Work Your Mind As Well As Your Body for Improved Performance
Do you hardly ever miss class, put all your effort into your dancing and strive to perfect your technique day after day, yet still don’t see the results you’d like? Well, it could be all in your head. Sports psychologists have discovered that athletes (including dancers) must train their minds as well as their bodies. Try incorporating the following tips into your daily regimen for a true body-mind workout.
Have you noticed that often when you set specific goals you suddenly acquire the will to achieve them? If so, you’re not alone. Sports psychologists such as Robert Weinberg and Daniel Gould, co-authors of Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology, emphasize setting long-term goals (ranging between three months to two years) and short-term goals (anything between daily to monthly) that are challenging, yet realistic.
A good formula to remember when setting goals is the acronym SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and within a designated time period. “I will attend a summer intensive course next year,” is an example of a long-term goal, while short-term goals are more immediate targets, such as committing yourself to improve your right split through daily half-hour stretching sessions, or promising to try a new dance technique each month.
Be an Optimist
Take responsibility as a dancer to give yourself positive mental encouragement. Congratulate yourself for mastering a step, and psych yourself up to try a challenging move one more time. By saying “I can do it,” you acknowledge that your goals are within your reach, making it more likely that you will succeed in executing that difficult step. Optimism and a positive mental balance go hand in hand, as your brain releases feel-good chemicals called endorphins, which help you to focus on achievement rather than defeat. A negative attitude, on the other hand, only sets you up for failure.
Visualization is the re-creation of an image or experience in the mind, which may be linked to sensory experiences such as seeing, hearing or feeling. Eric Franklin, director of the Institute for Movement Imagery Education in Lucerne, Switzerland, advocates employing imagery to improve not only the execution of steps, but also performance quality. This method can help release muscle tension, making your dancing smoother and more graceful. (Releasing tension is also critical to preventing and dealing with injury.) Try this relaxation exercise: “[Contract] your shoulder blades tightly then slowly release them, while imagining them filling with water, like a sponge,” Franklin suggests. You’ll be surprised at how relaxed your muscles will feel.
Another exercise for strengthening your mind-to-muscle connection is to visualize specific movements before executing them. As an example, go through all the components of a grand jeté in your head, from takeoff to landing. When your brain imagines your body jumping off the ground with your legs in a wide split, it sends small impulses via the nervous system to the actual muscles used to perform a jeté. Though these impulses are the same ones that are initiated when you do perform the movement, they are too small to actually influence the muscles into action, so you won’t spontaneously jeté just by thinking about it. Nevertheless, visualization establishes a nerve pathwaybetween your brain and the muscles associated with that action.
When you physically practice the movement, your brain will recall how it has stored the directions for that movement and will send the correct signals directly to the muscles. This frees you up to think about more important things, like the choreography.
Keep on Dancin’
If you focus on mistakes while onstage, your attention shifts, which could cause your performance quality and emotions to slump. It doesn’t matter if you turned a triple pirouette into a single—all dancers make mistakes. Carry on as if nothing’s happened, and convey to your audience the love you feel for dancing, and nobody will remember the flub. You’ll look more professional, too.
Much of Janelle Ginestra's career has been about helping others shine. She's dedicated herself to supporting and cheerleading her partner, WilldaBeast Adams; the emerging talents in their dance company, ImmaBEAST; and the countless dancers she inspires at master classes and conventions. Her YouTube channel has become a launching pad for young talents like "Fraternal Twins" Larsen Thompson and Taylor Hatala, thanks to viral videos featuring Ginestra's creative vision.
But Ginestra's a skyrocketing success in her own right—an in-demand choreographer, a social media influencer, and a dance entrepreneur, building a legacy one eight-count at a time. It's time for her turn in the spotlight. And she's more than ready. "I want to be a legend in whatever I do," she says. We'd argue that she already is.
Daphne Lee is a queen, and not just in the "OMG Girl Boss Alert" sense of the word. She's an actual queen—a beauty queen. Crowned Miss Black USA in August, she's been doing double duty as she continues to dance with the Memphis based dance company, Collage Dance Collective. Lee's new title has given her the means to encourage other black girls and boys to pursue their dreams, while also pursuing dreams of her own. The scholarship money awarded with the pageant title will assist her as she earns a Masters of Fine Arts degree at Hollins University.
When a choreographer finds a composer whose music truly inspires her, it can feel like a match made in dance heaven. Some choreographers work with the same composers so frequently that they become known for their partnerships. New York City Ballet soloist and resident choreographer Justin Peck, for example, has tapped composer Sufjan Stevens numerous times (last spring, the two premiered The Decalogue at NYCB, to rave reviews); L.A. Dance Project's Benjamin Millepied's working relationship with composer Nico Muhly has spanned a decade and two continents; and when tap dancer Michelle Dorrance premiered the first-ever Works & Process Rotunda Project, a site-specific work for New York City's Guggenheim Museum, last year, percussionist Nicholas Van Young was by her side as an equal partner. Successful collaborations require compatibility between artists, direct and honest communication, and flexible, open minds. But when the stars align, working with a composer can be extremely rewarding.
For ballerinas, it's the dream role to end all dream roles: Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, the type of part dancers spend years preparing for and whole careers perfecting. And it's a role that New York City Ballet principal Tiler Peck never thought she'd dance. Though Peck is one of the world's preeminent ballerinas, her short stature made Odette/Odile, typically performed by longer, leggier dancers, seem (almost literally) out of reach.
Then—surprise!—her name popped up on the cast list for NYCB's fall season run of Swan Lake.
Lani Dickinson's power, grace, and raw presence make her a standout with AXIS Dance Company, whose mission is to change the face of dance and disability by featuring a mix of disabled and non-disabled performers. Born in China, Dickinson was adopted by an American couple and started dancing at 8 in Towson, MD. She attended the Boston Ballet School for two summers, studied at the Idyllwild Arts Academy for the last two years of high school, and graduated with a dance degree from Alonzo King LINES Ballet's BFA program with Dominican University of California. In 2015, she joined AXIS and won a Princess Grace Award. Catch her this month during AXIS Dance Company's 30th-anniversary season—and read on for The Dirt!