Why You Should Foster a Mindful Dance Practice

What does it mean to foster a mindful dance practice?

Fostering a mindful dance practice blog post by Abigail Keyes

Mindfulness Is Good For You

Being mindful, according to experts in the field, is the act of noticing your feelings, environment, and physical sensations without judgement. It is the opposite of what we might call “checking out” or being on “auto-pilot.” Being mindful means ignoring our Ego and our “Monkey Mind.” And even though it has roots in Buddhist meditation and philosophy, it can be quite secular.

Some of the most powerful business leaders are investing millions of dollars on mindfulness workshops and retreats for their employees. Marc Benioff of the San Francisco-based company Salesforce famously consulted with Vietnamese Zen monks to improve employee well-being, and Google’s “Search Inside Yourself” program has a 6-month long wait list.

A number of scientific studies have shown that people who practice mindfulness meditation are less likely to have a wide range of illnesses, from heart disease to depression. Those who exhibit trait mindfulness—that is, those who make mindfulness an inherent habit rather than just a deliberate practice—are even healthier.

Mindfulness also has a profound positive impact on our interpersonal relations, allowing us to observe our emotions and the emotions of others before reacting. It can even reduce implicit age and race bias. Whoa.

Dancers Are Already Mindful…

Dancers by nature practice a kind of mindfulness when we go to class. When we integrate new movements into our bodies, we must be aware of the present, listening to our bodies, observing our instructor… hopefully without judgement.

When a class is just challenging enough, we are forced to be present if we want to physicalize what is expected of us. Maybe it means remembering a full combination or doing a difficult technical element. We can’t mentally check-out if we are to integrate these movements into our bodies.

When it comes to mindfulness, dancers have a leg up. (Pun alert.) Afterall, dance technique is really just fancy habits, and habits are what we do without thinking.

…But Sometimes Not Enough

But what about those movements that we know? What about that repetitive drill that we’ve done a bazillion times or that choreography we’ve been running for five years? You know… those exercises that when your teacher asks you to do them, you might go, “But I know this already!”

It’s super easy to go through the motions and take a mindless approach to these elements of our dance practice, letting our bodies take the lead.

We dancers often rely heavily on “muscle memory” to get us through a rehearsal or performance. It can be easy to let our body do the work, and it should. There is a certain amount of automaticity that must happen in our bodies for us to do our job. But sometimes that doesn’t always mean transcendent mind-body connection. A recent study compared practitioners of Vipassana meditation with a sample of dancers, and found the meditators had a greater integration of mind and body.

I’m sure you’ve noticed when a dancer is not being mindful in class or rehearsal. Maybe there’s that one who doesn’t know how long their arms are and keeps running into you. Or maybe there’s a fellow company member who keeps making the same mistake over and over again. Or that one who just doesn’t integrate a doable correction, no matter how many times the instructor or director reminds them.

These dancers could benefit from taking a moment to reflect and observe their bodies.

Chances are that if you noticed these mistakes, you made a judgement call on them. Maybe a little mindfulness could help you, too!

Dance is Always New, Even When It Feels Old

Every day we step into the studio or on the stage, we must take a moment to take account of our bodies. Every day is different. Weather, hormones, a bad day at work, a fight with our significant other can all affect our movements.

When we give ourselves a moment to acknowledge those changes, and, most importantly, accept them, our time in class and rehearsal can be more productive and more positive.

A mindful dance practice also allows us to find the newness in material that might no longer interest us or challenge us. Every dance form has those movements and techniques that we must do over and over again, whether it be a part of our warm-ups or performance. But as performers, we cannot afford to get bored, because our audiences will feel that lack of engagement. They’ll know that we’ve checked out and let rote muscle memory do the heavy lifting.

And as a dance teacher, I can tell when my students are checking out. And I can tell you that it sometimes gives the impression that they don’t care about the work. Ouch.

Small Ways to Be More Mindful While Dancing

Many dance classes have repetitive warm ups, or at least movements that repeat every time. Instead of just going through the motions, observe yourself as you do these exercises. Are you putting your full attention into them, or is your mind wandering? If it wanders, breathe, and focus on the intent of the exercise.

Personally, I like to focus on different body connections as I dance. What is the relationship between my fingers and my toes? The crown of my head and my sacrum? My right and left halves? What about your facing in the room? Taking account of how these shift as I move gives my Monkey Mind more than enough to chew on, allowing my more active thinking to focus on the task at hand.

The next time you learn a combination or new dance, how can you best be mindful not only of your own body but the space around you? Maybe you are that dancer with the long arms who runs into fellow students. Notice when this happens, and observe how much space you need without popping someone else’s space bubble.

At the end of class or rehearsal, take note of how you feel. Were you happy with yourself or frustrated? Did the teacher give you feedback? Did a fellow student’s behavior affect you? How did it make you feel? Do you think you did well? Reflect, but don’t judge.

I feel that I’m just beginning to integrate mindfulness into my dance and teaching practice. Is this something you do, either as a teacher or student? Tell us in the comments!





Flock You! How to Be a Better Dance Company Member

I’ve spent most of my movement “career” as a soloist, only responsible for the placement of my own body in space.

As a figure skater, I had to learn quickly how to dodge other skaters, maneuver around small children on skates for the first time on crowded public sessions, and predict the pathway of experienced national and international stars preparing for triple-revolution jumps. As I navigated around the other skaters, I had to avoid the crowds, and work through them to take advantage of space and openings to practice my own jumps, spins, and programs. Occasionally, I would perform group numbers with other skaters, but that didn’t always go so well for me. (One of these days I’ll tell a story about that…)

As a belly dancer, too, I’ve spent most of my time as a soloist. But for the past several years, I’ve been performing as a core member of a company, and my responsibilities are quite the opposite. Instead of avoiding other dancers, I must move in unison with them, predicting their movement not to get out of their way, but to match their body angles, arm and leg lines, and facings.

Learning how to move as one with a group of people, while remembering choreography, facings, staging, and other complexities is not easy. But it taps into a kind of sixth sense that we humans do have.

Flock

Moving With Others Is Instinctual

Humans are social creatures. We learn at a very young age how to read the body language of our parents and the other people around us. By mimicking and interpreting the gestures, facial expressions, and other physical movements of our fellow humans, we learn to integrate into increasingly larger and larger social circles.

One way that we integrate into social situations is by literally imitating the physical actions of those around us.  In dance improvisation, we call this “flocking.” Of course, we see flocking in nature, too, in the flight patterns of migrating birds and in swirling schools of fish. And several recent studies of human behavior indicate that this instinct is inherently human, should we allow it to manifest. We see it in the behaviors of demonstrators, concert-goers, and Black Friday deal-hunters….whether we like it or not.

The ability to harness this human instinct conscientiously and flock and change direction within a crowd is essential to being a strong member of a dance company.

Then, if it is born into us, why is it sometimes so difficult to match our fellow dancers in rehearsal or on stage?

Well, when we add in additional cognitive and physical actions, such as remembering choreography, counting music, playing finger cymbals, additional blocking or staging, the brain is doing much more than just following the crowd. We must not only keep track of where we are in space in relation to our fellow dancers, but also trust our technical training, engage with the audience, and put on an entertaining show. This takes time, but with practice and mindfulness, you can improve your ability to read your fellow company members.

Fostering the Flocking Feeling

How can we work on our flocking instinct and become more integrated members of our dance company?

  • Start in class. When you’re in class, you are not alone. Sure, you are there to work on your own technique and progress, but you are also part of a group. Also, we are often in class with other students who are in our respective dance companies. Being in class is regular, low-pressure opportunity to “vibe” out your fellow company members, and get in sync with them as you drill, work across the floor, or dance a combination. In many of the modern classes I’ve taken, the instructor will encourage following the other dancers over following the music.
  • In rehearsal, when running group choreographies, pay special attention to the upper backs of your fellow dancers. The width of the upper back, including the shoulders, often determines the facing the body, and when performing set choreographies with changing facings, it’s important that everyone’s upper bodies are all facing the same direction at the same time. You’ll notice that if one dancer’s back is slightly off from the rest of the group, the entire group will look look less cohesive.
  • If you’re a company director, take some time with your dancers to try some improvisational flocking games. Try the second game on this page, aptly called “Flocking.” Encourage your dancers to play with facings, arm pathways, traveling directions, and level changes. See how tightly the group can move together, and how closely the dancers can follow one another.

Of course, some choreographies, such as modern and contemporary pieces, don’t always rely so heavily on strictly-timed, unison movement. Each dancer might be dancing a different phrase, or the same phrase in different timings. But many dance forms do feature this choreographic device, such as the tight unison of this hula halau at the Merry Monarch Festival in Hawai’i.

Next time you rehearse, remember these shoals of anchovies and mumurations of starlings in the wild, and know that the ability to follow your fellow dancers is already in you.

 

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