What is it about social dancing that completely hooks people? Whether it be salsa, bachata, kizomba, or zouk, these are fast growing dance communities with die-hard members who, after becoming dancers, tend to view events in their life’s timeline as happening “before” or “after” they got into dance. Dance for them isn’t a mere hobby… it’s a lifestyle.
One thing that many dancers have in common is experiencing moments of total, unfettered, joy and flow when dancing. Dance brings you into the here and now. It is a wholly immersive activity that asks you to be in the moment. Some dancers liken dance to meditation; because it is a total immersion and submersion into sound, feeling, and movement. The dancers, the music the dance, all become one. With that level of goodness going on, there is nowhere else to be but here…now.
While dance can certainly be meditative, it doesn’t presuppose that dancers are mindful at all times they are dancing. Mindfulness is the act of paying attention to the moment, as it’s happening, without judgment or resistance. Dancers are able to engage in the physical action of dance while still having a wandering mind. Even in meditation- sitting, in a quiet room- with minimal distractions, you must actively concentrate on what’s happening with your breath or the wandering mind will take over!
And certainly, there are also moments that aren’t so magical, instances where a dancer may not be so happy in the moment. Less than optimal conditions compete for the dancer’s attention or make them wish circumstances were different: a busy and crowded dance floor, a sticky dance surface, feeling tired or hungry, not liking the music, or a dancing with a disconnected dance partner. The list goes on. This is really pronounced when a dancer is trying to remember and properly execute new moves they learned in class. Dance is such an exacting, athletic endeavor; it demands the dancer go beyond physical ability to attain a certain aesthetic. Dancers are perpetual students – learning, growing, polishing, and practicing their way toward mastery. This rigor can make it challenging for dancers to find the off button in their minds, where they can just dance without weighing their progress or judging their performance.
Sometimes dancers may make the unconscious assumption that certain conditions are necessary in order to really enjoy their dances- perhaps they prefer dancing only with advanced dancers, or they want a high quality dance floor, or their favorite genre of music… but if you think about it, those elements aren’t going to be available at all times. Having a specific set of expectations can really take away from being able to experience the joy of dance available in any given moment.
What if today was your last day to dance? How would you want to live it? While many factors on and off the dance floor may be out of your control, what you can control is your state of mind, and your attitude. When you approach any activity- especially one that is important to you- you can determine from the outset how you will experience it, such that you will not be negatively influenced by what’s going on outside… inner peace kind of stuff.
Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to whatever you are doing with a detached, non-judgmental curiosity. It is a great tool for dancers. It helps us to concentrate our minds, be present for whatever takes place in the dance, and appreciate that for what it is. When dancers practice mindfulness, we free ourselves from distractions on and off the dance floor, and become more connected to the moment and to our dancing. Here are a few ways you can apply mindfulness to dance:
- Set Your Intention
Connecting with your reason for engaging in any activity infuses it with meaning, so that your attention is inspired and focused. It’s a helpful anchor to come back to when your mind wanders. To what do you wish to dedicate your dance practice?
Reflect on why you dance. What does dance mean to you? What do you value most about being able to dance? Try coming up with a word, or words that capture your intention. It could be: “Joy”, “Fun”, “I now relax”, “I am here, now”. Play around until you find the word or words that have the most meaning for you. Let your intention be like an anchor, a feeling place you can return to if your mind goes astray. No matter what happens on the dance floor, stage, or in the studio, you can always come back this dance anchor. In my own personal practice, I often reflect on how fortunate I feel to be dancing, that it’s a gift to even be dancing in the first place. I want to honor that gift with a positive attitude whenever I am dancing. It gives perspective, so that even if you show up to a social and realize you forgot your favorite dance shoes, or there is only a handful of dancers to dance with instead of the packed house you hoped for, at the very least you are there, experiencing the world of dance. See what notice about your experience when you let your intention be the most important thing.
- Focus on your breath
Breathing is a miracle! It nourishes our bodies with oxygen and keeps us alive. Yet we are often unconscious of the mechanics of it, even though it is directly linked to our every moment. Have you ever found your breath when you are dancing? What do you notice?
Focusing on your breath means paying attention to it, remembering that you are – in fact – breathing, and connecting with that experience by concentrating on some aspect of it. You can pay attention to the in/out sensation of the breath through your nostrils, or to the expansion and contraction of your chest or belly. The breath can be a focal point of concentration even while doing something as expansive as dancing. Mindfulness of breathing is something you can practice no matter what you are doing or what is happening around you.
Note: Amazingly it is common for dancers to hold their breath while dancing! This can create a stress response that inhibits concentration, relaxation, and physical capacity. It cuts off much-needed oxygen supply to working muscles and to the brain, sending a signal of distress to the body and activates the sympathetic nervous system (the part of the nervous system responsible for responding to threat). When you hold your breath, it creates tension in the body and increases the propensity for mistakes. Breathing, on the other hand, regulates the sympathetic nervous system and calms the body, helping you to be more present, aware, engaged, perceptive, and responsive.
Practice keeping your attention on your breath while you are dancing. Get curious about what’s there. How does it feel, to breath and dance? What do you notice about your breath when you dance? What is it like to try to keep your attention on your breath? See if you can make your breath a part of your dance; invite it in, let it infuse your movements. See where the breath might take you. Allow your breath to be an active participant in your entire experience of the dance.
- Notice and name where the mind goes
At some point in the dance, you may find that your mind starts commenting or judging about some aspect of the experience, which is okay- that’s what the mind does! The point is to bring your attention back to your breath once you’ve noticed your mind wandering.
It is everything when you notice when thinking has occurred. With this awareness, you can return your attention to your breath and direct your attention to the moment, rather than go in the direction your thoughts want to take you. The purpose of meditation is to develop concentration, which in turn helps you to focus, and hopefully still, your mind (though the mind hardly ever goes completely still). Some meditation teachers liken thoughts to clouds passing across the sky- fleeting, impermanent, and always changing.
Too often though, we have a thought and follow it – we chew, stew, debate, consider, and get tangled up – without even questioning the usefulness of the thought itself. Some thoughts are compelling, some ridiculous, some scary, but hardly are they a direct and pure observation of what is happening in the moment. If we leave the mind unchecked, we are inundated with thoughts that we don’t necessarily choose, thoughts that keep us focusing on the future or ruminating in the past. These thoughts can cloud our present-moment perception without us even realizing. Noticing that thinking is occurring is a huge and powerful step to freeing yourself from this cycle- because you can choose to return your attention to your intention and to your breath whenever you realize the mind has wandered.
Naming your thoughts is also a powerful way to regain control and bring your attention back to the present. Whether it be to label thinking as “thinking” when you notice it occurring, or to get more specific and name things like worry, frustration, or judgement, you begin to dis-identify yourself from the thinking occurring in your mind. You can get clear about what’s happening for you, and then refocus your attention on your breath (or another focal point), which gives space for you to choose how you want to experience the moment.
Take a day to practice noticing and naming your thoughts. Experiment with what it’s like to pay attention to where your mind goes. Play with naming the thoughts, feelings, and reactions as they come up. Try to keep the naming brief, avoid getting caught up in finding the exact right word. Simply notice when your mind has wandered, identify where it has gone (non-verbally), and quickly bring your attention back to what is happening now.
- Pay attention to the body
Paying attention to sensations in the body is a meditation in and of itself. You can pick a point of concentration, such as the feet making contact on the floor, the air touching your skin, or noticing where your weight is and watching how it shifts throughout the dance. Perhaps you focus on the physical connection between you and your partner, as lead and follow. Attention to connection with your dance partner can (and arguably, should) remain constant throughout the dance, even as you pay attention to other elements, like the music or your breath. Observe how the physical connection shifts throughout the dance- the oscillations of proximity, tension and release of the lead and follow. Remember that you are dancing with a person, someone who, too, enjoys dance enough to be in the same place and time as you in this moment. While there may be differences between two people, there are also similarities- the range of human emotion, wanting to be happy, wanting to be well. Focus on the humanity of the person you are dancing with, and see how it might attune you to them in different ways.
There are many ways to practice mindfulness of the body, resting or active. You can mindfully wash dishes, or mindfully wash your hands. For a more internal practice, you can try doing a body scan- paying attention and tuning in to your body, from head to toe. Walking meditation is a nice way to practice being really conscious of your body moving in space, and easily translates to dance. Try walking slowly, across a short distance such as the length of a room. Pay attention to how it feels when your feet touch the floor; see if you can discern each articulation of the foot, bones, ligaments, muscles as they engage in each step. Observe the lifting, bending, straightening of your legs as you walk. Notice the shift of weight throughout your body as you step from foot to foot. What do you notice? What is it like to slow your pace? Can you discern your observations from your thoughts? Can you be without judging when thinking has occurred?
When thoughts arise, practice returning your attention to your breath and the sensation of walking. No right or wrong, just notice what you notice.
- Listen to the music
Paying attention to the music helps to keep you in the present. You can pay attention to the lyrics, the melody, or pick an instrument to follow. This is different from musicality because of the intention: when listening with mindfulness, you are paying attention with curiosity and openness, without trying to be on top of the music or anticipating how to interpret it.
Try putting on some music at home and just listen without dancing. What do you notice? Are there particular sounds or instruments that call your attention or provoke a response? How does your body respond? What feelings do you notice? What is it like to just listen? Pay attention. Get curious, as if hearing music for the first time and watching its effects in slow motion. If your mind wanders from the exercise, notice where it goes. Bring your focus back to the music, on what you hear, on the act of listening.
In conclusion, social dancers often naturally experience a sense of present moment awareness while dancing, but internal and external factors can interrupt the sense of wonderment and flow. Mindfulness, applied to dance, may help dancers to feel more connected to themselves, their partner, and the dance. The more mindful you are the more flow you experience- in dance, and in life.
What are your mindfulness dance anchors? Have you tried out any of the techniques listed above? Let us know in the comments!