"A picture is worth a thousand words."
Images are powerful. We see them everywhere – on T.V. advertising, in magazines, on the sides of buses, on social media. Images can make us feel something, they can inspire us and they can help us understand things.
So what is Imagery? Imagery is a process of creating a mental image or intention that you want to happen or want to feel. It can be used to improve technique or performance quality, help decrease anxiety and stage fright and even aid in recovery from injury. It is widely accepted that the mind and body are an integrated system even though the mechanisms behind this connection are not fully understood.
To see how quickly imagery can affect movement try this:
Ask a friend to straighten on arm out to the side and tell them you are going to try to bend their arm. Notice how much your friend can resist your effort. Now tell your friend to think of a river of energy flowing through their arm and out into space. They should keep this image of energy flowing going as you again try to bend their arm. What happened? Was it harder to bend? Did your friend suddenly become stronger? Of course not, but certain ways of thinking can influence the body’s force without changing the structure. (Adapted from R Fritz 1984)
Try this one on yourself:
Do 5 sautés in 1st position. Think about how it felt. This time imagine your legs are made of lead or that you have a ball and chain attached to your ankles.
Now; try your 5 jumps again... What happened?
Finally, imagine your legs are springs, as you plié the springs compress and store energy, as you push off they release that energy. How did your jumps feel this time?
As you would have just seen, imagery can be very powerful and can create a dramatic change in your quality movement even though you haven’t changed any physical structure.
In addition to influencing performance, mental imagery can be used to aid recovery from injuries. Research has started looking into this phenomenon and has found that imagery can help people cope with pain, can speed the healing process, prevent the deterioration of physical skills due to injury and immobility and increase adherence to rehabilitation programs.
There are many different ways of categorising they types of imagery that dancers and athletes use. I have chosen 3 to describe here as I felt that they could be easily related to dancers who are recovering from injury.
This is where dancers see themselves performing the movements of their class or routine. The ability to see yourself successfully performing a particular step or routine by use of imagery helps to create a sense of motivation. To help you start this process, use past videos of you dancing (before your injury) to help you recall movements vividly. With practice you will be able to imagine yourself dancing without needing the visual aid. Positive visual imagery has been shown to enhance the coping skills of injured athletes, and encouraged them to follow to their rehabilitation program. Utilising visual imagery as a practice technique helps injured dancers maintain their fundamental skills and technique. If you can see yourself doing it first, then you can do it. According to research, imagery can be a powerful tool in rehabilitation. As the human brain interprets the images created during imagery process the neural pathways that are recruited are identical to those used when physically performing the task. For example: if you imagine yourself performing a perfect double pirouette: the preparation, the relevé, finishing facing the front, on balance; the parts of your brain that light up are the same as if you had actually performed the pirouette!
Imagery is poly-sensory, meaning that it utilises different senses to create a stronger image. All the senses can be used to stimulate vivid memories of prior successes. For example, have you ever smelt something that brings back a memory of childhood? Maybe it is a perfume that reminds you of an overseas holiday or the smell of cut grass that take you back to a great time you had with your family on a picnic. Associating a sense to an image helps you create a more effective image. Maybe you have a particular song that you listen to before any competition or exam that gets you “hyped up” or “calms your nerves”, maybe you do the same warm up before every performance because you performed really well after doing it once before. Emotive imagery is a great tool to help create a sense of self-efficacy and find senses that help the rehabilitation process.
Healing imagery is an effective technique that can enhance recovery from injuries. Those who receive detailed information about the healing process, including pictures of the injured area are better able to understand what is happening, visualise the healing process and are more likely to follow their rehabilitation program. The better your understanding of what is happening within your body as it recovers the better you are able to visualise the healing process. Healing imagery guides the injured dancer to “see” the healing occurring in the injured are (e.g., seeing the blood stream take damaged tissues away from the injury reducing swelling, and seeing the new cells coming in to repair the injured area) and to “feel” tissues getting stronger (e.g., visualising ligaments feeling as strong as steel, or as many fibres linking together).
Utilising imagery allows the dancer to become stronger than they were before their injury. It is an effective, positive tool that can help dancers develop a positive self-image and encourages self-efficacy and a sense of control. The process of empowering dancers with imagery skills could translate positively to benefits such as a shorter recovery time and a more positive experience during rehabilitation.
Learning to use imagery is like learning a new language it takes time and practice. You wouldn’t expect to be able to read a whole French novel after 2 or 3 weeks of French lessons would you. It is different for everybody but with practice and persistence you will find that images can change the way you move, recover and dance.
Article written by Haydee Ferguson.
Physiotherapist with a dance history spanning more than 25 years.