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Optimal Focus – from research to dance practice

Posted By Clare Guss-West on behalf of the IADMS Dance Educators' Committee, Thursday, May 17, 2018


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This blog post provides a brief introduction to attentional focus and its potential impact on dance training and performance. Attentional focus study is relatively new to dance, whereas the research is now integrated into elite sports coaching – notably football, skiing, golf and swimming. Companies such as The Royal Ballet, Houston Ballet, and Finnish National Ballet are becoming aware of the benefits of these complementary techniques and we have started to introduce them into the dancers’ professional practice.

Since ‘focus’ is one of the three foundational elements of a successful holistic movement, as teaching artist and holistic practitioner I find the attentional focus research accessible and easy to integrate into an artistic teaching practice. 

As I began working with attentional focus researcher Gabriele Wulf, I became aware of the extent to which focus was a significant part of the development of elite athletes and to consider how optimal focus might be fostered in a dance-learning environment, particularly in traditional ballet training. 

Focus cue examples of experienced swimmers:



Attentional focus research findings concur with holistic, eastern movement practices Chi Kung, T’ai Chi and Kung Fu to suggest that significant differences in speed of learning and performance results are experienced dependent on the chosen attentional focus.

What human-movement scientists term an ‘external’ focus (EAF), i.e. a focus on the movement effect, is shown to enhance learning and performance compared to an ‘internal’ focus (IAF), i.e. on a body-part or body mechanism (Wulf, 2013).


Performance benefits of EAF are immediately palpable in increased:

·       movement effectiveness

o   balance

o   precision

o   speed

o   consistency

·       movement efficiency

o   enhanced movement quality

o   associated, minimized muscular activity

o   optimized force production

o   cardio-vascular response

o   reduced fatigue


Additional benefits particularly pertinent to dance:

·      freed-up cognitive reserve

·       greater capacity to multi-task

·       greater capacity to manage stress


Benefits apply in diverse contexts from initial movement learning to professional performance, right through to rehabilitation, producing immediate and lasting cohesive effects on results.


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In a recent study (Guss-West and Wulf, 2016), over 200 focus examples from professional ballet dancers were collated. Focus cues predominantly employed extensive wording and demonstrated an absence of a systematic focus strategy.  The classical dancers in the study were applying multifocal cues and at times, incongruent feedback simultaneously, potentially undermining performance.


Focus cue examples of professional dancers: 



The nature of the foci in the study appeared to depend on the ‘perceived’ difficulty of the task and the amount of thinking time available.


In the study:

·       a balance in arabesque - provoked the most IAF, it seems that given available time dancers are tempted to try to control their body and the result;

·       a pirouette en dehors  - involved the greatest quantity of incongruous information, combinations of IAF and EAF. Perhaps because of ‘perceived’ difficulty and resulting performance stress, dancers try to deploy all feedbacks available;

·       a grand jeté en avant – in contrast, a ballistic action literally ‘too quick to think’, promoted the most concise, EAF cues.




Food for thought:

Ballet dancers and athletes concur that without specific focus instruction, they use a predominance of IAF control cues69-72% IAF (Guss-West C, & Wulf G. 2016), (Porter, Wu, & Partridge, 2010),


Perhaps then - dance teachers, trainers, therapists also currently adopt a similar IAF predominance in their feedback and cueing as that found for some sport trainers and therapists 85-95% IAF (Durham, van Vliet, Badger, & Sackley, 2009).


If so - this would represent a huge opportunity for dance teachers and therapists to reinvent their feedback with simple focus adjustments as part of a clear, conscious focus strategy, that enhances performance and supports the dancer in the technical demands of the discipline, freeing cognitive reserve and permitting a return to focus on the fundamental artistic intention.



References and further reading:

1. Guss-West, C. Wulf, G. “Attentional Focus in Classical Ballet: A Survey of Professional Dancers”. Journal of Dance Medicine & Science, 20.1 (2016): 23-29.

2. Jahnke, R. The Healing Promise of Qi. Contemporary Books, NY., 2002.

3. Stoate, I. Wulf, G. “Does the attentional focus adopted by swimmers affect their performance?” International Journal of Sport Science & Coaching, 6, (2011): 99-108.

4. Wulf G. Attentional focus and motor learning: A review of 15 years. Intl Rev of Sport & Exerc Psyc., 6: (2013): 77-104.

5. Wulf, G. An external focus of attention is a condition sine qua non for athletes: a response to Carson, Collins, and Toner (2015). Journal of sports sciences34(13), (2016): 1293-1295.

6. Wulf G, Lewthwaite R. “Optimizing performance through intrinsic motivation and attention for learning: the OPTIMAL theory of motor learning.” Psychon Bull Rev. (2016): 1382-1414.


Clare Guss-West BHum MA

Dance teaching artist - teacher trainer, Dance Advisor (RESEO) - The European Network for Opera, Music & Dance Education and Director, Dance & Creative Wellness Foundation

Tags:  attention  creativity  focus  imagery  performance  psychology 

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Can creativity be measured? A Duel

Posted By Kerry Chappell and Jon May on behalf of the Dance Educators’ Committee, Wednesday, February 28, 2018

This post derives from a duel held at the symposium for the In the Dancers’ Mind project at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance on December 7, 2017. Here, speakers Dr Kerry Chappell and Professor Jon May, recreate their discussion with the aim of provoking your thoughts. Tell us what you think in the comments below or on social media. Can and should creativity in dance be measured?


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Dr Kerry Chappell

To answer this question, we need to answer two other questions first:


1.     How are we defining creativity?

2.     How do we know the world?


We need to answer these two questions because our definition and our way of knowing will determine the way in which we do our research.


So, to answer question 1, at its simplest, I define creativity as ‘embodied dialogue that leads to valuable new ideas’. In line with post-human scholar Rose Braidotti (2013), I would argue that creativity is embodied across multiple players, that is, it is inherent within human and other-than-human. For example, a table is a creative player, it invites me to create with it in multiple ways. I would like to be very, very clear that creativity is not situated in individuals. In line with the philosopher Bakhtin (2010), I would argue that dialogue and therefore creativity happens in the space in between people, in between ideas, and in between objects. Creativity is the ongoing processing of curious questions leading to more curious questions. ‘Performances’ are snapshots within that process.


Now the second question – how do we know the world? For me, the world is full of multiple perspectives. I do not believe that there are single truths to be discovered, but that we can partially come to know aspects of the world.


So, if I take my definition of creativity and the way that I know the world and I ask myself ‘how do I research creativity?’, my answer is that I should document, explore and characterise its qualities, I am not logically taken down the path of saying ‘I must measure this’. I have therefore spent 15 years documenting, exploring and characterising creativity in multiple educational settings. I have used tools such as conceptual drawing, filming, photography, dialoguing with people about their creativity, and asking them to reflect on it (e.g. Chappell, 2018, in press).


Tests such as the Torrance Test for Creativity (TTCT; 1966) do test an individual’s ability to be fluent, original, flexible and to elaborate. The TTCT tasks include, for example, figural and verbal activities such as asking questions about drawings on a page, identifying alternative uses for objects, making changes to a toy animal to make it more fun to play with and creating drawn images from a series of shapes. The test claims that the different activities indicate people’s ability to think originally and be imaginative.  These abilities may be part of what happens in creativity but they are not the whole of it. So, when a study measures those four abilities and claims to be able to make comment on creativity per se, I question that.


I want to end with two examples. One from my own research, and one from Rosemary Lee’s research within ResCen into her own creative practice. A dance artist within one of my research studies describing creativity said, ‘there’s a black hole of exploration, but after the black hole there has to be a white wall’ (Chappell, Rolfe, Craft and Jobbins, 2011).


Rosemary Lee puts a spotlight on the importance of ‘expectant waiting’ as key to her creativity (Lee, 2007). Expectant waiting foregrounds the importance of waiting in creative dance making, of giving time and of trusting that material will emerge from the process.  I put it to you – that we cannot measure the process of the white wall after the black hole of exploration nor can we measure the process of ‘expectant waiting’. What we can do is embrace those processes with research and tools that are appropriate to them – tools that acknowledge that creativity is dialogic, embodied, spatial and materially dispersed.


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Professor Jon May

Can we measure creativity? No, not directly, but perhaps we can measure the psychological processes and resources that enable someone to be creative, and so obtain an indirect or predictive measure of the likelihood that they will be creative. Arguably, we can’t even measure creative output or success either, directly. The only way that we can say if someone has done something creative is through consensus, because there is no clear way to say whether any given work of art or idea or argument or thought is in itself ‘creative’ or a result of creative activity.


Such an approach is the basis of the Consensual Assessment Technique advocated by Amabile (1982), and of the many biographical questionnaires which ask people about the recognition that they have achieved. If we are happy to use these indirect measures of the things that are created, we should also be happy to use indirect measures of creative ability. In this way, creativity is no different to other psychological phenomena. We cannot measure intelligence, or even define it well, and yet there are widely used tests of intelligence which predict future educational success, occupational status, and income levels. These tests work, and so measure intelligence, even though we do not really understand or agree what intelligence is. They do so by combining a lot of small mental tasks that people agree an intelligent person would be able to do faster or more accurately than a less intelligent person. Similarly, we can come to a consensus about the small things a creative person will probably have to do as part of being creative, and measure them.


Three things stand out: the ability to come up with ideas rapidly (fluency), to change between different ideas or concepts (flexibility), and to produce unusual ideas (originality) (Guilford, 1957). You can see how these ideas might be manifest in dance practice in our previous blog post by Becca Weber and Klara Lucznik here. The more you can do all of these, the more likely you are to be able to be creative. Strictly speaking, you have creative ability, but you need more than this to actually be creative. Being a fluent, flexible and original thinker provides you with the mental basis to succeed in a creative task, but you also need domain expertise to fill in the content of the ideas, and to recognise which of your ideas are worth developing, and to have the skills to turn the ideas into a product within the domain. A highly creative dancer, with many years experience of dance practice, has a very different set of domain knowledge to an innovative graphic designer or software engineer or theoretical physicist, and no-one would expect any of them to succeed in the domains that they have not become an expert in; but they should all be expected to perform well on the three core abilities that support creative thought.


Measuring the basis of creativity does allow us to predict crudely an individual’s creative potential, but it has to be taken in conjunction with their ability to apply that potential within a domain in order to be realised. There is likely to be little overlap between domain specific measures of creativity which include skills relevant to just one domain, so measures of dance creativity which include movement, or production or memory of dance sequences, will not differentiate creative painters, poets, or engineers. Tests based on fluency, flexibility and originality, should. So overall, I would say that the answer to the question ‘can we measure creativity?’ is ‘no; but yes’.


Have your say – can creativity be measured?

Our most engaged comments will be added to the blog to continue the debate!






Amabile, T. M. (1982). Social psychology of creativity: A consensual assessment technique. Journal of personality and social psychology43(5), 997.


Bakhtin, M.M., (2010). The dialogic imagination: Four essays(Vol. 1). University of Texas Press.


Braidotti, R. (2013). The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity Press.  

Chappell, K., Rolfe, L., Craft, A., & Jobbins, V. (2011) Close Encounters: Dance Partners for Creativity.  Stoke on Trent: Trentham.


Chappell, K. (2018, in press). From wise humanising creativity to (post-humanising) creativity. In A. Harris, P. Thomson & K. Snepvangers, Creativity Policy, Partnerships and Practice in Education. Palgrave Macmillan.


Guilford, J.P. (1957). Creative abilities in the arts. Psychological review64(2), p.110.


Lee, R.  (2007).  Expectant waiting. In Bannerman, C. et al., (eds.). Navigating the unknown: The creative process in contemporary performing arts. Middlesex University Press, UK.


Torrance, E. P., Ball, O. E., & Safter, H. T. (1966). Torrance tests of creative thinking. Scholastic Testing Service.



In The Dancer’s Mind is a longitudinal and cross-sectional research project into creativity, novelty, and the imagination, funded by the Leverhulme Trust and being undertaken by Plymouth University, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, and Coventry University.


Dr Kerry Chappell is currently a Senior Lecturer in the Graduate School of Education at Exeter University, where she leads the MA Education Creative Arts specialism and provides dance expertise to the course. Kerry also co-leads the Centre for Creativity, Sustainability and Educational Futures and is a PhD and EdD supervisor. Kerry continues to work as a dance-artist within Exeter-based dance lab collective. Her research includes creativity in arts, science and interdisciplinary education and educational futures, alongside participatory research methodologies. 


Professor Jon May is Professor of Psychology at the School of Psychology, Plymouth University, UK. His teaching and research interests include cognitive psychology, cognition and emotion, and applied psychology. His research currently centres on the role that mental imagery has in behaviour change, motivation and creativity.


Tags:  creativity  debate  duel  imagery 

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Mental Imagery and Creativity

Posted By Klara Łucznik and Rebecca Weber on behalf of the IADMS Dance Educators' Committee, Monday, February 12, 2018

Just like dancers practice physical skills in their technique classes, so too can we practice mental skills. Though we often think of imagery as creating a ‘picture’ in our mind’s eye, imagery is the ability to create mental constructions of any sort--including visual imagery, sounds, movement, emotional content, spatial concepts, or language. These constructions are all forms of mental imagery. Mental imagery is widely used in choreographic practices in contemporary dance, including by artists like Wayne McGregor, William Forsythe, Hagit Yakira, and others. In such approaches, dancers engage in a variety of sensory modalities as a source of inspiration. They might visually imagine an object, spatial shape, or even entire landscape and then transform it into a particular quality, shape, or pathway of moving. Using auditory imagery, they might imagine the music, rhythm, or sounds that influence their movement choices. They might even create a mental image of an emotion or a bodily sensation, like moving through the ocean’s waves or rolling a small ball inside their body. Having created the image, they may transform it into movement or composed phrase (May et al., 2011).



Image: A Wayne McGregor|Random Dance dancer imagines moving a heavy bell around
(courtesy David Kirsh)


Many dance instructors likewise use imagery as a way to refine students’ skills, adding texture or quality to movement’s execution. Indeed, several branches of somatic practice are designed to affect awareness, alignment, or performance through imagery, such as Bartenieff Fundamentals, Ideokinesis, the Franklin Method, and embodied anatomy practices. Research shows that kinaesthetic and somatic imagery play a role in motor learning (Arandale et al., 2014) and have been applied to improve sport performance (Murphy, 1990). You may have even heard of the ‘mental rehearsal’ often encouraged in athletes. A considerable amount of research has shown that imagery and mental practice can enhance motor performance (Krasnow et al., 1997: 47).


Mental imagery comes in many forms, not just kinaesthetic or somatic. We can control the forms of imagery we use. In moving the focus of our attention around the imagery spectrum, we may engage in ‘polysensory imaging’ (Root-Bernstein & Root-Bernstein, 1999). And by mindfully selecting the forms of imagery we engage in practice, our imagery skills can be learned and improved.


Some research suggests that creative thinking can likewise be scaled, or increased with practice. One way to start practicing thinking creatively is through increasing our awareness of the types of forms of mental imagery that we engage with in creative practice. Though meta-analysis has indicated weak but significant correlations between mental imagery and creativity (LeBoutellier & Marks, 2010), it has been proposed that meta-cognition -- our awareness of our mental imagery skills and habits -- can be honed to help us avoid habitual responses when attempting to innovate, and preliminary research with dancers supports this proposition (deLahunta, Clarke & Barnard, 2011; May et al, 2011). Dancers in one study (May et al, 2011) even reported that such metacognition, or reflecting on their own mental habits during movement creation, allowed for more variation in the movement they generated. This increase in variation was achieved by consciously choosing a less-frequently used form of imagery, for example one might opt for using sound as an inspiration rather than kinaesthetic imagery. One project examining the effects of training metacognitive awareness is the In the Dancer’s Mind project.


In the Dancer's Mind - Creative Imagery Training


Image: Creative imagination workshop at Plymouth University.
Photos: L. Clements, B. Weber and K. Łucznik



In The Dancer’s Mind is a longitudinal and cross-sectional research project into creativity, novelty, and the imagination, funded by the Leverhulme Trust and being undertaken by Plymouth University, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, and Coventry University. The project is testing whether training dance students in this metacognitive awareness of their use of imagery improves their ability to make creative choreography. The research compares two cohorts of dancers’ creativity levels at the start of their undergraduate studies and a year later, with one cohort being given training in recognising the forms of mental imagery and their own mental habits when using them.


This intervention was delivered by university dance teachers who used a creative imagery and movement toolkit that includes a teacher’s guide, a course pack, lesson plans, and set of workshop materials, which you can download from


The course comprises 37 exercises, covering six training ‘targets’ that explore and train different modalities of imagery, principles for transforming imagery, and its application for movement creation. Each topic is supported with a theoretical introduction in the form of a short video-lecture. Here you can watch the general introduction to this programme:



The course pack includes a variety of exercises, delivered following the video lecture. The first of these are activities that develop creative imagery through mental training. In these exercises, dancers can explore how to apply principles for transforming imagery while sitting or lying down in stillness. For example, an exercise on visual imagery might ask you to imagine a hat. Then, an instructor may read a script encouraging you to mentally transform the hat by using the twelve imagery transformation principles--these are grouped as principles which change the whole, edit part, or modify the image in different ways.


Try it for yourself: imagine a hat. Can you change its scale and make it bigger (modify)? Can you personalise it--make it one of your favorite hats (change the whole)? Can you add a feather to it (edit part)? 



Principles Cards (credits: In the Dancer’s Mind project)


This same exercise could be done on other forms of mental imagery, like sound. Such mental practice allows students to gain confidence in creative imagery.


Next, students are offered movement exercises, where these mental skills are applied to a movement task. These exercises explore how imagery might be use translate into physical ideas, movement qualities, and generation of dance material. Finally, discussion exercises allow the class to reflect on the experience and discuss with the class or in small groups.


These courses offer a flexible modular design, with suggested lesson plan options which adjust the length of the module or the time of individual classes to suit the needs of the particular group or course. These are outlined in a teachers’ guide that also introduces the general context for imagery use as a choreographic tool. All materials have detailed guidance but are also very flexible, so you can use them in the way you think they will be most beneficial for your practice.


Preliminary results shows that our imagery training successfully increases creativity of dance students, both by improving their creative thinking and advancing the use of imagery in their choreographic process. Teachers who used the In the Dancer’s Mind training programme as a part of their choreographic modules reported that the students’ engagement in creative exploration was raised, and they were able to stick with the task for longer. The effect of training was noticed beyond the choreographic practice modules, with impact on enhancing students’ choreologic analysis abilities and improvisational skills. Furthermore, the principles were found to be applicable beyond the imagery context. If you want to learn more about the project and results of the training programme, just visit the project’s website:


Klara Łucznik, PhD.,  is a Researcher in a field of Dance Cognition and a part of interdisciplinary research group CogNovo at Plymouth University.


Rebecca Weber, MFA MA RSME is a PhD Candidate at Coventry University’s Centre for Dance Research, Director of Somanaut Dance , Co-Director of Project Trans(m)it, and an associate lecturer at the University of East London.



For further reading, have a look at these resources:


Andrade, J., May, J., Deeprose, C., Baugh, S.-J. and Ganis, G. (2014), Assessing vividness of mental imagery: The Plymouth Sensory Imagery Questionnaire. British Journal of Psychology, 105: 547–563.


Krasnow, D. H., Chatfield, S. J., Barr, S., Jensen, J. L., & Dufek, J. S. (1997), “Imagery and conditioning practices for dancers”, Dance Research Journal, 29, 43–64.


LeBoutellier, N. & Marks, D.F. (2010) “Mental imagery and creativity: a meta-analytic review study”, British Journal of Psychology, 945:1, 29-44.


May, J., Calvo-Merino, B., deLahunta, S., McGregor, W., Cusack, R., Owen, A. M., & Barnard, P. (2011) “Points in mental space”, Dance Research Journal, 29, 404–432.


Murphy, S. (1990), “Models of Imagery in Sport Psychology: A Review”, Journal of Mental Imagery, 14:3/4, 153-172.

Root-Bernstein, R. and Root-Bernstein, M. (1999), Sparks of Genius: The Thirteen Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Tags:  creativity  imagery 

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Imagery, Research, and Practice

Posted By Katie Pavlik on behalf of the IADMS Dance Educators’ Commitee, Friday, January 12, 2018

We start our new year with a series of posts by leading experts in the world of dance imagery and creativity.  This first post by Katie Pavlik introduces simple and immediately usable ways for us to embed the use of imagery in our classes from both teaching and dancing perspectives, a great way to invigorate our practice.


Did you know that imagery can be a powerful tool that can affect how you learn, remember, and perform dance?  When I first became interested in dance imagery, I thought of it in simple terms: as mental rehearsal of steps to remember choreography, with a side of pretty metaphors thrown in to aide my performance quality.  Little did I know that imagery is so much more.  Dancers can not only use it to learn movement, but also to reach goals, handle anxiety, and even change their performance.

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Imagery is a conscious action.  The dancer uses their five senses to create a mental image, which approximates a real or fantastical experience.  Perhaps they envision themselves executing a grande battement; this is called technique imagery, which is the mental rehearsal of movement.  If they’re aiming to perfect their turns, they may imagine themselves completing a flawless double pirouette.  This is an example of goal imagery, or images of working towards and reaching dance-specific goals.  Mastery imagery describes images of planning, controlling anxiety, and staying focused, such as a scene of performing with calm confidence.  Finally, role and movement quality imagery contains metaphors and often pertains to characters.  For example, a dancer may create a mental script of a rushing river in winter for use as they dance.  Technique imagery seems to be the most common type of imagery, while mastery is the least utilized in dance (1).

Each type of imagery can serve many different functions.  Dancers use imagery to inspire movement for choreography and solve problems within pieces, such as sorting sequences or figuring out spacing.  Teachers use imagery to clarify technique as well as the thoughts and feelings surrounding the movement.  Imagery can be used to inspire strong emotions or regulate an individual’s mood.  Dancers even use it to ease anxiety or increase motivation during difficult situations such as tough performances or auditions.  Research has shown that technique and role and movement imagery may be especially valuable in helping dancers interpret anxious feelings as useful in stressful situations (1).

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Performing artists, teachers, and students image.  They image in rehearsal, class, and performance.  They image before, during, and after movement.  Anyone can use imagery, and anytime is a good time to image!  If you plan to image, utilize all your senses to create a rich scene, especially your visual and kinesthetic senses.  Memories, pictures, and sounds can inspire imagery, but so can movement itself.  It is helpful to plan imagery prior to use so that you can tailor it to your specific needs and desired outcomes.   Teachers can even design imagery for specific classes or individual students, allowing them to learn about imaging through direct use.  Even though time is short in class, moments can be set aside to show students the importance of imagery.  For example:

a.       Before warm-up, as a time to focus and set goals.

b.      During transitions or while students are waiting, to review steps; small movements that accompany the imagery, or marking, can be especially helpful at these times.

c.       While students are dancing, to enhance the quality of their movement.

d.      At the end of class, to review, set goals, and prepare for future classes.

e.      When injured, to reserve their resources.


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Research has shown that certain types of imagery can increase self-confidence,(1,2) lower anxiety,(1,2) and enhance movement.(3)  As such, performers, teachers, and students can all benefit from this powerful psychological tool.  For further reading and imagery ideas, please see:


1.       Using Imagery to Optimize Dance Training and Performance by Sanna Nordin-Bates, PhD


2.       Dance Imagery: A Literature Review by Katie Pavlik, MSc and Sanna Nordin-Bates, PhD in the Journal of Dance Medicine and Science, Volume 20, No. 2, 2016, pages 52-63


3.       The History and Research of Dance Imagery: Implications for Teachers by Lynette Overby, PhD and Jan Dunn, MS


4.       Enhancing Sport Performance Using PETTLEP Imagery by Dave Smith, PhD


5.       Dance Imagery for Technique and Performance by Eric Franklin



Forthcoming posts over the next months will focus on the application of imagery in dance learning and making, with a specific focus on creativity.  Keep a look-out for those!


Katie Pavlik is an independent dance scientist based in Chicago, IL, USA.



1.       Nordin SM, Cumming J. Measuring the content of dancers’ images: development of the Dance Imagery Questionnaire (DIQ). J Dance Med Sci. 2006;10(3/4):85-98.

2.       Fish L, Hall C, Cumming J. Investigating the use of imagery by elite ballet dancers. Avante. 2004;10(3):26-39.

3.       Hanrahan C, Tetreau B, Sarrazin C. Use of imagery while performing dance movement. Int J Sport Psychol. 1995;26:413-30.

Tags:  imagery  teachers 

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Using imagery to optimise dance training and performance

Posted By Sanna Nordin-Bates PhD, CPsychol, FIADMS on behalf of the IADMS Education Committee, Wednesday, December 2, 2015


Think of a time when you were really enjoying your dancing. Really think about it: how it felt, what you did, and who else was around. Was there music playing? Maybe you can even recall what you were thinking of, or focusing on.

My guess is that you could see the above scenario in your mind’s eye: the image of that time of dance enjoyment. This is the visualization part of imagery, and it is powerful in itself. But just like normal life (and dance training) is not just visual, you could also conjure up a range of other sensations, even though you were not actually experiencing them for real. This is why the term imagery is preferred to visualization: it acknowledges the importance of using multiple senses to make an image as vivid as possible. In fact, research shows us that imagery is more effective the more vivid it is, and vividness is achieved by using multiple senses. Essentially, it is these sorts of rich images which convince your brain that what is going on is real – it is stimulating the very same areas of the brain as actual movement, actual music-listening, actual seeing, and so on.

So why would you want to know this? Well, it is this rich imagery which has been shown to impact on all sorts of things that can be important to a dancer. Below I have listed just a few things that imagery practice can do, in the form of tips for what teachers can encourage dancers to try. I hope you find something fun and useful to try!

-          Improve learning, memory, and performance. Because imagery engages the same brain circuitry as training does, it is a highly valid form of practice. It is therefore a good idea to…:

1.      … encourage dancers to go over skills and sequences via imagery straight after you have done a demo, or when they are waiting for their turn.

2.      … finish a class by going over the newly introduced material via imagery, to help new moves “settle in” and make dancers more prepared for next time.

3.      … suggest that dancers do highly deliberate, structured imagery practice as a replacement when physical practice is not viable, such as when injured.


-          Support self-confidence, motivation and mood. We can practice not just concrete things like steps via imagery, but how we wish to feel, too. Top tips are to suggest dancers…:

1.      … imagine performing with their desired mood and confidence. Ask, for instance, how it feels in their bodies when they are confident. Do they then perform exercises in a particular way? Encouraging them to integrate those feelings or mannerisms into their mental practice will not only make it more fun, but also grow their confidence over time.

2.      … add emotional components when rehearsing a role mentally. There is more to a character or role than their steps, so they can include appropriate facial expressions, gestures and attitudes – maybe even how a character feels.

3.      … have a clear image of their long-term goals to return to when training is hard and mood is dipping. What makes it all worthwhile? We can all use an image like this to support motivation and boost mood.


-          Help planning and goal setting. Imagery can be used to plan for the next class, rehearsal or performance – or career. Especially high-level dancers can be suggested to…:

1.      … go over the things they learnt in the previous class, and any aspects they know will come up in the next class. This reinforces the learning from before, and prepares the mind nicely for class.

2.      … imagine their preparations for big events, to help them feel in charge. This is useful to do slowly, step by step. In which order will they do things like eat, warm up, and put a costume on? Do they need to prepare something for their travel or food? It is often useful to have paper and pen on hand for this, as it frequently results in the need to write “don’t forget”-notes or shopping lists of breakfast items!

3.      … do at least one goal setting session every year, where they go over what their dreams and aims for dance are, and hone those into specific, doable goals. They can use their imagination to conjure up different possibilities of what they might do, imagine themselves in different places (schools, stages…), and use imagery to find creative ways to reach their goals.


-          Aid the creative process. Imagery is great for preparation and technical improvements, but it is of course also a superb tool for the artistic side. Three suggestions are to…:

1.      … try at least one new image in each class, to keep focus, creativity and learning alive. Can you make a basic movement interesting again by creating an image for the arm as something different today? Then go one step further, encouraging dancers to create their own images.

2.      …let yourself create much beyond steps and positions. Inspiring yourself by making a story, perhaps together with the dancers, makes it so much more meaningful.

3.      …eat a varied diet to support your inspiration and creativity by reading, watching films or theatre, getting out in nature, and regularly exposing yourself to something new. Then see how these inputs can find their way into your teaching. Maybe the leaf-fall of autumn helps you imagine a new aspect for a piece? Maybe you will use your imagination to translate complex emotions from a book to a characters’ development in rehearsal?


As you can see, using imagery can really help a dancers’ development. It is also a good way of keeping yourself as a teacher fresh and creative, and of supporting dancers to take responsibility for their own learning by imagining their own goals, and creating their own images for movements and roles. But although the above may seem like a long list, it really is scratching the surface of what imagery can do. What will you try today?


Further resources:

Beyond Physical Practice


Birmingham Research in Imagery and Observation (BRIO) Group - Introduction


BRIO Group - Imagery Resources for the Classroom


The History and Research of Dance Imagery: Implications for Teachers



Dr Sanna Nordin-Bates completed her PhD on Imagery in Dance at the University of Birmingham in 2005, and is now a world-leading expert in the psychology of dance, based at the Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences.  For more information, follow Sanna on twitter @DancePsychSanna


Tags:  dancers  imagery  teachers 

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