Sunday, March 10, 2013

Seeing the Dance in Your Head

Great dancers see the dance in their heads, and you should too.

Anybody can visualize their own dancing with some practice. When you're around excellent dancers during practice time, you'll see them rehearsing a sequence in their head, similar to "marking it" where you practice a routine without doing it full out. It's common to see athletes and performers running their game plan in their head just before an important event.

As a musician, when I hear music, I can easily imagine myself behind a set of drums, and I see myself playing the music as I'm listening. Of course, I have spent thousands of hours behind a set of drums, so that's easy for me.

As a dancer, I'm working the similar process for dancing and it's obvious to me that the better dancers are seeing the dance in their head. The music's playing and they close their eyes and watch the dance in their mind. They take small or minimal steps, sometimes turning and making smaller movements but clearly dancing it in their head as if they were dancing full out.

They know the material so well, they can watch the dance unfold in their mind, in real time or at different speeds. Stronger performers also use this visualization technique to learn and practice new materials, rather than just review well rehearsed moves.

What about you?

Have you closed your eyes and imagined an exercise or dance move in your head? If you've never tried it, start with music playing (a style you like), and imagine yourself dancing. Once that works, try it with both the music and the dance in your mind. It's one of the practicing "secrets" of the more experienced dancers.

If you're a partner dancer, try leading or following a cross-body lead. See yourself working simple moves and some foundational footwork. If you're a lead, try working a few more complicated sequences in your head. Feel free to slow them down if appropriate, seeing the details in your minds eye. Or practiced the latest moves from a class, YouTube clip or DVD As a follow, try practicing your styling moves as if a lead was going through a series of moves with music, or your solo turns and footwork. Anything you might do in a class or dance floor is fair game.

Start the process today. Stop reading this article now (OK, after this paragraph), and try doing a basic move in your head. Play some music to prime the pump if that's helpful.

Because it's all in your head, you can also change perspectives. You might try playing out the scene from your viewpoint, or see yourself in a mirror, or even from the point of view of a person in front or behind you.

(Try it yourself now! Shut your eyes and do a few simple moves, or if you're more advanced, try a sequence from a different point of view. I'll wait and you can finish the article after your practice.)

Pretty cool!

Some people will find it very easy to do, others will find it not so easy. It doesn't matter where you start today, if you do it regularly, you can get better at it and it pays off over time. You'll dance better sooner, with less wear and tear on your body. Over time you'll learn faster than you did in the past, partially because you can practice more.

Injured dancers and athletes use these techniques all the time, and the best use it when they are fully healthy too. You can also replace some of your physical practice with this mental practice, and when done well it's very effective.

See yourself doing basic and try imagining the steps in your head. The more senses you engage the better. The more you practice in your mind, the better you get at it.

Learning to see your performance in your head is a time-honored technique used by dancers, world-class athletes, martial artists, and many others.

You can practice dancing anyplace in your head when you have a sliver of quiet time. You don't need a large dance studio; your bathroom is large enough to make this happen. Avoid doing it while driving, on a first date, operating heavy machinery or taking extra strength drugs. Otherwise, almost anyplace is fair game.

A couple hints you should consider:
  • The more realistic you make it in your mind's eye, the better
  • Start simply by doing simple footwork or movements and build from there
  • See yourself dancing with someone you enjoy if you're partner dancing
  • Visualize the club, practice room, or dance studio with mirrors
  • Hear the music in your head as you practice the movements
  • Feel free to slow the music down, doing each step perfectly, or correcting yourself if you make a mistake
  • Try the same moves at different speeds, ranging from painfully slow to blistering fast
This is a vast subject way beyond the scope of one article. If you want some interesting details on practicing techniques, check out "Fight Your Fear and Win", "Performance Success" and "Audition Success". All three are excellent reading and provide interesting insights to improve your dancing. (Click on the titles above to see details at

The author (Don Greene) is a performance coach who works with Olympic athletes, world-class musicians and others. (Read his impressive bio with the books above.) While he discusses seeing movement in your head, he goes way beyond and has some great insights into higher performance and learning.

The "Fight Your Fear..." title was my third I read because I thought, "I'm not afraid..." While I don't love the title, it has some outstanding tips for being a better student, teacher and social dancer. All three are worth the read, but I'd start with Fight Your Fear or Performance Success first, then read the others.

Social dancing is for fun, and many of us generate our own self pressure to be better. (Not a bad thing unless taken to an extreme.) If you want to advance a faster and make more progress in less time, the visualization techniques used by experienced dancers, Olympic athletes, and advanced musicians provide interesting models for dancers.

Let me know how seeing the dance in your head works for you via the comments link below.
The insurance man told me that the accident policy covered falling off the roof,
but not hitting ground.
--Tommy Cooper

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  1. Is visualisation easier when you're learning a move for the first time, or to keep the move in memory, or to perfect it?

    It is possible to visualise - i think actually having some Video of some "basics" for visualisatino with respect to salsa might also be useful -
    to learn what certain hand positions do - what woill happen when you turn with your partner in this hold etc.

    I think it can get a bum deal, as I know i've been told (off!) for looking down at the floor, and lacking facial expressivity - it's not easy - it's more like doing a Magic Eye picture at the start!

    I think part of it is also the lack of video for visual mimicking - they aren't creative enough in angles.

    When was the last time you saw a head cam, from a lead. Or a left/right hand cam, to show lead through the hands. or a floor cam to show foot movement.

    Ultimately, in my view, LightStage is the way forward to a degree. MoCap (Motion capture) but more.

    Pure overkill, but I think it does actually have a kernel of usefulness to it.

    Why are videos and dvds not useful (apart from interface issues)?

    because its' rigid, and earelier videos didn't even have multiple angles/show too many different views.

    In a mocap - you can have any speed, any angle. you get the vt, and you now could control the action.

    In a way, that's what people are doing physically - markingit - i've seen it with a friend doing dressage practise, by going through the routine in the living room, i've seen it with other guys..
    It's almost a dirty secret, the problem of learning and remembering moves, and also trying to find, then be able to use the mothds that best suit someone to learn and retain dance.

    I think that in a way - dance misses out from what sports can have - you can have slow mo replays for other sports, so why not salsa?

    it might not completely match - but some stuff could do with video more perhaps.

    it's only one way of course. Practise trumps most things, as long as it's smart practise.

    Learning to see your performance in your head may be a time-honored technique - learning to see your performance through seeeing it might be one way to start?


  3. Amen to that, as I have working on getting my instructor certification, I have gotten better at seeing a complete dance in my head. Why? Because now I have to know the follower's part because I have to be able to demonstrate this as well. This helps me visualize a particular technique more accurately in my head. The more detailed the picture I can hold in my head the better I can reproduce it on the dancefloor in realtime.

  4. Don - just discovered your blog recently, have really enjoyed reading most of your articles and want to thank you for all your hard work in keeping this going. After our kids went away to college, my wife and I have taken group lessons for two years in all the social dances, including Salsa. I've found many of your articles to be universal for all dances, such as counting, ear training, group vs private lessons, leading, social dance behaviors, etc. I'm going to do my first showcase dance at my studio next month, have ordered the book you suggested and am going to try these visualization techniques to hopefully overcome a case of nerves. Any suggestions gratefully appreciated.

  5. Mark - It's a process so start practicing visualization just like practicing new footwork. Start with something small and easy. Practice the first move of your showcase in your head, then keep adding until you can see the complete dance in your head.

    The books are a huge help, I need to re-read them again, because as your dancing matures, it's helpful to re-apply the concepts. Let me know how it goes!

  6. Don - thanks will keep trying. With the visualization technique is it better to see my partner and I doing the steps from a third party view or is it more realistic to imagine things from my own point of view? Any thoughts?

  7. Mark: I think the best view is from your own point of view looking out. That's the view you will see when dancing, so it makes sense to practice from that view.

    That said, if you see it from the 3rd party view, it certainly is a killer exercise in terms of visualization.

  8. You must me visual thinkers. What about running through the move, but feeling where your body is and how your weight transfers, etc. I can create a visual image, but my mind prefers to feel location rather than see it. It will be very powerful if I can get both working together.

  9. @Don
    I appreciate your articles - you make things clear and easier to understand. There has always been a new aspect inspiring to check a new way to do things! Thanks!

    I have used a primitive kind of visualization as part of my learning. I start reviewing the new material, give names for the patterns I want to learn and write down them on a list. I did review this list on the bus to my work visualizing the movements. When I thought I could everything I tested it alone at home imagining the follower movement. When it runs OK; then it is time to try it on a practica.
    I think I will in future go on and start to create more aesthetic aspects with this.
    Will also check up the books!

    Yes please go on with your specific way!
    I think this should be the way all followers train themselves - trying to feel how a movement feels.
    When I have difficulties to learn a certain movement in a class I ask the teacher lead in follower position so I can get a feeling of the movement dynamics. I ask them also to dance with my follower so her body remembers how it should feel when done right.
    (anonymous if leader: followers will feel at home with you; you will be appreciated!)


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Don Baarns - Unlikely Salsero