Using imagery seems like a good idea…but when? where? and how?

by Sanna M. Nordin (London Sport Institute, Middlesex University) and Jennifer Cumming (University of Birmingham)

Mental imagery is an effective strategy for improving several aspects of your dancing. For instance, imagery can help improve both technique and artistry (see issue 53). It can also help you improve your self-confidence and reduce your anxiety (see issue 46). For teachers, imagery can be a useful tool in communicating with their dancers by helping them to understand how a movement should be done as well as making dancing more fun and meaningful (see issue 57).

While this might sound impressive, we are only really beginning to scratch the surface in terms of understanding how imagery can be best used by dancers and their teachers.

For these reasons, we performed a questionnaire-based study into where, when, and how dancers image, the results of which are presented here. Our study included 250 dancers, ranging from recreational to professional in level. They came from 13 dance types, including ballet, contemporary, various forms of Indian dance, ballroom, jazz, and tap. On average, the dancers were 23.82 years of age (ranging from 16 to 66), and predominately female (87.2%). They had been dancing for an average of 11.92 years (ranging from 0 to 40 years).

The dancers completed a short survey consisting of questions related to where, when, and how they imaged. These questions were created based on the results of interviews that we conducted with 14 professional dancers. Where referred to locations, when to time frames, and how to the processes that were employed when imaging. All questions were scored on scales ranging from 1 – 7. Our results are illustrated in figures, which include the average ratings given by the dancers for each question.

When table

Dancers use imagery more…

When asked about their imagery before, during, and after movements, we found that the dancers used imagery in all three of these situations. The greatest occurrence was just prior to initiating movements, followed by during movements. Least of all, they imaged after movements. This finding suggests that dancers probably image more to prepare themselves for carrying out certain movements, rather than to enhance them while already moving or for evaluating their performance. Generally, imagery could be encouraged for all these situations for maximum benefit.

Here are some suggestions for you to try:

  • Imagery before a movement can prepare you by focusing your mind on important cues, raising your confidence, or reminding yourself about the appropriate technique.
  • Imagery during a movement can enhance execution both from a technical and an artistic standpoint. Metaphorical images, such as “imagine leaping over a hurdle” or “imagine being lifted up by your hair” can work particularly well during movements. This type of imagery prevents you from focusing too much on the mechanics of a movement that are already in your muscle memory. Instead, a good metaphor helps you focus on movement dynamics, quality, and characterisation.
  • Imagery after a movement can greatly help you to learn and remember feedback. By reviewing the movement that was just performed, you will be able to see what went well, or not so well, in your mind’s eye. Then try to “mentally” improve your performance by imaging the movement again, but this time incorporate the feedback that you received from your teacher. Keep this corrected image in mind before attempting the physical movement again.

The dancers in our study imaged more during class than either before or afterwards. This is perhaps unsurprising because class is a time when dancers are fully devoting themselves to dance. In comparison to classes, dancers tended to image more before performances than during or after them. In performance situations, they are likely using imagery as an important part of their preparations.

Dancers who are committed to getting the best out of themselves could be encouraged to use imagery in all these situations:

  • Before a class, try reviewing the main points of the previous class. It will remind you of what was learned and corrections made. You can also image the work that lies ahead to help you stay focused and motivated.
  • Before a performance, image yourself being confident and focused with any nervous feelings under control. Calmly go through the performance in your mind, try to anticipate what will happen, and imagine yourself competently handling any problems that may arise. Imagery at this time is also one of the best ways to get into the character of a role.
  • During classes and performances, imagery can be useful in the ways mentioned above regarding specific movements. Imagery can also be useful during performances to help express characters or the general mood of a piece, as well as to keep your mind on the task at hand.
  • After classes and performances, imagery can be used during to review and evaluate your dancing on a more general level.

The dancers used imagery throughout the year, but the most frequent occurrence was during rehearsal and performance periods. In general, we recommend:

  • In rehearsal periods, try imaging the upcoming performance by including such details as the sets and costumes. This will help you feel prepared.
  • In performance periods, remember to keep your imagery focused on movement quality, characterisation, and similar. Avoid imaging the details of movements that are already well-learned and out of conscious control.
  • In holiday periods, remember that you need physical and mental rest and recovery from dance. Still, some dancers may wish to rehearse choreography or simply enjoy images of dancing while on holiday.

Conclusions and further recommendations

In this study, we have provided some descriptive information about where, when, and how dancers image. Based on these findings, we have provided a number of recommendations for dancers who are keen to improve their dancing. In summary, we recommend the following:

  • Dancers may benefit from an increased use of imagery before movements, classes, rehearsals, and performances, because research consistently shows that imagery is a useful way of enhancing performance and self-confidence, while keeping one’s nerves under control. Imagery can also improve the artistic nature of your performance and help you communicate with the audience.
  • Dancers may also benefit from using more imagery after these same situations to evaluate and thereby maximise learning for next time.
  • Imagery can be used outside of dance settings (e.g. at home, on the bus) as a way of increasing practice time. This is useful because imagery can improve your dancing while saving your energy. It also does not worsen any injuries, costs nothing, and can be done anywhere and at any time!
  • Lower level dancers can learn from and be inspired by how, where, and when better dancers image.

Our thanks to all the dancers who took part in our study!

Those interested in more information about the study or about imagery can contact:

Dr. Sanna Nordin

( at the London Sport Institute, Middlesex University, Archway Campus, 2-10 Highgate Hill London, N19 5LW

Dr. Jennifer Cumming

( at the School of Sport & Exercise Sciences, The University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham, B15 2TT.

Originally published in Dance UK  magazine, Issue 65 – Summer 2007