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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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How principles of dance science inform a student’s training and performance: A student dancer’s perspective

Posted By Gemma Harman on behalf of the IADMS Dance Educators’ Committee, Sunday, August 6, 2017

This is the second of Gemma’s posts in which she explores the notion of performance enhancement.  Find the first installment here.  In this second post, Gemma summarizes her own research and suggests how students view the principles of dance science in enhancing their training and performance.

What do we know?

The ideas and principles within dance science are frequently used to support the dancer in a number of domains; injury prevention, the improvement of training and performance and the potential for new artistic possibilities, to name but a few. The term ‘dance science principles’ is commonly used by educators and refers to physical, psychological, biomechanical and somatic principles.  In recent years, developments in vocational and professional dance settings have seen dance science principles incorporated in the technical and performance aspects of dance students’ training.  For instance, principles are frequently included in dance science, health related modules and safe dance practice modules within dance student training.  Edel Quin’s minimizing injury blog post is an example of how these principles can be effectively applied to dance teaching and dance making.  

The knowledge of dance science principles are also made available through the IADMS Education sources such as the Resource Papers and the Bulletin for Dancers and Teachers. These resources are comprehensive in informing and inspiring the application of dance science practice within dance training and performance settings.

 

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This blog post will present student reflections on the inclusion of dance science principles in their dance training. These reflections are taken from current dance students at the University of Chichester, UK. 
  
Q1: How has the inclusion of dance science principles supported you in your dance training? 

Dancer 1: Having an understanding of dance science principles has allowed me to become better equipped. It has helped bring knowledge and awareness to what I can and can’t do.  

Dancer 2: I can truthfully say that as a result of exploring these principles, I have been able to better evaluate and compare where I am as to where I should be. I can now also take risks without being fearful. 

Dancer 3: I have learnt so much by incorporating these principles within my training. I have seen the benefits in my body, training and performance.  It’s quite simply made me a better dancer.

Q2: How might dance science principles continue to be effectively embedded in a dancer’s training? 

Dancer 1: It’s really very clear to me, all dancers and teachers need to have an awareness of these principles, whatever their background or ability. The most effective thing that can be done is to ensure everyone knows about them! Teachers need to consider creative ways of sharing this knowledge. 

Dancer 2: Instead of having separate classes or modules on these areas, the knowledge needs to be better incorporated into all aspects of dance training. Everything we do should come from these principles as our goal in training is to be the best we can. 

Dancer 3: Instead of being taught how to apply dance science principles, we should be given the opportunity to experiment and explore how we as dancers can apply the knowledge learnt to what it is we do. Only then can the knowledge shared be a two-way relationship. 

What is the take home message from this post?


While dance science is undeniably developing as a field of study and research, it is apparent from the student reflections included in this blog that the use of dance science principles can aid a dancer’s development and bring awareness in their training and performance. What can educators specifically take home from this blog post? They can be reminded that knowledge and application of dance science principles can play a part in supporting the dancer to reach their full potential.

 

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For further information take a look at these websites  

1. Safe in Dance International 
2. One Dance UK ‘Healthier Dancer Programme' 
3. International Association for Dance Medicine and Science

 

Gemma Harman, PhD Candidate, MSc, FHEA is Senior Lecturer in Dance and Acting Programme Leader BSc Dance Science at the University of Chichester. Gemma is also a lecturer at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and is an Academic Tutor at Bird College of Dance. 

Tags:  dancers  performance  teachers  training 

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What is ‘Performance Enhancement’ in an artistic context?

Posted By Gemma Harman on behalf of the IADMS Dance Educators’ Committee, Friday, July 28, 2017

Our next two posts from the IADMS Dance Educators’ Committee question what we really know about performance enhancement from a dance science perspective and from the individual dance artist’s point of view.

What do we know?


An awareness of how the term ‘performance enhancement’ operates in the activities of athletes is well understood in the field of sport and exercise.  In recent years, there has been a move amongst educators using the term performance enhancement within an artistic setting (i.e. through the teaching of dance science and health related education classes as part of a students’ training).  Whilst educators advocate the need to enhance the learning, performance and artistry of the performer, very little is known about performance enhancement from the perspective of the individual performer.  

As an educator and researcher, I often refer to the term performance enhancement through teaching specifically devised Safe Dance Practice and performance enhancement modules.  However, I am aware that I use the term without really considering its meaning and significance in an artistic context, and rarely from the artist’s point of view. With this in mind, I have arrived at the following questions:

 


 

This blog post will share findings from a pilot study I undertook with ten professional performers (6 dancers and 4 musicians).  The pilot study used a qualitative research approach and interviewed performers to find out their thoughts and views on performance enhancement.  By gaining an insight into what we know about performance enhancement from the individual dance artist’s point of view, it is hoped educators can provided an informed approach to enhancing an individual’s artistic practice.

Findings 

My findings from the pilot study reveal three factors that need to be considered when seeking to understand the idea of performance enhancement in an artistic setting.

 


 

Other findings of interest 

The views of performers can be separated into two groups: (1) those who do not use the term and associate it to external factors (i.e clothing and stage lighting) rather than the performance itself, (2) those who perceive it to be a set of strategies that can be applied to help enhance a performance (i.e warming-up or mental preparation). 

The views of performers imply that performance enhancement is about human excellence, achieved through the attributes they have as individuals rather than sole changes in the preparation and/or enhancement of training.

 

 

What can I do?

Educators: 

When using the term performance enhancement in your teaching, consider whether your understanding is the same when applied to the ‘performer’ or a ‘performance’. Such consideration will provide you with an informed awareness as to what you are wanting to enhance and how you might go about achieving it.  

Give your students an opportunity to have a voice! In turn, this will generate a broader and more consistent use of the term and contribute to our understanding of the concept in an artistic setting more generally. 

Through your teaching consider whether you are delivering the principles of performance enhancement to your students, or the skills for your students to apply and then enhance their own practice (or perhaps both). This will help your students to differentiate between theory and practice and importantly, how such knowledge can be applied to what it is they do. 

Where next? 

Given the emphasis placed on delivering ideas relating to performance enhancement as part of a students’ training, it is crucial that we continue to give our students a voice and to understand more about performance enhancement from the individual dance artist.  As educators, we also need to place greater emphasis on considering what part the performer plays in the enhancement of their training and performance.  This is captured by one performer who shared with me: 

‘‘Performance enhancement is anything that allows you to develop, it can be physical, mental or psychological……. it doesn’t make you a better performer, but it gives you more access to being a better performer, it’s about enhancing who you are and what it is you do’’. 

Useful references 

Hays, K.F. The Enhancement of Performance Excellence Among Performing Artists. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology. 2002; 14, 299-312. 

Krasnow, D.H., Chatfield, S.J. Dance Science and the Dance Technique Class. Impulse. 1996; 4, 162-172.

Orlick, T. (2007). In Pursuit of Excellence. Champaign, Illinois, USA: Human Kinetics. 



Gemma Harman, PhD Candidate, MSc, FHEA is Senior Lecturer in Dance and Acting Programme Leader BSc Dance Science at the University of Chichester. Gemma is also a lecturer at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and is an Academic Tutor at Bird College of Dance. 

Tags:  performance  teachers 

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