We have all been there: Struggling to memorize new choreography. This happens for a number of reasons but let’s review some helpful tips, presented in no particular order, that may aid in the learning process.
1. Take it “one step at a time”. “Chunking”, a term coined in cognitive science, refers to combining a few items that go together naturally. In other words, taking the choreography one piece, or “chunk” at a time. Often, instructors will teach this way; grouping the steps into “bite-size” pieces, reviewing them until the students feel they have it down, then adding on. But, students can develop their own internal “chunking”, or memorization process, to help them learn the steps. Additionally, you can use verbal or visual cues, whether it’s a word or phrase the teacher uses or something you come up with which you can relate easily to the movement.
2. Notes & Diagrams. If you still find you are having difficulty committing the steps to memory you can try this technique: Write the steps down in order, using words or phrases which make sense to you (or those given by the instructor), or even drawing diagrams using stick figures (you don’t have to be an artist!). Multiple studies have proven that writing something down, as opposed to just trying to memorize it or even typing it, aids in memory retention and learning. So, pick up that old-fashioned pen and paper and get to work!
3. Mini-Marking. Going over the steps repeatedly in your head can be helpful, but involving a certain level of muscle memory can increase the effectiveness of these mental reviews. If you’re wondering what “mini-marking” is then just recall the last time a teacher gave a combination or a bit of choreography. Were you just standing by idly watching or were you mimicking the movement with either your hands or feet as you watched closely? Likely, you were doing the latter. The beauty of mini-marking is that it can be done anywhere and at any time: at home, in the car or even while you’re waiting in line at the store! Additionally, there is a theory called, “the mirror neuron theory”, which states that our brain cells respond equally to performing an action ourselves as they do when we watch another perform it. So, watching and marking at the same time could theoretically double your intake rate, right?
4. Practice makes perfect. Repeating the steps, again and again, is obviously the most effective method. Start by doing the steps slowly until you have them down and then gradually pick up the pace, eventually practicing with the music. Music has become very accessible and can be downloaded in seconds. You can even ask the instructor for the precise name and version of the music they’re using. If you practice with the intended score, you will be more likely to be practicing the timing correctly. And once you’ve begun practicing, don’t stop when you feel you’ve gotten it right, but keep going until you can’t get it wrong.
5. Play games. Whether you generally have issues with memory, or it’s choreography specific, memory aid games can help your overall memory to improve and teach you to think “on your toes”!
6. Be in the moment. This is an important one. We all have a lot on our minds and can often allow our minds to wander during class or even when the teacher is giving instruction or choreography. Don’t do this! It’s very important that you be mentally “present” and focus on what is happening at the moment, minimizing all distractions.
7. Ask for help! It may seem obvious, but many of us are too embarrassed to ask for help or clarification on a step or count we find difficult or confusing. If you are too shy to do this during a rehearsal or class, (or the timing is inappropriate), you can ask the instructor afterward or even a friend who already has the movement down. Adding to this, you can always invite a friend to practice with you! The social connection you feel along with the immediate feedback you get from a friend (who may know a step better than you) can go a long way in improving your understanding of the steps. A famous proverb states: “As iron sharpens iron; so one person sharpens the face of another.” The point being that we can help each other to improve using our unique abilities, so why not take advantage of such an opportunity?
8. Focus on the music. Sometimes I find that I’m getting too caught up in the choreography and am missing the connection between the choreography and the music. Most choreography is very musical; meaning it complements or harmonizes with the music. Sometimes just taking a moment to observe the connection between the two can help clear up any confusion you may have about when to do a step-because the music tells you!
9. Don’t linger over a moment. If you’re getting stuck on one or two particularly difficult parts, don’t allow these to become your focal point. Imagine a driver who centers their attention on only one thing on the road: How would their driving fair? Would they make much progress? Often the approach of taking the choreography in as a whole can help clear up any trouble spots you’re struggling with. For the time, just allow that to be a “problem area” and focus on getting the rest of the choreography down. You can return to the problem area later. You may find that after class when you have more time to work on it in a relaxed environment, or even after a good night’s sleep (oh so important!) that something just “clicks”. If this does not happen, however, don’t despair! Refer to tip number 7.
10. Tackle the feet first. Your feet being what propel you across the floor, they are generally considered the “more important” part of the dancing process. Of course, both the upper and lower body in dance is critical, including épaulement and facial expressions. But when we are learning something new it can be helpful to apply the “chunking” principle to our bodies: focus on one part at a time. Once you have one part down, you can add from there.
These are just a few suggestions you can try out. The process of learning choreography is very individual, so just try some of these and find what works best for you. And remember to try to relax! The more anxious you feel, the more difficult it will be. Merde!