Making It Stick: How to Remember Choreography

When it comes to learning tricky choreography, Joffrey Ballet dancer Jeraldine Mendoza relies on repetition. (Photo by Herbert Migdoll, courtesy Joffrey Ballet)

Joffrey Ballet dancer Jeraldine Mendoza was thrilled to be cast as Juliet in Krzysztof Pastor's Romeo and Juliet—but her excitement dimmed after the first few rehearsals. She had trouble wrapping her head around the complex choreography, especially since its vocabulary was more contemporary than classical. “They were teaching it so quickly that I couldn't pick it up," she says. “I freaked out!"

Learning and retaining choreography is one of a dancer's greatest challenges. How can you improve your choreographic memory? DS talked to the pros about their strategies—and about why absorbing choreography is so difficult in the first place.


Why Can't I Remember?

According to professor Ruth Day, director of the Memory for Movement lab at the American Dance Festival and Duke University, dancers have problems remembering choreography for many reasons, but particularly when they're unfamiliar with the style or instructor. “When the vocabulary is codified, as it is in ballet, most of the steps have names that people know well," says Day. “But in modern and contemporary dance, almost anything can happen"—which means dancers can't rely on movement names as memory aids.

Choreographers also have many different ways of communicating their choreography, and not all of their methods work for every dancer. They might use counts, the names of steps or non-words like “dee-dee-dah." “There's a problem when the cues the teachers give aren't the cues the dancers want," Day says. Maybe your choreographer doesn't like to count and you do, or she's giving too much information all at once and you're getting bogged down in details.

The Memory Tool Kit

The key to improving your choreographic memory is identifying how you learn best, so you can figure out ways to adapt to various choreographers' teaching styles. Here's a tool kit of strategies for you to choose from.

1. Preparation

If you're working with a new choreographer, watch videos of her work before you start rehearsals. “It's good to familiarize yourself with the choreographer's movement style," says Lizzie Gough, a commercial dancer and finalist on Season 1 of the British version of “So You Think You Can Dance." That way, you'll have a basic understanding of the choreographic language she's speaking.

2. “Chunking"

Sometimes it helps to break choreography down into smaller, more manageable pieces. The term “chunking" comes from cognitive science, and it means to combine a few items (in this case, steps) that go together naturally. “Find what stands out, and think of a way to capture it," Day says. For instance, you might notice a phrase that reminds you of the way your dog runs. Call those three or four steps “Spike run," and odds are good that you'll remember them later.

3. Strategic Note-Taking

Rather than trying to scribble down the whole piece or combination, which can be overwhelming, focus on your problem spots. “If I get stuck at the same point, I'll take notes on the steps I'm struggling with," Gough says. The action of writing down the tricky sequences helps her brain register what comes after what. Using diagrams, like stick figures with arrows, can help you remember details.

4. Visualization

For many dancers, it's just good old practice that makes perfect—but you don't need to be in the studio to go over new material. You can even mark through choreography while you're waiting in line at the grocery store. “Try mini-marking, moving only your head or shoulders," Day says. Mendoza likes to close her eyes and go through the movement with her hands, imagining what it should look like full-out. “Practice for the visual image of it—imagine yourself going through space," Day says. “Once the movement gets into your head, it'll get into your body, too."

Game Time

Rather than help you remember specific pieces of choreography, these brainteasers will strengthen your memory overall. Try them out when you have a little downtime between rehearsals.

Daisy Chain

Commercial dancer Lizzie Gough likes to play this game with her dance friends: Form a circle and have one person in the circle show a movement. The person next to her should repeat that movement and add another of her own—and so on, all the way around the room, or until someone forgets part of the sequence.

Video Quiz

Find a dance video online that you've never seen before. Watch a 30-second piece of the video five times. Then, as you watch it the sixth time, click pause at a random spot, and see if you can predict what happens next.

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