If you have ever taken my class you might be familiar with this phrase:
“The Problem is not in your body, it’s in your head.”
I have always been a thinking dancer, I have always loved trying to solve the puzzle of the body, finding the connections between steps and techniques, I think it’s fascinating that you can shift one thing and everything can change in an instant. As a teacher I promote thinking as a way of not only improving but taking accountability and ownership of the information and for your development. The truth is that once you get to a certain level as a dancer you actually have enough information to solve most problems or issues you are encountering on your own. You just have to learn how to diagnose the problem and prescribe the right dosage of adjustments, that’s really what teachers do. So thinking is paramount, but that having been stated, where our minds can help us they can also be the roots of our problems. From telling us we are not good enough, and undercutting our efforts, our mind can be like a mean girl (boy) bully. That is when we have to wrangle it and get it under control.
If you are having trouble executing something it the problem may not be what you are physically doing, but how you are thinking about doing it. There is a simple truth the mind tells the body what to do; it really doesn’t work the other way around. The brain is the original computer, it has the capability of taking in information, storing it, recalling it, applying it all in a matter of seconds. But in order to get the correct results, we have to put accurate information in! If you put the wrong directions into your car’s GPS then you will end up in the wrong place. The mind is the GPS of the body, theoretically if you put the right directions in, you will end up in the right place. Learning combinations, understanding the technical elements and intentions within it, as well as the dynamics and musicality of the elements are all part of the directions that you have to input into the GPS of your mind. As clear as you are about all of these points the clearer your execution will be. A great example of this is the building of a complicated petite allegro. If you can’t say the exercise in rhythm, chances are you won’t be able to physically execute the exercise, whereever you verbally stumble when reciting the steps in the exercise is probably where you will physically falter.
There are a few reasons why the mind becomes a hindrance instead of a help.
Focus/Attention– it is always easy to read where someone’s focus is when they are dancing. It’s not magic, it’s actually quite obvious. Let’s use the example of pirouettes- tell a dancer to do a double pirouette, they prepare and turn, they whirl around and probably manage a double revolution. They turn, perhaps the position is not so great and the landing is a bit bumpy but they get around. Why? Because they are focusing on the turn, so they do in fact turn, but is it a pirouette? Well that’s another story. It clear that the focus is on the revolution because that’s what happened, they turned, but what doesn’t happen in the turn speaks of where their focus isn’t. Now change the focus to the actual position that you turn in (let’s say passé) or the idea of balancing and staying up in the turn, perhaps you focus on the way you are going to come out of the turn and when you try it again something will shift. When you take you focus off of the idea of turning (because in truth both the mind and the body fully understand “turning”) and put it on “how” the turn is arrived at and the energy and attention shifts. When some of the things that were unattended get attention and activate, the pirouette will start to show up.
From class to class, combination-to-combination, step-to-step we have to constantly re-focus our minds to give attention to what is important in that moment. Sometimes it’s in the body i.e. the arms, the back, the connecting step but other times it can be the musicality, the rhythm or the quality (breath) of the steps. The most difficult part of properly focusing the mind is the fact that it does not leave space for our indulgence. Often times what we really need to focus on is that last thing we want to think about- because it’s challenging, tedious, or just doesn’t feel good, so we want to don’t deal with it, and hope that somehow it will go away or no one will see it. Think about it, people with gorgeous feet or flexibility spent most of their time pointing their feet and stretching, never mind that they have weak abdominals, or have no jump – you will seldom see them strengthening their core before class. Likewise you can bank on finding people who are turners or jumpers twirling and leaping all over the studio at 8:30 in the morning before class- forget that they have an abysmal port-de-bras. They do it because it feels good, it looks good, and working on what isn’t working is—well work! We have commit to being less indulgent and more intent on putting our attention our focus to what needs work so that we can enjoy our nature blessing guilt free! When we handle problems they cease to be problems, avoidance is not a solution.
Intention- This is a huge one. Often times I will ask a student “What are you thinking when you do that?” This is often met with a blank stare like “What? What am I thinking?” If we continue with the concept that your mind is the GPS of your body then there are times when we think we don’t need directions or assistance, we think that because we have “driven home” a million times we can get there with our eyes closed. We go on automatic pilot. There is a tendency to check out when we do things that we think we know, we have done plies and tendus hundreds of thousand of times so we go on automatic pilot, but that’s like driving home with out looking at the stoplights, you are on route but it’s just not a great idea, it’s dangerous. Intention and focus are linked. You have to think about what it is that you want to achieve, experience, or accomplish with each exercise, a goal of sorts, and this will create/determine a direction for your focus. Moving without intention is just that, moving, dancing requires a high level of coordination, and integration, of technique, artistry, musicality, muscularity, breathe, rhythm, special awareness and more. Applying intention and focus requires a high level of mental engagement, think about it, if your mind tells your body what to do, then after a day of dancing you should not only be physically tired but mentally exhausted as well.
Clarity and Intention- One of the biggest ways the mind (not the body) can be the problem is when you simply have a misconception about what it is that you are trying to do. If you have the wrong idea of what you are trying to do, even with intention and focus you will not get the desired result. Sometimes you have the wrong idea of what you are meant to be doing- i.e. ronde de jambe en l’air, you might be thinking that you are trying to make a circle with the leg- after all that is what it looks like at first sight, but the reality is different (only the lower leg moves, you are making the letter D) once you know the particulars you can better work towards it. Likewise sometimes we have the wrong idea about what part (s) of the body do certain things, i.e. when we think “pull up” or use the abdominals a lot of times the ribs open- when really one has nothing to do with the other, or when we use our port- de-bras and back becomes involved (like in grand plié and as the arm comes to first position the back bows over) perhaps because we think of the phrase “use the arms from the back” which is true but that does not mean that the back becomes sympathetic to the action. We have to learn to be clear about the actual action we are doing and which parts of the body are actually involved in getting it done.
This goes into another issues, the misconception of dancing the “feeling of the step” Now this sounds like what we as artist should be doing but in actuality it’s not. Take arabesque- or what I like to call “Fling-abesque” where the air is sky high with no real direction, or balancés with flowery formless arms. These are prime examples of dancing the “feeling” of step. Pique Arabesque has a beautiful oppositional length from the tip of the fingers to the tip of the toe, it looks like there is so much freedom that there is a “Whack” but that is not the reality of what you are trying to do. Likewise balancés look floating and flowery, but there are clear pathways for the arms. The movement of the and back looks greater than it actually is due to the coordination of the movement of the step and the changing of the arms and head, but it does not swing. So the question of “What am I really trying to do?” In a technical sense, and “What am I trying to do? – What am I thinking about?” becomes important as it informs you as to what your intention and focus, the directions that your GPS gives to your body.
As dancers we are physical beings and there is so much emphasis on what we can or can’t do physically sometimes we forget that there are other ways of getting things accomplished. There is definitely a time to think and a time to feel but the best dancers (people) are able to find a balance between the two. When you have been pushing with the body and have hit a plateau, or feel blocked, try to shift your focus, attention, or intention to another area of the work, pull back on the physicality and try to approach the work from a different mental perspective and there might be a shift, or at the very least you can lessen your frustration and get work done on another level (mentally, artistically) it’s all valid and necessary. This is also important when we are working with an injury, or we are physically tired (a time when we are prone to becoming injured). This does not mean that you are not physically working; it just means that your working with a different intention- you work fully but just putting attention in a different place.
Give it a try, and remember this to is just one possibility, it has worked for me, it may work for you!