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”

Real or Imagined?

I got a great question from a reader who wanted to understand better the phrase I have used many times…. “The brain doesn’t know the difference between what is real and what is imagined”.

Let’s dive a bit deeper into this. I was trained to use ideokinesis to change neuromuscular pathways. The reason why we move is that the brain sends a message through the nervous system to the muscles – they contract – and create movement. There is always cortical involvement in movement – always.

When a person has a spinal cord injury their brain is functioning, but the message isn’t getting through the nervous system to the muscles because of the injury at the spinal cord.

Ideokinesis (ideo… idea or image, kinesis… muscle) is just a fancy way of using your imagination, envisioning or using visualization and/or intentions. It doesn’t really matter what you call it – the response is the same.

There is much research out there showing that if you envision making a free throw in proper form, it will help your accuracy. Research at the Cleveland Clinic showed that subjects that imagined doing biceps strengtheners in fact tested stronger at the end of the study – and kept their results for 3 weeks. This was strengthening through thought alone!

Now… I am not promoting that we train our dancers by having them imagine class instead of taking class. But those who have to sit out because of injury or health reasons would do well to envision themselves doing the class even though they are resting on the side lines.

What we are thinking influences our emotional/chemical responses in our body… all the time! Similar to how our movement carves well-known neurological paths in the brain so we can move in the right way when we hear 2 demi plies then a grand… our thinking also carves neurological pathways and patterns in the brain. For example, there are certain negative (and positive) experiences from my past that if I allow myself to ruminate about will begin to shift my emotions.

As I think about a past experience it brings with it all the emotions I hard-wired with it. September 11th is one of those experiences. I can describe in exquisite detail where I was when I learned about the attack and if I continue to remember I can easily bring up the emotions that are connected with that day.

When we are envisioning or imagining a situation… our brain doesn’t know that it isn’t real in that moment… and sends out corresponding chemicals (our emotional responses) as if it was.

If it was a significant past experience the emotional charge will be stronger than remembering an event such as going out to dinner with friends, that may not be as noteworthy emotionally.

The power of the body/brain connection comes from when we are conscious of our responses and can make choices about what we want to do in response to the information the brain has gathered.

For example, if I can catch myself starting to feel my blood boil when I remember a confrontation I had (in the past) and how it is negatively influencing how I feel in the present moment (sitting at my desk) — then I can make a choice to switch my thinking and consequently switch off the stress response that happening.

Being aware that we have the ultimate responsibility and accountability for our thought patterns and habits is empowering! Not always easy to do but definitely a skill that should be encouraged.

The brain doesn’t distinguish between what is real (in the present moment) from what you are imagining (from the past or future). It responds to what you are thinking…. period. It responds by creating chemicals which get sent into the body (aka your emotions) which influences the health and well-being of our body.

I do think it is important to acknowledge that we get into patterns of thinking and feeling that become so ingrained into our lives that we aren’t even aware that we are responding by default – or in other words – the same way we always have responded – no matter whether it is healthy or an unhealthy response.

This is what I meant by the brain doesn’t know the difference between what is real and what is imagined. Hoping that helps clarify…

To your success,


A Somatic Perspective on Ballet

I’ve returned from TCU where I annually teach an intensive course for their freshman dance majors.  What a pleasure it is – (and what an amazing new facility they have after massive renovations last year!)  My good friend, Elizabeth Gillaspy is a professor of ballet at TCU consented to sit down and allow me to tape a conversation with her.  The first are her thoughts for new ballet teachers and the importance of exploring teaching methods and ideas beyond ‘look like this’ – which is understandably the most common way we all began in our early ballet education.  (The clip is approximately 10 minutes, so it will take a minute or 2 to load)

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This second clip is discussing how important it is to explore the ballet form from a somatic base.  This conversation took place because of my appreciation of how Elizabeth can take young adult dancers and so lovingly help them make changes in their technique.  It is hard to rework patterns of turning out from the knees down, or muscling your way through an exercise – and Elizabeth does it beautifully.  Here are some of her philosophical thoughts on how looking at ballet as a somatic practice.  Be patient, as it is about 10 minutes it will take a few moments to load!

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