Month: March 2011

Relax and improve your dancing—all in the same breath!

Deep states of relaxation have many benefits for dancers who are physically active and work hard each day. Special relaxation methods, like meditation practices and guided imagery have been proven to show improvements in mood, memory, concentration, coordination and positive outlook. These changes are most evident by those who practice relaxation methods on a regular basis. As with dance, or any type of learning, the more relaxation is practiced over time, the greater the gains.

Neuro-science can now identify specific alterations in the brain’s circuitry that relates to greater self awareness, and an ability to soothe emotional irritability.

Guided imagery techniques do more than help dancers relax—they also help individuals become more receptive to and in control of their emotional lives. In this way self awareness and self control promote more creativity in movement and performance expression.

I have taught guided imagery and other psychological techniques to dancers for more 10 years. These practices are included in the Wellness Program with The New Jersey Dance Theatre Ensemble (NJDTE), and a special elective course at Montclair State University dance department. I encourage dance students to make their own audio recordings to help increase focus in areas that are important to themselves and their dancing.

Here’s a sample guided imagery exercise that I encourage you to try in a quiet place when you have a few moments to your self. Ideally you are sitting in a comfortable position, spine lifted and feet evenly resting on the floor. You can enhance the effects of relaxation breathing with your favorite scents. Enjoy lavender essential oil or a lightly fragrant candle. Our sense of smell has an immediate impact on the central emotional part of the brain that transforms our mood.

Breathe in through your nostrils for 4 counts, take a slight pause, then exhale through your mouth for 8 counts with a slightly longer pause. Sense the warming effects of the blood rich lining of your nostrils. Let your dancing breath be rhythmic and easy. Become fascinated by the flow of energy and breath through your body. Engage with your ability to send warmth and energy through your entire body. Feel the bridge of your nose widening. The powerful muscles of your jaw soften. Continue with your easy dancing breath. Breathe in through your nostrils for 4 counts, take a slight pause, then exhale through your mouth for 8 counts with a slightly longer pause. Continue with this pattern of breathing. Sustain this moment of deep relaxation.

When you have completed this guided imagery exercise, take a moment to file into your memory the feelings of relaxation. You may tap into these whenever you wish. Try to remember in as much detail as possible the feelings, sensations and imagery involved in these moments of relaxation. File them away for a time you are starting to get stressed out. Preemptive relaxation goes a long way to supporting you emotional well being. Practice once a day and see how you feel after a week. Maybe you will notice more flow in your dancing, and better concentration learning steps. Or maybe you will just have an easier time relaxing. That’s a good thing!


Harlene Goldschmidt is a dance psychologist and performance consultant.

Categories: Articles

Passing the Artistic Torch: Three generations of dancers

Last Valentine’s weekend, the New Jersey Dance Theatre Ensemble performed a world premiere created by artistic director Nancy Turano. The premiere, Primavera, was performed in collaboration with Colonial Symphony Orchestra at Drew University’s Dorothy Young’s Center for the Performing Arts.

The dancers onstage Saturday night ranged in age from 14–18. But despite their youth, audience members were powerfully moved through dancers’ emotional commitment to the piece. This dedication was inspired by Turano’s artistic direction, and the beautiful live music of Aaron Copeland’s “Appalachian Spring: Suite.”

Seeing young dancers give so much on stage stirs your heart. Turano’s personal inspiration is amplified through each dancer’s dynamic and genuinely expressive movements. Turano shares, “It was a great opportunity for the NJDTE dancers to work with live orchestra.” Doing this offers the young dancers the opportunity to develop better sensitivity and spontaneous response to the music and tempo (rather than using a CD that is always the same). They needed to really listen and feel the music! “Having the opportunity to choreograph to the score of Copeland’s “Appalachian Spring “ was a great and rare honor.”

Paul Hostetter, the director and conductor of Colonial Symphony, approached NJDTE in August about the collaboration. Mr. Hostetter had a long-standing wish to collaborate with dancers. He was delighted with the discovery of the local Dance Ensemble with leadership demonstrating uncompromising artistic integrity. Rehearsals began in January for the February performance. The collaboration was mutually rewarding. Turano expressed a special gratitude in receiving permission and rights from Graham & Copland Foundations.

Martha Graham had originally choreographed her dance, Appalachian Spring, which was first shown in 1944 with music she commissioned from Aaron Copeland. His ballet score has received lasting success as an orchestral suite. Turano explains, “Having the great opportunity to see the original ‘Appalachian Spring’ of Martha Graham and Aaron Copeland gives tremendous insight as to the intention of both the choreographer and composer. With respect to their intention, reflecting a journey and union in a traditional way, I envision a more abstract concept of universal springtime/renewal, love, union, fate conflict, all witnessed by a corps de ballet. It will reveal an architectural landscape creating an expansion of space, while dancers become a textured expression echoing the voice of all people past, present and future.”

Indeed, the 15 young dancers carved out intricately winding spatial patterns sharing the stage with about as many master musicians of the Colonial Symphony Orchestra. The corps de ballet movement motifs, at times delicate and sensitive then varying with angular and bold jumps, mirrored the couple on their journey of discovery, separation and reunion. The couple connected through heart-warming gentle hand gestures and loving eye -contact that was palpable to audience members.

It’s hard to imagine a more wonderful experience on Valentine’s eve. There is a special joy in witnessing the continuity of dance artistry being handed down from one generation to the next. My hope is that Primavera continues to be performed with young dance artists reaching out to inspire the next crop of aspiring dancers. Live music certainly sweetens this delicious dance. A second helping is in order, please!

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Olympic Inspiration

The Winter Olympics, a great source of inspiration, are over for now. Yet Olympians, like dancers train year round, and are always looking for ways to maintain their competitive edge. Inspired? Consider adding some mental methods to your training routine. Successful Olympians have been learning from sports psychologists for decades, and so can you!

A great place to begin is with your breath—it’s shown to have a great influence on our performance and how we feel. Click here to refer back to some of the basics of rhythmic breathing.

To help develop this type of relaxing/focusing breathing, place one hand just below your ribcage, and the other over your belly button. Feel your belly rise and fall with each breath. Inhaling through your nose, softening your belly, breathe in for four counts. Your belly will balloon as your diaphragm (deep breathing) muscle lowers down toward your pelvic floor. Exhale through your mouth for eight counts, and feel your abdomen sinking back in toward your spine, as your diaphragm muscle lifts straight back up, and underneath your ribcage. Repeat for several breaths. Close your eyes to deepen this internal exercise.

Establish your “dancing breath,” with a 4:8 (inhale:exhale) rhythm. Using music may add more emotional engagement. Sometimes when I teach this method to dancers, we will breathe to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, adagio excerpt, a lovely piece that is about six minutes in length. You may gradually double this piece (or another of your choosing) and work up to the fuller benefit of 12 minutes, which is more optimal for enhancing training. (15–20 minutes for dancers looking for the fullest benefits of calming, flow and focus in dancing).

This sort of exercise is a basic building block for meditative techniques, as well as my full-length psychological techniques for dancers program: The BRAVE Method.

To break it down, you have Breathing, Relaxing, Aligning, Visualizing and Energizing. For dacners interested in working more with alignment, check out books by Eric Franklin. I use his texts, including Dynamic Alignment Through Imagery to support pre-professional dancers in developing a weekly mental practice for themselves. Franklin also has imagery books on dance performance and dance conditioning.

The last two parts of this mental method, visualizing and energizing, help dancers and athletes get into “The Zone.” Achieving peak performances is as much a mental event as a physical happening. Try to re-create a time when you were dancing with ease and control, melding into the music. As you breathe, relax and align yourself, visualize yourself dancing completely energized and committed emotionally. Use all your senses: touch, hearing, even smell to generate a “felt image.” You may refer back to this inner moving experience to bolster your next performance, competition or rehearsal. Or just enjoy imagination for your own sake! Ultimately, you are dancing for the pure pleasure of moving with music.

Harlene Goldschmidt, PhD
Dance Psychologist
Performance Consultant
Dir. of Wellness Program for the NJ Dance Theatre Ensemble

Categories: Articles

Psyched for Summer Intensives!

Summer dance intensives are up and running. Many of you are working hard—taking 3+ classes each day—to further your talent and ambition with new repertory, cross training and even yoga or Pilates. Given that you’re poised to fast track your dance career, summer intensives are a great setting to introduce wellness classes that focus on topics like mental skills, managing emotions, self-confidence and goal setting.

This summer is my fifth year working as the Director of Wellness Program for the New Jersey Dance Theatre Ensemble. This year, the dancers taking Psychological Techniques for Dancers range in age from 11 to 14. Basically the classes are about mind over matter. Dancers learn that mind has power. Through guided imagery exercises, self-assessments, selected readings and group discussions, the dancers have a chance to articulate what dancing means to them. They are encouraged to set personal goals for their dancing. Having short and long term goals helps dancers notice improvements, indentify their personal best, and practice self-rewarding through positive self talk.

Often times people are not sure what to make of psychological methods. You cannot really see, taste or touch what is happening inside our minds. But young dancers are open to sensing, feeling and self-reflection. So often, students make comments about having the advantage of practicing mental skills while working hard throughout their summer intensive programs. Having the ability to advance one’s dance training while resting his or her tired body is a benefit.

Different groups of students work in various ways. Sometimes for the older teens we focus on self-confidence. Another variable, managing emotions, may have room for improvement. These are areas that all teachers may help students with if they are aware of basic issues and methods. Students are encouraged to express their feelings in the safety of the group. Relaxation methods are practiced, and dancers are asked to label their feelings. Next it’s good to identify what is triggering emotional reactions through self-reflection. And finally, we make decisions on how to problem solve. Either addressing the situation with others or making an internal adjustment that may involve accepting the problem for the short term, or figuring out what needs to change on the inside. On a basic level, just normalizing feelings feels good, and helps the group to work well together.

There are many good resources for dancer’s wellness. Books like Psychology of Dance by Jim and Ceci Taylor and Linda Hamilton’s Advice for Dancers cover more on these topics. Sports psychologist Shane Murphy has worked with many young Olympic athletes. His writings are easily applied to dancers in training. The Cheers and the Tears and The Achievement Zone are full of helpful information for teachers, dancers and their parents.

With all the time, energy and sacrifice in dance training, it makes a lot of sense to supplement programs with psychological knowledge and practices. Young dancers are truly inspired, impressionable and up for the challenge of learning all that is presented.

You could say that psych skills give hard-working dancers a leg up within the competitive world of dance!

Dr. Harlene Goldschmidt is a Dance Psychologist with a private practice in Livingston, NJ. She is the Director of Arts Education & Wellness for the New Jersey Dance Theatre Ensemble

Categories: Articles

Brain Research & Recent Studies Part One

Brain Research & Recent Studies Supporting Psychodynamic
Psychotherapy: A three-part series 

By Harlene Goldschmidt, Ph.D. and Debi Roelke, Ph.D.

This is the first of a series of three articles focusing on scientific studies and brain research that support psychodynamic treatment.  This first article serves as a general overview of research relating to psychodynamic psychotherapy. The hope is that as psychodynamic therapists, we will expand our “comfort zone” in talking about science and the brain as it relates to psychodynamic treatment. This will give us more ways to demonstrate the unique benefits of psychodynamic therapy to other health professionals, patients, prospective candidates, policy makers, and the community we wish to serve.

The second article will look at relational trauma, how brain functioning is affected and the ways in which psychodynamic therapy provides reparative experiences (Spring edition). The third and final article will look at unconscious processes like dreams, and how we can better understand the inner workings of the brain in terms of memory, desire, and regulating emotions (Summer edition).

Recent Review of Research Showing Efficacy of Psychodynamic Therapy
Psychodynamic therapists have received some welcome support from the scientific community documenting the benefits of psychodynamic treatment.  A recent paper in the American Psychologist by Jonathan Shedler (Feb. 2010) looks at dozens of studies all showing that psychodynamic therapy has the same or greater effectiveness when compared to other evidence based treatments, i.e., cognitive behavioral (CBT)  and dialectical  behavioral therapy (DBT).  In addition, results from a large group of well crafted studies involving over 2,000 patients showed that improvements from psychotherapy increased significantly after termination. Follow-up intervals were anywhere from one to five years.  This increase was not shown for CBT treatment, where in fact some of the treatment improvements “decayed”  (Shedler, 2010).

Shedler describes research showing that the “active ingredients”  of all therapy approaches seem to be psychodynamic factors, namely, the therapeutic alliance and “experiencing” (becoming aware of and articulating emotions in the session). He argues that these “active ingredients” explain therapeutic change in treatment  modalities other than psychodynamic approaches.  Rotely applied manualized treatments were shown to be the least effective of all.  In studies comparing psychodynamic treatment with DBT for patients with borderline personality disorder, the psychodynamic therapy not only produced symptom improvement but also showed changes in underlying psychological mechanisms – reflective functioning and attachment organization.  In other words, psychodynamic therapy helped patients to learn important psychological skills that support profound changes in how one relates to oneself, as well as others.

Shedler comments that he is “struck” by the fact that psychodynamic therapy is often depicted as lacking empirical evidence, and that “historically psychoanalysts have been dismissive of this line of research,” when in fact there is a sizable and growing body of “…high-quality empirical evidence supporting psychodynamic concepts and treatment.”  Shedler writes passionately, “ Such attitudes are changing, but they cannot change quickly enough “ (2010, p.107).

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