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Tips for thinking like a dancer, from acclaimed choreographer Wayne McGregor

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What made Wayne McGregor want to become a choreographer? Onstage at TEDGlobal 2012, he revealed his two childhood inspirations—John Travolta’s moves in Saturday Night Fever and a forward-thinking dance teacher who encouraged him to invent his own dances.

“I’m obsessed with technology of the body,” says McGregor, founder of the company Random Dance who is also known for choreographing Radiohead’s “Lotus Flower” video and for serving as movement director for the movie Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. “And I’m obsessed with finding a way of communicating ideas through the body to audiences that might move them, touch them, help them think differently about things.”

While we all use our kinesthetic intelligence on a daily basis — when we judge the movements necessary to pick up a coffee mug or scoot around a slow walker on a crowded sidewalk — not all of us are conscious of our physical thinking. In this thrilling demonstration given at TEDGlobal, McGregor works with two dancers to bring us into his process of transposing ideas into space and channeling them through different bodies.

To see how it all works, watch his talk. Below, McGregor gives advice on how everyone can develop their physical thinking.

Wayne McGregor choreographed Thom Yorke’s movements in Radiohead’s video for “Lotus Flower.”

Here, Wayne McGregor — along with Scott deLahunta and Philip Barnard of Random Dance’s science-based R-Research projects — on how anyone can think like a dancer.

Physical thinking can build on the power of fast intuitions. It isn’t just one kind of behavior. It happens in your head, with and through your body and with objects and people out there in the world, be they real or imagined. It can be realised through body-to-body transfer (showing); using bodies as objects to think with (making on); and tasking. All can help break movement habits and innovate.

What you can do in preparation for moving:

Find a Point of Departure: It helps to start armed with something clear, a stimulus to play with and inspire that is not obviously connected in any way at the outset to movement. It also helps to have a number of simple ideas you might try out to get from the stimulus, either directly or indirectly, to generate specific innovative movements. You can do this in many ways — try extracting some part of your image, change the perspective or your relationship to it in any way, look only for the colour blue or reduce the whole thing to a line drawing. The more skilled you become at extracting properties from the stimuli, the greater the range of things you will be able to think of.

Dance Inside Your Head: Build a model (visual/haptic or even auditory) of a part or the whole of the stimulus — or even of some thing you associate with that stimulus. The model you decide to use should be very clear.

Shift Focus Frames: Move attention around the whole landscape of imagery in your mind — what your body senses and what you see in your mind’s eye or hear in your mind’s ear, and the intuitive feelings and emotions that arise. If something feels of interest or unusual, focus your attention on it and how it might help you move.

What you can do while moving:

Throwing Shapes: Try this drawing exercise whilst moving. Project your image (Dance Inside Your Head) into the physical space in front of you (or above, behind, underneath you) and begin to ‘describe’ it using your body. Use different body parts to describe different parts of the image. Create 5 (or 10, 20, 60) distinct descriptions and join them together. You are building a movement phrase. Move the projected image or an aspect of it somewhere else (Shift Focus Frames), perhaps make it larger or change the projected image completely. Start over.

Streaming: As you have practised Throwing Shapes in tiny snapshots, try sequencing image and action simultaneously. Try Dance Inside Your Head, Shift Focus Frames and Throwing Shapes in combination, randomised or discretely ordered. Instead of inventing small descriptions you remember, try longer phrases that you don’t try to remember. Improvise, with the image itself, where you project it, how your attention shifts around it, what you sense from it and let these specific inputs inform your movement choices. The model(s) you use, where and how they are projected and described should still be very clear — but now you are physically ‘surfing’ the stimuli in longer events, creating evolving movement sequences. Don’t worry about remembering the exact movements you create but do try to remember the sequence of your images and what approach you were working on.

After moving:

Think about the movements you created. Be clear in your own mind about why you made the decisions you did, even if it is just “because it felt intuitively right”. This will help consolidate your insights for later use.

McGregor and DJ Mark Ronson discuss their collaboration for the Royal Ballet, Carbon Life, with vocals from Boy George.

Happy dancing.