Using imagery to optimise dance training and performance
Author: Sanna Nordin-Bates PhD, CPsychol, FIADMS on behalf of the IADMS Education Committee
Think of a time when you were really enjoying your dancing. Really think about it: how it felt, what you did, and who else was around. Was there music playing? Maybe you can even recall what you were thinking of, or focusing on.
My guess is that you could see the above scenario in your mind’s eye: the image of that time of dance enjoyment. This is the visualization part of imagery, and it is powerful in itself. But just like normal life (and dance training) is not just visual, you could also conjure up a range of other sensations, even though you were not actually experiencing them for real. This is why the term imagery is preferred to visualization: it acknowledges the importance of using multiple senses to make an image as vivid as possible. In fact, research shows us that imagery is more effective the more vivid it is, and vividness is achieved by using multiple senses. Essentially, it is these sorts of rich images which convince your brain that what is going on is real – it is stimulating the very same areas of the brain as actual movement, actual music-listening, actual seeing, and so on.
So why would you want to know this? Well, it is this rich imagery which has been shown to impact on all sorts of things that can be important to a dancer. Below I have listed just a few things that imagery practice can do, in the form of tips for what teachers can encourage dancers to try. I hope you find something fun and useful to try!
- Improve learning, memory, and performance. Because imagery engages the same brain circuitry as training does, it is a highly valid form of practice. It is therefore a good idea to…:
- … encourage dancers to go over skills and sequences via imagery straight after you have done a demo, or when they are waiting for their turn.
- … finish a class by going over the newly introduced material via imagery, to help new moves “settle in” and make dancers more prepared for next time.
- … suggest that dancers do highly deliberate, structured imagery practice as a replacement when physical practice is not viable, such as when injured.
- Support self-confidence, motivation and mood. We can practice not just concrete things like steps via imagery, but how we wish to feel, too. Top tips are to suggest dancers…:
- … imagine performing with their desired mood and confidence. Ask, for instance, how it feels in their bodies when they are confident. Do they then perform exercises in a particular way? Encouraging them to integrate those feelings or mannerisms into their mental practice will not only make it more fun, but also grow their confidence over time.
- … add emotional components when rehearsing a role mentally. There is more to a character or role than their steps, so they can include appropriate facial expressions, gestures and attitudes – maybe even how a character feels.
- … have a clear image of their long-term goals to return to when training is hard and mood is dipping. What makes it all worthwhile? We can all use an image like this to support motivation and boost mood.
- Help planning and goal setting. Imagery can be used to plan for the next class, rehearsal or performance – or career. Especially high-level dancers can be suggested to…:
- … go over the things they learnt in the previous class, and any aspects they know will come up in the next class. This reinforces the learning from before, and prepares the mind nicely for class.
- … imagine their preparations for big events, to help them feel in charge. This is useful to do slowly, step by step. In which order will they do things like eat, warm up, and put a costume on? Do they need to prepare something for their travel or food? It is often useful to have paper and pen on hand for this, as it frequently results in the need to write “don’t forget”-notes or shopping lists of breakfast items!
- … do at least one goal setting session every year, where they go over what their dreams and aims for dance are, and hone those into specific, doable goals. They can use their imagination to conjure up different possibilities of what they might do, imagine themselves in different places (schools, stages…), and use imagery to find creative ways to reach their goals.
- Aid the creative process. Imagery is great for preparation and technical improvements, but it is of course also a superb tool for the artistic side. Three suggestions are to…:
- … try at least one new image in each class, to keep focus, creativity and learning alive. Can you make a basic movement interesting again by creating an image for the arm as something different today? Then go one step further, encouraging dancers to create their own images.
- …let yourself create much beyond steps and positions. Inspiring yourself by making a story, perhaps together with the dancers, makes it so much more meaningful.
- …eat a varied diet to support your inspiration and creativity by reading, watching films or theatre, getting out in nature, and regularly exposing yourself to something new. Then see how these inputs can find their way into your teaching. Maybe the leaf-fall of autumn helps you imagine a new aspect for a piece? Maybe you will use your imagination to translate complex emotions from a book to a characters’ development in rehearsal?
As you can see, using imagery can really help a dancers’ development. It is also a good way of keeping yourself as a teacher fresh and creative, and of supporting dancers to take responsibility for their own learning by imagining their own goals, and creating their own images for movements and roles. But although the above may seem like a long list, it really is scratching the surface of what imagery can do. What will you try today?
Dr Sanna Nordin-Bates completed her PhD on Imagery in Dance at the University of Birmingham in 2005, and is now a world-leading expert in the psychology of dance, based at the Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences. For more information, follow Sanna on twitter @DancePsychSanna
Birmingham Research in Imagery and Observation (BRIO) Group - Introduction
BRIO Group - Imagery Resources for the Classroom