Attentional Focus – a new frontier for dance

Attention is like a muscle that becomes stronger and more controllable

over time. (Watson 2017, 250)

If you just pause a moment over this internet page, notice how many millions of possible stimuli there are around you, all vying for your attention. That might be screen publicity, attractive images, pop ups, notifications - now take your attention away from the screen and notice any background sounds or noise you can hear - the traffic, children playing, a distant music. Take your attention up and notice the colours outside the window. Take your attention far away to the movement of the clouds and then suddenly inwards to any discomfort or tension you might feel in your own body at this moment - to the movement of your breath.

You have been actively exercising your attentional focus and consciously or unconsciously making attentional choices to filter out all the other potential stimuli in order to focus on the words in this blog and their meaning. These attentional decisions are happening every moment of our waking and dancing day. And the worrying part is that for the most part they are happening 'under the radar' without us even being aware of the physical cost of our attentional choices.

When we are dancing our attention is similarly frequently darting here and there - an attentional movement can be a millisecond: from a teachers instruction, to a glance in the mirror, to a negative self-thought, to a self-instruction for body-part control, to thoughts about lunch, back to the mirror, to focus on the movement at hand . . . and so on in an endless loop passing for the most part undetected. However each of these attentional movements has a real cost to performance. Each movement of our attention, particularly those that involve self-instruction and correction to control a part of the body, quite literally drain energy and power from the present movement and the present moment.

There is no such thing as an 'idle thought' as we call them euphemistically in English. Wherever we place our attention then all physical and mental resources follow. So if we are allowing that to occur unconsciously, without making conscious attentional choices or without an attentional strategy for high performance - then our energy is dissipated and are performance flickering in and out of focus like some neon tube - and we are far from dancing on optimum.

Just by starting to become aware of this movement of your attention whilst you dance is already a giant step forwards on your journey to strengthen your attentional focus. Become aware of the choices you make, which of the stimuli do you allow to interrupt your dancing? What external incoming information could you wisely filter out when dancing? Once you start to become aware then you have the possibility to choose where to place your attentional to support you best performance.

Attentional focus is our ability to guide and sustain our attention on appropriate foci or imagery through self-cueing or guided by a teacher’s or coach’s attentional focus instructions (Wulf and Prinz 2001). At the same time as we strengthen the ability to sustain our focus of attention, we develop our ability to actively filter out all other stimuli, distracting thoughts and information irrelevant to our performance.

Wednesday 11th November at 5 pm CET I'll be introducing some powerful attentional strategies with Finnish National Ballet team and dancers from across the globe. Start your attentional journey and take your dancing to the next level. Registration:


Watson, Gay. 2017. Attention Beyond Mindfulness. London: Reaktion Books

Wulf, Gabriele, and Wolfgang Prinz. 2001. “Directing Attention to Movement Effects Enhances Learning: A Review.” Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 8(4): 648-660.

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