Dancers need a good sense of body awareness to feel or know where their body is in space so they can accurately place arm, foot, leg and whole body positions. They need to navigate around other dancers without bumping into them.
Dancers need to feel what they are doing even with their eyes shut. Not relying on mirrors to tell them if their dévelopé devant or lunge action is correctly placed. This is where proprioception comes in. Often referred to as ‘sixth sense’ proprioception is so much more that just a sense of movement. It is directly linked to muscle tone and perceptions of effort and balance. Sensory receptors throughout the body feed information about movement or placement pressure, speed and changes in direction and so on via the spinal cord to the brain giving us a sense of where we are and how we are moving. Thankfully we have both a conscious and a non-conscious sense of where we are. This means that when you step or piqué onto one leg your muscles know when and how to contract to stabilise your knee. If this did not happen any simple movement would take forever if we had to think consciously about every single aspect of it.
Development of their sixth sense is vital for dancers as it leads to better accuracy, speed and quality of movement. There are various ways that you can test your proprioceptive skills. And exercise that we used involved us balancing one leg with our eyes shut, arms held to the side at shoulder level (2nd position of the arms) and then we would try to touch our nose with the index finger of one hand. The IADMS paper that you can download here suggests that dancers should be able to balance on one leg with their eyes closed for a minimum of 30 seconds – can you do this? If not then you can practise this exercise for shorter periods and build up gradually to 30 seconds. Further challenges can be introduced to this simple exercise by varying the standing surface – you might try a foam pad, rug or wobble board (making sure that you have checked that you have sufficient room to step out should you lose your balance).
Help your students to develop their proprioception
Teachers can actively help students to develop their proprioception by structuring instruction and cures appropriately. The IADMS paper suggests avoiding imagery that is not conducive to good neuromuscular coordination saying something along the lines of – let the feet press the floor away while the sitz (or sit) bones (ischial tuberosities – the bones that you sit on) rise – is better than isolating one set of muscles and creating a possible imbalance by say, for example, squeeze the inside leg muscles as you rise from a pile. So to encourage proprioceptive skills give cues that encourage everything to work in harmony instead of focusing on one muscle group or one area.
Make cues and feedback meaningful
Another key point is for teachers to allow time between giving cues and feedback for dancers to process and make use of the information in a way that is meaningful to them. I am sure we have all experienced a class where the cues and feedback is delivered so thick and fast that it is impossible to know what to focus on – and the result is little or no improvement. So as teachers we need to give cues and feedback but with plenty of time around them to be fully taken onboard. And not always using the mirror encourages dancers to ‘feel’ what they are doing and learning rather than relying on seeing it. This is essential for dance performance when the mirror is no longer there. Also avoiding constantly counting out loud lets the dancer develop his/her internal sense of timing. Developing good proprioception is something that requires joint efforts between dance teachers and the dancers they teach. And it is relevant to teachers in all dance genres.
Download IADMS paper
Studio poster series
Posters like the one above are available from IADMS – check out their website and explore Resources for Teachers and Studio Teachers’ Network