So why is attentional focus important for dance?

Clare Guss-West is interviewed by the Swiss Dance Association on the origins of her fascination with attention and focus in dance. Get a glimpse into the background of this innovative work.

CGW: Dance is my life: it’s been a lifelong path, almost a spiritual path – a physical mediation that provides my daily physical and mental grounding and it’s the place where I feel at home, wherever I am in the world.  

In the last few years you have been working intensively on the topic of attention and focus in dance. What particularly fascinates you about this topic? 

Returning to dance to dance at 45yrs, my first surprise was that despite 15 years away from the ballet studio, my own physical performance was much better than at 20 years of age. I was dancing stronger, faster, lighter, easier. How was that possible?!  With the immersion in holistic health and Chi Kung somatic practice, my entire focus had changed. In Eastern Movement practice – Chi-Kung, T’ai Chi, Kung Fu – three foundational foci promote successful movement: A focus on Physical Alignment – A focus on Attention and Intention – A focus on Breath and Energy. All three foci are trained simultaneously for optimal movement outcome. The only difference then was where I placed my mind and my breath – crazy – when I think of the incredible effort of my early training years. Was this a transferable skill I asked myself? I started pilot classes and research in Paris to find out if I could teach these skills to other ballet dancers.

Why are attention and focus important in dance? 

In traditional Western dance training we focus almost exclusively on the first foundational focus – on Physical Alignment or ‘how a movement looks from the outside’, the other 2 foundational foci are barely addressed. This means that many dancers are operating on sub-optimal power, energy, speed. Mindful mental training to develop attentional focus skills is the make-or-break of successful, consistent high-performance. Twenty-five years of sports science research evidences the parallels with the Eastern movement approach to training. The systematic application of attention and focus training in dance delivers enhanced high-performance physical outcomes with less effort, less fatigue, less injury and at the same time enhances artistic capacity and expression.

What do you mean by External Focus of Attention (EFA)? 

Well, this is a detailed and nuanced field of study and the subject of two dance-specific publication now – but I’ll do my best to describe in brief! External Focus of Attention is described as “a focus on the effect of the movement” and it is used as a natural strategy in Eastern movement practice. It is an approach to cueing movement or self-cueing that deliberately takes the dancers’ focus away from the self- and self-conscious control of body parts. This so called ‘external’ focus permits the body/mind to access reflexive, automatic movement control processes and to free cognitive reserve, producing immediately more efficient and effective movement outcomes. In traditional Western dance training we rely very heavily on Internal Focus of Attention (IFA) worded instructions, although we do intuitively use EFA spontaneously throughout our teaching. The challenge is that we do that unconsciously and it is not part of a systematic movement control strategy. This is not a 50 : 50  IFA : EFA choice. When we look at the spectrum of potential EFA types that we might use to give movement instruction or feedback e.g. a focus on musicality, on the desired movement quality, pattern, effect, on artistic interpretation, sensory feedback, imagery, props, the dance environment etc, we see that EFA make up about 90% of the potential feedback choices we might use in dance and that IFA, conscious body-part control instructions are in fact extremely limited as a movement control strategy.   

What advice do you have for dance teachers?

Deciding to integrate the incredible benefits of using an EFA approach to your teaching is a journey, it’s a process, like learning a new language. Results are noticeable in students immediately so that’s encouraging and motivates us to continue and explore further. 

Begin simply by becoming aware of your own habitual attentional choices – how do you guide your student’s attention? On to the conscious adjustment and control of their own body parts? Or on to the desired aspects of the movement? Why and when do you do that? Likely those habitual attentional choices pass under the radar. If we have never determined to use a particular attentional motor control strategy, then it’s likely that we simply repeat what we heard and teach as we were taught, because this sounds and feels most familiar and most ‘normal’ to us. Awareness is more than 50% of the journey – be patient with yourself and enjoy experimenting and enriching your teaching practice.

Read more . . . The full article can be read on the Human Kinetics Blog below. 

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