Memorizing Movement

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.

Key Words

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.

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