Mind Over Matter: Walk This Way

This is the first in a series of blog posts called “Mind Over Matter” that explore the importance and relevance of the psychological aspects of dancing.
As any of my students can tell you, I often say that dance is half mental. Well, I’m not sure if it’s actually half, but I do believe that the mental aspect of the dance is as important – if not more important – than the physical aspect.

I think one of the most basic illustrations of this idea is how difficult it can be for students to master some of the fundamentals of movement. I have yet to encounter someone who walks into class leading with their feet, or leaning back, or walking from her hips. Even when asked to walk backwards, while they may lead with the feet, most people rarely lean backwards while doing so. So why is it that when dancing, people often have so many problems with posture and movement?

I often feel that my job as a dance instructor is to remind people how to walk. After all, my students already know how to walk – to move from their centers with good posture. They don’t need to learn anything new; their bodies already know the basic mechanics of the dance. And let’s be honest: there’s no dance closer to walking than West Coast Swing.

What then prevents the student from successful dancing? I would argue that the mind gets in the way of the body doing what it already knows. Because students have expectations of what dancing should look and feel like, they make changes to their body mechanics in an effort to achieve certain physical feelings, or they make changes to how they move because they are distracted by a partner or the music. The mind, in short, interferes with and overrides what the body does automatically, distracting it and redirecting it in ways that it often doesn’t even realize.

How important do you think the mind is in learning to dance? What experiences have you had with conflicts between brain and body? Have you been able to use your mind to help you improve your dancing? Teachers, how do you tackle this challenge and what has been most successful for your students?


  1. I'm posting from the perspective of a follower and an occasional leader…Learning to trust the body and letting it respond rather than trying to "figure it out" in the mind is a key piece in dancing. Another piece is being present – which means paying attention with an open awareness, without holding on to preconceived ideas about what is being led (or for leaders, being willing to drop your agenda); paying attention to what is being communicated through the connection with your partner (being sensitive to the felt-sense of the leader or follower); through visual communication (looking at your leader or follower for visual cues, not being distracted); listening to the music for rhythm and changes in rhythm and musical accents.Practicing mindfulness meditation has been a huge factor in my ability to be present in the moment and to let go of any expectations or tendency to anticipate what's coming. It's improved my "listening" skill in the connection as well as letting go of the thinking/analyzing mind and trusting that the body knows exactly where to go (provided I have a good leader or follower!).I think it's important to not make the inference that one should "turn off" the mind – but rather, the mind is used skillfully to pay attention instead of getting in the way. One needs an attentive awareness, so it's not the mind that's the problem, but rather the kinds of thinking that get in the way. If I'm worrying while I'm dancing, that's a problem because I can't pay attention to the leader or follower. If I'm looking around the room to find who I want to dance with next, then I'm not paying attention to my partner or the traffic flow and safety around my partner, and definitely not aware of the communication happening with my partner. If I'm stressed and tight due to nervousness, my body can't respond quickly – it slows down the ability to respond quickly and easily – those tight muscles are resisting the movement that it is being asked to perform. It's not the mind itself that's the problem. Actually, when the mind is being present for what's happening, then the mind is the best ally. It can be aware of tightness or tension in the body – and relax. It can modulate the connection so that if a leader or follower predominantly uses leveraged moves, the connection I offer can change to adapt smoothly, rather than expecting my partner to make all of the adjustments.In reading your post that people already know how to walk – while that's true, they actually don't pay attention to the movement of walking – they're not present for it… they are just on autopilot. When you bring awareness to walking – to actually know what happens when you walk – where the weight is, how it transitions from heel to ball to toe, to really feel the shift of weight, then people will have a better sense of the body mechanics. They will also begin to understand how to move someone else's weight; to make sure their partner's weight is in the right place, etc. They will learn to feel that through the body.Just my thoughts for what they're worth.

  2. Hi dharmadancer,Thanks for your insights! I wholeheartedly agree with what you say about self-awareness (ironically, the subject of my next post!). My point in mentioning how people already know how to walk is to highlight the fact that the body already has the proper habits but it is the mind that interferes. But you are spot on in pointing out the need for awareness in maintaining basic technique – or changing habits – while dancing.I hope you'll share your thoughts on others in this series!

  3. This makes me think of imaging, which is a common technique in dance. This in turn makes me think of the inner game. If you can keep the conscious mind occupied with only the end effect that is desired, then the unconscious mind, which is ideal for this, then dancing becomes much better. Otherwise, the mind can get in the way – I have seen that happen many times.

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