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How to achieve attention and focus in dance via online channels

Clare Guss-West in the dance studio

In this post author of Attention and Focus in Dance, Clare Guss-West, writes about how to achieve attention and focus in dance when teaching or learning dance via online platforms.

Many dancers and teachers are facing the prospect of further restrictive measures and moving into 2021 continuing to dance and learn through virtual means. In 2020 we all demonstrated tremendous adaptability and creativity, quickly developing new technological and presentational skills in order to adapt to the circumstances. For some dancing publics even, advantages were experienced as dance became more accessible and more dance-per-week than ever became possible. Let’s not fool ourselves however, dancing with a screen is a great resource to have in extremis, however in terms of our ability to attend to the learning material – it’s a very different experience.

As dancers first and foremost we need to be patient with ourselves and try to understand the attentional frustrations that we are experiencing. Dancing with a screen is the equivalent of suffering sudden ‘sensorial impairment’ overnight. Live in the dance studio, we learn by taking our attention to an entire hologram of sensorial information transmitted by our teacher or coach and by our fellow dancers – their approach to the movement, their use of appropriate effort, their energy, breath, dynamics, emotions. We don’t learn primarily through visually means by peering at teachers, as we try to do into a 17” screen. Bereft of this sensorial information we are left to try to simply copy the teacher physically and it really feels like a one way experience, devoid of meaningful feedback for learning progression. 

This is perhaps then the perfect moment to take the focus ‘away from the screen’ and away from this visual, explicit learning and to tune into other aspects of the teaching – into the audio instructions and feedback, the music or the imagery suggested by the teacher or coach for example. This prompts you to begin to learn implicitly – to take your attention to what the movement ‘feels’ like for you? What are the sensations in your body? What does that image, that shape or that quality proposed by the teacher bring to you and to the success of your movement? This shift in your focus of attention, onto what are termed external foci, brings with it immediate physical and mental benefits – enhanced strength, balance, consistency of movement – it deepens breathing, releases unnecessary tension, increases stamina, energy levels and importantly assists us to manage the stress, the frustration or the emotions that arise in such learning circumstances.  These are the evidence-based results of using an external focus of attention not only in virtual learning but equally in live class. 

As a teacher we come to realise that given the sensory deprivation of the virtual medium, it’s simply not possible to just teach as you planned to in the studio, from home in front of a camera. You may have already experienced that it’s exhausting to try to teach in the same way that you would live in the studio? We too are deprived of any sensory feedback from the dancers and have little or no access to their sense of difficulty, the effort, the breath, emotion or level of understanding, essential sensory feedback for successful diagnostic and reactive teaching. 

Clare Guss-West teaching attention and focus in dance online

Having to use the virtual medium is really the ideal time to become conscious of the focus of attention we promote for the dancers – and to start to experiment with how we cue attention with our chosen instructions. It’s important to vary our teaching style as much as possible in a 90” on screen class and guide dancers’ attention clearly into the different learning challenges. Aim to shift the focus of attention whenever possible, away from the physical form of the exercise or choreography onto, for example the music, or the quality, shape, pattern or desired effect of the movement, onto an exploratory proprioceptive sense of the movement, onto a peer or partner dancer or shared visual image. These are all external attentional foci that bring immediate benefits both physically and attentionally to enhance learning and listening both on and off screen.  

Choosing to focus in on the music as an external focus of attention, we might highlight the colour or emotional qualities that the performing artist, the composer or the singer inspire through the music. Encourage dancers to dance with the music and the rhythm that they are hearing rather than visually following your example, since audio outputs are not synced with each other when we use the ‘share music’ function and all dancers will have different wifi bandwidths and speeds etc. The musical precision of an exercise therefore would not be the most adapted focus of attention for the time being in on-line class.

We can stimulate attention by using the ‘share screen’ function to share a visual image, a painting or dynamic photograph as a starting point that promotes the shape, the sensations, the qualities or the emotions that you might be seeking in the movement. Developing the dramaturgy, the story or the interpretative elements of the dance would also promote an external focus for the dancers or by encouraging them to ‘sense’ their own movement and resource their own sensory feedback and self-learning. If it’s imperative to work on the ‘form’ of a movement despite the disadvantages of the medium then you might consider using the ‘pin’ function and allow dancers to work and explore in pairs full screen with each other or indeed in small breakout groups to explore a tasks as different types of external attentional focus.

Last but not least, remember that you yourself as a teacher are a primary external attentional focus in teaching, so particularly on screen, take care to present yourself in bold colours or in clothing that promotes clarity of line, enhancing the alignment of any physical movement goals that you might be seeking. 

Let’s embrace this opportunity that adversity offers and practice shifting our attention to renew energy and power in our dancing, knowing that exercising our attentional awareness whilst working virtually, will only serve to further enhance mental and physical performance when we return to live dance practice in the studio.

For regular attentional focus tips in dance follow Clare Guss-West at:

Attention and Focus in Dance book cover

Adapted from:

Attention and Focus in Dance

Clare Guss-West

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