Bridging IADMS Webinar #1 – ‘Attention is a process’

Authors: Emma Redding, PhD and Clare Guss-West, MA

The first webinar in a 5-part series ‘Bridging IADMS’ - Discovering attention and focus strategies in practice took place on May 29th 2021. Aimed at dance educators the first webinar was entitled “How to use an external focus of attention in effective teaching.”

Clare Guss-West, MA and Ellie Kusner, MSc, took us on a metacognitive journey to explore the role of attention and focus in learning and teaching dance. The overwhelming interest in this subject from dance educators meant that the webinar was completely sold out. Attendees arrived from all corners of the world eager to understand more about using external and internal attentional focus in practice. The webinar comprised an ideal balance of theory and practical opportunities for dance educators to play with attentional focus in this relatively uncharted territory in dance. Participants experimented, trying out for themselves and with their peers, different approaches to cueing movement. This challenged teaching habits we didn’t even realize we had!

Teaching artist Anamarija Jandrasek shared that her major "take home" point was “The confirmation of the need to teach beyond the mechanics of the body-parts and encourage class participants to find the artistic expressions of movements in their own diverse bodies.”


Clare explored comparisons with somatic and Eastern movement practices to explain the intersectionality between approaches. She described attention as a process whereby dancers are continually choosing whether to focus or filter the information they receive. There are different ways in which educators can cue movement for dancers and invariably, it seems we meander between offering external attentional cues (focus is on the movement effect, the desired intention and effect, the trajectory of the movement) and internal attentional cues (focus on the body parts) without much deliberate planning. However, Clare commented that, "It is helpful when we become more mindful of the kind of cues we are giving, so that we can utilize what ‘works’ well for each of our students".

Research (200+ studies) has shown that guiding performers to use an external focus of attention is consistently more effective relative to using an internal focus of attention and this is the case for all levels of ability. By comparison, promoting an external focus of attention brings about improved movement quality, effectiveness and efficiency, enhanced motor skills (eg. balance, speed, precision) and improved learning capacity (eg. speed of learning and retention). Somewhat surprisingly, using an external focus of attention provides greater cognitive reserve. Furthermore, it appears that dancers become autonomous in their learning more quickly, when using external attentional focus.

Following this introduction, Ellie taught a movement phrase, which Clare playfully deconstructed. Ellie’s verbal cueing was categorised as promoting an external or internal focus cueing and it was interesting to experience how her cueing naturally shifted during the time she was teaching, from predominantly internal attentional instructions to external attentional instructions through the learning process. Language which seemed to allow a more external focus included rock forward, tap, press the air, sit into a chair, expand, fold, and rise. Clare explained that this kind of language helps dancers to keep attention away from ‘self’, conscious body-part adjustment and more towards the quality and desired effect of their dancing.

For dance lecturer Joe Harrison Bowie, the ‘take home’ points were that “the more complex the motor skill the more pronounced the benefits.” And “other systems 'shut down' as we bring our focus to a more internal focus which speaks to the need for a more holistic approach of the interplay between internal and external focus of attention.”

Following time in small groups to explore with each other, how we might challenge our habitual ways of cueing movement, we returned to an insightful Q&A commenting on the way in which the use of the studio mirror is instructed can determine where attentional focus will be. This led to a discussion on the use of props, partnering and musical score.

A pivotal moment came when Clare explained that from the perspective of Eastern movement practice that dancers lose power every time they shift attention to the conscious control of a particular body part and away from the quality of the movement and the dancing. Ellie and Clare explored how the freezing or choking that comes from a focused attention on specific bones or muscles seems to paralyse our ability to move as a whole expressive dancing body and recommended that we might support students in the development of the skill of attention that can be developed just like all the other skills learned in dance.

For dance professor Sarah Victoria McCormick, the ‘take away’ points were, “trying to verbally change your approach to describing movement or providing movement instruction was interesting - challenging, but enjoyable. Providing more visual imagery promoted a full mind/body connectivity. Receiving immediate feedback from dance colleagues was very helpful! I’m looking forward to applying more of this approach in my dance courses, as well as offering my K-12 Dance Education candidates a new way of processing movement.”

The good news is that dance teachers do already use many cues that bring the dancer's focus on to the external purpose of the movement, however they frequently use them spontaneously rather than as part of a strategic movement control approach, often thinking of them as the 'fun' part of dancing. Using external focus of attention cues can be very straightforward and can be utilized from the beginning, providing positive benefits that support the demands of the technique, promote the physical and mental well-being of the dancer and result in a more subtle, expressive and successful performance.

Each month, host Clare Guss-West, MA, together with guest presenters and specialists from varied disciplines, will lead attendees in a practical, interactive session that explores how to implement this research directly into practice. For those who are unable to attend these webinars, the good news is they will be made available as a learning resource for IADMS members later in the year. Roll on the next one for Dance for Health teaching artists, educators and facilitators! June 18th 11am ET/5pm CET ‘Shifting attention to enhance learning and inclusion’. Register your place today!


Personal reflections provided June 2021 by:

  • Joe Bowie, Dance Lecturer, School of Communication, Northwestern University, USA. IADMS Dance Educators Committee
  • Anamarija Jandrašek, Dance teaching artist, Croatia
  • Sarah McCormick, Professor Dance Education/Coordinator of K-12 Dance Education Licensure Program, University of Tennessee in Martin, USA