Delving inside the minds of dancers

Researchers have been awarded almost £250,000 to conduct an in-depth analysis of the mental imagery used by performers to push the boundaries of contemporary dance.

The three-year project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, will see academics at Plymouth University working alongside two of the UK’s leading centres for dance training to examine what enables dancers to become confident enough to let their emotions guide their movements.

It will also examine how such mental techniques and methods can be taught most effectively, with a view to developing detailed training programmes for aspiring dancers to employ.

The research team has chosen to focus on contemporary dance as it places a high value upon creative innovation, and the use of multimodal imagery changes as expertise develops.

Professor of Psychology Jon May, who will lead the study at Plymouth University, said:

“There is always much debate about what it means – and what it takes – to be creative. In essence, being able to shift between different forms of mental imagery and evoking visual, auditory, and emotional sources of inspiration can create the ideal circumstances for novel ideas to be generated. Many people find such skills difficult but reaching a position where you are able to instantly think outside the box could be the key to helping contemporary dancers and others in the creative sector reach the pinnacle of their professions.”

Working in collaboration with Wayne McGregor | Random Dance company, Professor May has previously focussed on uncovering information about the choreographic thinking involved in contemporary dance and developing a series of thinking tools and lesson plans based on it.

Professor of Psychology Jon May said:

It has often been recognised that while certain dancers can perform brilliant routines when they are required to follow precise sequences, such as in ballet, they are less confident when given the opportunity to be creative

The current study will see trainee dancers based at Coventry University and the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London following those carefully developed plans, with researchers then analysing the results.

Participants will be subjected to tests before, during and after their studies to analyse their mental and physical reactions to the techniques and the effectiveness of them. Further studies will later take place among students at Plymouth University, making use of its new state-of-the-art performing arts centre The House.

“Developing a way for dancers to train their minds while they are also training their bodies could ultimately transform the lives of thousands of aspiring performers,”

said Professor May, who will work on the project alongside two Plymouth University PhD students, John Sikorski and Klara Lucznik.

“It has often been recognised that while certain dancers can perform brilliant routines when they are required to follow precise sequences, such as in ballet, they are less confident when given the opportunity to be creative. Movement creation is an ideal testing ground for the exploration of the multimodal nature of mental imagery, and its relationship with creativity, allowing conclusions to be applied widely in other creative domains.”