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  • Writer's pictureJulia Nailor, LMSW

The Mindful Practice of Showing Up

For many Irish dance schools around the world, a brand new term of classes is in full swing. Oireachtas season is just around the corner, and whether you're dancing your very first traditional set competition or aiming for a spot on the championship podium, it’s time to get back to work. As you dust off your shoes and begin developing your practice routine for the season, it may be tempting to wish away the time between now and Oireachtas. After all, it’s much easier and more satisfying to daydream about your award ceremony than the hundreds of hours of hard work that currently stand between you and a medal. While you're still months away from Oireachtas, now is the perfect time to reevaluate your emotional relationship with the training process. One key skill that may seem simple on the surface but is actually a complex, critical practice that can make or break a dancer’s progression is showing up.

Dancers spend the vast majority of their careers training in order to enjoy a few fleeting minutes on stage, and it's not sustainable to treat training as an obstacle or afterthought. Training is dance. Putting on a costume and performing in competition is the final stage of a dancer's long, complicated journey of training all term. Going through that journey with the mindset that training has to equal suffering in order to be rewarded with a positive end result is not an effective way to achieve long-term goals. If training feels like suffering all or most of the time for you, it’s time to examine and adjust how you “show up” at each stage of your own dance journey. This article will focus on two major places where the practice of showing up is most critical: In the dance studio and at home in between classes.

Before we launch into specifics, let’s define “showing up” as a mindfulness skill. When I talk about showing up, I don't just mean appearing somewhere. Showing up is much more than a physical action. It’s a mindset that must be habitually practiced just like remembering to turn out your feet or cross your legs, and it’s directly tied to a commitment to being vulnerable. Think about where your dancing is right at this moment. Let’s call that point A. It’s highly unlikely that your point A is exactly where you want your dancing to be at Oireachtas, which is point B. In between point A and point B are infinite opportunities for failure, learning from that failure, repetitive correction, and then growth.

Many dancers are so fearful of failure and the vulnerability that comes with it that they end up shying away from the entire process of progressing from point A to point B. To show up in training is to embrace that fear and all the challenging, exhausting, joyful, fulfilling, and intimidating moments that go with it. Showing up is bringing your whole self in both mind and body to your training as you navigate each step in between point A and B. Dancers who are emotionally and physically engaged with the entire journey, not just the end result, are more likely to see progress while maintaining a healthy, positive relationship with the sport. Researcher and clinical social worker Brené Brown said it best in her book Rising Strong:

“Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.”

When dancers confront their own insecurities and accept that training will naturally include moments of great vulnerability, they can find the inner strength and motivation to truly engage with their work. Building a more positive emotional relationship with intensive training also helps decrease the likelihood of burnout and injury. In a study examining the careers of elite athletes, researchers found that how an athlete copes with stressors can affect the athlete’s risk of injury and recovery time post-injury (Tranaeus et al. 2017). Mindfully showing up in training can lead to more positive outcomes psychologically, spiritually, and physically, resulting in a well-rounded and sustainable dance career.


Showing up for Dance Class


Effectively engaging in class starts well before a dancer even enters the studio. In fact, it starts as early as the night before class. Let’s walk through a fictional example to illustrate what showing up for a dance class really means:


Mary is an under 18 preliminary champion dancer who is competing at her very first Oireachtas this year. She has a 2 hour dance class tomorrow evening at 6:00pm. She stays up until 2:00am watching Netflix and only gets about 4 hours of rest before her alarm sounds. Mary is too tired to complete her usual morning routine, so she presses snooze and wakes up again just in time to put on clothes and rush out the door. She skips breakfast and feels hungry and tired during her classes. Mary returns home from school at 4:30pm and starts to work on homework but is repeatedly distracted by her cell phone and doesn’t get all of her work done. At 5:30pm, she races out the door for dance class and realizes on the way that she forgot to eat dinner. When Mary arrives at the studio, she's already tired, hungry, and focused on all the homework she’ll have to catch up on when she gets home. She barely hears the music or her teachers as she dances because her head feels like it’s in a million other places. Mary goes through the motions and gets through class in a hurry, looking at the clock every few minutes. Her mind is already completely fixated on dinner and homework well before class is over, and she can’t recall any of the corrections or drills given to her during class.


After reading through Mary’s story, do you think Mary mindfully showed up to dance class that night?


Sure, she was physically in the room while class happened, but her mind was wandering so far away that she couldn’t mindfully participate or receive communication from her teachers, which greatly reduces the benefit of spending time in a structured class. Because Mary didn’t emotionally engage with her class experience, it’s unlikely that her dancing made any progress that night. It began with her decision to stay up late, which led to Mary starting her whole day with an empty stomach and exhaustion. When she didn’t reach her goal of finishing her homework after school due to an ineffective and distracted routine, Mary then rushed to dance class without properly nourishing her body or preparing her mind. She arrived to dance already doomed to get very little out of the class due to poor nutrition, fatigue, and a lack of focus. Her body was there, but her athletic drive and ability to work toward her goals were not.


Now, let’s take a look at an example of a dancer who approaches dance class a very different way:


Tyler is an under 14 prizewinner dancer who is competing in the traditional set competition at the upcoming Oireachtas. He has dance class tomorrow evening from 6:30pm to 7:30pm and is often thinking about his goal of placing in the top 5 at Oireachtas. Before going to bed, Tyler writes down in his dance notebook what he aims to work on in his class tomorrow: Turnout and timing. He sleeps with his cell phone charging across the room so that it doesn’t disturb him, and he gets about 7 restful hours of sleep before school the next day. He eats breakfast before catching the bus and feels focused and energized during his classes. After school, he leaves his phone in his room and completes his homework in the kitchen, taking a few short breaks to stretch his legs and eat. With all his work done, he prepares for dance class by doing a quick stretching routine and reviewing his notes from the previous practice. Tyler is very focused in the dance studio for the full hour of class. He is alert while dancing and feels each move, carefully remembering where his feet must be placed at every moment of the dance. When he makes mistakes or receives feedback from his teachers, he makes a note in his journal. He also watches and cheers on his classmates and politely asks his teachers any questions that come up during class. When he catches himself thinking about tomorrow’s schoolwork or the mess he needs to clean in his room, he refocuses his attention on a drill or stretch. By the end of class, he feels more confident with his dancing than he did before.


After reading about Tyler’s day, do you think he was mindfully present in his dance class, and why?


Just like Mary, Tyler attended class on time and completed the dancing that he was asked to perform, but what distinguishes his class experience from Mary’s is his focus, preparation, and intentional practice of making the most out of his studio time no matter what else he faced in his daily life. Tyler committed to nutrition and a homework schedule that allowed him to attend dance without the stress of outstanding work. He recognized his phone was a distraction and developed the habit of moving it away when needed, such as during bedtime and homework. He took breaks while working so that he wouldn’t burnout or become stiff, and when he walked into the dance studio he was able to effectively apply effort toward improving his dancing. Because he was goal-oriented, mindful, and attentive to his body’s needs, Tyler truly showed up to dance class.

Your time in the studio in front of your instructor is arguably the most valuable training opportunity you will ever have throughout your entire dance career, but that high potential for growth in class won’t be reached unless you develop a reliable, healthy routine that enables you to mindfully engage. Take time to reflect on your current relationship with dance class. Notice if you start to zone out for long periods of time or anxiously check the clock waiting for class to end. Try to pay attention to your automatic emotional responses when your teachers challenge or correct you. If in-class training exercises and routines consistently make you feel anxious, angry, hopeless, or impatient, that's a sign that your emotional relationship with studio time needs some attention. Start with self-reflection and initiating communication with your teachers so that you can voice your concerns and be supported in addressing them. Being open about your fears and needs is a necessary, vulnerable step to take in the process of building confidence, efficiency, and strength.


Showing up for Practice at Home


Of course, it’s critical to supplement your dance classes with independent practicing throughout the week. This helps ensure that you remember your material, apply your corrections, and maintain fitness. Dancing in your own space without a coach brings its own set of challenges, especially when it comes to mindful practicing. You’re surrounded by your belongings, family members, and countless other reminders of your non-dance activities that also demand your attention. Additionally, there is most likely no teacher present to keep you on track and offer external motivation while you work. It’s all too easy for a dancer to put on shoes, give about fifty percent effort to drilling a step or two, and then become distracted by a text message or show on television. We’ve all been guilty of mindless, unproductive practices at home from time to time, but when unstructured home training becomes habit, we can begin to view practice more as a meaningless chore than a source of accomplishment and pleasure.

How do we show up and make our independent practices more intentional and productive? Nutrition, goal-setting, and removing distractions are all vital, but in-home work also requires discipline and planning because the motivation must be internal, or coming from within you, instead of external from a coach who provides direction. If you struggle with guiding yourself through an effective practice, try using the S.M.A.R.T. goal model to plan your practices. Let’s use Tyler, the dancer from our previous example, to show how a S.M.A.R.T. practice plan can be developed:


Tyler receives a correction in class to work on the timing of his trebles in his traditional set lead. Because he doesn’t have class again until next week, he wants to practice at home. He writes a practice plan on a piece of paper using the S.M.A.R.T. goal model. His specific piece to practice is the treble sequence in his traditional set lead that his teachers pointed out. He plans to measure progress during the practice by recording his lead to music before and after working to see how his trebles improve. He identifies that his plan is attainable for in-home practice because he has a video of his teacher properly performing the trebles and knows that he can work on fixing his timing on his own without additional resources. He notes that his plan is realistic because he knows his music well and has fixed the timing of other pieces by drilling them before. He makes sure his plan is timely by establishing that he will only practice for 30 minutes because he knows that’s a reasonable amount of time for him to focus on drilling without becoming fatigued or distracted.


By honing in on a particular skill with a realistic goal and a time-limited plan based on his own capabilities, Tyler is making effective use of his practice and is more likely to make progress. If Tyler were to approach practice without a goal or thoughtful structure, he would be more susceptible to losing focus and failing to improve on any particular element of his dancing. If you do try making a S.M.A.R.T. practice plan, start with smaller goals and timeframes while you get in the habit of more mindful practicing. The more you commit to showing up to your independent training, the easier it will become to build productive practices into your routine. Taking ownership of your practices can also help you develop stronger self-awareness and personal accountability, which are both vital skills for any dancer who wishes to perform their very best on stage. If you aren’t sure where to start or how to create a practice space at home, check in with your teachers for guidance.



As you continue to train this season, think about how you can mindfully show up in all aspects of your dance journey. Work on S.M.A.R.T. practicing, opening yourself up to vulnerability, and communicating with your teachers to ensure that you’re getting the full benefit of your dance program. Like any new habit, showing up won’t happen for you overnight. Commit to consistent, realistic changes in your routine each day that will ultimately help you become the dancer you want to be this term. Most importantly, don’t ever lose sight of why you love to dance because that is the ultimate source of motivation for any athlete, especially during the toughest, most stressful periods of training.


Be sure to follow Irish Dance for the Soul on Instagram and Facebook and check out the Resources tab on the website for links to mental healthcare providers, crisis services, and downloadable worksheets.






Sources


Brown, Brené. 2015. Rising Strong. London, England: Vermilion.


Tranaeus, Ulrika & Ivarsson, Andreas & Johnson, Urban. (2018). Stress and Injuries in Elite Sport. 10.1007/978-3-662-49322-9_22.

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