Dancer Health

Beyond Stretching, Part 1: Sustaining peak performance

Alix McQueen. Photo by Tamara Scott.
Alix McQueen. Photo by Alex Mansell and Tamara Scott.

Over the next six issues, Dance Informa will be collaborating with Zac Jones, director of Heal Yourself and Move, on a series that explores flexibility. Throughout these upcoming editions, we gain insight into how to maintain and master flexibility throughout different seasons of study, training, performance and teaching. 

Graduate of The Australian Ballet School, Jones is a former soloist with the Queensland Ballet and Expressions Dance Company. He has also served as a coach at The Australian Ballet School for over five years. In 2018, he completed his Masters of Fine Arts in Choreography at the Victorian College of the Arts. Pursuing his interest in diversifying training techniques, he has subsequently explored movement in an array of other disciplines alongside dance – martial arts being one of them. Jones has taught and holds a second degree black belt in Yoshinkan Aikido, is a Lakan first degree black belt and licensed teacher in Filipino Arnis, and has undertaken extensive and ongoing private tuition with Kung Fu and Russian Systema masters. Known as a body-mindfulness and somatic teacher and practitioner, Jones has studied Continuum, Ideokinetics, Skinner Releasing, Body-Mind Centering, Contact Improvisation, and many other practices to expand the potential of the body and mind together.

Zac Jones teaching student Alix McQueen. Photo by Alex Mansell and Tamara Scott.
Zac Jones teaching student Alix McQueen. Photo by Alex Mansell and Tamara Scott.

Concert season is just around the corner, and studios, teachers and students are in preparation mode. During these intense periods of training, it’s imperative to maintain sustainable output, not only in a performance aspect but as we all know, sound technique and flexibility are just as important for longevity. Unfortunately, this often gets pushed aside, in favour of drilling a clean routine for the stage. However, if you follow Jones’s methods, this doesn’t have to be the case, and you can maximise time and effort along the way, to get mutual results. 

It’s game time and everyone is in preparation mode. There is a recurrent pattern that Jones notices with teachers and studio owners around this time when getting dancers’ performances ready. He shares, “Such a huge amount of time and energy is spent getting students to remember the choreography – the timing to music, being in sync with the other dancers in a performance number and so on. There is so much focus on the ‘how’ it’s all executed, that the skill and technical aspect gets put aside until after the show.”

What’s left on stage is, as Jones denotes, “glaring deficiencies,” and it appears to be a cyclical process until after the next show. From observing these patterns, he has noticed that depending on the size or the importance of a performance, it can be weeks, even months of mainly stage-focused training, which means weeks and months of true skill and technique development taking a back seat.

A before and after of student Ava Aquino's front split. Photo courtesy of Zac Jones.
A before and after of student Ava Aquino’s front split. Photo courtesy of Zac Jones.

So, what does this result in? He says, “Dancers keep building to a technical level that they have to abruptly abandon in order to do the much more exciting work of performance preparation – which is also fundamentally underpinned by necessary business objectives.” Yet, on the flip side, in order to execute a performance at peak level, maintaining skill level is vital. So, what approach can be taken for this catch-22? The answer is “The Peak Performance Concept™” and here are three key areas Heal Yourself and Move focuses on.  

1. Ensures the continuity of student skill development within performance prep and eliminates technique drop-off that then necessitates picking up where you left off.

2. Eliminates the time between learning steps for the stage and mastering them.

3. Transforms performance time into a ‘finishing school’ where students learn to apply their already honed skills under a bit more pressure for a lot more applause.

So, what is Jones’s secret sauce in these steps? He explains, “Specifically, a concept I like to call Step Matching.’”What does this mean? “By that, I mean matching the choreographic steps you give your students to the steps via which they need to learn how to do them.” The evidence shows that this developed process has proven to be less complicated and time-consuming. 

Student Alix McQueen doing exercises. Photo by Alex Mansell and Tamara Scott.
Student Alix McQueen doing exercises. Photo by Alex Mansell and Tamara Scott.

#1. Stress

“The sheer high-pressure nature of a performance preparation environment can lead to brain and body shut down in your dancers with a resulting inability to process anything other than the need to remember the steps hurtling their way and flexibility gets stifled due to the tension and stress.” This is what Jones has named ‘Body Tunnel Vision.’ He adds, “This means that the physical tension they brought to learning the routine is the same they then maintain in the rehearsing of it, leading to a longer time to achieve movement mastery, which fundamentally requires access to the parasympathetic nervous system via a strong and well-stimulated vagus nerve function.” Um, in plain English, please! “Okay, so in Californian Surfer English: “Chillax.” Chillaxing then gives breath to the muscles, weight to the bones, increasing flexibility along the way.

#2. Under complicating

Under complicating in Jones’s terms means “delivery of the choreography in such a way that it creates unnecessary complexity at the underlying somatic or ‘natural’ body movement level that simply doesn’t need to be there.” Adding to this, he states, “When environmental or external complexity beyond the current ability of the body to integrate occurs, inhibition of the autonomous movement functions (breathing, blood flow, flexibility, etc.) are often a result.” Translated into Plain English English: “Rabbit in Headlights.”

#3. Rehearsing too much, too soon

“Ever heard of the saying ‘slow down to hurry up’? Well, it never applies more than when it comes to simultaneously achieving step retention and performance mastery. By moving too soon onto the next sequence of choreography in a routine before the last one has had a chance to seep into your student’s body systems, there is a risk of creating ‘arrested development’ of fine motor skills whose optimum functioning actually requires a designated exploratory play time period,” he states. 

Developing fine motor skills is imperative for babies, toddlers and young children in exploratory play. The same goes for dancers, working in a relaxed state, where muscle quality is fluid allowing joints and muscular systems to explore new parameters. “These are the essential skills that will be the foundation of their lifetime’s movement patterns,” Jones highlights. “Dancers cannot be asked to sacrifice crucial experiential movement discovery time that will determine the development of their unique kinesthetic and artistic qualities in the rush to get a routine choreographed, corrected and cleaned for the stage.”

So, with these considerations in mind, where to go from here? The 3 Keys to Peak Performance below are being adopted by teachers Jones has been working with. This includes: 

A before and after photo of student Aviva Brock's développé. Photo courtesy of Zac Jones.
A before and after photo of student Aviva Brock’s développé. Photo courtesy of Zac Jones.

#1. Breathe before

“Setting the breath before the steps will allow the steps to be experienced from a parasympathetic (calm) perspective, rather than a sympathetic (total freakout) aspect,” Jones says. Having implemented this method, students’ bodies in ‘deep listening’ mode are then able to both take in the choreographic details and the qualities needed to achieve them.

#2. Teach slow, learn fast

“Simply by trying breathing before yourself, then teaching the steps a little like a Tai Chi Master would, this will enable you as the teacher to have more space to express the qualities you want your dancers to feel and allow them to emulate and integrate those qualities from the get-go. This, in turn, means that they are not experiencing the dreaded ‘body tunnel-vision’ of mental and physical stress and can take in more information accurately, calmly and ironically, much faster.”

#3. Chunks!

“Compartmentalise different sections of choreography (chunks!) so that they can be completely understood in all aspects from technique, to timing, to spacing, to synchronising with fellow dancers,” Jones notes. This works so effectively allowing dancers to master segmented pieces of information.  

By ‘chunking down’ the choreography, you allow your students to feel confident in their ability to understand and master the challenges in each section. 

To summarize the above, students who are offered a calm, stress-free environment when learning choreography in compartmentalised chunks, will absorb the information deeper in their muscles and memory. Working in this relaxed state is essential for maintaining technique and flexibility, eliminating the need to work in overdrive whilst still achieving a high-quality result. 

Want to win a FREE complete flexibility and technique transformation course? All you need to do is submit your reflections, upload your before and after photos, then post on your Instagram and tag @heal_yourself_and_move and @danceinforma to enter! Click this link and scroll to the bottom to submit your reflections:

Interested to learn more? To get access to new and exciting live trainings and resources like this each week, join the Heal Yourself and Move Facebook group. Or, book a time with Zac Jones here.  

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