Ask the Experts: How Can I Shift My Students’ Focus to Incremental Changes?
October 1, 2021

As a teacher, it’s satisfying to see your students take big leaps in their technique. But marginal gains—small, incremental shifts that add up to remarkable change over time—can be just as satisfying, and often safer for your dancers’ bodies.

For example, a student who is working to improve their turnout often chooses to stand in a first position greater than what they can create at the hip joint. At first, this decision can bring them some positive feedback when they look in the mirror and see themselves in a more pleasing first position.

Over time, though, that decision can bring a host of negative impacts, like pronation problems, knee issues and tightness at the hips.

Instead, a teacher could encourage that student to focus on a 1 percent change, which could be maintaining equal weight on the feet at the barre or sensing the engagement of the external rotators at the hip. In other words, shifting their focus to incremental changes rather than the end result.

Let’s use improving turnout as an example of how to do this. First, make sure students understand where turnout happens. Have them sit on the ground with straight legs in front. Flex the feet in parallel and then, without hyperextending the knees, turn out the legs. They’ll feel a sensation deep in their hips. 

Once they know where turnout comes from, teachers can begin to break down different feedback strategies into bite-size pieces. For example, ask your students to notice how the weight on their feet changes when they turn the feet out more. Can they feel the weight shift into the big-toe side of the foot? Do they start to clench their toes? What happens at the pelvis? Do they flex slightly? You could ask them to notice how standing at the barre in first position feels different than standing in first position in the center. Perhaps they are using the barre as a crutch to increase rotation, and without the barre they are gripping to hold that rotation. 

Learning to differentiate how their body feels when they are using their turnout properly and when they are cheating is an important factor in improving technique. Now they can self-regulate and catch themselves gripping the floor with their toes, and shift their feet into a position where the weight is evenly balanced between the three points of the feet before refocusing their attention towards the hip joint.

Turnout isn’t the only concept that can be broken down into these steps: Use a similar approach for whatever technical goal you are focusing on with students, whether it be increasing flexibility or improving balance. Remember to be intentional about the language you use, too. You can support a mindset of incremental growth by giving nuanced cues: Rather than telling students to simply turn out, remind them to come back to the work you’ve done around developing proper, safe turnout.

It takes time to improve technique because movement is a neuromuscular response in the body. It takes about 200 muscles to take a step—can you imagine the neurological patterning it takes to do a demi-plié? Dance has complicated patterning, and we need to remind our dancers to stay in a learning mindset. This means that learning from their mistakes and what doesn’t work is an important factor in becoming a better dancer.

Teachers can also remind students that making incremental positive changes in other areas in their lives will influence their technique. Encourage them to take those 1 percent steps—it may be as simple as drinking an extra-tall glass of water first thing in the morning to improve hydration or getting an extra hour of sleep.

As our students focus more on their process and progress over the end goal, they will see that small steps taken daily create big results.

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