Mind and Body in Professional Practice

2 October, 2017

At the German Society of Music Psychology 2017 Conference in Hamburg, Clare Guss-West gave a presentation aimed at dance, music and performing arts professionals and educators interested in the direct integration of research findings in professional practice. The following is an extract from her keynote speech The Dancing Mind – the Interdependent Relationship of the Body and Mind in Professional Practice.

An holistic approach to movement comprises three foundational elements:

<Alignment & Posture>          <Energy & Breath>          <Intention & Focus>

Meaning that for any movement to be successful, it requires the equal consideration, development and implementation of these three integrated mind and body elements.

The presentation explores particularly the application of the third element, ‘Intention & Focus’ in professional dance practice. Motor-skills learning research concurs with the ancient holistic practice of – Chi Kung, T’ai Chi and Kung Fu to suggest that the application of a specific focus of attention and intention significantly impacts the quality of movement performance.

What researchers term an external focus, that is to say a global focus on the movement-effect, enhances performance and learning, comparative to an internal focus on a body-part or body mechanism itself.  Over and above the extensive physiologically benefits of using an external attentional focus are additional benefits particularly pertinent to the performing arts such as an increased capacity to multi-task and to manage performance under stressful conditions. The physical and psychological benefits apply across diverse tasks and contexts from initial movement skills learning to professional coaching and rehabilitation, producing an immediate and lasting cohesive effect on performance results.

In ballet training, intention and focus are rarely addressed systematically as an integral part of learning and in a recent survey of professional dancers we see that their chosen foci are complex in comparison to those of athletes, often comprised of accumulated, diverse and sometime incongruous feedback, predominantly directed at the control of the body or body parts (internal). In the absence of clear guidance, the choice of focus appears to vary in function of the required skill type and the available thinking time!

A natural external focus for the dancer is the relationship of the dance and the music. We see the return to the focus on the embodiment of the music, musicality through dance and artistry as evidence-based training strategies and prioritized again as most effective for enhanced performance.

“professional dancers are attracted to the simplicity of the systematic application of an external focus and to the global nature of the benefits experienced.”

The presentation will explore the practical implementation of integrated mind/body strategies in dance, in such companies as The Royal Ballet, The Royal Academy of Dance, Finnish National Ballet supported by the OPTIMAL theories and Attentional Focus research of Gabriele Wulf PhD. Such complementary strategies promote the autonomy of the artist, aligning and empowering them mind and body for the global demands of the discipline – powerful efficient movement at the service of an external artistic intention.

Clare Guss-West BHum MA

The interdisciplinary work of Clare Guss-West spans the performing arts as professional dancer, musician, singer, choreographer, opera director, classical ballet teacher, teacher trainer, holistic therapist and Chi Kung practitioner. Her focus is on the integration of holistic wellness knowledge, supported by the latest scientific research to enhance the effectiveness of professional training and teaching practice.



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Guss-West C, Wulf G. Attentional Focus in Classical Ballet A Survey of Professional Dancers. J Dance Med Sci. Vol 20,1 2016. http://dx.doi.org/10.12678/1089-313X.20.1.23
Wulf G. An External Focus of Attention is a condition sine qua non for athletes: a response to Carson, Collins, and Toner (2015). J Sports Sci. January 2016. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2015.1136746
Wulf G, Lewthwaite R. Optimizing performance through intrinsic motivation and attention for learning: the OPTIMAL theory of motor learning. Psychon Bull Rev. January 29, 2016. http://dx.doi.org/10.3758/ s13423-015-0999-9