5 tips for learning and remembering choreography
Many dance students have written in saying that something they really struggle with is remembering choreography or combinations of movements.
It can be a real challenge if you are not used to remembering movement especially combinations of movements that don't have codified names like they do in ballet for example.
Although there are some basic tools that you can use, every dancer will be different and need to use different methods to remember the steps. Make sure you experiment and find what works for you.
First you need to learn the step. The effort you put into the way you learn something will help you a lot when it comes time to remember.
1. Watch a step before you do it - when you are being introduced to a new step stop moving and watch the person demonstrating it with your full attention. If you can watch it a few times, each time concentrate on a different aspect of the movement. I like to start by paying attention to the sound or rhythm, especially for footwork steps, and then the coordination of the step itself.
By learning the sound of the step first I find that while I'm in the process of learning something if I don't have it in the exact moment I'm trying to do it in class I'll naturally do something else that fits with the sound to keep me moving. I will know (most of the time) that I have done something else and I can make an mental note to come back and clarify with the teacher or a fellow student what the step should actually be.
After the sound of the step you can look at the major pattern of movement. You might also notice the the step is a variation of something that you already know. You can use this as a signal to yourself that you already have the step you just need to remember the variation.
I used to work with a man who would say in a strong Lancashire accent 'you don't start a cricket match by planting a willow tree' (apologies to everyone in non-cricket playing countries! - cricket bats are traditionally made out of willow). What he meant was that you don't have to solve every problem by going back to the very beginning. You already have some steps/ basic technique that you know, use that knowledge and build on it with the new variations. This is where having excellent fundamental technique is key.
2. Try to do the step by yourself straight away - by doing this you will see immediately what you don't have and what you need to concentrate on when repeating the step with your teacher. Once you feel like you have a bit more of the step, try it again without relying on looking at another dancer or yourself in the mirror. Get your mind used to working in this way sooner rather than later.
3. Practice the step with the posture you would use to perform it - this is super important. If you learn to do a step with bad posture, with your head down, your shoulders rounded, your hands folded across your chest you will never be be able to perform the step properly. Every time you practice a movement you are creating a memory of that movement in your body which includes the bad posture.
Every time you practice a movement you are creating a memory of that movement in your body which includes the bad posture.
Learning something for the first time, especially if it is a movement that is out of your comfort zone, can put you in a very vulnerable position. Because of this feeling of vulnerability we revert back to postures of protection - the classic is hands crossed in front of the chest and head down.
Not only will this make it harder for you to execute the step it makes it so much harder to actually learn it. When you want to remember? It just isn't there.
Sometimes when I am feeling particularly vulnerable or like I just can't get hold of something (hello contra!) I take on a different persona. I'll pretend that I have the feet of José Merino or the presence of Antonio Canales or the stature of Matilde Coral. I know it sounds silly but it really works for me. Your mind can stop you from doing so many things if you let it, most of the time you can do what you are trying to do, you just need to get out of your own way.
4. Repetition, repetition, repetition - to get a movement in my body I repeat it many times. First I'll learn the pattern of the feet, the dibujo de los pies, in combination with the rhythm of the step this goes for footwork as well as marcaje. Then I'll work on the transitions between each step.
How does one part finish and the next start? If I can't go from one step to the next it means I don't know where my weight is and so I don't have the control required to anticipate the next step. No control means no chance to remember, my brain is occupied with keeping me from ending up on my butt. Once I have the transitions I'll try to do the phrase all the way through stopping to repeat different parts a few times wherever I get stuck.
No control means no chance to remember, my brain is occupied with keeping me from ending up on my butt.
Once I have the feet I'll start adding in the upper body. Don't be surprised if you feel like this takes you back to the very beginning. Adding arms changes everything. Just take it slowly one step at a time then work on the transitions, then everything altogether.
Then repeat everything as many times as you can.
5. Visualise the step - whenever you have the opportunity visualise the step/choreography that you are working on. This is especially useful to do straight after you have finished a class before you go off to do what ever it is that you need to do next. Close your eyes and hear the rhythm in your head, see the movement, feel the movement. This exercise reinforces the patterns in your body as much as physically practising the step does. You need to actually practice using your memory, like anything it is a skill that can be learnt. Consistent practice will help you to improve.
I hope these ideas will help you. Sometimes I will learn a remember a step very quickly, sometimes it just doesn't stick. More than anything repetition is key. There are days that I will spend 2 hours practising and apart from my warm-up and cool-down I will only work on 2 or 3 steps the whole time I am there. There is no rush, I would rather learn one step and do it very well than have a bag full of tricks I can do nothing with because I don't understand them.
Do you have any tips for learning and remembering choreography?
Let us know in the comments below!