How can you be a ‘mindful’ dancer?

Have you ever thought about being a more “mindful” dancer? How might one go about doing that? Why might one want to do so, in the first place? Being mindful involves staying attuned to the present moment, and remaining fully engaged in the task at hand. Given dance’s real-time physical and mental demands, it seems evident enough as to why remaining mindful would be advantageous for dancers.

Here, we speak with Stephen Ursprung, assistant professor of Dance Studies at Dean College; and Danielle Davidson, dance artist and assistant professor in Dance at The Boston Conservatory at Berklee, to learn more about the what, why and how of mindfulness and dance training.

Stephen Ursprung. Photo by Melissa Blackall Photography.

Why aim to be a truly “mindful” dancer? “A truly masterful dancer embodies a complete integration of physical virtuosity and intellectual intention,” Ursprung says. “Any mindful practice gives dancers the opportunity to reflect on their physical experiences in order to understand their strengths and opportunities.”

Davidson has “found that mindfulness in dance training may assist in increasing physical and mental health/wellness, general awareness, injury prevention, connecting with others, joy, compassion (especially self-compassion), clarity, stability and more.”

One way to be mindful as a dancer is though the written word, through journaling – choreography, class corrections, larger artistic ideas and inspirations, thoughts and feelings concerning your artistic journey, and more. Ursprung says he does not journal heavily, yet that it’s very helpful for restaging works and keeping a record of creative processes. He says that he keeps a journal whenever making a new work. “I’ve found that I’m never able to recapture the integrity of my dances when I restage them unless I am able to reference the journal I kept during rehearsals,” he explains. “I use a lot of writing exercises in my creative process, so my journals capture the mindset that my dancers and I were in when we created the work.”

Davidson shares that she loves to frequently journal – including “creative writing that sort of resembles poetry” and “stream of consciousness via emails or letters or personal essays….just catching up with close friends, or long distance friends” – with a pen and notebook. “I’ve found it to be advantageous in a number of ways: self-witnessing in the moment or in retrospect about the hows and whys in regards to choices, desires, fears and also in getting new perspectives on events, situations and interpersonal relationships,” she affirms.

Ursprung recommends “unplugging” – even for an hour – to be more mindful, as well as centered and authentically creative. He shares that he’s committed himself to staying away from electronic devices for an hour a day.

“Learning to enjoy silence has been incredibly energizing, and I’ve found that it’s during these moments that I have the most creative ideas,” he asserts. “Technology distracts us from boredom, and I believe that boredom fuels innovation,”

Ursprung explains that he requires his dance composition students to detach from technology for an hour, and journal in that time instead, as one of their first assignments. He shares that they come up with more creative ideas in these hour periods than in long weeks and months of rehearsing. “Lean into boredom!” he urges.

Davidson shares that she finds mental rehearsal, or visualization, particularly helpful. This method involves seeing yourself in your “mind’s eye”, so to speak, dancing at your best. “I usually lie on my back on the floor or in bed and close my eyes. (If there is music in the choreography, I will play that music as well.) And then in a soft focus sort of way, I imagine the dancing, the moving through space; I imagine the lights, the other bodies, and the feelings and sensations, the textures of the air, the height of the ceiling, the audience. I really try and embody the experience sort of as if I am having an out-of-body experience.”

It can be particularly effective to journal or mentally rehearse after class or rehearsal. Try to go somewhere quiet and calm, where you can focus with relative ease. Home can be such a place, but distractions – from puttering to snacking to television – can abound. Cafes and libraries can be other good options. Try putting on your headphones or earbuds, with some instrumental or soft rock-type music. Research demonstrates music’s ability to enhance the flow and function of brain waves. (Although lyrics can be distracting, so this mostly applies to music without them.)

As you journal or visualize, reflect on corrections – from the specific (“Try to push more clearly through the ball of your foot.”), and the general and grander in scale (“Let the movement move through you rather than try to make it happen.”). Perhaps think back on things that inspired you, made you smile and gave you joy, and, in contrast, things that challenged you or brought other negative feelings. How did you feel about the movement? How did it make you feel? If you’re reflecting on choreography to be performed, what is the meaning of the work to you? Why might this meaning matter? Apart from such guidelines, let your heart and intuitive mind guide your writing hand or visualizing mind. If you’re truly staying mindful, none of it is “wrong”. It can only only help you be a more focused and attuned dance artist.

By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.

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