December 2016 | Power of the Page

Power of the Page: How journaling exercises can enhance a dancer’s life, in school and beyond

by Josie Bray and Richard Kent
Students can maintain dance journals either electronically (left, a student at Cedar Ridge High School uses an iPad) or with pen and paper (right, students at The School of Classical Ballet). Left photo by Karen Searles; Right photo by Natalia Maldari

Students can maintain dance journals either electronically (left, a student at Cedar Ridge High School uses an iPad) or with pen and paper (right, students at The School of Classical Ballet).
Left photo by Karen Searles; right photo by Natalia Maldari

When Elizabeth Earley finally landed a role on Broadway, in Something Rotten! at the St. James Theatre, she shared her excitement with family, friends, and her most trusted confidant—her journal.

Keeping a journal or daybook has the potential to open paths of understanding for dancers, artists, and athletes. Earley discovered these truths, and her place on Broadway, through dedication to her craft—she trained at the Joffrey Ballet, Boston Ballet, and Paul Taylor schools, among many others—and to her journal writing.

“I would encourage anyone who is committed to making dreams come true—dreams that are especially challenging to realize—to write out what you want for yourself,” says Earley, who danced for four years on three national tours, including Whistle Down the Wind and Disney’s Mary Poppins, before becoming a swing in Something Rotten! in April 2015.

I would encourage anyone who is committed to making dreams come true . . . to write out what you want for yourself. Elizabeth Earley

She believes her writing serves two purposes. “The first is for recording information I have deemed useful or potentially useful,” she says. “The other is for sorting through my thoughts and feelings.”

Though journaling may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of training dancers, teachers across the country use writing as a tool to help their dance students improve both technique and performance.

Journaling as a learning tool
Broadway dancer Elizabeth Earley uses her journal for recording useful information and for sorting through her thoughts and feelings. Photo courtesy Elizabeth Earley.

Broadway dancer Elizabeth Earley uses her journal for recording useful information and for sorting through her thoughts and feelings. Photo courtesy Elizabeth Earley.

Karen Searles, a dance teacher at Cedar Ridge High School outside of Austin, Texas, includes journaling in her teaching practice to help her students study vocabulary, record choreography, build community, and self-evaluate. “Journaling, along with the technology of video analysis, strengthened my students’ abilities to self-evaluate to help move their technique to the next level,” says Searles. “They can make more mature and thoughtful analyses, more efficiently adjust [when given] corrections, and have a better eye for both technique and artistry.”

Jill Randall, artistic director of Shawl-Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley, California, has taught all ages, from preschoolers to adults, in a wide variety of settings—public schools, independent schools, preschools, colleges, and studios. “Reflection is an integral element of my practice as a performer, teaching artist, and arts administrator,” says Randall, who has taught for 19 years. “Reflection can be formal and informal in dance classes—a short discussion, turning and talking with a partner, or a journal activity.”

She was so struck by the effect that journaling and writing had on her students that she created an online blog for college dancers that offers free, accessible information and resources. The blog, Life as a Modern Dancer, now has 5,000 followers of all ages. Inspired by the conversations happening on the blog, Randall developed a journal workbook with writing prompts called On Technique, for dancers in college-level (both undergraduate and graduate) technique classes. Randall offers the downloadable journal for free on her blog so that all college-level dancers and dance programs can have access to it.

One dancer who used On Technique, University of Houston student Caroline Snyder, says, “I found this journal extremely beneficial for technique classes. I had a better understanding of the vocabulary that my modern teacher uses, and by understanding the vocabulary cognitively, I could then apply it to my movement.”

 

Dance students at Cedar Ridge High School use journals for vocabulary, choreography, community building, and self-evaluation. Photo by Karen Searles

Dance students at Cedar Ridge High School use journals for vocabulary, choreography, community building, and self-evaluation. Photos by Karen Searles


Kirsta Sendziak, director of The School of Classical Ballet in Cambridge, Massachusetts, recently added a writing component to her summer intensives. “We would spend 15 to 20 minutes at the end of every day as a group discussing the journal and reflection responses,” she says. “Sharing the journal responses really helped the students get to know each other, and that led to a trust among them.”

That trust, she says, “led to camaraderie in the studio and a supportive environment where every student felt inspired to learn and grow. The dance reflections also helped the students learn how to check in with their bodies and process how they were feeling at the end of each dancing day. Writing out their feelings gave them an added body awareness.” She observed that by sharing their journal responses throughout the week, the students felt more supported because the reflections helped them express what they felt physically.

For Eloise Botka, age 16, the intensive was her first time dancing with a group of people she didn’t know, “and once we talked about ourselves through journaling, it helped us all feel more comfortable sharing our dance improvisations,” she says. “We all knew we had something to contribute, so we felt more open to share our own ideas.”

Another School of Classical Ballet student, 15-year-old Alma Kent, says, “I liked being able to take a moment to appreciate the positive dance aspects of our day. Also, journaling helped me internalize and recognize the things I needed to improve on. Instead of a teacher saying it to me, it was me saying it to myself.”

Benefits of writing
Experts say that keeping a journal is not only beneficial as a learning and creativity-building tool, but can also reduce stress and anxiety and strengthen coping abilities. Photo by Karen Searles

Experts say that keeping a journal is not only beneficial as a learning and creativity-building tool, but can also reduce stress and anxiety and strengthen coping abilities. Photo by Karen Searles

Experts on writing describe its benefits as a learning tool. “Writing organizes and clarifies our thoughts,” says William Zinsser in his book Writing to Learn: How to Write—and Think—Clearly About Any Subject at All. “Writing is how we think our way into a subject and make it our own. Writing enables us to find out what we know—and what we don’t know—about whatever we’re trying to learn.”

In her best-selling book The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, author Julia Cameron reveals how writing develops the creative impulse. “I think writing is by its very nature transformational,” Cameron said in a Psychology Today interview. “I believe that the minute you put pen to page you start to alter your consciousness, and the more writing you do, the more closely connected you are to a higher power. Some people can call it the muse. Other people say it’s God. Whatever you care to call it, when you write, you connect to it.”

Experts also say that the benefits of writing go beyond learning. For example, in Creative Journal Writing: The Art and Heart of Reflection (2009), Stephanie Dowrick explains that keeping a journal can reduce stress and anxiety, increase self-awareness, sharpen mental skills, create insight, develop creativity, and strengthen coping abilities.

Self-empowerment for dancers

Every dance teacher knows dancers who experience stress and anxiety to the point that their performance suffers. Writing has the potential to help dancers cope with and chip away at the stressors that prevent them from doing their best.

Writing has the potential to help dancers cope with and chip away at the stressors that prevent them from doing their best.

“As dance captain for Mary Poppins, I recorded every bit of choreography and information about spatial relationships possible,” says Earley. “I found my initial use of tracking information most important. If I journaled, it was in an attempt to keep in touch with my own thoughts while immersed in an all-consuming job and a constant, fast-paced, nomadic lifestyle.”

Earley says to be specific when writing. “Be bold and brazen about what you want to create in your life because it will change you and the world around you,” she says. “Journal about how it would feel to achieve these dreams.”

Earley uses journaling for more than her dancing. “I use journaling the most when I am playing a role as an actress,” she says. “I journal through two lenses: as myself and as my character. It’s extremely helpful to let my mind wander and deepen the realm of my character and my personal connection to the world in which they live.”

She offers simple advice to first-time journal keepers: “Just do it. Don’t judge anything you write. If you choose to write about dreams for your life, give yourself creative license to journal about the wildest dreams you can imagine.”

Taking a long-term view, Earley says journaling can be used “to empower yourself and to create positive constructive thought. Thoughts turn into actions, and those actions turn into the way you live your life.”

New to Writing

Get started with some journal prompts from Jose Bray and Richard Kent’s book Writing the Dance: Workbook and Journal for Dancers. When you begin a journal entry, try not to stop for 3 to 5 minutes. If your mind goes blank, make a list of words related to the topic. When your ideas begin to flow, start writing in complete sentences again.

  • What are your strengths as a dancer right now? For example, when asked to name strengths, some dancers write “focused,” “dedicated,” and “confident.” List some of your strengths, then write about your primary strength as a dancer.
  • Write about what you do before a performance to do your best onstage.
  • Who brings out the best in you as a dancer and why? You might think of a teacher or dance partner. You could also think of family members, friends, audience members, or classmates.
  • What makes rehearsal hard for you? What makes it easy?
  • Think back through your dance training. Make a list of five different experiences you’ve had at different age levels. What did you learn from each experience? These experiences may include roles you danced, teachers you studied with, new techniques, or classmates you enjoyed.
  • If you could relive one moment as a dancer, what would it be? Why would you want to go back?
  • What is one way you are working to improve yourself as a dancer? How are you working toward this improvement?

Josie Bray teaches movement at Emerson College and is developing several musicals for Broadway. She has written for Dance Teacher Magazine and has co-authored Writing the Dance, a journal for dancers.

Richard Kent is professor of literacy at the University of Maine and director emeritus of the Maine Writing Project. The author of 14 books, he studies how writing supports learning in the arts and athletics.