Using Intentions: A Powerful Tool for Teachers and Students

The definition of intentions is determining to act a certain way, having a mental plan, creating an aim or purpose.

Intentions are different from goals in subtle ways. Goals have a clear end product or aim with specified steps to get you from point A to point B. If you want to master a pirouette you first need to be able to balance on one leg in good alignment, have the strength of the calf muscles to be in relevé, to understand spotting, and so on. There are clearly defined steps to mastering a pirouette.

Intentions are a bit different – it’s setting an aim or purpose and then not being quite sure how it is going to play out of happen. It’s being clear with what you want – and then working from where you are without judgement. It often comes from the heart rather than from the head. There is less ‘failing’ with intentions – where there is often much failing with goals.

Before teaching I like to set intentions for my teaching. This may be as simple as being calm and compassionate towards all my students to setting an intention to be connect everything we do that day to the breath. My intentions change depending on how I am that day, but the majority of my intentions are always focused towards being the best teacher that I can be in order to inspire and support my students in becoming the best dancers (and humans) that they can be.

To create an intention I start with declaring what it I want from that class time. Some people write it down, I just give myself a few quiet moments before teaching to verbalize as clearly as possible to myself what my aim or purpose will be. It’s very helpful to be able to state your intention in 10 words or less.

Then I envision how I will feel during and especially after class if I successfully fulfilled my intention. It is really important to set the emotional tone before stepping into the classroom.

The most important step of all is to take a few minutes after class or at the end of the day to ponder how successful I was with my intention – what worked well and what I could do better next time.

Teaching your students to set intentions is as powerful for them as it is for your own teaching. Sometimes I will begin class by asking my students to set an intention and to say it out loud. These intentions can range from ‘I want to notice how I am using my feet’ to ‘staying present instead of thinking about how tired I am.’

Halfway through class have them take a brief moment to acknowledge (to themselves) how they are doing with their intention. Did they forget they had an intention? (That often happens) What have they learned about their intention so far and do they have any suggestions for the second half of the class?

Then…the most important step is to leave enough time at the end of the class for them to quickly and briefly state out loud to the rest of the class what their learning was, what worked, what didn’t, and how they would approach it next time.

It may seem that will take too much time in class, but once the students have the process down it really doesn’t take much time. It is essential that we begin to train our dancers in reflection or metacognition practices. If you have a very large class you could ask a certain number of the students to share and then ask other ones at the next class.

You will be training your dancers (and yourself) to move efficiently and more quickly towards success. The more common pattern for dancers (and teachers) who don’t take the time to reflect is that they keep making the same mistakes over and over again and begin to hardwire an inefficient pattern into their brain and bodies.

Try it… and please share in the comments below your feedback and experiences with using intentions!

To your success,

“Education is the key to injury prevention”

Ankle Mobility

Shot a quick clip about an ankle mobility stretch that was very interesting to me for what I learned about my standing balance between my two legs and how a simple asymmetry may throw off your alignment during stretching.

Try it and see what you learn about your own movement.

To your success, Deborah

Hypermobile and Tight?

There are many dancers with hypermobility. This is when joints, like the elbows, knees, thumb, etc., can move beyond the normal range of motion. There are different tests to assess where a hypermobile person might fall on the spectrum – but for our purposes let’s just consider the dancer who clearly has hyperextended knees and can easily fold over and place their palms on the ground in standing as having some hypermobility.

I was curious when these very flexible students would complain about feeling tight. Tight? I would think to myself? That doesn’t make sense. I wish I had your flexibility.

Of course, I would never say that to them. If someone is feeling tight – that is what they are feeling and no one should try and persuade them otherwise. Our job as teachers is to help them become familiar with their body and its sensations.

But what if that sensation of tightness is actually tiredness or fatigue? Think about how a hypermobile dancer often stands as they are conversing with friends outside of the studio. They sink into their knees, often shift over into one hip, and drop into chest and lower back. They’ve got an S shape to the spine. Their postural muscles are out to lunch and they aren’t in a stable standing alignment.

Do they need strengthening? Perhaps… but there are hypermobile dancers who test very well on individual strength tests. It’s more the alignment and postural muscles aren’t working appropriately, typically because of sloppy standing habits. What’s happening outside of class is a powerful influence both on the body and what’s happening in the studio!

I would like to offer a different tactic. The goal is to shift feeling ‘tight’ into feeling ‘better’. If you have some hypermobile students, or even better, if you are a teacher with hypermobility, try some balance exercises. If you have a low balance beam or a 2X4 piece of wood, or an 18″ half foam roll walk easily on it (forwards, backwards and sideways). Don’t be too precious with the way you walk. Meaning, be in good alignment, but don’t ‘hold’ yourself and try to balance. It’s not unusual to put a lot of tension into your arms and shoulders, for example, as you are trying to stay balanced over your feet. Breathe easily as you are walking and balancing.

When I coached gymnastics a million years ago, we would have the kids step forward on the balance beam, and then demi plie and sweep their other leg forward to repeat on the other side. They would work their way down the whole beam, doing some port de bras movement to keep them from stiffening their upper bodies. It was an easy and fun warmup exercise.

Try placing a weight in each hand and do some slow motion walking around the room. (You can have your hands by your thighs or even bend your elbows and have the weights up by your shoulders) The weights are to create awareness of any asymmetries in your movement. The goal is not to do ‘strengthening’ but to ask your body to appropriately align itself for easy yet stable movement.

Then check, or have your student check-in with how they feel after doing a balance/postural/stability exercise. Do they feel any less tight? It’s surprising that many will say they feel better in their muscles even without stretching. Yay! This demonstrates that more stability and motor control is the way to go!

This doesn’t mean that stretching and soft tissue work are bad – but potentially doing stability/postural work might progress and support the hypermobile dancer – and help them feel less ‘tight’!

Try this out for yourself and/or for your students and please share your feedback in the comment section below.

To your success,


What’s Wrong with Me?

We’ve all said that phrase at one point or another when we’ve started feeling twinges or pain in different body areas. It’s not an unusual event for a dancer or athlete. It’s a common question that many of us have asked at various times over our lives. I sure have.

After listening to one of my favorite PT’s, Gray Cook, discussing pain he put forth an idea that I have continued to ponder and so decided to share it with all of you. He said that instead of asking what’s wrong with me, ask what am I doing wrong?

This, my friends, is a simple but powerful reframe!

When my lower back first started aching my first question was – what’s wrong? Arthritis? Disc problem? It caused me to worry and become hyperaware of the discomfort. I always pay attention when my body is feeling uncomfortable because I know pain and discomfort are simply indicators that something is not right and my body is letting me know.

I don’t get panicky or freaked out – I’m simply listening to the messages from my body.

BUT….. I was initially focused on trying to diagnosis the problem in my back. If I went to the doctors, they would have offered some type of product (anti-inflammatory?) or procedure (PT, surgery, etc.) Their goal is to also alleviate the discomfort and figure out what’s wrong.

Instead of asking what’s wrong – what if I had asked myself what am I doing wrong? Looking at the bigger patterns of lifestyle influences along with technique patterns can be a powerful and appropriate place to begin your rehab journey.

If a student’s knee starts hurting it is important to check if there is any ligamentous challenges, but even MORE important for them to ask themselves questions such as:

Was I pushing my turnout too far? (technical cause) How has my nutrition been lately? (sugar…. inflames the body) Am I fully hydrated? Am I getting enough sleep? What’s my nutrition been like lately? Any big shifts in my schedule or classes? Coming off of a break? Doing a lot more sitting now that school has started? What’s my stress level like? (increased stress decreases immune system and appropriate inflammatory responses)

These are all things that should get addressed in the rehab process, but often don’t until the injury or ache has increased to the point that we have to make lifestyle changes.

I want to be clear, I am not saying don’t go to a practitioner to get an accurate diagnosis. I am saying that when we are honest with ourselves we can often find ways to optimize our health immediately. In health, everything matters! The fuel you take in, the rest cycles the muscles require, emotional and mental resiliency, and sound technique.

Going back to my own achey back… I resolved it by focusing on appropriate stability for my lower back and mobilizing my hips. This was the start of my journey that culminated in the Mobility and Stability Training: Foundations of Functional Movement course.

In the future I will be much quicker to ask what am I doing wrong? I encourage you to think about this approach with your students as well. It isn’t always what’s happening inside of the dance class that is the underpinning of the problem. There can be factors outside of their technique that will influence their physical ability.

To your success, and health,

Deborah ❤️

Wrong Joints for Extension

We all know the action for a grand battement or développé to the front is at the hip. The hip flexors, the quadriceps and iliopsoas muscles, are the prime movers for this movement. If you’d like to reread a post on how to get higher extensions, click here

There is a real challenge to the lower backs of students who don’t have the mobility at the hips to keep the spine aligned. Let’s watch the clip below.

Did you notice the lower back rounding as she lifted the leg forward? That’s where the lumbar spine is taking over for the hips, trying to get that leg up higher. If this habit is allowed to continue over time, that lumbar spine, which should be providing stability for this movement is going to become vulnerable. If you have a student who says their lower back is aching after doing a lot of battements, you should suspect this pattern.

To help this student I would work on their hip mobility. Remember mobility and stability include motor control. Just because someone looks flexible and can do the splits, for example, doesn’t mean they will execute an extension or battement correctly.

Try this quick test. Have them lie on their back, both legs extended and then lift one leg up towards the ceiling.


You are checking where they can take the leg without influencing the spine. They should keep the normal small curve in the lower back and NOT press their low back into the ground.

Watch for the leg that should stay resting on the ground and make sure the knee isn’t starting to bend slightly and left. This can be very subtle (unlike the bottom picture where it is pretty clear that the left knee is starting to bend.

You do not have to have the foot flexed as you lift it up as I have shown in this picture. A relaxed foot is fine, but the knee should not bend.

See how high they can lift their leg without compromising any other joints. If it is below 90 degrees when alignment shifts you can focus on increasing the flexibility of the hip extensors (hamstrings) and hip flexors (quads and iliopsoas). I say it that way because if the knee bends on the lower leg they could be lacking flexibility to the hip flexors. If the moving knee bends too quickly, hamstrings could be lacking flexibility.

If they can easily do the movement with both legs staying straight and the spine staying in neutral – the challenge might be in the ability of the abdominals to stabilize the movement of the leg and/or a sequencing or motor control challenge.

If you want to learn more about how to assess mobility and stability, please check out my online course, Mobility and Stability Training: Foundations of Functional Movement.

To your success!


Upper Middle Back Release

Easy and quick way to release upper back tension – especially good after working on the computer!

Interesting Test

I love it when a held position can give you so much information! Comparing sides on the half kneeling position is one of those positions.

To your success!


Mobilizing the Soleus Muscle

Here’s a quick clip on how to mobilize the soleus muscle. It’s great for those dancers who feel like their demi plié is too short. Enjoy!

Flattened lower back: Structure or Habits?

I have a student who has experienced some lower back pain. She had x-rays taken and was told that she has a reverse curve shape of the bone structure in her neck. There is definitely a narrowing of the spaces between the vertebrae at the base of the neck. She has been having lower back pain and may have some narrowed spaces in the lower lumbar also.”

What does this mean for her dancing? What do I need to be concerned with during class? Thanks!

I’m always so appreciative of teachers who ask questions – and wonder why? It’s those questions that started me on my own path – having students come up and say, my right knee bothers me when I’m doing plié in 5th – why? My left arabesque is higher than my right – why? Then I would look at their alignment and movement with a more critical eye, noting their asymmetries and patterns. (Remember – everyone is asymmetrical!)

All bodies, including the prepubescent ballet body, should have 3 curves in the spine. At the neck and lower back areas the curve goes forward towards the front of the body, and in the chest area it curves towards the back of the body. It is not accurate to judge spinal curves by the shape of their muscles and buttocks. Look at their alignment by analyzing where the centers of the ear, shoulder joint, hip, knee and ankle joints are.

I have seen young ballerinas work hard to make their neck absolutely flat. They pull their chin back and down. It’s a look they are trying to achieve. They don’t understand that lengthening the thoracic spine typically brings the head into alignment. Having the cervical curve flattened influences the other spinal areas. It must – they are connected!

I have also seen dancers try and tuck their glutes under, trying to make the lower back look less arched. As the x-ray report states, inappropriately trying to decrease the curves of the spine will narrow the spaces between the vertebrae. This isn’t good.

Okay – we’ve established the fact that you need to have curves in your spine. Now how do you help her as her teacher? I would begin by putting her on the floor or mat and having her feel how there is space between her neck and her lower back and the floor. Her first impulse will be to flatten those areas. Work with her to breath easily, allowing the ribcage and abdominals to gently expand and softly fall – without any extra muscular effort.

In efficient breathing the spine creates a ripple effect, and there will be a small movement at the head and pelvis when lying at rest on the back. This is appropriate. I suspect this student is an over-worker and probably ‘holds on’ when trying to create good alignment. It would be useful to see if this is because of inefficient muscle patterns or an erroneous idea of how to make her alignment look right.

Then I would bring her up to standing and place her in anatomical alignment against the wall with her buttocks lightly touching and nothing else – so she again can have some feedback of what it feels like to have a natural curve in those areas. Do some easy demi pliés with her buttocks lightly sliding along the wall, keeping the weight on her feet between the 3 points and let her give you feedback. I often get the comment, ” I’m sticking my butt out” but if they could watch themselves from the side they would see the beautiful and aligned descent into and out of that demi.

Warming up before class would focus on releasing tension. Watch her carefully for straining and pushing to put her body ‘in alignment’. Easy spinal swings, relaxing over a physioball (on her back as well as on her stomach) will feel good. I’m assuming that her physician has put her in physical therapy and she has exercises to do to help redevelop the natural curves to the spine.

Most of all – help her become aware when she is standing stiffly, pulling her head back and up. The other pattern will be tucking under the pelvis. I’m not sure which end of the spine is more the culprit for her – but I imagine you have some ideas from being her teacher!

Having her discomfort decrease will be postive indicators that you are on the right track!

to your success, Deborah

“Education is the key to injury prevention”

Changing Habits

The way dancers improve their technique is by developing movement habits that follow anatomical and muscular guidelines. Over time, a demi plié or rélevé becomes automatic and this is what we want, especially if the mechanics of those movements are good.

As teachers it is our job to guide them into learning those effective neuromuscular habits. Learning, by definition, is making new synaptic connections in the brain. The more we do something the same way, the wiring of that pattern becomes stronger and more automatic.

It’s not uncommon to have students come into our class who have some inefficient movement patterns that are causing problems. Let’s say they aren’t using their rotators correctly, or they have a poor alignment patterns or some functional mobility or stability issues. We need to remember that these may be hardwired patterns and as such it is going to take many repetitions of the desired new pattern before they truly shift away from the problem movement.

We all have strategies for helping our students physically make the desired change. What I want to touch upon is how we can help our students more quickly shift by recognizing how their emotions can help or hinder the process. Emotions are a chemical response in the brain, often caused by our thoughts.

To make learning new patterns easier we need to link change with a state of relaxed alertness (also known as an alpha brainwave) instead of to stress or anxiety (a high beta brainwave). So many of us dislike change – we don’t like not knowing exactly what is going to happen – how long it will take – and we don’t like feeling uncomfortable when we realize we’re doing something that isn’t helping us reach our desired goals.

Some young students will equate making changes with being ‘less than’.

  • They forget that learning what doesn’t work is uber important to figuring out what does work. Mistakes are a valuable learning tool!
  • They need to be reminded that where they focus their attention is where their energy goes. If they are thinking about falling out of a turn… their brain gets a mixed message between the image of how they want the turn to go and an image of falling. Not helpful for consistency or accuracy.
  • They need to be reminded that every day in class is different – they will be a subtly different person depending on how well they slept, what they ate and what happened that day.
  • They need to be reminded that it’s easier to make changes when you are feeling good about yourself. Resiliency and grit and desire are as important, if not more, than natural talent.
  • C.S. Lewis said “You can’t go back and change the beginning but you can start where you are and change the ending.”

Let’s make it a practice to remind our students to stay calm and curious as they figure out what shifts and changes will help them improve their dancing. Let’s try and keep them in a relaxed and eager state during class by being aware of what state or mood we are in. How we are feeling and the stressors we’re facing can impact our teaching. It’s a skill to shift your focus towards the task at hand and bring yourself back into balance if need be. These are valuable skills for us all. Teaching/modeling to students how to take class and improve their technique without sabotaging themselves is a worthy goal.

My point is that we all hardwire emotional/chemical responses to our dancing and teaching. The first step is to be curious and observe – not judge – our thoughts. Every now and then ask your students how they feel after doing a combination. Acknowledge their effort, then have them silently and non-judgmentally observe their thoughts and emotions. What could they do differently next time? Changing their mood from frustration to being curious about what went wrong goes a long way to bring them back into a learning mode.

The younger the student, the more important it is to prioritize a healthy learning environment inside the classroom. So many students consider their studio as their second home… and their teachers as parental figures. I love my fellow teachers so much because of their commitment to do right by their students and give them the skills to become better dancers… as well as more compassionate, resilient and extraordinary human beings.

To end this post… here is a 2 minute video that beautifully illustrates how the hardwiring of our habits must first change in our brain.

To your success!