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!

 

 

Positive Feedback Loop: Make Your Own

In my post on using video as a feedback tool for improving, I mentioned that the hardest part of that exercise is not becoming completely negative while watching yourself on video.

I promised to come back to this topic because how we feel about our own image either in the mirror or on video gives us some useful information.

The Role of Corrections

For starters, from the earliest days in the classroom, dancers seek out corrections from their teachers in part because corrections are a form of attention.

If you look at other fields of study, being corrected is not necessarily a good thing- it means you’re doing something wrong. But in dance, we seek out that feedback. It is not unusual to hope for attention in the form of criticism, and it informs how we interact with our image.

When most of us look in the mirror, we look with a critical eye, we focus on finding problems and fixing them. This means that we don’t often see the whole picture: we miss the parts that are going well. But dancers are loathe to see the good stuff. Students have asked me, how it is possible to improve and not lower our standards if we are “wasting time” noticing what looks good, instead of “working hard to improve”? Good question.

Positive Feedback Loop

First, noticing what looks good creates a positive feedback loop. When your teacher or friends compliment you, it feels good, right? It doesn’t feel like a waste of time, does it? Of course not! We all love to hear what’s going well. It lifts our spirits and makes us feel fantastic. Those good feelings help us to approach our work in a more positive way. That’s a positive feedback loop.

You are already engaging in something similar when you use the mirror. When you correct a problem, do you notice later that it’s better? Of course you do! That’s how you know to move on and look for something else to fix.

But most of us gloss over the improvement, and move right away to the next problem. This is a missed opportunity. We should pay as much attention to what we’ve fixed as we do to what’s wrong. It builds self-esteem in part because it’s proof that you are improving.

Cultivate Your Own Loop

We all need positive feedback- it helps us grow and improve. But it is unreasonable to expect all of that feedback to come from your teachers because they have the entire class to monitor. You can start cultivating your own positive feedback loop by noticing what’s going well, and allowing yourself to feel good about it. This is an active position, one in which YOU take action, rather than waiting for external feedback.

I would guess that some of you are wondering if this exercise will give you a big ego or cause you to stop working hard. That is highly unlikely in part because dance tends to attract individuals who are driven and ambitious. It’s unlikely that paying attention to the good stuff is going to diminish your drive or suddenly eradicate your well-trained critical eye. Instead, it’s likely that you will start feeling more  emotionally balanced and supported.

Give it a try and see how it goes. You may run into a few things that get in the way:

  • Your body.

All dancers have some part of their body that they wish were different, from the feet to the ears. You may have a hang-up about a body part, and every time you see yourself, all you see is that part you don’t like.

This is a complex problem, but to keep it simple, try this: make peace with yourself. If you want to dance happily, you need to make peace with your body, both its good and “bad” parts. This doesn’t mean you have to ignore them, or stop working on them, but instead, they need to stop being obstacles to your positive feedback loop.

This is so important, I’m going to say it again. You must make peace with the parts of your body that aren’t the way you want them to be in order to move forward with your training and improve.

  • Your self-talk.

It is common among high achievers to engage in what is called negative self-talk. Self-talk is the words or thoughts that you have in your mind when you dance or see yourself. You might see an unpointed foot and say, “Come on, point!!” or “That foot always looks so bad.”

Over time, these negative messages accumulate in your brain and affect the way that you work. Negative self-talk is a major impediment to your positive feedback loop, so it’s a good idea to start noticing if you do it.

Ask Yourself Some Questions

To wrap up, in order to create a positive feedback loop, you’ll want to look at the two issues raised here and ask yourself a few questions:

  • Do I have a stumbling block in my own body? Is there something that I don’t like that I always focus on or look at?
  • When I see that body part, what thoughts go through my mind?
  • When I make a mistake, what goes though my mind?
  • What kind of language do I use with myself when I am working in class?

It’s a good idea to write down the answers, especially the words that you use in your head. Once you do this for a few days, you will be able to see a pattern.

If it’s not positive, try to start incorporating some positive feedback into your day. Every time you spot a “negative” in the mirror/video, also find a positive and really enjoy it. If you find that you use a lot of negative language with yourself, try incorporating some positive phrases in and see how it feels.

Research in performance and sport psychology has shown that positive self-talk and feedback improves performance by a huge margin. Why not give it a try? Let me know how it goes!

Comparisons Done Right: Summer Study

Comparisons…like apples and oranges.

Summer intensives offer so many opportunities for growth and learning. If you go away to another school, the experience is also an opportunity to see how you measure up against other students.

My first few summers away were full of observation. I remember being in awe of some students, watching them almost obsessively and trying to imitate their technical and artistic bravura. There was always this period of intense watching before I could shift my focus back into my own body.

Overall, observation and imitation helped me pick up little things that I hadn’t been exposed to before, like stylistic flourishes and different qualities of movement. And as I got older, I continued to observe other dancers and “steal”** from them, but it occupied a lot less of my energy because my work became more about my own needs.

Comparisons Done the Right Way

I am a proponent of observing fellow dancers in your classes and learning from them. But in my experience, many students approach this exercise in a negative way, comparing themselves and coming to conclusions about how “bad” they are, and how good everyone else is. If this sounds familiar, or if you think that you might be spending too much time looking outside yourself instead of inside, ask yourself some of these questions:

  •  How much time do I spend during barre and centre looking at someone other than myself?
  • What thoughts are going through my head when I look at other dancers?
  • Are my thoughts positive and constructive?
  • Are my thoughts negative and critical?
  • Am I making comparisons between those dancers and myself?
  • What is the nature of those comparisons?
  • Am I ultimately learning anything by looking at other students in my class?
  • Am I improving by using the information I’m getting from observation?

If you find that you are spending more time looking at other people than working on your own stuff, you might want to ask yourself why that is. Are you hiding from yourself? Or are you just very distracted?

It is really only useful to observe others up to a certain point, after which, your work really needs to be about you.

If, on the other hand, you are using observation as a tool to improve your dancing, and it isn’t interfering with your own concentration, then you’ve probably found a good balance.

Framing Comparisons

Think of comparisons as opportunities to learn or “steal” something, rather than a measure for how you fall short or don’t measure up. That is, “I really like how she scoops up her foot in coup de pied as she’s doing a developé…I’m going to try to do that.”

That’s much more helpful than, “The way she articulates her feet is amazing; there’s no way I can do that.”

Framing your observations in terms of what you can learn changes the reason for looking, as well as the impact- and it makes observation worthwhile rather than upsetting or damaging to your sense of self.

 

** The art of the steal: A teacher of mine once told me that all artists “steal” from each other. Musicians imitate their predecessors, painters mimic their teachers, and of course, dancers do as well. “Stealing” is when you see someone do something in a way that moves you, or makes sense to you- it can be technical or artistic- and then you imitate it. Most of us do this instinctively without even thinking about it, because the training model encourages it. We watch our teachers and we mimic their way of moving. I always found this to be one of the great reasons to watch other dancers closely.

 


Video: Tool or Weapon? You Decide.

Now that we’ve talked about the mirror, a tool that is often misused, I want to turn for a minute to video.

Most of us have seen ourselves on video at one point and may have been disappointed by what we saw. Often the reason for that is that what we see recorded is not what we felt when we were performing. Why is that? I’m not exactly sure, but I can tell you two things.

First, no video can capture the thrill of live performance. What you felt onstage is real and it’s yours to keep.

Second, no performing artists are happy with recordings of their work. Try asking musicians how they feel about the recording of their latest performance. They will point out all the errors. Same thing with actors and singers. So you are not alone in feeling that what happened on stage and what you can see in the video are not equal. That said, video can be a great tool for improvement, which is what I want to talk about.

Video as Weapon

Using video as a weapon is a dramatic way of saying that you use it to tear apart your dancing and/or yourself. Focusing all of your attention on what you don’t do well and feeling terrible about it, is truly a missed opportunity (not to mention a very bad habit to get into).

Video as Tool

Instead, think of video as a tool through which you can learn more about your dancing. Try this experiment.

  • First watch the recording and allow yourself to experience whatever emotions you feel.

It’s okay if you aren’t 100% happy with what you see. Take a little time away from the video if that’s the case, so that you can process those feelings. Take a whole day if you need it. Then take a deep breath, and…

  • Watch the video again, this time noticing what looks good.

Imagine you’re watching a close friend of yours and you want to compliment him/her on the video. (Go ahead. You’re the only one listening.) It’s important to train your eye to see both the positives and the negatives. Seeing only one or the other is not being realistic, and will make it hard to use the video as a tool for improvement.

  • Now, rewind and watch the video a third time with a notebook handy.

This time, focus on what you see without any judgment. Try not to criticize or compliment yourself while watching. Instead, pretend you are watching that close friend of yours again and you are taking notes to help this person improve. Use positive, constructive words to correct yourself, like “place arabesque behind you” rather than “arabesque is all wonky.”

  • Use your corrections on yourself when you practice.

Now that you know what needs work, start to apply it. Be kind to yourself, and remember that muscle memory is stronger than your brain, so it will take time to “reprogram” your muscles. Just stick with it, and try to get your muscles to comply.

  • Videotape yourself again doing the same piece/variation.

Some of the changes you make might feel simple, but remember that your muscle memory may revert to the old way out of habit.  It can be helpful to video yourself more than once to see if you are applying the corrections you spotted. Don’t worry if you aren’t and don’t beat yourself up about it. This process of seeing, correcting, and trying again is part of becoming a better performer and it requires patience.

If you can do this, if you can watch yourself on video, note your strengths as well as your weaknesses, take notes and then apply them to your dancing, then you will be using video in a smart, sophisticated way that will help you improve.

The hardest part of the entire exercise is not becoming completely negative while watching yourself, so please try to avoid that trap! I will address that issue in my next post so stay tuned…

If you try the experiment, let me know how it went! What did you notice or learn?

Mirror, Mirror On the Wall: Part II

So you have discovered that you use the mirror as a crutch. Now what do you do? Here are a few things to try: **

  • Change barre placement: stand where you can’t see yourself.
  • Change centre placement: stand in the back, or on the side where your full image is not visible.
  • Try doing normal, non-dance things without a mirror. If you practice yoga or go to the gym, don’t look in the mirror. Try to feel and sense things instead.

This will all feel weird. Don’t worry and don’t give up. You are highly adaptable and in a few days, it will feel normal. Think about how the first rehearsal on stage feels so strange, but then, within a few run-throughs, it starts to feel better.

My Story

It wasn’t until I got injured that I changed my relationship with the mirror. I learned that when I was forced to face the wall, I lost a lot of my turnout and placement. I also learned that my alignment when jumping was slightly off, which I couldn’t see very well during en face allegro. The physical therapist I worked with at the Boston Ballet helped re-orient me in the studio so that I was looking inside of myself for my alignment and balance, not in the mirror.

I started taking barre a few days a week without looking at myself. I learned to place myself in the centre off to the side, behind the piano, so that I would be forced to dance without seeing my image. It was hard!

At first it was so disorienting to not get the immediate feedback I was used to. I couldn’t see how good or bad things looked so I didn’t know what to work on. Instead, I had to focus on what it felt like in my body. And you know what? I adapted. My body and mind adapted. I learned how to look inside for my center and how to feel my technique. I didn’t have to see it to believe it.

This was an important lesson that I learned much too late.

Doing these little experiments can help you understand whether you base your feelings about yourself, your body or your dancing on what you SEE in the mirror or what you FEEL in your body. This is an important distinction, but most of us can’t feel it because we’re so distracted by what we see.

Try this out and then tell me: What did you learn? Did anything surprise you?

 

** NOTE: If you are like many dancers, you have a certain way of doing thing. You like “your spot” at the barre; you have a special way you like to stand so that you can see yourself just so. Which means, of course, that you may not want to experiment with standing somewhere else. But if you’ve noticed that you use the mirror as a crutch, then do try some of the experiments. I promise you, you will learn a lot about your dancing and discomfort is often the first sign of growth. Don’t be afraid to try something new!

Mirror, Mirror, On the Wall: Part I

Mirror as Crutch

As dancers, we are trained to work in front of a mirror. For as many as eight hours a day, we scrutinize every inch of our bodies from our fingertips to our toes, searching for…what? Are we using the mirror to scrutinize our dancing or are we getting distracted?

I was taught that the mirror was a tool and that by looking, I would become more self-sufficient at spotting and correcting my errors of alignment, line, and technique. In fact, when I was training, I used my reflection constantly to correct myself and it was helpful.

However, at some point in my training, the power dynamic shifted and the mirror came out on top. When I couldn’t see my reflection, my technique suffered. When my image was blocked by another dancer, I didn’t feel my feet or my extensions in the same way. I became reliant on my reflection to dance well. It stopped being a tool and became a crutch.

How Does It Happen?

In my experience, this is something that happens to most dancers at some point.  We often have trouble feeling things like where an arabesque is (90 degrees? 110 degrees?) or whether our feet are pointing in petite allegro, so we look at our reflection to see what’s going on.

Find Out Where You Stand

If any of this sounds familiar, then try this little experiment over the summer. Start by asking yourself some questions:

  1. If I am having a good class- I’m on my leg, I feel centered and balanced- does that change if I stop looking in the mirror?
  2. Does my image of my body or technique get better or worse when I see myself?
  3. When I see my image in a distorted mirror (the so-called “fat” mirror), does this change how I feel about myself or my dancing?
  4. When my reflection is “taken away” or covered, do I panic? Do I lose my center and my bearings? If so, how long does it take for me to get re-oriented?
  5. How much time do I spend correcting errors vs. noticing other things about myself (hair, make-up, leotard, etc) or other dancers?

Your answers to these questions may indicate that it’s time to start thinking about how to change your relationship with the mirror. It will take some time, but will be well worth the effort. You’ll dance in a more organic way if your movement comes from what you feel in your body, rather than what you see with your eyes.

Answer the above questions and tell me what you’ve learned. I’d love to hear from you. Next time, we’ll talk about ways to start changing how you work with your own image.

Female Athlete Triad: know what it is!

The Female Athlete Triad is named for three health problems that are linked:

  • low energy availability
  • menstrual problems
  • weak bones

ENERGY AVAILABILITY

Energy availability refers to how much energy from food is available to your body after you have exercised. If you don’t eat enough, your energy availability will be very low after you dance- so low that other healthy functions like getting your period, repairing muscle tissue, and building bone won’t be able to happen.

Dancers, athletes, and other physical performers can also lose strength and muscle mass when the amount of food eaten is too low compared to the level of activity. Over time, this can cause you to feel more and more tired, get sick more often, and take longer to recover after injury.

MENSTRUAL PROBLEMS

When the body doesn’t get enough food and energy, its normal reproductive functions can be interrupted. Missing a period every once and awhile can be a sign that you aren’t getting enough calories in your diet. Missing three or more cycles in a row is a sign that your body isn’t happy. It means your body isn’t producing enough estrogen, a hormone that is necessary for menstruation and…building strong bones. (The term for this is amenorrhea.)

WEAK BONES

I’ll bet you didn’t know that your period was linked to bone health. (I certainly didn’t when I was dancing.) I also didn’t know that peak years for building bone start in puberty and end at age 20. This is such a small window to build strong bones!

In order to make the most of it, your body needs to have food and energy available; when your hormones communicate that not enough energy is available, your old bone cells don’t get replaced with new ones. Weak bones are susceptible to breaks and fractures, which keep you from performing and weaken your skeleton.

THE CONNECTION

So remember how these three things are connected: low energy from not eating enough food can cause your reproductive system to “shut down” and not produce a menstrual cycle; when this happens, the body isn’t producing enough estrogen which is needed to build and maintain strong bones. When your bones become compromised, you are at risk for developing stress fractures and early osteoporosis.

If you have even one of these three things: low energy availability/erratic eating habits, irregular periods, or stress fractures/reactions, you could be at risk for developing the Female Athlete Triad. And that means you could be at risk for getting injured.

If you have any one of these components of the Triad, talk to your parents and doctor right away. If they don’t know what the Triad is, print out this page and share it with them. Please don’t compromise all of your hard work and dreams for the future by ignoring the warning signs of the Triad!

HOW DIET FITS IN

All of this information serves as a reminder that eating a healthy diet is crucial to becoming a strong performer. We may think that we know what we’re doing when we play around with our diet in order to fit into a costume or feel ready for an audition, but your body does not go along with these practices. Your body knows what it needs to perform its best: it needs regular energy availability, which is a fancy way of saying FOOD.

If you don’t know what to eat, or feel that your eating habits are not good ones, email me  or talk to your parents or doctor. As a health coach, I help performers find ways to maximize their energy and keep their bodies healthy. You don’t have to do it alone.

Source: The Female Athlete Triad Coalition, femaleathletetriad.org

Performance Preparation: Have a Plan

It’s springtime, which means preparation is underway across the country for end-of-year performances. It’s an exciting time of technical and artistic growth as dancers push themselves to meet their onstage goals.

It can also be a time of physical and mental stress and fatigue, which is why it’s important to have a performance preparation plan. If you are wondering what that is, it’s simple: a performance preparation plan is a plan of action for the weeks and days leading up to your performance.

Because your rehearsal days will be longer and longer, you will be more tired as you get closer to the performance, which means it’s unlikely you’ll have a lot of extra energy to focus on things like food preparation or research on ways to be more centered or relaxed. Instead, try getting some concrete resources together now, so that everything is ready for you when you need it.

Resources to Add to Your Performance Plan

  • Relaxation

Both the mind and the body react negatively to stress. Part of being fully prepared for a performance is having a plan to manage your stress levels. Most of us have things that calm us down, like listening to music or taking a hot bath. Many health professionals recommend mindful breathing as an incredibly effective tool for relieving stress. Click here for some breathing exercises that you might want to try.

Whatever your relaxation methods, try to have at least one you can do in less than 5 minutes in a public place, like the dressing room or the wings. While taking a hot bath is wonderful, it won’t help with your “5 minutes to onstage” nerves.

  • Sleep

Once the rehearsals start getting more intense, you may find that you are more tired than usual. Listen to your body. You may want to plan on getting an extra hour of sleep every night. If that involves some schedule shuffling, make time to figure that out. Come performance time, you want to feel well rested and energized.

  • Diet

The foods we eat have such a strong impact on our energy levels and ability to perform. Ironically, the closer we get to performance, the more we tend to eat on the run and slow down our own cooking. Don’t let this happen to you! Set up some meal plans for the next few weeks, including portable snack. Do one big shop when you get everything you’ll need.

Depending on how much you’re dancing, you may need to increase the amount of food you’re eating. If you’re feeling unusually fatigued, make sure you are eating protein+carb combos both before and after dancing. Some popular combos are apples+peanut butter, carrots+hummus, cottage cheese+fruit, beans+rice. Small amounts regularly throughout your dancing day will keep your body fueled for what’s coming up.

  • Water

Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Dehydration leads to fatigue and lack of concentration. Make sure you are replenishing your water supply all day, especially in the morning when you wake up (before coffee or tea).

  • Performance particulars

Check your makeup, hairpins, pointe shoes, elastics, etc. now to be sure you have enough of what you’ll need for your performances. Have extra of anything crucial so you will not have to go out and buy it the week of the performance. Having all of those particulars ready to go will help your mind to relax so it can focus on more important things.

  • Positive Mantra

Don’t let fear of failure or self-doubt get in your way. Have a positive mantra handy that you can repeat to yourself while breathing mindfully. This simple tool can be incredibly effective for combating stage fright and calming your nerves. Scroll down to my last blog entry for more information.

If you can get these things in order, you are likely to approach performance season more relaxed, well-fueled and well-rested than usual. All of which sets you up for an optimal experience onstage.

Merde!