Dancers who can pick up choreography quickly are more likely to be noticed at auditions—and to be hired again on subsequent jobs. Rehearsals cost time and money, and directors want to know that their dancers are fast learners.
This is why Duke University professor Ruth Day, who started a project titled Memory for Movement in 1989, says that dancers need to develop a set of strategies for memorizing choreography. (Memory for Movement explores how dancers learn, remember and perform.) Whether you want to pick up combinations faster in ballet class, or you have to memorize 10 routines for competition, you can use the following techniques developed by Day and other experts to build your brainpower.
Assign each step a specific word or phrase that triggers an image in your mind. It can be creative, humorous—anything you want. Dance-memory researcher Eric Franklin recommends choosing words that relate to how the movement should be performed, whether it’s the speed, the quality or the feeling behind it. Here are some examples:
• “McDonald’s” for a movement in which you hold arms overhead and bent out at the elbows, like the Golden Arches
• “Wash your hair” for quick arm waves around your head
• “Turn the bus” for a loopy motion resembling a bus driver making a wide turn (coined by hip-hop choreographers Dena and Jenna Spellman)
• “Captain Jack” for a wobbly hand-shaking motion, like Johnny Depp’s eccentric character in Pirates of the Caribbean (also coined by the Spellmans)
Create a Story
Develop a series of mental images to help you remember a progression of movement. Franklin calls this strategy “imagery strings.” Use key words like the ones above to create your story. For example, if the movements above were connected in a dance, you could say: “Wash your hair, then turn the bus to go to McDonald’s, where you meet Captain Jack.” Silly? Sure, but that’s OK as long as the story makes enough sense to help you remember.
Visualization is mentally seeing and feeling yourself perform a dance. “Mental imagery is the most powerful tool for learning new choreography, because it allows for added repetition without actually doing it,” says Dr. Jim Taylor, a San Francisco psychologist and co-author of Psychology of Dance.
See yourself doing the steps both through your own eyes and from an external point of view, imagining how it feels to execute the movements. You can also visualize while playing the music, or by watching a videotape of the dance. The best visualization is a total reproduction of the experience without physically dancing, so avoid visualizing before falling asleep, which can be counterproductive. “You don’t want to associate sleep with a vigorous dance step,” says Franklin.
Relate to Lyrics
If you’re dancing to a song with lyrics, identify any connections between the steps and the words. For instance, do you move upstage at the word “up”? Do you do a body roll with the word “wave”? This also works when choreographing. Occasionally matching up movement with lyrics will help performers remember steps and get oriented quickly if they forget a step.
The Spellmans used this tactic in a piece to Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack” for their choreography reel. In the opening line (“I’m bringing sexy back”), dancers snap their heads and point their thumbs backward with the word “back.” In the third line (“I think it’s special what’s behind your back”), dancers point to their heads on “think” and turn 180 degrees on “back.”
Play a Game
If you have difficulty with class combinations, try playing a repetition game. Ask a friend to call out a series of steps, and then try to execute them as fast as possible. Start with easy steps, and build up to longer and more challenging sequences. Then have your friend dole out steps only by demonstrating—no speaking. A combination of both versions of the game will ensure that you test your auditory and visual skills. Over time, you’ll begin to pick moves up faster.
Beyond the Studio
The best way to commit a dance number to memory is to rehearse it consistently, so if you’re having trouble remembering a piece, ask your teacher to copy the music for you so you can practice it on your own time.
After rehearsal, journal about what you learned, noting particularly difficult sections. You can also log the corrections you received, and review them before the next class or rehearsal. Remember, when you’re practicing choreography, you’re not just practicing that dance; you’re training your brain for future dances, too.
Watch It! Learn a brain-teasing piece from Juillard's Anthony Bryant by clicking here.
Tim O’Shei is a freelance writer in Buffalo, NY.
What's more daunting than getting into your dream college dance program? Figuring out how you'll cover the costs of tuition, room and board, incidental expenses and more. Here's the good news: The right scholarship(s) can bring your dream school well within reach.
Look Around, Look Around
Scholarship applications are due between the fall of senior year and graduation time, so familiarize yourself with funding opportunities during the spring of junior year. And there are a lot of opportunities out there, says Kate Walker, chair of dance at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas, TX. "A lot of school guidance counselors now have software that automatically matches you with scholarships," she says.
Seek out scholarships on your own, too. According to Walker, "a lot of corporations are required to have some community engagement, including offering scholarships, so research corporations in your community." Your parents' employers might offer assistance too, says Doug Long, an academic and college counselor at Interlochen Arts Academy in Interlochen, MI. "They might have scholarships you can apply for just because your parent works there."
Other sources of grant money you won't have to pay back (as you would a loan)? The YoungArts Foundation; competitions/conventions, like New York City Dance Alliance; and the university or dance department you're applying to. Even some scholarships aimed at athletes are open to dancers!
A winning scholarship application involves a fair amount of paperwork, especially if the organization requires you to show financial need. In addition, certain scholarships ask for the College Board's CSS/Financial Aid Profile, which gives the awarding organization a more complete picture of your family finances.
Other ingredients of a successful scholarship application include recommendation letters, a dance and/or academic resumé and an essay or statement of purpose. Treat these components just like college applications: Have multiple trusted adults proofread your materials, and ask for recommendation letters or transcripts long before deadlines.
A note for non-dance scholarships: Including objective measures of achievement can only help you. "List national recognitions, like YoungArts or other competitions," says Long. "That shows the scholarship committees that people at high levels have acknowledged you as an artist of quality." And don't forget who your audience is. "Especially in writing samples, make sure you paint a vivid picture for your reader," Walker says. "Don't assume they know about all the things—like barre every day—that we as dancers take for granted."
No award amount is too small to be worth your time and effort. As Walker says, "Don't pooh-pooh a couple hundred dollars in award money, because any scholarship is funding that you didn't have yesterday."
A version of this story appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of Dance Spirit with the title "All Aboard the Scholar-ship."
Every ballet dancer knows the time, sweat, and occasional tears the art form demands. But many non-dancers are clueless about just how much work a ballet dancer puts into perfecting his or her dancing. So when the mainstream crowd recognizes our crazy work ethic, we'll accept the round of applause any way it comes—even if it comes via four men in tutus. Yep, we're talking about "The Try Guys Try Ballet" video.
Remember that fabulous old-school clip of dancers tapping in pointe shoes that Tabitha and Napoleon D'umo brought to our attention back in March? As we mentioned then, toe-tap dancing was actually super popular back in the 1920s and 30s—which means there are more videos where that one came from. And because #ToeTapTuesday has a nice ring to it, we thought we'd take this opportunity to introduce you to Dick and Edith Barstow, a toe-tapping brother and sister duo from that era who are nothing short of incredible:
Guess who's back? Back again? The Academy's back! Tell a friend.
After one day at The Academy, the All Stars have successfully taken the Top 100 down to 62. But their work is just getting started: Now they need to keep narrowing the field to a Top 10, ultimately deciding who each will partner with during the live shows.
We've said it before and we'll say it again: New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns is some SERIOUS #goals. Her strength and power onstage borders on superhuman. But what's extra magical about Mearns is that she really puts in the fitness and cross-training work outside of the rehearsal studio. And she's overcome her fair share of injuries. Which is why she was the perfect source for Vogue's latest ballet fitness story.