I’m reasonably sure that one of the secrets of being a great dancer (or for that matter, a great musician, artist, writer, or just about anything) is having good habits. When something becomes a habit, you don’t have to think about it or make an effort anymore, it just happens. It’s the path of least resistance. Habits are what enables us to get through each day without constantly having to worry about every little detail of what we’re doing, so they are both useful and powerful when managed wisely.
We usually think about habits in the context of breaking bad habits, like slouching or biting your nails, but in fact, forming new good habits to take their place is just as important. Good habits take the stress and hard work out of doing the right thing, whether the right thing is remembering to point your toes, practising and exercising regularly, eating well, or just getting your false eyelashes on before a show…
Unfortunately, there is no quick fix for rearranging our habits – the only way is sheer repetition. The good news is, there are ways to get through the repetition stage more easily. What works for me is the use of reminders – these make it easier to remember your new habit during the early stages, until it starts to become automatic. Here are a few ideas:
- Time and place – If you associate your new habit with a particular environment or set of circumstances, this will act as a reminder every time you do it, eventually making it easier to go through the motions effortlessly when you’re in the right place at the right time. For example, a couple of years ago, Khalida suggested in a workshop that we should practise shimmies whilst brushing our teeth. I’ve done this ever since, and I now shimmy automatically as soon as I pick up my toothbrush. It actually feels very wrong not to do it now! The act of beginning to shimmy is unconscious, but once I’ve started, I can choose to practise a certain type of shimmy or focus on a particular aspect of the movement.
- Mental Imagery – A mental image can serve as a memorable shorthand for a whole lot of physical adjustments. This is especially useful for fixing postural issues. The more amusing and memorable the image, the better! At the moment, I’m working on lengthening and relaxing the back of my neck, and relaxing my jaw. To achieve this, I’ve been using imagery from the book ‘Dynamic Alignment Through Imagery’ by Eric Franklin, a book which I’ve found very useful to refer to for these types of issues. What this means in practise is that I’ve been walking around Oxford for the last few weeks imagining that my head is a helium balloon on a string, and my tongue is hung over a towel rail. Weird, but effective!
- Positive incentives – find some immediate, obvious reason why you’ll feel better right now if you remember your new habit. This probably won’t be the same reason that you are actually trying to create the habit, but something you can use to persuade yourself if you’re feeling a bit lazy or apathetic. These aren’t always easy to come up with, but can be very handy. For example, I’m trying to change my habitual gaze from being downward, to being outward at eye level (a common problem for tall people, who are always having to look down at the rest of the world!). Day to day, “it’ll make your dancing better” won’t necessarily persuade my change-resistant subconscious mind to actually do this. But I’ve had a lot more luck thinking instead about how changing my gaze means I get to see a lot more of the beautiful scenery and architecture of Oxford as I’m out and about.
- Physical reminders – Sometimes if your mind tends to wander, a cleverly arranged physical reminder can nudge you back in the right direction. Things that have worked for me in the past include holding objects between my fingers to bring attention to my hand positions, and wearing a necklace or scarf to remind me to open my chest or lengthen my neck.
Have you found any other good ways to create new virtuous dance habits? Please share them in the comments!
- Musings on Dance and the Brain (rashabellydance.co.uk)
- The Bulletproof Musician – a brilliant blog about the psychology of performance, including many more posts on this subject!