Dancer Health

The power of visualisation for dancers

Josie Walsh. Photo by Jody Q. Kasch.

The mind is a powerful thing. In the 1989 hit movie Field of Dreams, Kevin Costner’s character reminded us of the importance of dreaming, of listening to yourself and of acting on your dreams, even when others may not believe. Dancers, too, can use the power of the mind, of dreaming and of visualising to help them gain success and confidence. 

Here, Dance Informa speaks with a couple of figures in the dance world who strongly believe in the effective tool of visualisation. 

When she was 16, Josie Walsh, now artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet School Los Angeles, severely stress fractured her lower back and was told she’d never be a professional dancer. But Walsh, who had dreamt of being a ballerina since she was five years old, was determined to prove everyone and everything otherwise. Even though her back “didn’t work”, she says, her mind certainly did. 

Josie Walsh teaching at Joffrey Ballet School San Francisco. Photo by Jody Q. Kasch.

Josie Walsh teaching at Joffrey Ballet School San Francisco. Photo by Jody Q. Kasch.

“Through my senior year, while wearing a full-body brace, I spent an hour visualising my back completely healing, as the doctor assured me that would never happen,” she recalls. “I then visualised a full 90-minute ballet class daily while hosting at a restaurant, brace and all! I started to recognise the imbalance in my brain when visualising turns to my right versus my left and started to mindfully balance them out. I then started to visualise the rhythm of my turns and adding more as I mastered it. I did this daily without fail.”

When Walsh returned to the doctor, who then sent her for an additional MRI, he was shocked to see her back was healed completely. When she returned to her ballet school, Walsh could execute eight pirouettes en pointe – to the left and right – when before she could only do three. She says she was dancing better than ever, even after having been off for four months, and to that she credits her use of visualisation. 

Likewise, Vito Bernasconi, junior soloist of the Queensland Ballet, says he employs visualisation as a way to handle times of stress, fear or anxiety, and to focus and center his body, mind and soul. With a hairline stress fracture in his lumbar spine at age 14, Bernasconi says he used a series of steps during his recovery process, with a focus on how he was feeling, what it would be like to be worse off than he was, reminding himself he’d get stronger, using visualisation and affirmations, setting goals, and allowing his body-mind-soul to understand the process should it happen again. 

“If you can convince your mind that you can, your body has a better chance of following suit,” Bernasconi explains. “It can get to a point that your body has no choice but to follow what your mind tells it. That is the power of visualisation.” 

Vito Bernasconi. Photo courtesy of Queensland Ballet.

Vito Bernasconi. Photo courtesy of Queensland Ballet.

So why does visualisation seem to miraculously help heal an injury? “When we are hurt, we change our physical and mental pattern, and often times when we’re healed, we still operate as if still injured, which makes us compensate and can cause all sorts of imbalances in the body,” Walsh explains. “It’s important while healing to visualise how you moved pre-injury so you can get back to that state. We aren’t hard-wired – neuroplasticity has proven that – and visualisation creates those new pathways.” 

Visualisation doesn’t only have to be used to recover from injury, however; it can also be used to ready the mind and body for class, auditions, rehearsal or performance. And teachers or choreographers can apply it when picturing a class plan or new work, or when teaching and guiding their dancers. 

Walsh says that, when choreographing, she has her dancers take a “visualisation break”, when everyone lays on the floor, eyes closed, and visualises all the changes and corrections with the music. Then, they get up and run the piece again. 

“The results are huge!” Walsh exclaims. “Often times, we get caught in physical limitations and get stuck there, but visualisation shows you a different route, and then it’s achievable. Also, it allows the space to focus on the nuances and bring that into the physical. Visualisation and physicality together is the ultimate synergy.”

Visualisation is going to be an individual thing – whether or not it works for you, how you set your mind up for it, what your process or routine is like, and how much patience and discipline it requires of you. Perhaps you sit before class and picture how you want your class to go or what you’ll focus on that day. Maybe you’ll get more detail-oriented and mentally walk through a tricky combination or section of a dance in order to better familiarise your mind with it. You may do a warm-up exercise or barre combination with your eyes closed to start to more deeply connect your body and mind. Or maybe you’ll sit quietly in your dressing room and meditate, thinking through the performance you’re about to do. 

“When a dancer directs their mind to visualising a desired outcome, they are too busy doing that than to get caught up in fear, self-doubt,” Walsh says. “It helps keep them grounded when adrenaline and all sorts of aspects kick in on stage.” 

Josie Walsh's dancers visualising in performance on stage. Photo by Jody Q. Kasch.

Josie Walsh’s dancers visualising in performance on stage. Photo by Jody Q. Kasch.

In that way, then, visualisation can be a great way to prepare yourself, and is often believed to be a tool in uncovering the best in you.

“With visualisation, I have been able to achieve the goals that I have set myself,” Bernasconi shares. “Visualisation works for me, and I know that by continuing the practices I have, I will continue to be able to achieve anything that I put my body, mind and soul to.”

Walsh does admit that, like dance technique, visualisation is a skill, something that needs to be practised consistently. But with focus and attention, you may start to train your brain in a new way, opening up to changes, both mental and physical. And Walsh encourages all dancers to give it a try.

“I advise everyone to visualise!” she says. “Work backward. By that, I mean visualise the result you want every day. It’s your beacon, and that beacon affects the choices you make, and you will achieve your goal or something better!”

By Laura Di Orio of Dance Informa.

Photo (top): Josie Walsh. Photo by Jody Q. Kasch.

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