Aaah, it's that time of year when people are thinking about New Year's goals: ways to grow, means to address issues, and things to accomplish in the year ahead. Most people do that in the form of resolutions, but could setting intentions be a better approach? What’s the difference between the two, and how might all of that apply to dancers specifically? To dive into these and other questions, let’s take a closer look at New Year’s intentions.
The what and why of intentions: New Year’s goals
What are intentions, you might ask? The dictionary definition is “an act or instance of determining mentally upon an action or result.” Action and envisioned outcome are key. “Resolution,” on the other hand, implies that there’s a problem at hand to be fixed (“resolve an issue”). There’s nothing inherently wrong with acknowledging problems. In fact, stuffing problems under the rug (as the saying goes) isn’t helpful at all. Issues can’t be solved without being aware of them, and then naming them.
Yet an overfocus on the problem takes focus away from what’s actually needed to move forward on the matter at hand: action and envisioned outcome – you guessed it, those key elements of intentions! Resolutions can also create shame and inflexibility (and we know that dancers already tend to be hard on themselves!). For example, picture someone who wants to spend more time reading and less time streaming television. At New Year’s, they resolve to watch no more television and read every night instead. Go big or go home, they think.
First center on your values: what matters most to you when it comes to dance and your work in the field?
That lasts until about February, and then Netflix beckons them back. They feel like they’ve failed, and are ashamed. Contrast this with the person working towards this goal through an intention. That same person keeps action and outcome in mind, and feels free to approach a change in their behavior gradually and mindfully. Rather than watching two hours of television every night, they watch one hour and read for an hour. They manage to make that a much more permanent pattern for themself.
With balance, being gentle on themselves, and not going too far too fast, they’ve achieved their goal of reading more and watching less television. True, they’re still watching some television – but no television was never the actual goal, and maybe that wouldn’t be achievable for them. The point is sustained behavior change.
And none of that means lack of accountability; intentions are malleable enough to include accountability measures, if the person at hand knows that those will help them get to – and maintain – the goal at hand. An accountability measure could even be treating yourself if you’re working towards your intention as you had planned; psychological researchers are fairly clear that positive reinforcement (adding something in response to a certain behavior) is more effective than negative reinforcement (in contrast, taking something away) or punishment (responding to a certain behavior with something undesirable).
How to set your intentions: purpose and passion
What might something like the above example look like for dancers? With a desire to increase flexibility, a “resolution” might lead them to believe that they need to stretch everyday. Yet that can be counter-productive, because muscles need time to heal and rest from stretching. Most physiologists, personal trainers, and sports medicine experts agree that periodically resting one’s muscles is actually necessary for making progress towards fitness/training goals.
Lack of breaks from stretching can lead to scar tissue build-up, which can actually limit flexibility (take it from this writer, she’s been there) – certainly not what the goal was! With an intention, however, a dancer can keep their focus on the goal and an adaptable, mindful approach towards it. They increase their stretching from three to five days a week, which is within healthy limits. They stick with this until they see notable progress. After that, they stretch enough to maintain the improvement that they made. Goal achieved, check check!
To make such a dancer's intention for yourself, first center on your values: what matters most to you when it comes to dance and your work in the field? Maybe you want to dance a certain kind of work or role, maybe a certain kind of social impact work in dance drives you, maybe health and wellness matters most to you – that’s purpose (in this context, change that you’re driven towards or driven to help make). From there, discern something that you’d like to achieve or improve upon in that area – that’s passion (a specific thing you’re drawn to under that umbrella).
Remember that intentions include action and envisioned outcome. It’s arguably more effective to start with a desired outcome, so that you can frame the action towards achieving that outcome. Remember also that such action can be as unique as you and your goal are. In fact, it’s perhaps most effective if they are! What matters is approaching your intention with thoughtfulness, an open mind, and a willingness to shift as you go.
Going forward with intentions: New Year’s Goals
Once your intention is set, that’s when that action can really begin. Let’s say that a dancer has tap as their stylistic growth area, and they’re determined to actually do that growing. With an intention to strengthen their tap technique, their action is to practice at home for three half-hour sessions each week. Into February, they find that twice a week is more manageable for them – and they’re feeling flexible enough to be okay with that.
They still notice advancement, and it’s progress that they can maintain. Contrast that with them feeling like it has to be “all or nothing,” and therefore stopping altogether with the action towards their intention altogether. They don’t get discouraged with having to slightly scale back on their practice sessions, because they allow themselves to be adaptable with how they work towards the goal at hand.
An overfocus on the problem takes focus away from what’s actually needed to move forward on the matter at hand.
At the same time, they know that concrete accountability measures help them – so they put that in place. In April, they give themselves a mini tap self-evaluation (going through rudiments and a few set combinations) as well as check in with their tap teacher. That sort of structure could be a great way for holding yourself accountable! For a friend they talk to, however, it’s better to just keep working towards the goal and informally noting progress. For them, evaluation just causes fear – which takes their focus and energy away from working towards their intention.
That’s just one example – dancer intentions can be as many and as distinct as there are dancers out there. The important thing is staying mindful, staying open, and allowing the process towards growth to unfold as it will. Notice also how that dancer discussed working towards intentions with a friend – getting perspective from trusted peers, teachers, coaches, et cetera can be game-changing!
Additionally, note that what served this dancer was different than what served their friend; we’re all different and different approaches will help step us towards our goal. How can you know what will best serve you? Explore and observe the result, do trial and error with honest evaluation of the “error” (or, “learning moment” might be a more productive way of seeing it).
Whatever your intention might be, whatever you might want to address or however you might want to move forward as a dance artist, these are mindsets that can go a long way towards helping you get there and holding yourself accountable: mental openness, self-compassion, and a future-oriented (rather than “problem”-oriented) outlook. Whatever any of that might be for you, we’re wishing you all the fulfilling, meaningful growth this year!