How to dance without the dancing
In the depths of the last financial crisis I had an insight into what can really support us.
I was at a dance venue, and the happiness and community the dancers displayed was in stark contrast to the carnage that was being mourned by the media. "Crises need not concern us" I thought "because all we need access to is a dancefloor, music and some partners. And I can't imagine the crisis that would deny us that!" Clearly, I didn't have enough creativity to conjure up what is happening now. And I don't pretend to be able to imagine what the coming months will feel like.
No partner to practice with. No floor to practice on. Skills that fade by the week. How to stop the rot? We may be precluded from the human contact, and even from a floor that we can pivot upon, but opportunities to practice are still available. Simply picture your practice and it will become real.
For us the difference between imagining a movement and physically performing that movement is vast. But the parts of our brains that are concerned with the retention of skill can hardly tell the difference. In other words, taking the time to visualise skilful performance is just as effective as actual performance for the retention of that skill. This may seem fanciful, but the scientific proof for it has been in place for years. Proven examples of the benefits of mental practice include:
Improved technical ability and performance of surgeons.
Improved memorisation of new pieces by pianists.
Improved performance by golfers.
Improved recovery by stroke victims.
In fact, mental visualisation of physical exertion can, on its own, reduce muscle loss during short-term immobilisation. What's more, the heavier the weight you imagine, the less muscle is lost!
Of course, the anecdotal evidence for the benefits of mental practice (sometimes referred to as ‘motor imagery’) goes back much further.
Sophy Roberts’ latest book “The Lost Pianos of Siberia” introduced me to Vera Lotar-Shevchenko. A talented concert pianist, Vera was sent to Stalin’s gulags. In the absence of an instrument, she used a kitchen knife to carve piano keys into a plank from her bed. Playing that ‘silent piano’ was her only form of practice for the thirteen years of her incarceration. Finally released, Vera set upon the first piano she found and played it, with ceaseless fluency, passion and confidence, for hours. We are now, in a more much benign way, segregated. I don’t pretend that mental practice offers the solace that is inherent in the presence of a partner. But it does offer us something to look forward to; a return to performance with the same gusto and grace as Vera Lotar-Shevchenko returning to the piano.