Get to know Clare Guss-West and her work of attention and focus training in dance
By Human Kinetics
Recently, the Swiss Dance Association interviewed Clare Guss-West about her dance experience and the origins of attention and focus in dance. Clare is a former professional dancer, choreographer, holistic health practitioner, and Human Kinetics author specializing in the integration of holistic health and dance.
The full interview, featured on the Swiss Dance Association’s website (Tanz Vereinigung Schweitz) is available in French, German and Italian. The full interview, translated into English, is below.
Clare Guss-West, MA, translates sports science attentional focus research for professional dance and dance for health applications. She delivers this for companies such as The Royal Ballet, Finnish National Ballet, Mark Morris Dance Group, NY and Bern Ballet, and teaches it for the MAS Dance Science, Bern University and the Diploma "Dance, Health & Aging", University Côte d’Azur, France. Chair of the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science (IADMS) Dance for Health committee and Director of the Dance & Creative Wellness Foundation, she advocates internationally for dance as a creative healthcare practice.
You are a professional dancer, choreographer, dance scientist and holistic health practitioner. How did you get into dance and what role does dance play in your life?
I first started dancing at age four so I don’t think we could say I actually chose to dance myself! I went on to transition through hobby dancer, pre-professional training, to professional dancer, choreographer, through injury, dancer-in-recovery, director, dance educator, dance teacher trainer and dance for health advocate. That’s nearly 60 years of dancing. Dance is my life: it’s been a lifelong path, almost a spiritual path – a physical mediation that provides my daily physical and mental grounding and it’s the place where I feel at home, wherever I am in the world.
A holistic approach to dance is very important to you as well as the connection between dance and science? How did this develop?
I retired from professional performance because of an injury sustained related to my unnecessarily effortful approach to training and the demands of professional performance. I retrained to become a holistic health practitioner so that I could support firstly my own recovery and wellbeing, then the wellbeing of others. This was a rich formative period, although after more than a decade of focusing on the business of health and wellbeing, I realised I was far from home. I decided to circle back and aimed to bring my holistic health experience and knowledge back to apply it to enhance the training of professional dancers and to validate dance itself as an innovative healthcare practice in the growing field of Dance in Health.
In the last few years you have been working intensively on the topic of attention and focus in dance. What particularly fascinates you about this topic?
Returning to dance, my first surprise was that despite 15 years away from the ballet studio, my own physical performance was much better than at 20 years of age. I was dancing stronger, faster, lighter, easier. How was that possible?! With the immersion in holistic health and Chi Kung somatic practice, my entire focus had changed. In Eastern Movement practice – Chi-Kung, T’ai Chi, Kung Fu – three foundational foci promote successful movement: A focus on Physical Alignment – A focus on Attention and Intention – A focus on Breath and Energy. All three foci are trained simultaneously for optimal movement outcome. The only difference then was where I placed my mind and my breath – crazy – when I think of the incredible effort of my early training years. Was this a transferable skill I asked myself? I started pilot classes and research in Paris to find out if I could teach these skills to other ballet dancers.
Why are attention and focus important in dance?
In traditional Western dance training we focus almost exclusively on the first foundational focus – on Physical Alignment or ‘how a movement looks from the outside’, the other 2 foundational foci are barely addressed. This means that many dancers are operating on sub-optimal power, energy, speed. Mindful mental training to develop attentional focus skills is the make-or-break of successful, consistent high-performance. Twenty-five years of sports science research evidences the parallels with the Eastern movement approach to training. The systematic application of attention and focus training in dance delivers enhanced high-performance physical outcomes with less effort, less fatigue, less injury and at the same time enhances artistic capacity and expression.
What do you mean by External Focus of Attention (EFA)?
Well, this is a detailed and nuanced field of study and the subject of two dance-specific publication now – but I’ll do my best to describe in brief! External Focus of Attention is described as “a focus on the effect of the movement” and it is used as a natural strategy in Eastern movement practice. It is an approach to cueing movement or self-cueing that deliberately takes the dancers’ focus away from the self- and self-conscious control of body parts. This so called ‘external’ focus permits the body/mind to access reflexive, automatic movement control processes and to free cognitive reserve, producing immediately more efficient and effective movement outcomes. In traditional Western dance training we rely very heavily on Internal Focus of Attention (IFA) worded instructions, although we do intuitively use EFA spontaneously throughout our teaching. The challenge is that we do that unconsciously and it is not part of a systematic movement control strategy. This is not a 50 : 50 IFA : EFA choice. When we look at the spectrum of potential EFA types that we might use to give movement instruction or feedback e.g. a focus on musicality, on the desired movement quality, pattern, effect, on artistic interpretation, sensory feedback, imagery, props, the dance environment etc, we see that EFA make up about 90% of the potential feedback choices we might use in dance and that IFA, conscious body-part control instructions are in fact extremely limited as a movement control strategy.
Are there differences between amateurs and professional dancers, young people and older people, that a dance educator should be aware of in relation to the topic of attention?
The fantastic aspect of an EFA approach is that it really is a ‘one-size fits all’ strategy for movement skills learning and cueing and the benefits apply to any human being moving: human beings of all ages, all skills levels – from beginner to professional and of all abilities, disabilities or cognitive challenges to learning. What we should be aware of as an educator is that attentional focus is like a ‘muscle’ – attention is a process that can be developed in parallel with physical and technical movement skills. Some learners may have a more naturally developed attentional focus than others, in the same way that some might have a more developed musicality or spatial sense, but everyone can strengthen their own attentional process.
In your blog you also deal with the topic of dance and ADHD. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
Strangely, dancers display a much higher occurrence of ADHD-like symptoms relative to the general public. This is potentially a result of the divided attention necessary to be a successful dancer, combined with the lack of an attentional focus strategy in dance training and coaching. This results in dancers’ suffering from information overload and a sense of fragmentation – or literally – neural network challenges that undermine physical performance. Both dancers and those managing Attentional Deficient Hyperactivity Disorder benefit enormously from EFA-worded instructions. Their physical movement outcomes, such as accuracy, speed, fluidity are immediately enhanced, speed and consolidation of learning and concentration improved and rate of distraction diminished. Using EFA cueing can also support the performance of young dancers with mild cognitive impairment and of older adult dancers who experience more challenges with attention, focus and cognition as a natural part of the ageing process.
In 2021 your book “Attention and Focus in Dance – Enhancing Power, Precision and Artistry” was published, can you tell us a bit more about the genesis and structure of the book?
Its a how-to book aimed at Dancer and Teachers, rooted in the attentional focus findings of researcher Gabriele Wulf. It aims to guide dancers and teachers to unlock their power and stamina reserves, enabling efficient movement, heightening sensory perception and releasing their dance potential. It’s a systematic, science-based approach to the mental work of dance that helps dancers hone the skills of attention, focus and self-cueing to replenish energy and enhance their physical and artistic performance.
- A unique approach, connecting the foundations of Eastern movement with Western movement forms.
- Research-based teaching practices for diverse contexts, including professional dance companies, private studios, and programmes for dancers with special needs or movement challenges.
- Testimonials and tips from international professional dancers and dance educators who use an EFA approach in their training and teaching.
- A dance-centric focus that can be easily integrated into existing training and teaching practice, in rehearsal, or in rehabilitation contexts to provide immediate and long-term benefits.
The book is organised in two parts.
For Dancers: Part I guides dancers in looking at the attentional challenges and information overload that many professional dancers suffer from. It outlines the need for a systematic attention and focus strategy, and it explains how scientific research on attentional focus relates to dance practice. Part I also examines the scientific findings, and how the Eastern and Western scientific concepts can breathe new life into foundational dance elements. Attention and focus techniques are included for replenishing energy and protecting against energy depletion and exhaustion.
For Teachers: Part II presents attention and focus strategies for teaching, self-coaching and cueing. It addresses attentional focus cues for beginners and for more advanced dancers and professionals, and places attentional focus in the broader context of holistic teaching strategies.
My second Human Kinetics resource is about to be released soon: “Attentional Focus Strategies for Dance Educators”. This is [online resource] is full of interactive explorations and reflective tasks, podcasts, and videos to develop EFA teaching strategies in practice for use with all dancing populations. This has been written together with colleague David Leventhal of Mark Morris Dance Group, NY and is awarded 12 hours of professional development certification if actively followed.
How has your view of dance changed over the years? What have you learned?
That dance is not ‘about’ the body – we dance in a continuum, sculpting the energy, the light, the music that flow in and around the body in an ephemeral sculpture that is dance;
To attune to a body that constantly shifts and changes day by day, year by year, like the ocean – everyday a different colour, a different depth, a different rhythm, a different challenge – to ask myself how will I dance with that body today?
To unmeasurably share my joy of dance and music.
What advice do you have for dance teachers?
Deciding to integrate the incredible benefits of using an EFA approach to your teaching is a journey, it’s a process, like learning a new language. Results are noticeable in students immediately so that’s encouraging and motivates us to continue and explore further.
Begin simply by becoming aware of your own habitual attentional choices – how do you guide your student’s attention? On to the conscious adjustment and control of their own body parts? Or on to the desired aspects of the movement? Why and when do you do that? Likely those habitual attentional choices pass under the radar. If we have never determined to use a particular attentional motor control strategy, then it’s likely that we simply repeat what we heard and teach as we were taught, because this sounds and feels most familiar and most ‘normal’ to us. Awareness is more than 50% of the journey – be patient with yourself and enjoy experimenting and enriching your teaching practice.
What advice do you give to dancers and dance students?
To trust that ‘less is more’.
To work wisely and economically.
To know the movements of your own mind and your thoughts. They alone have the power to raise you up to your fullest potential or equally to undermine and diminish your power, your energy, your focus and your confidence.
To discover that your mind is your most powerful muscle.
To learn more from Clare Guss-West, check out Attention and Focus in Dance and Attention and Focus Strategies for Dance Educators.
Trained as a classical and contemporary dancer and musician, Clare began choreographing with American composer Philip Glass and was resident choreographer and director at English National Opera. She has done productions for Lyric Opera of Chicago, Los Angeles Opera, Seattle Opera, San Francisco Opera and Ballet, Dutch National Opera and Ballet, Royal Opera House, BBC Proms and Opéra de Paris.