The Virtuosity of Paying Attention

Have you ever played with a child? I mean spent time with them building castles that are never completed? Repeatedly banged out the same tune, because each turn never stops being highly amusing to them. Children have an innate ability to just play, not to find the meaning of things, but to explore the pleasure, run with it a while and then change, move on, let go. It’s highly frustrating for an adult, because we’re so used to seeing the end game, or seeing the point of it all. I know I am.

The resounding impact of a 3 day workshop with the improvisation performer Andrew Morrish, was this realisation: perhaps I’ve forgotten how to play!

Andrew’s workshop was titled ‘Solo Performance Improvisation Practice’. It involves at least three of the most terrifying propositions anyone could face: performing, solo and improvisation. Imagine entering the space, facing a whole audience, no score, no pre-rehearsed movement, just you and the space and the audience. No props or other performers to lean on. Andrew’s starting point is always to think that the audience likes you, they’re on your side. But I’ve seen audiences walk out of theatres, so I’m less convinced.

As an experienced improviser Andrew admits that there’s a lot of bad improvisation out there. Improvisation is often the fall-back of choreographers and directors when they cannot quite fill a section of their work, or performers when they forget their lines or make a wrong move. “Just improvise” is an often heard comment back stage, “no one will know”.  But when improvisation becomes a practice in its own right, the result is a performance that is skilled, authentic, endearing, humorous, engaging. An improviser over-comes so much of the natural chatter that prevents us from fully revealing who we are, they place themselves in a place of ultimate vulnerability. The experience of being in this space develops new muscles of authentic communicating, which is what gives this work its multi-dimensionality. The good news is that it’s not magic, it’s a practice that takes time to develop. And the key to developing this skill is to pay attention:

improvisation is the virtuosity of paying attention”  – Andrew Morrish

To frame Andrew’s teachings, I’m going to use his own structure of Beginning, Middle and End.


Beginning starts with noticing.

Andrew says that having ideas is great while you have them, but what happens when the ideas run out? The key to being present, is to notice what’s here, now. We’re taught to listen in to sensation, and become aware of where that takes us in terms of movement, sounding, talking, imagination. When you attend to what’s there in the room, you never run out of resources.

“Pay attention to the child”

Andrew relates how he worked on a project where his job was to improvise alongside a child. Paying attention to the child was his source material for his own role in the duet. I know that Andrew was talking about a specific event, but I couldn’t help drawing parallels with Julia Cameron’s suggestion that our creative side is a child. Suddenly this idea of tapping in to my inner child just opened up something for me.  I’m here in this workshop because so many years of dance training dulled down any real ‘presence’ in favour of physicality. We were physical beings, but not human beings on stage. And now I just find that presence so stale. I’m here to work out what it might mean for me to be present on stage. If I could cut out all the negative chatter that prevents me from making a fool of myself and notice what my inner child was drawn to, perhaps something more real would come out of me?

Staying in this childish space, Andrew suggests following your pleasure. The game is not to find something that’s “interesting”, it’s to find something that’s fun for us now. It’s function-less, frivolous. But if you find it then developing it is a pleasure too. It sounds like a good life mantra…

Middle: Developing what you’ve noticed

I’m very bad at the middle bit. I find myself wanting to know the outcome right from the get go. Only a few seconds into an improvisation task, I find my mind panicking to know the end point. I find  it so hard just to settle in, notice and develop what’s there, whatever that may be. I sense that Andrew knows this and one of his tools is to get us to move around the space.

“a solo is a journey”

Andrew places groups of people around the space, so that as we improvisaed solo we have to move from one audience to another, shifting ourselves spatially. Each new audience, or new sapce brings a new energy. Somehow, using this structure, we each do a 4 minute solo improvisation on the first day!


If the first job of an improviser is to find something pleasureable, then the second job is to find the next thing that’s pleasureable. It’s so easy to get stuck in what we’re doing, that sometimes we forget to change. Andrew suggests introducing something that prompts us to change, like a change of scenary or a change of focus. I think that my inability to change more frequently comes partly out of feeling very invested in what I’m doing, so that I find it hard to let it go, and partly in the fear of not being able to find the next thing. Andrew suggests the Andrew Morrish App: it follows you around shouting “change!” every 30 seconds. Sadly it doesn’t exist, but it’s not a bad idea.

“you need to feel safe to be creative”

There’s something about this remark that holds so true and yet is so little understood in the arts world. Everyone somehow expects artists to bare their soles, to be really ‘out there’. But that’s not a safe place to work from, and when you’re acting from a place of fear, you cannot really be creative, you can only do what you already know which is the opposite of being present. So how do you create safety when you’re facing an audience with no pre-known moves / score etc?

“supportive architecture”.

Andrew talked about creating supportive architecture. One exercise involved each of us performing with other members of the group sitting / standing around the space. When you’re in relation to another body the space feels less empty. More resources appear. Later Andrew suggested using our imagination to create that supportive architecture, or thinking about the audience as a supportive architecture.


“Be aware of what’s happened”

Finding an ending involves the ability to be aware of what’s happened and to somehow hold that in our body in a way that will lead us to an ending.

I don’t think I ever really found an ending. It would be safe to say that I’m still trying to find a sense of play. But each time my turn came to an end, I seemed to come out of performance and suddenly I was me. In Andrew’s words: how can I find more of her?

This blog is dedicated to my work as a dance artist and choreographer. If you're looking for my Pilates work, please visitmy Pilates website at



On Presence

Sometimes I think that the word ‘mindfulness’ is a little unhelpful. It conjures up an image of sitting quietly for hours everyday, silencing your thoughts and listening to your breath. Apart from the fact that this is not a realistic target for most people, I think it can give a very ‘brain centred’ image of the practice.

When I first came across the word in yoga 15 or so years ago, it seemed to me to be the opposite of mindlessness. Rather than moving without attention and awareness, moving mindfully is about consciously engaging in the movement, being present in the movement, ie: not switching off and thinking about your Tesco’s shop whilst doing a downward dog. The practice of mindfulness has been abstracted from this into a practice on its own. The goal is to be fully present as opposed to absently allowing the mind to drift into the past or future. It suggests a way of achieving the ‘Zen’ without the acrobatics, making it more accessible. But in a way this approach just propagates the dualistic mind-body split that we seem to be addicted to in our culture.

To be fair on the mindfulness practice, they do often use the body and breathing as an anchor to meditative practice. But I just find the static nature of the task to be quite painful. Don’t we spend enough time sitting?!

When I first started teaching I struggled with how much to expect clients to listen and follow my directions. I guess that, because Pilates involves lying on your back for a while (or at least to begin with), it can seem like an opportunity to switch off. Sometimes people show up for a class and spend most of it trying to sleep. (Of course I don’t mind that: if they are really that tired then they absolutely should sleep.) Then there are people who just want their bodies to be taught whilst their minds drift off. Funny ha? But surprisingly common too. They treat their bodies a bit like they treat their cars: they’ve no idea how they work, they just need them to function. When they don’t work, they rock up at the mechanic and ask for it to be fixed. This split of mind and body is a deeply ingrained attitude that the fitness industry has tended to reinforce. I’m sorry to break it to you, but there is no dream set of exercises that will fix your knee pain, give you back that flat stomach or make you lose that weight. The reason for this is that we are genetically pre-disposed to economise, to cut corners, to cheat. Mindless movement is just giving license to all your bad habits which are usually the reason for your pain in the first place. The only way to achieve pain free movement and a healthy weight is to wake up and be present in your movement, which is why concentration is one of the principles of Pilates.

Now I also know some people who use exercise as an opportunity to switch off and genuinely believe that this “dream time” does them good. Well, there is a reason that mindfulness has become so popular and that’s because the evidence suggests that being ‘present’ is key to our general sense of happiness. I recently came across this article by Maria Popova where she quotes Alan Watts writing in 1951! I don’t think I’ve heard the argument for presence articulated so well:

What keeps us from happiness… is our inability to fully inhabit the present… our primary mode of relinquishing presence is by leaving the body and retreating into the mind — that ever-calculating, self-evaluating, seething cauldron of thoughts, predictions, anxieties, judgments, and incessant meta-experiences about experience itself.

I speak here simply from the point of view of a movement teacher, from my own experience of different exercise forms, and from my own battles with silencing the endless chatter in my head. This is what I think: if you are mindfully engaged in your movement practice, not only do you move better and achieve more, but you will also be happier.

Here are a few suggestions for being more present in your movement:

  1. Join a class – Being in a class gives you some kind of anchor (the teacher’s instruction, verbal cues and hands on correction) that keeps you mindfully engaged in what you are doing. In this state you are more likely to work effectively because you cannot switch off and slip into the easier habits that you have unconsciously learned in order to minimise effort. The good news is that by listening in, staying in tune as it were, you are not only going to gain more physically, you will also be practicing mindfulness.
  2. Choose classes and teachers who will support your mindful practice – So this one is a bit of a tricky one because there are a few teachers who, to my mind, have forgotten the point of the practice. I’ve experienced and witnessed many teachers taking clients through a practice whilst chatting away nineteen to the dozen about their kids schools, what they did on the weekend and the state of their garden, intermingled with “now sink your belly and wrap the backs of the legs together…”. I know I sometimes joke about how I take my Pilates very seriously, but I’m sorry there is a balance and too often it’s being tipped away from mindfulness. By it’s very nature, the equipment studio and private sessions are a more relaxed, informal environment than the matwork class, so it’s natural (and right) that teachers develop a relationship with clients. My philosophy on this is to allow the client to lead this. It may be that they really need to get something off their chest, or they’re lonely and I’m the first person they’ve spoken to that day. But after giving some space for this, I try to gently encourage them back to the practice. Luckily for me, this is what I’m good at, teaching. I’m terrible at small talk. But if you have a teacher who keeps drifting into chatter, I suggest closing your eyes and focusing on your breathing. You could also ask a question about what you’re doing. It takes some discipline, but if you stop engaging with the conversation, they’ll soon get the message. It’s your class after all!
  3. Change something – If you always go to the same class, run the same route, do the same sequence of swimming strokes, then mix it up. Not only is this better for your body, but it requires a different attention.
  4. Practice Awareness through Movement – So you know how much I constantly go on about Feldenkrais? Trust me it is pure genius. The deepest way to learn about your own movement is by listening to your body. Yes Pilates is good for you, but Feldenkrais is like the abc of moving. You could join a class (check out the Feldenkrais Guild Website) or, for the time poor, you can access free classes online. The Feldenkrais Guild website has a number of short audio classes on their resource page. If you do a short session before you go off for your run or swim, you’ll tap into something different.

Let me know what you think and how you get on!