Monday, July 7, 2014

In the flow - The magic of dance flow: how to reach it and why?

It is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were. 
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

Flow is a moment in time when you’re both challenged at the activity that you’re doing, and when you also have complete autonomy in the task you’re conducting.
Everett Bogue, in The Hidden Art of Achieving Creative Flow.

Have you experienced flow?
Dance flow? Creative flow?

I have. One thing that's so great about dancing - and dancing zouk is what I'm writing about here in particular - is the flowing motion. When you're in the dance flow, you will certainly have one of the most pleasurable moments on the dance floor (or anywhere).

To me, simply put, flow in zouk is when one move follows the other in an effortless way. You and your partner dance seamlessly together, with a gentle lead & follow or even without touch, and - as it feels like - without thought.

But what makes flow happen?


Read the updated version of this story:

What is flow?

Imagine for a moment that you are running a race. Your attention is focused on the movements of your body, the power of your muscles, the force of your lungs and the feel of the street beneath your feet. You are living in the moment, utterly absorbed in the present activity. Time seems to fall away. You are tired, but you barely notice.
Kendra Cherry, in What Is Flow?

Dictionary definition of flow:
   to move in a steady and continuous way; to move, come, or go continuously in one direction
   to proceed smoothly and readily; to have a smooth continuity
   to hang loose and billowing

Flow in psychology and creativity

To dig deeper in to the concept of flow let's look at how flow is defined in psychology: 

Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.

Where ever I researched about flow I came across with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, esteemed professor of psychology, who spent his lifetime studying and defining flow as well as happiness, creativity and positive psychology.

The graph above - mental state diagram based on Csikszentmihalyi's flow model (adapted from Wikipedia) - illustrates quite well what flow means in terms of the relationship between the level of challenge and skills: When both skills and challenges are abundant, a person can reach flow. Low skills and challenges can lead to apathy; low skills and high challenges to anxiety; etc.

Csikszentmihalyi came to the conclusion that a person is the happiest in the state of flow; completely engaged in a task or a situation and intrinsically motivated to use their full abilities - so concentrated that nothing else enters their mind. In an interview by Wired he continues to describe the flow:

Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost.

Dance flow

The concept of flow in psychology can be used also to describe the dance flow. In my personal experience, flow in zouk and social dancing would be summed up as follows;

In a state of dance flow you are completely absorbed in the dance, in the movement. You are fully in sync with the music. You feel a deep yet effortless connection with you partner. Every movement naturally after another. You are in no strain to maintain the pace, direction or movement. You lose sense of time, your inhibitions, your worries, your aching muscles and whatever else is normally in the back of your mind. You are not distracted by your surrounding, but in complete harmony. Nothing is able to break you concentration in that moment, you are completely involved in the dance. 

Flow + social dancing = magic

You can achieve flow in many things. Artists or any persona performing creative activities like singing, playing an instrument, drawing or painting tend to experience flow. Also sports is a good arena for flow, both individual and team sports. In a sports context people also talk about "being in the zone". Playing games, like chess or why not even WoW, can offer the feeling of flow. Some people can find flow even in their work and day-to-day mundane tasks.

But one thing that makes flow in social dancing so special to me is that magical feeling of two individuals - even complete strangers - sharing the moment of flow together. Not just experiencing a state of flow in the same physical space, but sharing a single state of flow. Some people have used the words "breathing the same air" to characterize this. The moment can be a special second or two, or it can last for five, ten, thirty, sixty minutes - however long you can hold a continuous movement with your dance partner. Does this mean that a person in the state of flow turns into a zombie? No. But it can feel like a heavenly dream.

Perhaps you've experienced this shared state of flow somewhere else too? All I can say is, kudos! And I can also make a bold statement that you haven't experience flow until you've experienced zouk flow. ;)

In the zouk flow

How to achieve flow? The do's and dont's!

The components that makes the flow, according to Csikszentmihalyi:

  • Challenge-skill balance; the task at hand presents a challenge but still meet individual's skills.
  • Merging of action and awareness.
  • Immediate and unambiguous feedback.
  • Complete focus on the task at hand.
  • Feelings of personal control over the situation and the outcome.
  • Lack of awareness of physical needs.
  • Transformation of time or timelessness; feeling so focused on the present that you lose track of time passing.
  • Feelings of serenity; loss of self-consciousness.
  • Autotelic experience; the task has a purpose in itself. A person does it for its own sake, because it is intrinsically rewarding (in comparison to doing something to achieve external goals).

All of these conditions don't have to be met to achieve flow. And what I can tell from experience - you may have a very hard time instrumenting flow. Some might say that you can't make it happen. It just, happens.

But you can help it along. One thing that is very important is to set yourself a goal that's challenging enough - but still just about in your the reach of your skill set. The task is too easy? The performance of the task can become routine-like. Your thoughts wonder while you are not challenged enough. The task is too hard? You fail in the task and fall short of the flow. It certainly helps if you pick a goal in an activity you love - you'll be more up to the challenge!

Another important factor is letting yourself go. This means also dropping the expectations you have for yourself. Letting completely loose can be hard when you're in the middle of a task (for example, a dance move) that is on the top edge of your skill set. But if something is holding you back, you won't be able to flow, so you just need to disconnect. Csikszentmihalyi have presented a theory that flow in fact occurs in moments when we're activating too many neurological functions - then we lose the capacity to be aware of all the functions we're performing and the "conscious" part of the mind switches off, and you just do.

In the hectic world we live in, it's also critical to eliminate possible distractions. You know what they are - turn them off. If other people's presence can take your attention away then shut yourself in a private space. On the busy dance floor this can be quite hard, impossible even - but on the other hand, at least you are not watching your phone (I certainly hope not!!!). Also, don't hurry yourself or set time limits. The flow does not respect time restraints. If you need to stare at a watch, then you are focusing on something else than flowing.

Continuous movement is key element as well - and this is good news for us dancers, we are naturally engaging in flow-inducing activities. So keep in motion! If you're in running flow, and you stop, suddenly your thoughts began to race in stead and your feet become aware of the physical state (the pain) the are in. To avoid stopping, use a pace that you are comfortable in. On the dance floor don't fall to the "trap of the advanced dancer" of making the dance too fast & furious. This makes it too straining for you to lead or follow, and you enter the survival mode in stead of the flow - with this I mean those dances at the end of which you think "thank god I survived that one". If you're a beginner, don't worry: you can just as well reach the dance flow. Find a partner with a similar skill level and good connection. You can help it along by dialing down on movements where you come to a full stop and those where move simply forward-back - for example in zouk you can variate the basic step with simple turns to avoid this.

To give the flow the final necessary nudge it needs, two things: Plan. Practice. Don't just show up and expect to flow. (Yes, that can happen too. Or it can appear to happen, but in fact there are hours or years of practice behind it.) The more practice -> the more you know -> the wider the skill set you have -> the bigger the challenges you can face -> the more rewarding the achievements feel. If you're stuck in a rut, the flow may be stuck too. You can even set aside some practice for flowing itself; practice letting go, keeping a continuous pace, eliminating distraction in and out of your head. In addition to practice, planning can help too. Look for places, situations and company that will best facilitate your flow. You can even warm up in a way that helps you to flow - read more here.

The clear cut benefits - i.e. what's all the fuss about flow?

Not convinced enough? There are distinct positive effects in achieving flow. 

  • Makes any task feel more enjoyable.
  • Typically improves your performance.
  • You may be able to reach (or exceed) the sharpest tip of skills.
  • Great source of learning and skill development. 

Practice makes perfect - myths & theories about becoming an advanced dancer

Getting a grip with musicality - the most vague and insightful part of dancing

How to improve your musicality - 6 exercises for dancers

All dance technique posts


I used these brilliant sources:

Merriam-Webster: Flow  |  Wikipedia: Flow  |  Wikipedia: Csikszentmihalyi  | Flow Csikszentmihalyi   |  Wired: Go with the Flow  |  The Hidden Art of Achieving Creative Flow

Further reading:

Csikszentmihalyi, M. & Rathunde, K. (1993). The measurement of flow in everyday life: Towards a theory of emergent motivation. In Jacobs, J.E.. Developmental perspectives on motivation. Nebraska symposium on motivation. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály (1975), Beyond Boredom and Anxiety, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997) Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. Basic Books, New York.

Csikszentmihalyi, M.; Abuhamdeh, S. & Nakamura, J. (2005), Flow, in Elliot, A., Handbook of Competence and Motivation, New York: The Guilford Press, pp. 598–698

Snyder, C.R. & Lopez, Shane J. (2007), 11, Positive Psychology, Sage Publications, Inc.

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