A Blythe Coach

Approaches to Space: Qualities of Focus in Dance & Life

What qualities of focus are required to be a creative and effective person? How do dancers attend to the space within and around them, using focus to direct the viewer’s attention and to give shape to their environment?

Let’s start with four haiku poems I wrote to distill qualities of focus as introduction to the topic:

Direct focus, see
your object in space and aim,
going right for it

Indirect, scanning
among flexible foci,
roundabout array

Concentrate, engage
actively connect, convey,
guiding attention

Scattered, distracted,
spaced-out of this world, detached
passive, unthinking

Being able to direct or manipulate our focus and that of others enables us to understand, connect, express, create, and accomplish. Though related as elements of dance, working with the quality of focus as a spatial effort is distinct from shapes and shaping that move through dimensions and pathways in space (though I have lots more resources about that!), it is also distinct from detailed and specific traditions of meditative practice (though I do have yoga, pranayama, visualization and meditation content about that and it will continue to be fertile ground for future exploration), and it is different from the element of time: flow, management productivity,  and organization (though I love all that, too!). I will list resources about these related topics at the end of this blog post for further exploration.

Here I specifically want to explore here our ability to direct our focus and therefore form space in particular ways and how we are able to develop facility in doing so with precision and effectiveness for practical and expressive purposes in dance and in life.

Aim and focus are good for goal-oriented actions, such as the locomotor movements like walking, running, in addition to axial movements of reaching, pulling, and catching. Our ability to scan and precisely focus are important to our ability to hit the mark, catch and throw objects accurately, and thus potentially critical to our very survival. The quality of our focus in performance alters the audience’s viewpoint along with our own.

I’m discussing some of these points in the podcast this week as usual:

Analyzing How We Give Attention

Focus, or directing attention in the ways the Laban Movement Analysis system refers to as the Space Effort, has to do with translating our intent into action.

In her book Making Connections, Peggy Hackney explains that “The Space Effort deals with how you give attention, not the place in space. Both Direct and Indirect approaches to paying attention are active. Indirectness is not the same as being ‘spaced out’ or out of space; it is giving active attention to more than one thing at once. Both types of Space Effort relate to thinking.” (p.221, emphasis mine)

Hackney describes both types of active focus in the Space Effort:

  • Indirect: multi-focused, flexible attention, all-around awareness, all-encompassing
  • Direct: single-focused, channeled, pinpointed, lazer-like

In A Primer for Movement Description, Cecily Dell also provides succinct description of how we attend to space: “Movement in which spatial attention consists of overlapping shifts in the body among a number of foci, we call indirect. Movement in which spatial attention in the body is pinpointed, channelled, single focused, we call direct. Indirect and direct are the elements or qualities of the space factor.” (p.29)

LMA Space Factor in Dance

Dell elaborates that “The elements of indirectness and directness are often confused with certain aspects of movement shape, namely directional and shaping movement. While the effort qualities are concerned with the kind of concentration or focus in space, the shape aspects of movement are more related to pathways and forms the body parts create in space.” (A Primer for Movement Description p.30)

Dell continues to clarify The Space Factor, or “Changes in the Quality of Spatial Focus or Attention; Becoming Either Indirect or Direct:”

“You may have noticed at various times that when people interact with you they can focus attention on you in more than one way. In a discussion, say, when it is necessary for a person really to ‘take you in,’ to pay attention to you as you stand or sit before him, in order to communicate something to you, he might pinpoint or channel his attention on you directly, ‘zeroing in’ on you with a single focus. Or he might take you in from various angles, keeping his attention scanning around you, allowing his body to move among a number of spatial approaches to you, or foci that continuously overlap. Here, his spatial focus appears constantly flexible, sometimes ’roundabout’ – we call it indirect.” (A Primer for Movement Description p.28)

Dell provides a couple of other examples, including this one with which I can relate on a visceral level: “To get through a crowd of people, you might have to ease your way through by distributing yourself into many small available openings at once, using indirectness, or you may see a narrow lane where you can dash through quickly if you channel yourself with directness.” (A Primer for Movement Description p.30)

Beware that, “Visual contact with an object is not always an indication of indirectness and directness. You may occasionally see these qualities appear in a person when he is not attentive to the space around him, but is imagining, or remembering, or seeing something in his mind.” (A Primer for Movement Description p.29-30)

We need to be able to choose and execute these differing approaches quickly and with precision for pragmatic as well as artistic reasons. 

Stylistic focus of the eyes, coordination with limbs in dance

There is a connection here between our focus, gaze, and how that is directed outwardly in space and time, as stated in the book Ear Training for the Body: “Be aware of how the eyes are focused. The expressive focusing of the eyes–or deliberate nonfocusing–is a major element in the creation of a style that means something. For instance, the late choreographer Alwin Nikolais stressed one possible style by discouraging students in his workshops from always allowing the eyes to follow the extended movements of their arms. In classical ballet, it is more usual for the focus of the eyes to coordinate closely with the impetus of the limbs. If you have achieved a perfect développé, for example, the conquest over gravity could be spoiled by looking down instead of boldly facing the audience. Similarly, the extended line of an arabesque can seem to be extended by a gaze that follows the angle of the arms, again coordinated with the music.” (p.10)

Focus & Creativity

In creativity, there is a balance to be struck between doing one thing at a time (direct), allowing the mind and focus to wander and make connections (indirect), and also to do nothing in silence (rest & expand awareness). Using our focus in different ways provides perspective helps us process and understand and interact with stimuli. As Questlove says in his book, Creative Quest, “think of creativity as functioning in the middle of a stream. Ideas are happening all around me, all the time, and I have had to learn how to process them all. […and] how to be a filter: informed, active, engaged, and motivated.” (Creative Quest Loc.78-9)

This doesn’t mean that for creativity we need to cultivate some sort of hyper-focused state of being. In fact, Questlove cites a couple of studies on brain function, in one of which Harvard psychologist Shelley Carson calls a lack of ordinary idea-filtering “cognitive disinhibition” theorizing that is what is at the heart of all creativity. (Creative Quest Loc. 247) Questlove points out that, “If we’re always discarding our thoughts to fit in with what’s acceptable, or correct, or accurate, we’re not going to have ideas that leap away from the ideas that are already there.” (Creative Quest Location: 248)            

Professor of psychology Mareike Wieth conducted a study of students’ alertness levels on analytical and problem-solving abilities in an exam: “Analysis was consistent whether the brains were tired or alert. […but with another type of problem-solving question, called ‘insight-based,’] students needed to put themselves in someone else’s place, or shift around inside some wordplay, or design and then untangle a puzzle [and] did better when they were less alert. […] Creative problem-solving improved by around 20 percent as a result of fatigue. […] Tiredness allows random thoughts in. (A similar study found that light levels of drinking achieve the same result.)” (Creative Quest Loc. 278-292)

Questlove’s somewhat surprising conclusion is that though we need to be alert and use direct focus for some types of thinking and performance (such as retaining new information), “the traditional sense of alertness is the enemy of what we think of as creativity.”

Tuning in, focusing on the signal

So what kind of focus can we effectively employ in order to be creative? “Creative things happen to creative people, especially when they let themselves go to the Zen of the moment, when they don’t allow themselves to be paralyzed either by overthinking or by laziness. They have to be in the sweet spot between the two.” (Creative Quest Loc. 426)

It is important to be able to skim past irrelevant input, as “There’s lots of noise all around, and as a creative person, you’re being asked to find the signal. But to truly find it, you need some sort of internal check or monitor. You need moments of silence where you can hear yourself.” (Creative Quest Loc. 436-8)

For this reason, Questlove’s daily schedule includes meditating for 30 minutes daily, but he asserts that less is required to facilitate the kind of perspective shift that enables creativity: “These are brief and intense phases of departure from the self […] into a different kind of moment, just for a moment, and then they return you to the exact same place you were before. Micro-meditations should last a minute at most, and sometimes they aren’t even that long. Sometimes they are thirty seconds, sometimes fifteen. They’re longer than a blink, but shorter than sleep.” (Creative Quest Loc. 451-2)

“They engage both parts of my brain, the part that’s right in the moment, pushing against a task, and the part that’s considering the moment from afar.” and serve as “tools you need to bring your own best ideas to the surface, to assess them, to discard the ones that aren’t working, to commit to the ones that might work.” (Creative Quest Loc. 456-8)

Become a Master at Focusing

Life Coach Laura Berman Fortgang devotes a whole chapter of her book, Living Your Best Life to guiding readers to “Become a Master at Focusing,” explaining that, “Mastering focus may sound like an action-oriented activity, but nothing could be further from the truth. Mastering focus depends on becoming still, something that defies most conventional wisdom on how to get what you want from life. […] Nothing is a better partner to taking action than being still. Stillness allows the most effective action to emerge, helping to settle the chaos and uncover the action and direction that will do the most good.” (p.143) Berman Fortgang describes “Three ways of mastering focus:

  1. Focusing through silence.
  2. Focusing through intention.
  3. Focusing on your own life, not on the lives of others.” (Living Your Best Life p.143)

Berman Fortgang asserts that practicing silence has cumulative clarifying effects over time: “Self-criticism ceases. The thought process becomes more orderly. True values emerge, and your own priorities come to the forefront and take precedence over those of the day’s schedule and the world around you […] Its cumulative effect adds up to less reliance on schedules and to-do lists and more understanding of the natural priority and order of things.” (Living Your Best Life p.144)

She also asserts that brain-science supports the beneficial results of spending time in silence: “Most of the time, the things we do require only one side (right or left) of our brain. Practicing silence yields a higher output of organization, clarity, and calm because it causes the two hemispheres of our brain to work together at the same time. The alpha state that this creates allows for the broader scope of awareness and the tapping our full potential.” (Living Your Best Life p.144-5)

Although I think meditation is great and will continue to share related resources, Berman Fortgang believes that people find the term intimidating, so uses focus, silence, and stillness instead: “People feel they must know how to meditate before trying to embrace silences as a daily practice in their life. However, although practicing silence is meditation, there is not one set way to do it. For instance, I was never formally taught any meditative techniques, but for years I have succeeded at quieting my mind. I still have no idea whether I meditate or not.” (Living Your Best Life p.145) Start practicing now, and don’t be overwhelmed by fancy techniques!

Focus on what is important, single-task

Although as I said, this blog is not focused on time-management or productivity as such, as it is relevant to focus and concentration, I wanted to share a couple of particularly relevant tips from the chapter called “Make Time When There Isn’t Any” from Talane Miedaner’s book Coach Yourself to Success“:

35. Ask Yourself, “What is Important about Today?” (p.91)

36. Do One Thing at a Time (p.93)

Miedaner summarizes that, “Rushing around trying to do ten things at once is not efficient. Give yourself permission to do one thing at a time. In reality, that’s all you can do. You might as well accept it and focus on doing one thing consciously and well. ” (Coach Yourself to Success p.93)

Single-tasking is also related to enforcing healthy boundaries with things which may distract us, such as social media, email, news and television, games, or whatever the diversion may be. It is critical to have clarity in terms of our purpose, mission, vision, values, projects, and goals so that we are aware of our priorities and how to make choices that are aligned with them. It is also valuable to have tools for clearing away the noise of preoccupation with the past and future, worry, stress, comparison, disempowering contexts, and so on such as therapy, coaching, reflective practices such as journaling and sitting in silence.

Deep work and clearing away the noise

Art of Improvement YouTube video on developing focus

I found the video above, discussing ways to develop focus and including references to Cal Newport’s book Deep Work, quite fascinating and as a result I have just downloaded the audio book 🙂 The video also covers strategies such as restoring and de-stimulating the brain daily (taking breaks and unplugging being important steps), sleep, exercise, eating well, and staying hydrated, as well as using the Pomodoro technique to help with ability to focus – all good tips!

Resources on Related Topics

For more on the Elements of Dance, including the body, action, and shapes and shaping that move through dimensions and pathways in space, check out my Elements of Dance Playlist on YouTube, which I continue to add to!

The Beautiful Breathing Playlist includes specific meditative practices to develop focus, the Yogalicious Playlist has embodied mindfulness practices, the Luscious Life Playlist features meditation, visualization, poetry, and other tools.

My Artful Archiving blog deals with how to catch, store, and retrieve creative ideas and the Attitudes to Time in Dance & Life blog covers the element of Time, which along with space is key to dance and our experience of daily living!

Summary & Questions for Reflection

When we are present to our purpose and priorities, that which truly deserves our focus, we are freed to act in ways that serve us, our communities, and the planet!

What is the quality of your focus?

What states of focus and approaches to space will enhance your dancing, creativity, and life experience?

Let me know, and stay tuned here and on my YouTube Channel for more! 

Blythe Stephens, MFA Dance
she/her or they/them
A Blythe Coach
move through life with balance, grace, & power

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