during the actual audition.

  • Work on getting self-talk as positive as possible.

I’m sure I sound like a broken record, but it’s still true: what your dancer thinks about while dancing can make or break her. Let’s be sure it’s positive, constructive, and helpful, rather than the contrary. No one but she can turn things around mentally in the middle of an audition. And it does take some practice to build up good self-talk.

  • Have a do-or-die routine in place that will drown out the noise and confusion of the audition.

All performers need routine: it helps calm the mind and body when we can go on auto-pilot before an audition or performance. A routine can include how a dancer packs her dance bag, what she eats before the audition, and how early she’ll arrive to warm up. (In my next newsletter I will write more about how to create this routine.)

  • Focus only on what you can control.

The dancer next to you has legs that go on forever and perfect turnout? The one behind you turns for days and the one in front jumps like a gazelle? Why have you even noticed those things?

It is too easy to get caught up in watching other dancers or in bemoaning conditions that are beyond your control, like a slippery floor. Mindfulness is key in an audition, but it can’t be built overnight. Together we’ll work on combatting distraction and narrowing your focus to only those things that make you dance your best.


All of these topics and more are covered in my Audition Package. If you think your dancer could benefit from my support, please head over to my website to schedule a Discovery Session with me. We can get started on this and many other tools to help your dancer be perfectly prepared for auditions this winter.

What We Can Learn From Black Swan

The Horror!

The other weekend, in time for Halloween, I finally watched Black Swan. I know, I know, but I had put it off for so long because it had such mixed reviews. Also, I generally don’t care for movies that portray dance and dancers as monsters or crazies.

Well, I was happy to discover that this was not a movie about ballet, but instead about one woman’s descent into madness. I have to say it wasn’t a very good movie, even when seen in that light.

That said there were some things that I thought were interesting and that aspiring dancers could learn from the movie.

Perfection, mistakes, resilience

Right from the start, the protagonist, Nina, states that she wants to be perfect. As a former professional dancer, I understood exactly what she was getting at.

Our teachers and coaches tell us that perfection is what we are aiming for, and the art form almost demands it. So it is no surprise that dancers in general, tend to be perfectionists. They are highly attuned to the mistakes that make them less than perfect.

This isn’t because dancers are crazy, but because this is what we have be trained to strive for. And we aren’t the only ones. Musicians, opera singers, and Olympic athletes are all trained to not make mistakes, and to perform as close to perfection as possible.

But that is not the only thing they are trained to do. Performance is about more than perfection. When we get hung up on it, perfection can get in the way rather than helping us achieve our goals.

The main problem with holding onto this idea of perfection is that it is unattainable. We will make mistakes. It is inevitable.

And, as Tomas (the Artistic Director) said in Black Swan, it is even desirable, because imperfection is what makes a performance exciting, and a dancer alive and human.

What we ought to be focused on, instead, is how we recover from mistakes. This is a truly useful skill and one that we will have the opportunity to use over and over again.

The incredible power of the mind

A teacher of mine once said that if you don’t use your mind, it will use you. That is exactly what we saw happen in Black Swan to Nina: she was not in control of her mind and it got the better of her.

It is terrifying to imagine losing control to such a degree that we cannot distinguish fact from fiction and reality from imagination. When we are performing, it is so important not to let our minds take over and unsettle or derail us.

Strategies Nina Could Have Used

While Nina’s devolution into madness made for a dramatic movie, it’s far from the goal that we want to set for ourselves. Instead, let’s strategize about how we will recover from our mistakes, both in the studio and onstage. To get started, let’s ask ourselves a few questions:

  • What is your current habit when you make a mistake in class or onstage?
  • How do you usually respond?
  • What are your thoughts following a mistake?
  • What are your feelings following a mistake?
  • How does your body feel?
  • Do you tense up, and if so, where?

Taking the time to notice these things is the first step to fixing any bad habits you may have. If for instance, every time you start to fall out of something, you let it go and stop dancing, then that is likely to be what you’ll do onstage or in an audition.

Or if you tend to replay your mistake over and over again in your mind, your concentration is bound to be disrupted.

Take some time to think about these questions, and perhaps over the next week or month, write down the answers. Having a few weeks worth of information will help you spot patterns of thought and behavior.

The next step will be building a strategy to better handle our inevitable mistakes…stay tuned!

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?

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.

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.”

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.

Criticism: How to Handle it Gracefully

One of the challenges of training in the performing arts is staying positive in the face of a lot of criticism. I was reminded of this the other day when I had the opportunity to observe a master class at the U.S. Performing Arts Camp here in NYC. (I’m teaching a master class there next week on Mental Fitness!)

I watched a group of musical theater students sing their audition pieces for a Broadway performer who gave them feedback to improve their performance. It was just amazing to see these teenagers get up and sing their hearts out, and then listen to the feedback and try it over all again.

I was reminded of the courage that it takes, not only to put yourself front and center and perform (which to most people, is a positively terrifying idea), but to submit to immediate criticism. Even feedback delivered in a nice way, as it was that day, can be hard to take. There are days when the slightest tinge of criticism can send us reeling emotionally.

But how should we handle feedback that isn’t delivered positively?

How do we handle negativity when it comes from the teacher?

This is a very complicated issue, so let’s just dive into one part at a time.

How’s Your Self-Talk?

The first and most important thing to consider is how you communicate with yourself. Your attitude colors how you hear feedback. If you tend to be very self-critical, then you are more likely to hear feedback as negative, even when it isn’t.

Conversely, if you tend to be positive and constructive with yourself, you are more likely to be able to take criticism in a constructive way.

Make it Not-Personal

It’s also important to take a step away from the personal when receiving feedback. This is Very Hard to do. After all, performers are the instrument: when you sing or act, it’s you; when you dance, it’s you; when you play, it’s still you even though there’s an external instrument.  We all connect so deeply to what we do as performers that we often feel we are inseparable from what we’re doing. While that’s natural, it’s also important to start developing the ability to distance yourself from your art form so that you can accept criticism in an objective way. This means understanding that criticism is about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it, not about who you are as a person.

My Story

To that end, I’d like to share a story from my training with you. When I was sixteen, I started studying dance at UNCSA, and my main teacher was Melissa Hayden, a former Balanchine ballerina. I spent my first year of training with Milly in shock: I had always had kind teachers – they couched their corrections in positive language and gave as much praise as criticism.

Milly was different. She used language that was harsh, she was dismissive, she was impatient, and she did not like to have to repeat herself.

That first year I cried a lot- I had difficulty understanding her corrections, so it probably seemed to her like I wasn’t even trying to do them. I became unsure of myself and wondered if I was good enough to be a dancer. Her criticism felt very personal to me. It was impossible for me to listen to a correction without feeling like she hated me and my dancing.

But then, during my second year with her, something clicked. In part, I became more comfortable taking corrections from teachers whose styles were different from what I was used to. I also got a thicker skin and started distancing my emotions from the corrections. I worked hard not to take them personally.

The Whole You

How do you develop that distance? We’ll tackle that in another blog post.

For now, just start thinking about all of the parts of you that make up who you are: your mind, your heart, your body, your brain, your interests and passions, your family, friends, relatives, pets. You are a lot more than your art form, and thank goodness for that!

The criticism you get from your teachers and coaches is not directed at you as a person, but at what you’re doing as an artist and a student of a performing art. Sometimes, just telling yourself that is enough to create the distance I’m talking about.

Teachers Are People Too

I also realized that it wasn’t out of malice that Milly lost her temper, but out of frustration at not being able to make me see what she wanted. I realized that she had trouble saying what she wanted with words, and because she was no longer able to demonstrate, she couldn’t show me what she wanted either.

I started to have compassion for her situation and I made it my responsibility to figure out what she was getting at. This was a subtle shift in how I approached working with her, and it made all the difference. I was no longer a victim of someone whose commands made no sense to me. Instead, I was actively trying to find the gems in what she was saying.

Because I became curious, instead of frustrated, I was calmer and more in control of myself. Because of that, she saw that I was really listening. It calmed both of us down.

In Closing

I mention this story because in the performing arts, you rarely get to choose who you work with. Some coaches are incredibly gifted at communicating what they want, and others are not. You still want to learn and grow, so how that happens is really up to you.

There may be people with whom you really can’t find common ground- that does happen. But for the most part, teachers and coaches want to get the best work out of you, so if they deliver their message in a less than positive way, see if you can interpret it in a way that works better for you.

Ask yourself if you’re taking things too personally, and try listening for the gems in their criticism. If it makes any difference, let me know. Like I said, Big Topic- so we’ll come back to this again in future posts!