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Actionable Words

‘How are you navigating your training and practice?’

I posed this question to my first-year diploma students after a month of classes together. There are active directions that I suggest in class for each dancer to find more length and width within the body and to expand endlessly into the space around. I thought having a discussion would be a great way to check in on each dancer's progress as we collectively assess how we process information.

We identified the body as a multifaceted system and that there is more than one way to arrive at a certain bodily direction or sensation. However, I realised that there were a lot of other questions suspended in the air that needed to precipitate and fall out of the cloud. Though we could understand the intention of the ideas, some information was not manifesting in the body because the brain had no idea how to make sense of such loaded words and terminology. This made me reflect on the need to transform the language we use into actionable words to make directions and feedback more easily accessible.


adjective /ˈakʃ(ə)nəb(ə)l/

able to be done or acted on; having practical value

For words and directions to be actionable, we need to make them simple to understand and easy to apply. For instance, when we notice that we hold our breath and hold tension when a dance sequence becomes challenging, I tend to say ‘connect to your breath’. Though an experienced dancer might use this direction as a reminder to release tension and allow air to flow freely in and out of the body, a beginner might take time to interpret the direction and decipher what it means. This is an opportunity to offer suggestions and reminders like ‘allow the air to flow freely through you’ or ‘notice the air coming in and out through your nostrils’, both of which can be acted upon immediately and help make the deep connections we intend.

Even more helpful is if our directions provide a relationship to our bodily senses as we use actionable words to build our awareness of the self. Every dancer understands what transitions are. But ‘transitions’ by themselves have no actionability. During class combinations, I have even shouted out, ‘dance the transitions’ without realising how loaded this direction is and how much work dancers need to do to turn this into anything useful. Breaking it down can lead to actionable words that help a dancer’s relationship to their moving body and allow them to become aware of what happens during a movement journey.

Turning ‘dance the transitions’ into actionable words requires some thought. Here is a process the dancers and I went through as we attempted to transform this direction into a practical instructions:

  1. Identify what it means. Transitions are the moments in between the ending and beginning of a sequence.

  2. Make a connection to the idea. We realised the only way to do this is by staying aware of our moving/shifting bodies through transitions.

  3. Identify the actions the body is going through. Being aware of the body during transitions, we realised there is a lot happening—weight shifts and transfers, challenging coordination and rhythm, and a changing visual landscape as we move.

  4. Give an actionable direction. Shift all your weight onto the other leg; see the room as you turn the corner; follow the full pathway of the arms; etc.

Once we broke down ‘dance the transitions’, we saw how many actionable words we were able to derive from this one idea.

Sometimes, we may need to add more words to our directions or turn them into quantifiable rather than qualitative instructions. Some dancers expressed that they try to ‘focus harder’ or be ‘better at ______’. Again, it is hard to actually act upon these directions as they just become floating titles. To access these, perhaps we can elaborate on the direction and say instead ‘focus on softening at the elbows’ or ‘observe how my feet contact the floor’. By being more specific, these blanket titles become actionable in that there is suddenly a task involved and a direction that the dancer can apply. Of course as ambitious dancers, we all want to get ‘better’. To be ‘better’ is too qualitative and involves growth over a passage of time that is not immediately actionable in the present. So in identifying what we would like to improve upon, perhaps we can replace blanket terms with specific directions. Instead of ‘I want to be better at moving through space and move bigger’, perhaps more actionable words might be ‘I will move further into the space ahead of me’. This simultaneously creates a relationship to the space and makes the movement incrementally larger.

As we practise transforming our directions into more actionable words, perhaps we make our goals more attainable and easily accessible and a big task or idea less daunting. Being conscious of how we use language can change our relationship to and conversations we have with ourselves as we strive to expand our awareness and continue to grow in and out of the studio. With time, perhaps even these actionable words will be merely a reminder - rather than a command - of the state of being that our bodies can inhabit, and help us find ease as we ourselves transition from ‘doing’ to ‘being’.

Author: Joshua Sailo

Illustration: Joshua Sailo

Edited by: Dayita Nereyeth, Ainesh Madan, and Anishaa Tavag

Special Thanks to 206 Dance Collective and dancers of the first year students at Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts (2021)

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