Ever been in class and got to the end of a routine only to find you can’t remember how it started? Or find yourself blanking on the same bits over and over? Or maybe you simply seem to find it hard to keep up with other dancers at your work or in class? Maybe you just feel like you can’t pick up choreography faster, no matter what you try.
It can be discouraging can’t it? But don’t worry! Yes, there are people who can pick up choreography seamlessly without seeming to break a sweat, (oh how I wish that was me) but the good news is that with some focus, patience and a little know-how you can improve and get to where you need to be.
How? Change Is In The Brain.
Whilst it IS true that our brains don’t all have the same starting point (we all remember and learn at different rates) the good news is that the brain is not a fixed thing! Until recently it was believed that once a brain had forged certain patterns it became fixed in stone, however recently science has discovered that the brain is malleable- constantly changing and adapting according to how it’s used. This process is known as neuroplasticity. In layman’s terms it is purely the brains ability to transform- the more often you get certain pathways in the brain to fire, the stronger and faster they become. By the same token old pathways fall away and become weaker or more dormant the less they’re used. This is known as the USE IT OR LOSE IT principle.
So What Does This Mean For Pick Up Ability As Dancers?
Quite simply, it means that over time we can learn to pick up choreography faster and retain larger amounts IF we use specifically targeted techniques to help us. And that’s where this article comes in. However it is VERY important that to improve and transform this skill, you practice REGULARLY. Ideally daily. This is because neuroplasticity works better the more frequently it is practiced. Let me give you a real life example- ever experienced it being harder to pick up a routine if you haven’t danced in a while, maybe if you go back into class after the holidays? That’s neuroplasticity.
So now for the nitty gritty, the fun stuff. The list below covers many tips and tricks you can use to harness this ability and get your pick up speed to where it needs to be. Get ready to change your brain!
But How Do I Practice My Pick Up Speed When I’m Not In Class?
YouTube is a veritable goldmine for dancers to practice this skill. Whilst the tutorials for advanced dancers may be limited, there’s a plethora of routines for all levels that you can stop and start whilst you learn.
You can also download a brain training app, and use it to target memory. I recommend doing this daily to keep your memory sharp.
Know How You Learn.
There are 3 main types:
- Visual- you learn by seeing.
- Auditory- by hearing the music and the beats things fall on, or making particular sounds to remember certain rhythms.
- Kinaesthetic- by feel or by touch.
Everyone is a combination of all three but generally one is more dominant so knowing what you need in order to start learning is key. I, for example, learn by doing. So it doesn’t matter how many times I watch a routine, until I actually start to do it, it’s not going to sink in. Whereas for someone who is more visual, they may find it more beneficial to watch the choreographer first before they execute the steps.
The Basics- Work It, Baby!
When you learn a routine brand new, you are using your short term memory. Short term memory cannot be activated without effort. The typical human brain can only hold 7 pieces of information (for example numbers or names from recall,) therefore in order to implement it you have to put in EFFORT. This is why it’s also known as WORKING MEMORY.
You can activate it through mental rehearsal by repeating it over in your mind. Otherwise, it gets replaced by the current flow of information in your present.
To practice mental rehearsal:
- As a rule try to go over it three times quickly before the choreographer moves on- e.g. the first count of 8, full out if you can but also marking it works or visualising it in your brain.
- Make a mental note of moves which make you blank and think of a describing word for them.
- Learn chronologically and add on more each time.
To Get Faster, Know Where Youre Starting From.
Ever get to the end of learning a routine only to find you can’t remember how it started?! Always make a mental note of how the routine starts. Name the movement. Even if it’s just a simple walk forward, think of which foot you step onto first. Say to yourself ‘right’ or ‘left.’ You can also try tapping the leg or wiggling your toes to create touch memory. This is great for kinaesthetic learners. Everything flows from this point, so view it like a mental post-it note and cement it in your memory right away. You can even keep recalling it as you add new bits to the routine.
Visualise The Choreography.
Like the muscles in your body, visualisation is something that strengthens with practice. It is important, as the length of time for which information can generally be stored in working memory when you stop thinking about it is 40 seconds. In an audition situation where there’s a lot of you, it’s not uncommon for them to clear you to one side in your lines while each group perform in front of the panel. They often ask while you wait that you remain still and not mark anything, so visualisation is key.
To practise visualisation:
- Go through the dance in your head as though you’re actually dancing it. At first, if necessary just take the first 3 moves and visualise doing them. Then carry on. Don’t worry if it’s hard, it gets easier with practice!
- The fast-forward method- you can go through things in your head much quicker. So imagine you’re fast forwarding a tape and go through the dance as fast as you can. Do this several times. By doing this you will be thinking much faster than you dance and therefore making transitions from one move to the next really secure. This will also help you practice thinking ahead while you dance. Please note that it is just as important to do it full out while learning it, but you can do this in between!
- Practice visualisation by watching a routine on YouTube. Watch the first 8 counts, pause it, recall it. Then carry on. This is a great way to practice at the end of a long day of training or rehearsal without spending further energy.
Use Word Cues.
Notice where you blank and then think of a word which describes the move you’re forgetting. This is my number one go to. For example if your leg swishes forward you could use ‘swish,’ or ‘eyes’ for your hands coming across your eyes, ‘reach,’ or ‘shoulder,’ could describe certain moves or you can use sound cues like ‘pow’ for a punch, or ‘boom’ if the movement is explosive. It can literally be anything. It doesn’t matter if it makes sense, as long as it makes sense to you! As you go through the choreography, keep a mental list of your word cues for the steps you blank on and go through them as you dance it.
If you’re a visual learner you can think of a move as a certain colour.
With memory, organisation is your friend. If you’re given a large chunk of information your brain will quickly become overloaded and fail to remember much of anything. So to pick up choreography faster, break it down into smaller sections in your mind. This will help you remember much more because the brains consolidates large amounts of information best in patterns and sections. You can name each section, or use a word for the first move of each section, or name it by what is happening in the music or lyrics. Also, try to notice if there are any patterns. This can be a good way to divide sections.
This method also gives you a road map so if you blank and get lost you have a set point at which you can pick it back up again.
Ascertain where you blank and note the step that comes right before it- isolate these 2 steps and drill them linking them. This will get it into your muscle memory and help you memorise the move and keep it front of mind.
Stretch your ability for the length of time you can retain something. You can do this by practicing memorising a routine or a few counts of 8 and then increase the time period in between which you recall it. Start with 5 seconds, then 10, 20, 40 etc.
In class, break the habit of constantly looking at the teacher. As soon as they’ve taught it, turn your eyes away and start forcing your mind to recall. This will make you internally consolidate it and remember it rather than just copying what you’re seeing.
In A Tight Spot? Reverse.
By thinking of the last move you remember, sometimes it can jog your memory by reminding you of how you got into it. This is a particularly good one to use when you’re feeling stuck.
You can also make a mental note of what happens on the first beat of each counts of 8.
Order Is Your Friend.
Earlier we spoke about how short term memory can only hold 7 pieces of information at a time, therefore it is important that you start at the beginning and not move on until you know the bits where you’re blanking. If you try to take in too much before you’ve actually learnt what comes before, you’ll end up not being able to recall anything, so it’s important to not overload your brain. Even if you can’t get it all, just aim to get a bit more from memory each time you run it, rather than trying to remember everything at once. Even if you can’t remember it all, it’s better in an audition situation to have a strong beginning and middle and improvise the end than to look unsure the whole way through.
If A Move Is Tripping You Up…
Break it down. Focus on just getting the feet, then add in the arms etc. In an audition situation, if something’s really too hard, it’s better to do an approximation of it and make it your own! Be careful though, if a choreographer emphasises a certain move it’s likely they want it done a particular way so notice what they pay special attention to.
The Sweet Spot Of Memory.
This last one is very important. To improve long term it is about hitting that memory sweet spot. Remember, if your brain is overwhelmed with information it will be like a system overload (like a computer.) This is obviously counterproductive and not what we want, so the aim is to stretch it just to the point where it starts to struggle and gradually expand it from there. Over time you’ll find yourself getting better and better.
Other Tips To Make Your Memory More Flexible And Pick Up Faster.
There are a few other things you can do to challenge your memory and make it more versatile and therefore the most equipped for a dance job.
- If you’re practicing picking up a routine at home, try turning and facing a different direction now and then. This challenges your brain to readjust and this can throw you off a little which is great practice!
- Start performing the routine with your face as soon as possible. It’s an extra thing to think about and requires further concentration so the sooner you incorporate it into your routine the better chance you give yourself of executing it well and without mistakes.
- Take class with MANY different teachers. It’s easy to become specialised in a particular teachers style if they’re someone whose class you do regularly. The best thing you can do is learn routines from as many teachers as possible. This will challenge you and make your brain much more adaptable.
- If you make a mistake, force your brain to keep going and not let it throw you off. Although it’s frustrating, (believe me I feel your pain,) make a mental note of it and force yourself to keep going and pick up the routine from where you’ve blanked. Discard mistakes until after. This will challenge your memory to react and retrieve information again quickly!
Be Your Own Cheerleader.