Are you feeling stressed, anxious or scared in your life? Do these emotions bleed into your dancing?

I walk barefoot into the middle of the dance floor, ready to take position. My teacher is watching me, her eyebrows crinkled. My shoulders tighten and ache, and my lungs barely have air in them. “Shut up, mind!” I think on repeat. But I cannot switch it off. I want to be here in the moment but my mind is screaming other things. This is called stress. This is called anxiety. And, I am scared.

In the old Star Wars films, a famous green creature by the name of Yoda once said, “Do or do not, there is no try.” I love Yoda, but I don’t think a psychologist would not agree with him on this one, at least in this case.  Force will often work against anyone from learning when in a state of stress or fear. We have created such a mammoth world for ourselves that many of us are struggling to keep above water. We are stressed by our finances—or lack thereof perhaps, our homes, our jobs, our children, our friends, our partners, and the list continues.

Science can prove any sort of stress—even the tiniest of symptoms—can have a profound effect on the way we absorb information. Professional German-Australian ballerina and performance psychologist for the Australian Ballet Phillipa Ziengenhardt has launched her own initiative known as StageMinded. Her research focuses on mindset and how stress impacts our way of thinking. Ms. Ziengenhardt says there are two types of mindsets when it comes to learning: a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. A fixed mindset is about having a fixed ability when attempting to perform a task, “Ability is something you feel like you have to demonstrate,” says Ms. Ziengenhardt. This way of thinking can limit your brain’s capacity to see and achieve things that may be out of your comfort zone. The second mindset is growth, which refers to having the ability defined by how much effort is invested. “Our brain works best in a growth mindset,” says Ms. Ziengenhardt. 

Ms. Ziengenhardt explains how stress and even fear can have negative impacts on our dancing ability and our mindset. “Stress limits the blood flow to your cortex and sends it instead to your limbic brain, which is emotions controlled.” We would rather see a more analytic and creative approach to our brain function rather than our emotions, which can be unsteady and unreliable.

So how do we eliminate stress in the dance studio and help promote dancers to be in a growth mindset?  Creating a fun environment will help improve the effects of stress. “We need to create conditions in our classes to increase blood flow.” Conditions for Ms. Ziengenhardt are based on neuropsychology, which looks into the human concepts of needing to feel safe, a sense of attachment, orientation, control and pleasure.

First and foremost, the studio needs to be a safe space for dancers. This means creating an atmosphere that promotes zero tolerance for harassment, bullying and yelling. It also means dancers are allowed and encouraged to make mistakes. The studio also must run on consistency and predictability, where dancers can feel like it is their second home and know how it will operate every single time they walk into the room. We also must appreciate that dance does put a spotlight on people, and some people do not wish to have that limelight shined on them. A safe studio is not driven by force, but rather by guidance.

The second condition is about attachment and control. “We are relational learners,” Ms. Ziengenhardt says. A teacher must be genuinely interested in their student’s progression and cater to individualised learning goals. Control focuses on giving the student access to achieving their goals by themselves. “Giving dancers responsibility, fostering autonomy and giving them time to actually digest new information and problem-solve,” will provide a sense of control within themselves and in the classroom.

The third condition is about maximising pleasure and minimising pain. Pain refers to stress or anxiety in this context. Ms. Ziengenhardt says being highly creative in the studio can help promote a growth mindset—it is all about having fun! Dance has changed from the earlier times of militaristic methods of teaching. Teaching in contemporary times is now about instilling resilience and independence through more nurturing methods. “The aim of a teacher should be to reset their students if they are feeling stressed,” Ms. Ziengenhardt explains. The students are willing to engage, co-create and explore within the dance studio. But if they are feeling stressed, that fixed ability will not allow them to progress.

Whether you are a dancer or a teacher, it is important to understand how our brain works in order to maximise our retention of information. We learn new steps and tricks all the time so it is vital to promote a sense of growth mindset within yourself, which in turn will bring about a more positive outlook.

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