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.
Harper Watters is a ballet dancer for today's generation. A social media maestro and a charismatic performer, the Houston Ballet soloist is equally at home in front of the camera hosting his hit YouTube series, "The Pre Show"; interacting with fans on his crazy-popular Instagram account; or showing off his beautiful classical technique onstage. It's a multifaceted identity that's proven to be invaluable to his career—and it's taking him to places he never even dreamed of.
The dancers who take our breath away are the risk-takers, the ones who appear completely fearless onstage. "When you see somebody trying to travel more, go farther, push the limits of their physical abilities, that's always going to be inspiring," says Ballet BC dancer Alexis Fletcher.
But dance training can feel like it's in conflict with that idea. We spend thousands of hours in the studio trying to do steps perfectly, and that pursuit of perfection can make us anxious about taking risks. What if we fail? What if we fall?
Luckily, fearlessness is a mental skill that you can work on, just as you work on your technique. Here's how you can learn to push yourself past your limits.
Getting corrections from our dance instructors is how we grow, and as students, it's important that we do our best to apply every correction right away. But sometimes—whether it's because we're in physical pain, or have a lot on our minds, or are just not paying attention—those corrections don't sink in. And from a teacher's standpoint, giving the same corrections time and time again gets old very fast. Here are 10 important corrections dance teachers are tired of giving. Take them to heart!
When we think of a dancer who's broken barriers, American Ballet Theatre principal Misty Copeland tends to be the name that comes to mind. And though Copeland has been a crucial advocate for equality in the world of ballet, Raven Wilkinson—a mentor of Copeland's—is considered one of the original pioneers of the movement.
In 1955, Wilkinson became the first African American to dance with the renowned Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. Her fortitude in the face of bigotry and hate cemented her legacy. Now, with the release of the new children's book Trailblazer: The Story of Ballerina Raven Wilkinson, a new generation of dancers will be inspired by her tale of overcoming obstacles to achieve a dream.
The book details Wilkinson's life, from her experience as a young dancer training in Harlem, to her run-ins with the Ku Klux Klan while on tour with Ballet Russe, to her later ballet career in Europe. "There were times where my heart really hurt because of the situations I had to deal with," she says. "But I always had faith that I was made to be a dancer and that I was gonna dance."
Dance Spirit spoke with Wilkinson to discuss the new book and get her take on racial equality within the ballet world.
Postmodern pioneer Trisha Brown redefined how dance is seen and felt. A founding member of Judson Dance Theater, Brown frequently collaborated with other experimental artists like Yvonne Rainer, Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, and Steve Paxton.
She embraced pedestrian movement, pairing everyday gesture with rhythm and fluidity. "It's liquid," says Wendy Perron, who danced with Brown in the '60s and '70s. "Like a river with many tributaries, water coming out of a faucet, or being on a raft and seeing the water move away in different directions." Brown also pushed beyond stages with choreography in fields, museums—even on the sides of buildings.
There's a common misconception that a dancer's body has to be thin. But the truth is that talent knows no body type, and the number on the scale never determines an artist's capabilities. Here are some extraordinary dancers fighting the stereotype of what a dancer "should" look like.