Injury Prevention – Take a Dance Class

Last weekend I went on a hiking trip to the wilderness area in the mountains of Vermont with JP. The final hike was through some of the most beautiful country I’ve ever hiked in and a part of the famed Long Trail. The previous days’ treks had left us pretty tired but we were excited to finish out the vacation with this particular day’s 10 mile trip.


We were traveling through a forest filled with myriad shades of green moss when we began to hear the distant rumbling of thunder.  We had another 5 miles to go and began to pick up the pace, wanting to avoid the coming rainstorm. Suddenly a rock that I was stepping on moved; I slipped and fell to the ground twisting my ankle.


It was scary and quite painful. I sat keening for about a minute as the pain began to subside. JP encouraged me to drink some water, calm down, and eat an energy bar. Then I began to assess the status of my ankle by rotating the foot in a circle. It wasn’t broken! And though sore and tender to the touch, I also didn’t have a bad sprain.


After a little while, with the thunder motivating us, we decided to move on. I laced my hiking boots tighter and we started back on the path. I was hiking more slowly than normal and began to experiment with different ways to walk as we moved over the changing terrain. Going down a gentle downhill, I found myself stepping on the balls of my feet first, somewhat like walking in toe shoes. Climbing upwards, I pushed off using my calves and legs like I was extending my leg in a kick. Moving this way was instinctive from years of dance training.


Dance is what saved me from having a more serious injury when I unexpectedly fell. My ankle joint was extremely flexible and the muscles and ligaments surrounding the joint were strong and supple. The ankle was used to quick weight changes and had weathered many years of moving in and out of unusual positions. As we continued on our hike, whenever I landed on the foot in a way that caused a jolt of pain to radiate up from the ankle, I focused on moving more like a dancer.


Dance classes can be seen as a way to prevent injuries while participating in rigorous physical activities outside of the dance studio. It is the repetitive weight changes, constant increase in strength and flexibility, and the practiced ability to react quickly to change that builds immunity to breaks and sprains.


JP and I finished the hike with a sense of triumph. Dance had ultimately saved the day! JP had been spared the burden of carrying me the remaining 5 miles of the hike and we both had avoided getting drenched by the rainstorm.


Copyright © 2011, Sheila Peters. All rights reserved.

Focusing on Our Strengths

A young boy, full of energy and rhythm, unconsciously thumps on his desk at school with his hands. Sometimes he taps his feet on the floor in counterpoint. His teachers complain to his mother about this noise describing it as a distraction, although her son is doing very well in school. Rather than discouraging this behavior, the mother encourages it by getting her son a drum set. The boy grows up to be a musician and his favored instrument is the drum. What occurred easily and unconsciously for the young boy became his livelihood as a man.

In this culture we tend to notice our failures. Bad grades, negative criticism, our less attractive features both physically and emotionally, “character flaws”. Each time we pay more attention to those “weaknesses” we give them more power to affect us in the future. What if we did the opposite: focused on our assets. We succeed far more than we fail every day. Why not notice our strengths and build on them?


This positive messaging is behind StrengthsFinder 2.0 (Rath, 2007), which includes a test that one can take online. The test analyzes our skills and comes up with 5 main personal attributes that emphasize what we do best. Instead of trying to build up weaker skills, the authors advocate utilizing our current best skills to move forward. Sometimes what comes easily is what is best for us to do. A 5’6” male, weighing 130 lbs., with a bent towards telling jokes would be more content with life as a stand-up comic rather than as a piano mover. Similarly, a tall, thin, blond female with a brain that finds bioengineering not only intriguing but also a breeze would be happier in a lab than on a catwalk.


When I took the StrengthsFinder 2.0 test, I was surprised at how accurately my strengths were portrayed: Activator, Achiever, Strategic, Connectedness and Ideation. Focusing on these five assets, I understood how I had used them throughout my life to create positive events and relationships.


In particular, being an Activator has been a consistent theme. I find I am most happy when I am moving and helping to motivate others. It’s not surprising that I made my career in dance: constant motion in a disciplined fashion is how dance technique is honed. There is no need for debate and discussion when you are communicating non-verbally through movement. Although I do enjoy discussion, analysis, and deliberation, there comes a time when I am done with all of that and am impatient to start acting.


In fact, I’ve earned the nickname “Action Girl” from one of my loved ones. He knows when I am chomping at the bit after a long conversation and am ready to “go”! Rather than view this need to act as a fault, I’ve turned this personal characteristic into a positive force in my life.


Let’s appreciate and lead with our strengths rather than focusing on our weaknesses.


Enough already! Let’s dance!


Copyright © 2011, Sheila Peters. All rights reserved.

Motivation – Giving Birth to a New You

What motivates us to exercise? Some of the reasons I heard when I interviewed people were: achieving a challenge, looking and feeling better, stress release, and even just simple enjoyment in moving their bodies. After the exercise, dancing, or movement, these people felt accomplished, peaceful, self-confident and more in control of their lives. The exercise, no matter what kind, helped them connect up their complete selves – on physical, emotional and mental levels. For some, there also was a spiritual component involved.


I received an amazing lesson in motivation a few days after conducting the aforementioned interviews. My daughter went into labor with her first child. She had planned to give birth naturally with a midwife in attendance. She honored me by asking me to be her labor coach. Thus began a challenging and exhausting 72 hour journey.


A woman never really understands what her body has to do before her first delivery. She can read about the delivery process; she can watch videos of actual births; she can even attend a live birth. It still doesn’t teach her how her own body is going to feel. It’s trial by fire. Once done, future births are less frightening and the process is familiar and embedded in her body.


My daughter maintained her vision of a natural birth throughout her labor process: through the shakes, the moans, the pain and the fear. 72 hours is a long time. It took motivation and vision to stick with it and resist the temptations for the easy way out – like drugs, like giving up, like asking for surgical intervention. In the end, a beautiful little girl was born. My daughter felt triumphant and knew if she could make it through this delivery; she could achieve anything in the future. This was a physical, emotional, mental and spiritual journey.


I believe that being able to actively envision a specific positive experience or result is the most effective way to motivate ourselves. By maintaining a mental picture of what we are attempting to do and then resisting the temptations to sidetrack ourselves, we are capable of achieving our exercise goals.


Vision is the beginning of the quest. If the vision isn’t there in Technicolor in our heads, we will muddle through without direction and clarity. Strong forethought will carry us through the inevitable inducements to take too many days off or allow other activities to take the place of exercise time.


Vision becomes discipline and aligns our intentions with our actions. As we continue on our path, we become accustomed to the effort that is necessary to achieve our mental picture. It’s no longer trial by fire. When the effort is more familiar, it becomes less frightening and daunting. If motivation ever begins to wane, we can refocus on or upgrade our vision and get the inspiration we need to achieve our goals. Exercise becomes enjoyable, thus a positive and rewarding event in our lives. 


Copyright © 2011, Sheila Peters. All rights reserved.

My Teaching Philosophy

Someone the other day called me a dance therapist. Although that is a term which refers to a very specific type of therapy, I liked it as a way to describe what I do.  More accurately, I am a dance and movement specialist but I do feel that I am also helping my students and clients grow and change. So how do I do that?


First of all, I use all of the knowledge I’ve gained as a dance professional augmented by my additional somatic studies to create efficient and effective warm-ups to prepare the body to do what is asked of it. This could be in a dance technique class or in a private stretch session or in a workshop that is based in movement which enables collaboration amongst work groups or teams.


I encourage everyone to work to their capacity. It doesn’t matter if their neighbor can lift his/her legs higher or do more multiple turns. What matters most is how each individual’s body feels and whether they are moving to their highest potential. I often tell students that if they make a mistake, then make it a big mistake. Convince the audience theirs is the correct movement.


Secondly, I see everyone in a holistic way. We express ourselves not only through overt movement but also through our posture, our tone of voice, where we are gazing, how we are emotionally feeling about the people we are with and how we feel about ourselves. What we are communicating is the sum total of who we are, not just the words we speak or write.  Plus who we are changes from day to day, depending on how we feel that day.


In order to effectively teach dance, I need to recognize and read the non-verbal messages that are being sent by my students and clients. I need to be able to adjust and improvise in order to present material in the way that will be most effectively heard and received. This requires empathy, active listening and interaction in the manner that is best suited to my clients on that day. By encouraging and supporting individuality; classes, private sessions and workshops are relevant to each person in a unique and distinctive way.


Finally, transformation is part of the process. My role is to help facilitate change. I want to help my students and clients reconnect with their bodies, become more authentic, feel more confident, and therefore live the lives they’ve dreamed of.


Many students tell me that they feel better about themselves after working with me. For example, a successful businesswoman recently told me that she gained enough self-confidence taking jazz classes to audition for a community musical theater production and she won a featured role. In private body work sessions, a young man who had spinal surgery and was in constant pain learned how to carry his body in a new and more healthful alignment and realized he didn’t have to live with back pain. Corporate work groups have discovered that they could improve project results and have fun at the same time when they learned to really listen and embody what they heard from their teammates. And, of course, students have learned how to apply technique in a way that most effectively works for their unique bodies, thus they more easily become highly skilled dancers.


In summary, I teach classes, work with people on a one to one basis, and develop and lead workshops that use dance as the foundation for learning and self-awareness. I employ the knowledge I’ve learned over the last 35 + years as not only a professional dancer but also as an observer of best leadership practices. I see the whole student/client and work diligently to find ways to communicate specifics that make sense to each client while scanning for comprehension and relevance. Ultimately, I facilitate personal growth and skill development so transformation can take place.


Copyright © 2011, Sheila Peters. All rights reserved.

Social Media and Non-Verbal Communication

It’s a surprise when you are unfriended on FaceBook.


At first I didn’t realize that it had happened, although I did notice that my former friend’s postings had stopped showing up on my newsfeed. The next day when I wanted to communicate with him, I realized the truth. Where was he? I searched for him on my friends list and he was gone.


Had he gone rogue and decided to forsake FB altogether? I checked if he was still listed on FB and there he was. When I looked at my friends list again, I saw that my number had dropped by one. Hmm! I had been unfriended. I sent an email to him to ask why and got a pleasant enough message back saying that we were too different to be friends. I appreciated his candor.


I began to think about friendships and how they have changed in the context of social media. In the older sense of a friendship where one has physical interactions in real time, you usually are able to sense whether the friendship is based on real commonalities or connections. You have a visceral sense of whether you like the other person and if it is reciprocated. You have a wealth of non-verbal communication cues to help understand what your friend is saying to you.


For example, you can see the barest hint of a smile on the lips as your acquaintance tells you something that is outrageous. That’s a clue that you would miss if you’re not in each other’s presence. How about the lift of an eyebrow which tells you that the person is being arch? You miss that if you are communicating in text only. Tone of voice, physical posture, and gestures are all missing when you interact through chat exchanges. Although emoticons were invented to help circumvent this gap, they don’t truly represent the rich vocabulary that exists through non-verbal communication.


In person, if the friendship goes down the tubes, you usually get a chance to talk with them and witness the non-verbal cues that you miss online. Sometimes a one-on-one conversation in real time and physical proximity is enough to heal the breach.


It’s easier to dismiss someone from your life if you don’t have to actually watch his or her reaction. We all have heard the anecdotes about ending relationships via texts, notes or voice mails. No physical interaction means less emotional connection. With less emotional connection, you can more easily pretend that the receiver of the message is less than real and more like an object. Objects don’t have feelings, so you haven’t really hurt them by rejecting them.


How do I feel about being unfriended? It reconfirmed that friendships that develop from social media sites will never substitute for the old fashioned kind of relationships for me.  Being in someone’s presence tells me more truly whether a person is compatible than a few symbols scratched on the FB chat board.


© 2011 by Sheila Peters. All rights reserved.

Changing Catastrophic Thinking

As a young person, I was caught up in what I called “morbid thoughts”. Whenever anything went a bit awry, I would begin the litany of all the worst potential outcomes in my head. I instantly ruminated on all the most destructive and unpleasant possibilities. I would gear myself up to withstand the bad, the ugly, and the hurtful.


My body would, of course, reflect this type of thinking. My breath became shallower, my muscles tensed and I would want to hide like a turtle withdrawing into its shell. Self imposed mental unhappiness would result in actual physical discomfort.


This way of thinking became a pattern which was hard to switch off. The dendrite highway became deeply grooved in my head. It was the path of least resistance for my thoughts. Is it any wonder that some of these negative thoughts became my reality?


Eventually through continuous disciplined practice, I began to shift the thought highway I traveled on. I discovered that if each morning upon awakening I imagined the best possible outcomes for all the planned events of the day, I could avoid some of the morbid thoughts. If I added some exercise outside, the combination of movement, fresh air, and the observation of the natural world around me also helped fight the habit of creating negative thoughts. Additionally, I repeated a phrase that I changed periodically but which essentially boiled down to reaffirming my self-worth. Finally, I began to weed out those people I knew who were negative themselves or made me feel unworthy.


Throughout this process, I focused on how my body felt whenever the catastrophic thinking began. Concentrating on my body and consciously letting go of physical stress helped change the mental images that floated in my head. When my body relaxed, so did my thoughts. Instead of careening into negativity, I tried to remember to take a deep breath and wait a beat before going off on the downward spiral. More and more occasions occurred when I was able to stop myself from going down the well worn dendrite path and then shift to a less well traversed lane that would lead to more realistic observations.


When the film, What the Bleep Do We Know?, came out in 2004 I eagerly watched it several times (trailer link: ). It represented in graphic and scientific terms what I had experienced in my personal life. It gave me a picture of what the dendrite highway looks like.  It reconfirmed my belief in the connection of mind and body; thoughts and reality.


Sometimes, especially in the dead of winter when the snow seems to be never-ending and cabin fever abounds, I pay a return visit to catastrophic thinking. Fortunately, I recognize its pattern more quickly than I did when I was younger. That particular dendrite roadway does still exist. However, through disuse, it is now more like a fading trail that can barely be seen through the grass that has grown up.


© 2011 by Sheila Peters. All rights reserved.

The Implication of Dance Playshop

We so enjoyed and appreciated the experience of working with the participants of our Implications of Dance Playshop during the Play with Purpose conference. Now that we have a few days distance from it, we wanted to contribute to the discussion forum with our thoughts about the experience. We also wanted to summarize what we presented to you and let you know what we had heard from you about the event. We invite you to continue the conversation with your comments and observations about what may have continued to resonate for you.


We began the workshop with a 5 minute introduction of concepts of dance, improvisation, play, performance and collaboration that looked at:


  • How as dancers, we are our instruments.
  • The performer must be mindful and aware of self, fellow dancers/creators, and the audience.
  • Performance is an act of humility; a gift; and enabled by an ability to listen to self, colleagues and audience.
  • Performance as a sacred experience, one that is ephemeral but also touches and draws upon the work of past, future, and present dancers and audiences.
  • Dance is about communication on the deepest physical level and dance performance incorporates the unexpected improvisatory playfulness that a live event always evokes.


To start the process of awakening the dancer inside each of you, we worked on increasing your physical awareness. During these first stretching exercises you prepared your body to move but also became more aware of your body’s state. With the partner stretch, you practiced increased observation and awareness of another person’s body.


Leveraging this enhanced awareness, we taught you a dance phrase. You learned it for two purposes:


  • So you could use the movement phrase like jazz musicians would use chords for improvisation, and;
  • To practice the skills of observation, mimicry and rehearsal which you needed to embody in order to subsequently co-create with others.


We then asked you to create a new dance in groups with each other based on this movement phrase. Here you practiced improvisation, collaboration and learning from each other. You played together with the purpose of creating art. You were all artful.


At the end of the Playshop, we asked you to perform your creations and also act as the audience for your fellow participants. This was an opportunity to act, listen, and respond to each other through your performances. Performance is not complete without an audience reaction. Thus you were able to experience both sides of this interaction as performer and as audience.


Finally we joined together in a short reflection period.  We treasured your participation and creative work and reflections. The following is an outline of what we heard as your reflections.


  • The model of respectful relationship between JP and Sheila formed an environment of respect between Playshop participants
  • Lack of competition in the process – “Yes and “ concept/experience  through non-verbal communication contributed to an atmosphere of comfort for participants
  • The Playshop was an opportunity for body/mindfulness, thus raised personal awareness of fellow collaborators
  • Heightened the sense of how we affect people on a non-verbal basis
  • Liked stretching warm-up, particularly the partner stretch.
  • Personal physical touch helps build a sense of security/safety.
  • Structure can be the basis of improvisation; in fact, some kind of structure is very often the catalyst or spark for improvisation. “Technique” leads to freedom.


We hope that you will add to this list if we have not touched on points that were important to you. We applaud your creative and playful performances and are grateful for the chance to have shared this Playshop with you.  Sheila & JP


© 2011 by Sheila Peters and JP Harris. All rights reserved.

We All Dance

Inside each of us, there lives a dancer. Just take a close look at infants and babies.  As we watch, we see that they are in constant motion: wiggling their legs and toes; waving their arms and hands. Observe crawling: when babies first start to move forward on their hands and knees they often rock back and forth, playing with the feel of weight moving them forward. The same is true as the child takes his first steps. We human beings are meant to move and our movement is the dance of life.


If an organism doesn’t move, it doesn’t really have the need for a brain. Rocks, trees and plants are essentially stationary features on the earth’s surface; they do not generally move of their own accord. They therefore have no need of a brain such as animals and humans have. As Rodolfo Llinás states, “That which we call thinking is the evolutionary internalization of movement.” (2002)


In the pursuit of food, our ancestors had to move to gather or hunt for sustenance. Learning to gather and hunt in groups caused humanoids to learn to coordinate the actions needed to be taken for a successful result. What these ancient peoples were doing in those planning sessions was choreographing and collaborating. They were creating the dance of the hunt, the dance of gathering and, eventually, the dance of farming and cultivating. All of these functions required stylized movement vocabularies designed specifically to utilize the bodily motions that best fulfilled the task at hand.


This is exactly what present day choreographers do when they are creating a new piece. They are taking stylized movements and fashioning them into a long combination of actions that best fulfill the emotion, shape, narrative or dynamic that the choreographer wants to express.


We are always moving, unless we are dead. Even if we are laid up sick in bed or in a wheelchair, we are still breathing; blood still flows through our veins and arteries; chemicals swirl throughout our brains and bodies; synapses are making connections; eyes are observing and darting from one place to another and, at the most basic level, cells are decaying and being born.


Because we are individuals and, therefore, have unique perceptions and thought processes, the way that we move is also individual. Our experiences define us and color our movement vocabularies. Whether we are conscious of it or not, our movements tell our story. We all have signature ways of expressing ourselves through physical actions.


We can scan the people next to us when we are in a line at a store checkout desk; note the posture of our fellow cube mates at the office; look at the crowds passing by us on a busy sidewalk; witness the way a couple interacts as they sit at a restaurant table. We don’t need to hear the words that are spoken. All of these human beings are telling us how they feel about themselves, the people they are with and what they are doing through the rhythm, shape, space, and energy of their movements.


Each of us is dancing and choreographing all the time. There are no exceptions. We are all dancers.


© 2011 by Sheila Peters. All rights reserved.

Being in the Moment

Traveling is a lot like dancing. We have to be in the moment to fully appreciate the adventure. If our mind is not focused on what is immediately happening, we miss out on what is right in front of us. We may misinterpret what others are saying or doing; take a wrong turn and get lost; or become disappointed because we envisioned something other than what is actually in our sight.


Expectations often create false concepts or perceptions. I recently watched a woman bitterly berate an airline ticket counter clerk because she was asked to check her luggage in rather than carry it on the plane. She spent 45 minutes arguing about the matter while other passengers waited behind her watching her behavior. Those of us witnessing the scene knew what the inevitable result would be: the suitcase would be checked in or she would not be on the plane home. Rather than be in the present moment and readjust her expectations, this woman railed against what she determined was a policy expressly made to persecute only her. The rest of us quickly changed our thoughts of carrying on our own luggage and the lines resumed a quicker pace.


When we dance, we also must be fully in the moment. Where exactly does that leg need to be in order to execute the jump or turn or lift? If we find ourselves in a slightly different position, we must be aware of the adjustment that is needed and we must take it in order to perform the movement. Thus, if we are thinking about a past or future appointment or event rather than what is happening immediately in the class, we lose out on the experience.


Being in the moment helps us to more deeply experience traveling. For example, I knew that the Dead Sea would support my weight. However, I hadn’t realized that if I put my head under the water that the salt in the Dead Sea would sting and burn my eyes. In order to prevent that, I found that I had to exert more effort physically than I had expected. I had imagined the sea would completely support me effortlessly. By paying more attention to how I needed to maneuver to keep my head out of the water, I experienced something unexpected and delightful. I began to roll in the water in a way that I had never done before.


Traveling and dancing. Isn’t that really what we are doing each day as we go about our lives? We are always moving in space somehow whether we are in a foreign place or just going about our everyday routines. As we move down a busy street, we are adjusting and dancing with the others that are in our path. If we pay attention and are in the moment, we notice and can appreciate the richness of life. It is a richness that comes from catching the cues that we don’t expect.


© 2011 by Sheila Peters. All rights reserved.

Perception is Reality

How we view life is how we experience it. Most of us know this, at least intellectually. But no matter how well we know this or have integrated it intellectually and emotionally, we don’t always act from this knowledge. We can lose our perspective when our perception doesn’t match our outcome.


Over this weekend, I journeyed through a strong earthquake of re-alignment in the perception department. Loved ones helped me. I had gone into black and white thinking: either “this” will happen or it won’t by “x” amount of time. I couldn’t see any other alternatives. I began panicking and doubting myself.


With the aid of compassionate coaching, I suddenly was able to picture a different viewpoint. Instead of seeing only what was at the end of the tunnel I had built, I was happily surprised that I now could see the horizon and beyond. By shifting my time perspective to a year instead of a couple of months, I was able to gain a new perception. Reality shifted and emotional alignment was regained. I began to breathe more deeply and the self-induced pressure was alleviated.


It was a powerful reminder that we shape ourselves, our lives, our actions, and our interactions with others by how we construct our view of the world.


If we think that we are clumsy, fat, and ungraceful; then that will be our reality. If we think that we cannot achieve something; then we make it so. If we don’t believe that others are trustworthy; then that is what we will experience. This is not magical thinking. It’s self-fulfilling prophecy.


We pattern ourselves and our behavior and therefore what happens to us by how we conceive our reality. If our reality isn’t what we desire, then we need to change our concepts. A small shift in how we view our situation can have huge repercussions.


It is so much easier to see the misplaced perceptions in how others are functioning than in ourselves. I am grateful to have people in my life that care enough to help me readjust my perceptions.


© 2010 by Sheila Peters. All rights reserved.