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Exploration of "focus" in relation to dance preparedness & performance attitude

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Translation of this Russian saying: Through adversity we reach the stars.

The successful warrior is the average man, with laser like focus.
Bruce Lee, Hong Kong American martial artist, film actor, and 20th century pop culture icon

The key to success is to focus our conscious mind on things we desire not things we fear.
Brian Tracy, author and motivational speaker

You have a dream - to be the best in what you do. And perhaps, through the ups and downs of struggles to get there, you feel disheartened. Another scenario: you are good and accomplished at practice but you crumble during performance. Yet another: You feel that you have no control over performance outcomes because fate has not been kind to you despite all your efforts.

Sounds familiar? In the competitive world we live in, the pressures of being successful can seem overwhelming. So how do the greats do it? Studies have revealed that great dancers quite simply don't think they will dance well, they know it. A feeling of complete self-confidence or invincibility takes hold, enabling them to extend themselves, take risks, and reach inside themselves.

Is this a miraculous development? Not at all. It comes after very hard work, tireless discipline, refusing to give up despite numerous impediments - physical, mental, economic, despite disparaging criticisms from others, and even after grave disappointments through their career to stardom.

Albeit, the greats have natural talent to start with but they have also had their share of disappointments, but tenacity, focus, and steely determination made the difference. The key determinants of their success and self-confidence can best be understood by exploring their "focus" in relation to preparedness and performance attitude. Here are some of their principles that one may choose to apply:

1. Any preparation for dancing, whether physical or mental, must start long before the stage performance. Mental areas to be worked on include self-confidence, anxiety, motivation, and mental imagery.

2. When mistakes happen, a dancer should say, "how can I correct it?" and not "I am awful. I can't do it." The former is positive and objective. The latter is negative and self-defeating.

3. Understand the positive as well as the negative aspects of "performance anxiety." True, nervousness and anxiety can contract the muscles of the breathing system, blocking air passages and causing insufficient oxygen intake. The body can consequently lose strength, coordination, and flexibility and quite obviously, not perform at the optimal level. But just as bad for optimal performance is being totally relaxed. The ideal, research has uncovered, is "moderate level of anxiety." Moderate anxiety boosts adrenaline and drives energy to necessary parts of the body, such as the legs, thereby enhancing strength and coordination.

4. There are techniques to control nervousness, called "progressive relaxation." Simply put, the methods involve tightening and relaxing four major muscle groups: legs, chest and back, arms and shoulders, face and neck. You would start with the legs and work your way up: three seconds each for tightening and relaxing. Also tighten and relax your whole body, three seconds each. You would use your personal cue words for each such exercise. The objective is to condition your body to the cue words so that each time you get nervous, saying the cue words would in effect get your body to respond accordingly. If tension persists in particular areas, do extra relaxation exercises in that area.

5. Include progressive relaxation in your regular practice routine to condition your body to effective use of the technique to moderate anxiety levels.

6. Mental rehearsals or "visualization" - i.e., reproducing in your mind the total sensory and physical experience of actual performance -- can enhance psychological, emotional, and technical skills. Positive images can include focusing on maintaining a calm center to release unwanted tension, ease and balance in your neck, ample joint movement, etc. In short, visualize what you want your body to do and keep thoughts positive. When you plant an intuitive thought and let the image grow through repeated mental performance, you induce physiological changes and increase accuracy. You are in effect training the relationship between your mind and your muscles.

7. Don't let negative thoughts creep back and ruin your technique.

8. Dancers who keep a healthy, positive conversation going create within themselves their own motivation and encouragement. This inner dialogue can reduce tension and create ease in movement.

9. The foundation for successful performance is goal-setting and a well-articulated plan of action. Research has shown that people are more motivated and work harder when they have clearly defined objectives toward which to work. But it is critical to follow through with the action plan. As noted by Giampiero Giannico, dance legend and Open Professional Standard finalist at Blackpool, a "goal without a plan is simply a wish."

10. Some of us may set unrealistically high goals and become easily disheartened by lack of progress in attaining them. The key to success is incremental progress through a series of small goals and plans of action. This approach enables dancers to be more narrowly focused on what is important to realize their expectations and full potential. The process will also provide the benefits of self-confidence, motivation, and discipline.

11. Goals are not always reached, but if plans are executed consistently, there will be improvement. The effort involved in striving for a goal is as important as reaching it. Personal and artistic growth is from the effort and not the attainment.

12. Accomplishing a goal can reinforce the habits and routine and produce a spiraling effect of greater motivation, improved results, and increasingly higher goals.

13. Commitment can include focusing in on every available technique and resource that may enhance performance. Psychological and physiological experts are among the resources used to maximize preparation and alleviate weaknesses that may hamper performance.

14. Use your eyes or your face when dancing, or else, you might as well be sleep-walking. Focus is the most important part of expressing conviction. It you really believe in your dancing, it shows on your face and your eyes. They complete the line and the beauty of the musical phrase.

15. Focusing in on key priorities may involve sacrificing things that may be fun and tempting, but will also hinder performance: e.g., excessive indulgences in unhealthy foods and drugs, alcohol and sleep deprivation from partying too much.

16. Ultimately, dance requires the ability to concentrate on a variety of changing things at once and an ideal concentration is having a sense of total awareness: of the stage, your proximity to other dancers to dictate adjustments that need to be made, and a proper temporal focus --on the present, not the past or the future.

17. Classic examples of loss of concentration : a dancer does exceptionally well in the first part of the program but falters in the second part because he/she begins to anticipate the bravos; or the dancer thinks, "I've done it" which in essence is telling the body to relax. When the body relaxes, it constraints blood flow and also the necessary flow of adrenaline and oxygen to perform at the peak level.

18. Concentration problems can also arise from anticipating difficulty with a particular action or a mistake early in the performance. Loss of concentration can produce thoughts such as "I've got to concentrate" or "try harder" - self-induced pressure that increases anxiety levels and which in turn interfere with the body's ability to perform at a high level.

So there you have it. Take charge of your body, your mind, your dance. Prepare, train, be positive. Then, let yourself go, gain from the experience, enjoy the moment, celebrate, have FUN!

Giampiero and Anna - Waltz Show Dance - Big Apple Dance Challenge 2010
Giampiero and Anna - Waltz Show Dance - Big Apple Dance Challenge 2010 Photo by Ed Ault, provided by Giampiero Giannico

Giampiero and Anna - Waltz Show Dance - Big Apple Dance Challenge 2010

Giampiero Giannico and Anna Mikhed performed as guest artists at the Big Apple Dance Challenge 2010. Giampiero Giannico teaches at the Starlight Dance Center in Nutley, NJ.

Dacesport Photography
Dacesport Photography Photo by Alexander Rowan, Rogers Dance Studio, Fairfield , NJ

Dacesport Photography

The key determinants of success and self-confidence can best be understood by exploring how great dancers “focus” in relation to preparedness and performance attitude.

Lin Li and partner Chen Ya Yen of Chinese Taipei compete in the Dancesport- Standard Five Dances Viennese Waltz Final at Samsan World Gymnasium
Lin Li and partner Chen Ya Yen of Chinese Taipei compete in the Dancesport- Standard Five Dances Viennese Waltz Final at Samsan World Gymnasium Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Lin Li and partner Chen Ya Yen of Chinese Taipei compete in the Dancesport- Standard Five Dances Viennese Waltz Final at Samsan World Gymnasium

The foundation for successful performance is goal-setting and a well-articulated plan of action.

Photo taken during day seven of the 4th Asian Indoor & Martial Arts Games on July 5, 2013 in Incheon, South Korea.