Facilitating Motor Control
by Julie Ferrell-Olson
As we move into the holidays and navigate new shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we may find ourselves with more time at home and less time in the studio (if you’re still moving and grooving with others, please wear a mask!). As many of us learned this past year, dancing at home comes with severe limitations, but taking this time away can actually be an incredible opportunity to build our motor control.
What is motor control?
To go full textbook on you, motor control “explores how the nervous system organizes and directs the muscles and joints to produce coordinated movement, and how sensory information from the body… and from the environment around the body is used to accomplish this take”. (Krasnow and Wilmerdering, 2015). Basically, motor control is how well your body and mind communicate, and how well they are able to respond to each other.
To better grasp motor control, we have to consider the nervous system. The nervous system includes the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) and the peripheral nervous system (nerve cell bodies, branches, and nerve endings that connect to muscles and other tissues). The communication between the central and peripheral systems can happen two ways; if you decided to lift your arm, your brain (central) sends a signal to the nerves in your arm (peripheral) to lift, and BOOM. Your arm is up. In the opposite way, let’s say you stub your toe. The nerves in your foot send a signal in (OUCH) which then tells your central nervous system that you are in pain.
Motor control is a critical part of dance training, even if it’s not a consistent discussion in classes. While we know dance training alone cannot train our cardiac fitness to its fullest, necessary capacity, dance training is incredible at motor control attenuation. Even from the earliest stages in preschool dance, dancers learn basic movement patterns and how to control them, and with advanced training, the motor control becomes more fine-tuned. The simple act of isolating movement and tuning in to where each part of the body is and where it should be trains motor control, but without protective dance footwear, it can also increase fatigue if done to repetitiously.
One method for developing motor control is somatic practice. Somatic comes from the Greek word soma, meaning “body”. Somatics can be described as a first-person investigation into movement patterns, muscular effort, and efficiency of movement. Somatics strives to find a balance between effort and rest, with a large emphasis on the rest phase as a tool for processing. Like all forms of dance practice, there are multiple somatic techniques including Alexander, Feldenkreis, and Ideokinesis (if you’ve ever taken modern dance at the University level, you have probably experienced a somatics class!). While teaching these specific techniques usually requires certification and years of study, there are elements of rest you can pull and implement into your home and studio classes, whether you are taking them or teaching them.
Constructive rest and Mental Imagery:
Taken from Ideokinesis developed by Lulu Sweigard, Constructive Rest is a passive mental practice. It consists of taking quiet time at complete stillness to allow your body to process movement and thoughts. Ideally after class (or integrated into the end of class), find a quiet place to assume the “constructive rest” position: knees bent and maybe slightly angled in to support each other, arms crossed across chest (or down by sides if that is uncomfortable). Allow yourself the time to reflect on ideal movement—that may be mentally running through class combinations or choreography you are working towards without ruminating on what could go wrong. If working alone, set a timer for 25-30 minutes.
“Seven decades of sports science research in mental rehearsal (visualization of motor imagery) have shown that mental practice activates the same neurons in the brain as actual physical execution enabling practice without fatigue.”
Through visualization, you’re still building the neuromuscular pathways that you do in class without adding fatigue! Despite all the obstacles this year has thrown at us, we can still continue our training—it just might look a little different!