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!

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