Dance imagery

Dancing jumpingImagery was part of my dance training although I did not think of it as movement or dance imagery at the time. It was just something we incorporated into our training and performance. When I first took part in a movement/dance imagery workshop with Eric Franklin at an IADMS (International Association for Dance Medicine & Science) conference many years ago I was reminded of how important imagery is in dance learning and teaching.

Articles and books

In recent years there has been an increasing amount of articles and books promoting the positive use of imagery in training, rehearsal and performance. Although imagery has been around for a very long time it is still relatively new to some. We can learn a lot from the study and use of imagery in our teaching.

Mabel Todd’s wonderful book The Thinking Body, first published in 1937 (and still available today), tells us on page 295: 

Imagination itself, or the inner image is a form of physical expression, and the motor response, is the reflection of it.

Eric Franklin’s books, Dynamic Alignment Through Imagery and Dance Imagery for Technique and Performance offer great insight into the background of imagery as well as its use in posture, alignment, movement and dance. These books are essential reading and re-reading for any dance teacher interested in exploring the use of imagery.

Prep for performanceImagery is mentioned in my Preparation for Performance for Highland Dancers book (useful for all dance genres) and the concept of ‘dancing in my head‘ when discussing mental simulation of movement (MSM) and mental rehearsal. Click the link to download my book for free Preparation for Performance. You may also be interested in reading my second article about dancing in my head, ‘Dancing in my head again‘.

Quinn, Rafferty and Tomlinson in their book, Safe Dance Practice, published in 2015, discuss types of imagery used in dance such as imagery as a strategy for promoting efficient alignment. Imagery as a psychological tool for mental preparation for dance and increasing self-confidence, concentration and focus. They also discuss the use of imagery to reinforce positive experiences and visualise improvements and feelings of competency.

The latest issue of the Journal of Dance Education published online on 31 January 2017, has the following article: Imagery Exercises for Young Highland Dancers by Muir and Munroe-Chandler. In this article they offer Vealey and Greenleaf’s (2010) definition of imagery as creating or re-creating an experience in one’s mind. I liken this to my ‘dancing in my head‘ mentioned above. They highlight that children use imagery for both cognitive (skills and strategies) and motivational (goals, self-confidence, and emotion) functions, leading to improved performance. This article discusses and offers imagery exercises for highland dancers of 7-14 years of age. The authors discuss mental rehearsal, guided mental rehearsal and imagery scripts practised between teachers and their dance students. Direct imagery, another type of mental rehearsal which uses demonstration and observation skills in addition to the imagery. And then Indirect imagery, where one uses metaphorical imagery to improve certain movements – imagining that your legs are resisting water when performing a shake action. The use of the ‘open the window’ imagery for maintaining turnout, is one image suggested in the article that I am struggling with at the moment. It doesn’t seem to focus the turnout in the hip for me but it may be because it is not an image I am familiar with using or one that just doesn’t do it for me. The lesson here therefore is that It is important to use images that work for us. If you get this journal do have a read of this article. It is also possible to buy individual articles from the Journal of Dance Education (possible with many journals) and you can get access to the article abstract here.

Making time for imagery

Just as we can make time in our teaching for our dance learners to process a correction or change to alignment, aspect of technique or performance, we can also allow time for visualising mental rehearsal of a movement, step or dance. I find that taking time to go through a dance movement or piece of choreography in my head offers real benefits towards effective performance and so encourage this when teaching.

Dance imagery can be part of every step and movement in dance as well as part of the performance process. One example, Eric Franklin’s image of the body as a bouncing ball in the introduction of Dance Imagery for Technique and Performance (pp xii-xiii), is useful in helping with the quality and efficiency of a jumping or bouncing series. Students can use the auditory image of hearing the ball, a kinaesthetic image of feeling like a bouncing ball or a visual image of seeing the ball. Franklin explains that the teacher can fine-tune this image by suggesting thinking of the pelvis as a bouncing ball, stabilising the pelvis and clarifying its path through space while retaining the feeling of the bounce. This is imagery that can be used in most dance genres where a series of jumps, bounces or elevation is required. If you have not already tried this with your dance learners then why not explore this image with them and see what emerges?

If you are new to dance imagery then I hope you find this article will encourage you to explore it further. Something worth doing is to reflect on your teaching to find out how much imagery you are actually using – even if you think you don’t use imagery – it is surprising how much imagery is used in dance but not acknowledged or recognised. You might already be using dance imagery in your dance teaching.