This is an excerpt from Dance Psychology for Artistic and Performance Excellence w/WR by Jim Taylor & Elena Estanol.
Dancing your best requires that you lay a solid foundation of physicality and technique as you develop your skills and learn your choreography. Your foundation must also enable you to develop mentally. To that end, we introduce you in this chapter to several key concepts that act as the foundation for the remainder of Dance Psychology for Artistic and Performance Excellence.
One of the most popular phrases heard in achievement-oriented environments is "peak performance." It was first used by athletes, coaches, and sport psychologists and was then incorporated into the vocabulary of business, the performing arts, and other high-performance settings. Peak performance is typically defined as the highest level of performance that a person can achieve, and it is often viewed as the goal toward which all performers should strive. Despite its widespread usage, however, this received wisdom is not without its problems, as Jim realized soon after coming out of graduate school. Here is his description:
"At first, peak performance was what I wanted to help performers achieve. But as I became more experienced as a consultant and writer, I began to appreciate the power of words and how vital it is to use words that communicate specifically. In turn, I began to see several difficulties with the phrase 'peak performance.' For one thing, dancers can maintain a peak for only a very short time. Would you be satisfied if you danced well in one performance, then did poorly in subsequent ones? Also, once that peak is reached, there is only one way to go—down. Finally, you may peak too early or too late for an important performance.
"For several years, I searched for a phrase that would accurately describe what I wanted performers to achieve. One day, while walking through the meat section of a supermarket, I saw a piece of beef labeled as 'prime cut.' This was an aha moment—I knew I was onto something. I looked up prime in the dictionary and found that it means 'of the highest quality or value.' Thus was born the term 'prime performance.'"
Prime performance, or in our case prime dance, involves dancing at a consistently high level under the most challenging conditions. The power of this definition hinges on two essential words: consistently and challenging. In terms of consistency, we want you to be able to dance at a high level day in and day out, week in and week out, and month in and month out. Prime dance is not about being "on" 100 percent of the time—that is impossible. Rather, it means performing at a high level while experiencing only minimal ups and downs instead of the large swings in training and performance that are so common among dancers.
The second key word is challenging. It's easy to dance well under ideal conditions when you're healthy and rested, when you have an easy role, and when you're performing in a familiar venue in front of a small and friendly audience. What makes great dancers so successful, however, is their ability to perform their best in the worst possible conditions, in the most challenging roles, and under the greatest pressure in front of a large and potentially critical audience in a well-known venue. If you attain this prime level of performance, you will not only succeed but also gain immense enjoyment and satisfaction from your efforts. That is a goal worth achieving!
What does prime dance consist of? Although this book focuses on the mental components of dance, the mind is only one piece of the puzzle. For this reason, we have taken a holistic perspective that emphasizes the whole person and thus allows you to dance your best. In addition to being mentally prepared, you must also operate at a high level of physical health, which includes being well conditioned, well rested, well nourished through a balanced diet, and free from injury and illness. At the same time, your technical skills must be precise and well learned. If you are prepared in these three ways—mentally, physically, and technically—then you have the ability to achieve prime dance.
Have you ever experienced prime dance? Do you know what it feels like to perform at that level? Prime dance fosters the experience of flow, a state identified by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and marked by the following characteristics:
- It is effortless—comfortable, easy, natural, and automatic.
- There is little thought. The body does what it knows how to do with no mental interference.
- You experience sharpened senses. You see, hear, and feel everything more acutely.
- Time is distorted. We've heard professionals say that when they're "on," their performance seems to fly by.
- You are totally absorbed in the experience and focused entirely on the process of artistry. You are free from distractions and unnecessary thoughts that might interfere with your performance.
- You have boundless energy. Your stamina seems never ending, and fatigue is simply not an issue.
- You experience what we call prime integration, in which everything works together. Specifically, the physical, technical, and mental aspects of your art are integrated into one focused effort of dancing with virtuosity and joy.
Before you begin the process of developing prime dance, you may find it helpful to create a foundation of attitudes about three areas of dancing. The first area involves your perspective on dance performance and competition—what you think of them, how you feel about them, and how you approach them. The second area involves your view of yourself as a dancer—how you perform in rehearsal versus in performance or competition. And the third area involves your attitude toward success and failure—how you define success and failure and whether you know the essential roles that they play in your process of becoming the best dancer you can be. We encourage you to explore your attitudes in these three areas in order to develop a personal philosophy that serves as your wellspring for understanding and shaping your own experience of prime dance.
Learn more about Dance Psychology for Artistic and Performance Excellence.