Mind Over Matter: Don’t not do that…

This is the second in a series of blog posts called “Mind Over Matter” that explore the importance and relevance of the psychological aspects of dancing.

In my first post in this series, I discussed the amazing influence of the mind over the body, particularly in how the mind can interrupt what we might otherwise do well.

An important element that affects the way we dance is the way we learn to dance. In recent months I’ve been thinking more and more about how the way this dance is taught in our community is often detrimental to our mastery of it. Our bodies know how to do some things naturally and yet the way we talk about the dance sets up a mental frame of reference that gets in the way of that. 

One key component to this mental paradigm is our focus on what not to do. We all know this line of thinking. We’re told to not do something that we’re doing wrong, and the focus is on undoing a bad habit. A prime example is tight arms, the solution to which is to relax them.

There are a two main problems with this method of instruction. The first is that when the mind is focused on a particular body part, we tend to engage that part most. Think about exercising. If you’ve done any weight training or yoga or Pilates, you know that where you concentrate is where you will work the hardest. This is especially true of compound exercises, where more than one muscle group is engaged. The muscle you think about while exercising is the muscle you will engage the most. It’s not because you’re doing anything to consciously engage that muscle more. Rather, it’s a subconscious reaction to where your mind is focused. So when you think about relaxing tight arms, you are actually more likely to perpetuate the problem rather than solve it.

Another problem is that knowing what not to do doesn’t always tell you what to do. If I said, of all numbers from 1 to 100, don’t pick 56, that’s helpful to a point, but it doesn’t tell you which of the other 99 numbers to choose. Likewise, telling you to relax your arms is somewhat helpful, but in essence, it’s the same thing as saying “don’t be tight” – it doesn’t tell you what you should be doing differently in a constructive way.

I’ve found that good teachers will redirect your attention to solutions that help you develop new habits, rather than simply telling you to not do something. And good students ask their teachers for constructive problems, trying to understand, “If not 56, then which number is it?”

What habits have you tried to overcome with the instruction of “don’t do that” and did it work? Was there some other helpful instruction that allowed you to undo your bad habit? Teachers, do you provide constructive advice that helps your students develop new habits to replace the old bad ones? How do you communicate that advice to your students? Post your responses below!


  1. Quote above>>>"We all know this line of thinking. We're told to not do something that we're doing wrong, and the focus is on undoing a bad habit. A prime example is tight arms, the solution to which is to relax them."My questions is… is it necessary to correct bad habits on the dance floor.., be it this one, or any others that someone might have.Another question is… If a dancer has not so perfect rhythm and not a clear understanding of styling to the music… is it considered rude to hesitate and style to the music even though the message is to move when the lead says so.. even if it's off beat and uncomfortable(did this make sense or should I try to clarify better?)What is proper floor dance etiquette? (on both sides) I am curious and sincere with my questions.Thanks for posting this Maria 🙂

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