“Dance like there’s a hurricane inside your body.” “Walk as if you’re wearing heavy boots.” “Wave your arm like you’re painting a rainbow on the ceiling.” These are examples of imagery, one of a dance teacher’s best tools. Imagery can be used to correct technique, elicit a movement quality and encourage self-expression. It can even help students retain information. But it’s important to note that the images you use and the way you use them should change according to who and what you are teaching. (For example: The rainbow image might work well for a 6-year-old, but how would an adult react to it?) Here are some effective, engaging and developmentally appropriate ways to incorporate imagery into your classes.
Breaking it down
Eric Franklin, a Zurich-based dance educator and author of Dance Imagery for Technique and Performance, organizes imagery into these categories:
Internal versus external
According to Franklin, internal images are inside the body, while external images are outside. “Imagine your hip joint rotating in the socket” and “imagine your body is full of pillows” are inner images. “Make a circle with your arms like the sun” is external. Franklin has found that inner images generally work better with adults and external images with young dancers.
Metaphorical versus literal
A metaphorical image evokes a picture. If you say, “Extend your fingers to the ceiling,” you are using a literal image. If you say, “Imagine light beams shooting out of your fingers,” you are speaking metaphorically. Franklin says that younger children may struggle with literal images, especially anatomical ones. So, if you want more lift from the sternum, tell young dancers they are wearing a beautiful diamond necklace and ask them how they would hold their chests to show it off. For adults, who may find that kind of language childish, phrases like “lift your heart” might be more appropriate.
Sensory Sensory images are auditory (“land as quietly as a cat”), kinesthetic (“feel resistance in your ronde de jambe en l’air, like stirring batter”) and visual (“curve your spine like the letter C”). Franklin believes external sensory images coupled with metaphor tend to work best with children, while internal, literal and kinesthetic images are effective with adults.
Effective Examples Imagery can fall flat when it’s too complicated or nebulous. If you want students to jump with more power, don’t just say, “Imagine you’re a coiled spring.” Dancers need to know how the image will help them improve. “Never present the picture without explaining what it will do for the student,” Franklin advises. “Say, ‘If you want to jump higher, imagine you are a coiled spring before takeoff.’”
Though specificity is usually ideal, there are some occasions when loose concepts work well—in free dance, for instance. Tanya Waits, artistic director of Kansas’ Ballet d’Enfant, which trains children as young as 18 months and up to 8 years old, will sometimes tell her younger students, “Float like a snowflake,” and then let the dancers move about as they choose. “It’s good for inspiring self-expression,” she explains. For improvisation with teens and adults, use more advanced imagery, like, “move as though your body has no bones.”
Make a Connection You won’t get very far with 6-year-old tappers if you ask them to conjure the sound of a fax machine. On the flip side, you wouldn’t want to ask your 14-year-olds to act like Big Bird. Your language must connect to your students’ existing vocabulary and experiences. Dancers in primary grades will respond to language that relates to the seasons, the weather and foods they like to eat. “If you want to get a bound-flow feeling from younger students, say the whole floor is covered in peanut butter, and they have to get across,” says Diane Jacobowitz, executive and artistic director of DanceWave, a performing arts school in New York City. “They’ll immediately find the resistance that comes with getting your foot stuck.” When working with very small children, introducing a simple prop, such as a rose, can also reinforce the image, says Waits. Struggling students often find that concrete items help them to construct their own pictures in their heads.
Whatever the students’ ages, engaging their imaginations in the learning process reminds them that their bodies are more than machines. “Using imagery helps dancers understand that even in the most specific choreography, there is an element that comes from their own minds,” says Jacobowitz. “It says that who you are is important to what you’re doing.” DT