Fine-Tune Your Teaching Language

Why small adjustments make a big difference

Mind Body Dancer instructor Mariel Lugosch-Ecker using creative teaching language in class.

TaraMarie Perri is founder and director of Mind Body Dancer, a community of teachers and students dedicated to mind/body practices, education and research. One of Perri’s projects examines how fine-tuning teaching language, according to guidelines from new studies in neuropsychology, can result in a deeper, more efficient learning experience for students. Here, she shares how these practices can be specifically applied to dance training. 

“Don’t lock your elbows.”

I heard this correction over and over again as a student, but strangely, hyperextended elbows frustrated me well into my dance career. Jumps were another story, though. A coach once challenged me during a grand pas de chat to “try staying airborne until you absolutely have to come down.” Afterward, taking flight in big jumps became a favorite challenge.

The first correction was given repeatedly over the years, yet the second was given just once. It turns out there’s a big difference in how my brain translated the two directives, which made one approach more effective than the other.

Even seasoned teachers get discouraged when they repeat themselves week after week. Luckily, small adjustments to how they phrase corrections can help. Neuroscientists, psychologists and linguists, when studying how language affects movement, have discovered that how the brain “hears” and processes language directly impacts the body’s initial responses. Our brains learn through symbols and images and are therefore wired to initiate movement only when hearing words focused on actions, directions in space or movement qualities. Dance students develop stronger brain-to-body memory (a more accurate term for muscle memory) when they receive corrections combining action-inspired words, focused imagery and positive messaging.

A Call to Action

In dance training, precise alignment and aesthetics are essential. Teachers can help students develop these qualities with more detailed direction. Take the classic request to “pull up.” Students unconsciously respond to “pull up” with an automatic, muscular response in hopes of either gaining praise or avoiding further corrections. However, students won’t gain core strength by temporarily responding to the teacher’s command. This can only be developed by cultivating brain-to-body memory.

Mind Body Dancer teacher Cara Surico uses opposing forces to help cultivate brain-to-body memory with her students. “With every up there is a down, every push has a pull, every rise has a fall,” she says. Instead of “pull up,” try using creative language such as “imagine your head pushing the ceiling away as your feet press firmly down into the ground.” This type of direction aids the flow of brain-to-body wiring, creating the muscular actions necessary for developing true core strength. Students will simultaneously stabilize alignment and stand taller on their own.

Not only is action language easier for the body to apply, it also imprints a hard-wired signal that dancers can access in the future. My teacher who coupled action language (“try staying airborne”) with a goal (“until you absolutely have to come down”)—instead of the standard “jump higher”—gave me a memorable “aha” moment. My jumping virtuosity immediately increased, and I could summon this brain-to-body wiring when taking flight in future choreography.

Limitations vs. Possibilities

Try using positive messaging—which MBD defines as “language of possibility”—instead of negative messaging, or “language of limitation.” Positive messaging activates brain-to-body listening abilities and psychologically supports the student. However, students also store negative movement pathways, which delays their physical and artistic development.

As a student, I desperately wanted to change my stiff arms, but I continued to lock my elbows no matter how many times my teacher said not to. Research shows that when we preface a correction with the word “don’t,” the brain continues to send a signal to repeat the undesired action, forgetting the “don’t” part completely.

It’s easy to say, “don’t do that” or “stop” because we know what we don’t want to see. Try replacing negative commands with positive messaging such as “try” or “what if.” When you ask for what you want, instead of what you don’t, corrections lead to greater success.

Bodies “Hear” Differently

When creating new action language, anticipate that student responses vary—what works for one body may not translate clearly on another. Focused imagery and invitations to explore can encourage visible change in several bodies at once, because they allow students more freedom to discover corrections on their own. MBD instructor Liz Beres observes that “playful imagery draws students into a more curious way of working. This leads them out of certain physical and mental habits and into those ‘aha’ moments.” Nature, shapes, textures or shared human experiences are great places to start when brainstorming ideas.

Students often respond with enthusiasm when teachers freshen up teaching language. Using imagery and action-inspired phrases takes practice, but ultimately it creates a more dynamic and creative classroom environment. DT

TaraMarie Perri is on faculty at the dance department at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

 

Build Your Language Repertoire

Using the tips below, brainstorm a few new cues or corrections for your next class or rehearsal.  

 

Mix and Match

Combine words of action, images and directions with qualities of movement.

Action: push, press, direct, send, reach, expand, lengthen

Image: water, light, weight, arrows

Direction: wall to wall, floor to ceiling, outward, inward

Quality: sharply, softly, heavily

 

Invite to Inspire

Try asking a question instead of giving commands and invite students to explore on their own. Try: “Why not…?”, “Have you thought about…?” or “What if…?”

 

Limitation vs. Possibility

Decide if language is causing limitations or creating possibilities for students.

Tendency: “Don’t crunch your toes.”

Instead: “Send laser beams out from each toe.”

Tendency: “Don’t tuck.”

Instead: “Lengthen your tailbone directly down past your inner heels into the floor.”

Tendency: “Shoulders down.”

Instead: “Find more space between your earlobes and your collarbones.”

 

Trial and Error

Identify a new move or common alignment challenge for several students.

• Notice which cues are effective and add them to the language repertoire.

• If something does not work, adjust it slightly or try another way.

 

Photo by Sophie Kuller, courtesy of Mind Body Dancer

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