Clare Guss-West (MA) is a former professional dancer, international choreographer, holistic health practitioner and published author. Clare translates recent research findings in her teaching at Finnish National Ballet and Bern Ballet/Konzert Theater Bern for both professional and adapted dance practice to surprising effect. In her blog, she shares practical applications and tips of using attentional focus strategies in dance.
Below, she shares with the NCDT an introduction to her recent book “Attention and Focus in Dance”.
The 20+ years of research in Focus of Attention in motor skills learning, spearheaded by Dr. Gabriele Wulf, have brought significant understanding to light on the ‘make or break’ role of the attention and the mind in high performance. We can all relate to a high-performing sports person who sustains their winning level not simply by developing more muscle or acquiring more skills-knowledge but by being able to bring and sustain their attention on the task at hand, in the moment whilst filtering out other unhelpful attentional stimuli, or by mastering the essential ability to reset the mind and refocus attention precisely when all does not go as planned.
These mindful skills are trained extensively today in high-level sports; they are based on foundational elements of Eastern movement practice, which emphasize the symbiotic role of the attention and the mind to promote power, precision and heightened sensory perception. More than 90 published research papers now agree that guiding the “movers” attention deliberately onto the desired movement pattern or effect (external focus definition), rather than on to self-conscious, body-part control and adjustment (internal focus definition), has an immediate, palpable impact on performance results and stress management.
These robust findings apply not only to high performers, but to performers of all ages, all abilities or disabilities. For the beginner, older adult, dancer in recovery or dancer with physical or neurodegenerative movement challenges or special needs, a guided, external attentional focus in learning promotes the same immediate benefits as seen for professional performers: deepening of the breathing, lowering of the heart rate, reducing muscular hypertension, increasing range of motion, promoting automatic micro-adjustment to diminish postural sway and re-establish movement confidence. On a cognitive level, using an external attentional focus approach in teaching is found to enhance neuromuscular communication, coordination, reaction time, implicit learning, sensory perception and neural capacity for musical listening, artistic interpretation and freedom for movement enjoyment.
Let’s take a look from a dance-centric perspective at what these two movement science terms, internal or external focus, might be referring to. Both are movement control strategies used by dancers themselves or by teachers and coaches with the intention of improving the movement outcome. Neither term can be taken at ‘face value’ and much confusion has ensued from precisely that mistake. Neither of them is referring to the visual focus of the dancer but rather where the attention is cued to be placed and sustained in order to best support the desired movement outcome.
Internal refers to any kind of movement instruction or cue that encourages the dancer to focus on self-conscious adjustment of their own body parts – this is principally evoked by the naming of parts of their anatomy and encouraging self-correction such as “lower your shoulders”, “straighten your back”, “turn the leg out”. An external focus takes the dancer’s attention away from self to focus on the desired quality, effect, trajectory, pattern, outcome of the movement – so for example for the same movement outcomes, alternative external instructions might be “press down or make space”, “lengthening to the ceiling or aim for a straight, vertical line”, “spiralling outwards more”.
Research findings confirm that taking a dancer’s attention on to the conscious adaptation of their own body parts inhibits the functioning of the body’s automatic control and regulation processes and leads not only to a dysfunction in the ‘named’ part but beyond to adjacent body-parts unrelated to the task at hand, inducing a more global movement freezing or choking. This freezing or choking of automatic processes is debilitating in terms of energy consumption, uneconomic muscle engagement, unnecessary effort, movement instability, inconsistency, limiting stamina and cognitive reserve. Moreover, for those with movement and learning challenges this freezing or choking is devastating to movement success. On the contrary, Professor Rich Masters of Hong Kong University suggests that when we choose to use an external focus of attention, we access the vestiges of our ancient, sophisticated sensory processes that facilitated optimal human movement outcomes in survival situations. In human evolution, these processes pre-date conscious, self-reflective thinking and analysis.
The good news is that the possibilities to harness the benefits of an external focus of attention for cueing and instructing dance are endless. There is a whole spectrum of external focus types available to dancers and teachers, ranging from real and tangible foci such as the environment (the floor, the barre, the stage set, costumes…), the music, a partner dancer, the story, the character, the interpretation, through to sensory, proprioceptive responses to touch, imagery and visualization. Many dancers and teachers are using external focus instructions and self-cues quite intuitively and very creatively already in their work. However, precisely when the pressure is on or the movement becomes more complex, just when performance would most benefit from an external attentional focus strategy, they frequently revert to using internal focus instructions, mistakenly assuming that this conscious control and thinking interference with the movement will assure performance outcomes.
Start by bringing your attention to your habitual attentional choices in dance: just this simple shift of attention will already bring renewed energy to your dancing. Having chosen to take advantage of the benefits of an external focus control approach, perhaps start by recognizing the external attentional focus types that you already enjoy using in your dance practice, then aim to do a little more of something you are already doing quite naturally. For example, you may have been cueing yourself or your students 50% of the time with external focus cues and any increase in external focus on to the desired movement pattern, effect, quality or outcome and away from an internal approach of self-conscious adjustment will be a plus and bring immediate benefits to learning and performance challenges for all dancers. Enjoy your exploration and the attentional journey ...