Mindful Practice: the art of practicing while consistently mentally present.
In the context of mindfully practicing your dance, it means practicing every movement with mental presence. Mindful practice is a skill that is both critical to becoming a great dancer, and yet one of the most under-used processes.
How do I know? I teach, and I see when students actually pay attention to what they are practicing in class and practica.
For example, I teach Brazilian Zouk. One of our most foundational steps is the Lateral. We use it all the time. It’s also one of the foundations that takes a lot of mindful practice to do properly. 8/10 times, most students learn Lateral within their first few classes, and then think ‘they have it’. For some of these people, it is a temporary state and they figure out later they need waaay more practice a little later. For others, they figure that it’s something they ‘know’, and no longer need to practice.
What eventually happens is that class cycles back to focusing on the lateral. The students are given a drill to do the lateral slowly and in sync. Mindfully, so to speak. Usually, the class ends up as follows:
- 20% actually do the drill as asked.
- 40% do the drill at double-time and without being engaged in ‘doing it slowly and in sync”.
- 20% do the exercise for 1 minute, then stop and start talking.
- 20% do the exercise at the right speed, but are doing it with the attitude that they’ve already ‘got it’ (ie, ‘Lazy Practice’).
Invariably, the 20% who actually do the drill end up improving the most. Why? Because they’re mindfully engaging with the exercise. They are undoing their bad habits through careful concentration, and developing good habits by rewiring their muscle memory. They are building their connection by doing this while staying in time with their partner.
The reason certain people in the scene grew so quickly or are such great dancers is because they worked at it. They worked hard for it. No one – and I mean no one – is talented enough at dance that they don’t need to engage in mindful practice to excel. Maybe become a competent social dancer – but not excel.
You can learn a lot by going back to your teacher’s beginner course and re-working your basics – perhaps more than you can learn in many advanced classes. You can use a beginner class to engage in mindful practice – with beginners who are eager to actually engage in that practice with you.
It’s like watching a movie: you may already know the plot, but the first time you usually miss some details. Every time you subsequently watch that movie, you get more and more of the details. But, if you are off washing dishes and not paying attention (or if you fast-forward through chunks of the movie), you probably won’t actually get anything else out of the movie because you already ‘know what happens’.
So, how can you develop habits of mindful practice?
Just do it. Remind yourself when you step into a classroom or when you decide to practice at home to really think through every movement and moment – no matter how simple. Is your weight in the right place? Your frame? Are you moving through every movement? Are there points where your balance is a little off – even for a moment? Are you always in control?
Ask yourself these questions constantly. If even one of those things isn’t at 100%, try again. And again, and again, and again.
That is mindful practice.
That is what will turn you, over time, into a great dancer.
No matter where, when, and with whom, practice mindfully and you will grow.