You're in class, rehearsal, or (gulp) an audition, and there's dance choreography that you just can't seem to get down: an 8-count, a longer phrase, or just a combination as a whole. You're sweating from working hard, but some of your sweat might be from nerves or anxiety. You start to feel self-doubt creep in. I daresay that we've all been there, at some point and to some extent.
Picking up choreography – quickly and accurately – is a pretty essential skill for dancers. Choreographers and casting directors often look for it at auditions, because dancers who are able to pick up material quickly can make the creative process smoother and less time-crunched. This skill can also enhance our growth as dancers, because once we get the movement down then we can truly focus on deeper aspects of technique and artistry.
Dance is not only physical (it’s physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual)
Learning choreography comes more easily to some of us than others, just like some of us are natural turners or great leapers. Yet even if this skill doesn't come all that naturally to us, we can improve upon it. It just takes smart strategizing, intention, and consistency. Here are four ways to improve at picking up dance choreography.
1. Get out of your brain and into your body!
Difficulty picking up choreography can sometimes come from overthinking. Being "stuck in your head" can lead to brain processes getting in the way of our body's wisdom and instincts. This can be especially true if negative thoughts start to fill our head: thoughts of self-criticism, fear, or anxiety. You might have experienced it – your dancing gets worse once you start beating yourself up. That's obviously not the desired outcome, and it also just feels bad.
At other times, our brain makes us anticipate (get ahead of ourselves). Or you do something a certain way just because that's what your brain is telling you it should be, just because you've done it that way before – but it's not what the teacher or choreographer is asking for. In all of these cases, it can be helpful to redirect your attention to the body.
How can you do that? In an approach that's quite aligned with mindfulness, you can simply observe what your body knows how to do. Once you've seen the choreography demonstrated and think that you have a rough sense of it, watch your body figure it out: the pathways, the transitions, the muscular engagements.
Your body is building muscle memory for the choreography while this happens. All of that can be particularly true with fast choreography and abstract, gestural movement in contemporary dance – the kind that your brain can't think about at the speed or in the exact way that the movement calls for.
2. Tips for memorization: separate dance choreography into digestible, memorable parts
Have you ever studied for tests at school with flash cards? What that does for a brain trying to retain information is it breaks it up into digestible, memorable bites of information. We can apply the same idea to dance! Let’s also remember that we need to involve the brain in the process of training and learning choreography, because dance is not only physical (it’s physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual). Yes, we can’t let the brain rule our bodies as we’re dancing, but it doesn’t go on vacation either. Furthermore, the brain is a muscle, and it needs to be exercised just like our body does in order to do our best as dancers.
How do you apply the flashcard approach to learning dance choreography, you might wonder? Say that there's an eight count or a longer section with a big reach and a couple of turns – that can be the "reach/turn" section. Say that there's another with circling gestures that remind you of a windmill – that can be the "windmill" section.
Dancers who are able to pick up material quickly can make the creative process smoother and less time-crunched.
Break it up in the ways that make sense for your brain and body; it's important that the way these sections are broken up is natural to you for this choreography learning trick to work well. Get creative and have fun with it! As far as I'm concerned, smiles and laughter in the studio – as long as appropriate in context and don't obstruct the work at hand – are never a bad thing!
One likely reason that this trick is helpful is because it allows our brain to focus on one small piece of material, rather than something that can feel too big to manage – so big that it's maybe also overwhelming (either consciously or unconsciously). Breaking up sections of choreography can also make it easier to work on things that we really need to work on; it can be easier to mentally identify what parts of the choreography we need to work on, and then work on it in a purposeful and focused way, when the material is broken up into chunks.
What's also interesting is that sometimes this separating and naming happens naturally between dancers, and even dancers and choreographers, when they're reviewing and clarifying choreography. Perhaps that tells us something about the intuitive and potentially very helpful nature of this tip for memorization!
3. Drill it: just do the dance choreography over and over again.
A common occurrence: a choreographer asks "any questions?", and a dancer says "I just need to do it." They mean that their bodies need to do the choreography multiple times – and through that, get accustomed to initiations, transitions, and simply "what comes next." That’s another way through which we build muscle memory. Sometimes the only way to do it is just to do it, as they say. Practice makes progress.
Do be cautious of practicing something incorrectly in the choreography over and over, because you don't want that to become a habit. Try to get clear on what the choreographer or teacher is asking for, when you can.
What might this practicing over and over again look like, in different situations? If you're having trouble with choreography in a rehearsal, and you have time before your next one, you can review independently. If it was something in class that you just really want to have gotten down, you can do the same later in the day or the next day.
If you're taking class online, you can pause the video and take a little time to practice any choreography that you might need to. If you're in a class or audition setting, you could mark on the side while other groups are going (of course observing class etiquette by respecting other dancers' space).
As you drill a certain section of choreography, notice your trouble spots. That's information for how to best practice and get the choreography, as a whole, into your body.
4. Don't be afraid to ask questions.
You might have experienced it: one clarification of a transition or a footwork correction can make a whole eight count, or even more, much smoother for you. That can make it all easier to remember, and have you smiling versus nervously biting your lip.
By and large, choreographers are intentional about their movement; they do their best to make things work in the body. If something just isn't making sense in your body (or brain), it could be that something went wrong in how a certain movement was translated from the choreographer or teacher to you (and there are many different ways that can go wrong).
The most direct, reliable way to correct that mistranslation is for you to ask about what's tripping you up. (Yes, they might correct you, or you could notice the correct step or transition in the teacher/choreographer or a fellow dancer, at some point – but there's no guarantee of that happening, and it could take time. It could be too late before incorrect choreography is patterned into your body.)
Of course, when asking questions be sure to observe conventional dance etiquette, and – simply put – polite behavior. Don't interrupt, raise your hand, and wait your turn. Let a teacher or choreographer finish their thought or a demonstration that they may be doing before speaking up. Note that if you listen closely, teachers could also answer your question without you even having to ask – so if they're explaining something, listen up!
Once we get the movement down then we can truly focus on deeper aspects of technique and artistry.
Keeping it in our brains and bodies: Retaining choreography
Clever readers might read all that and then wonder, “well, how do I keep the choreography I’ve learned in my brain and body?”. Great question! Marking dance choreography that you’ve learned, if you have sufficient space to move, can be a very helpful tool.
Visualization can be a great approach as well, one that you can do pretty much anywhere and at any time. That could be while waiting in line for coffee, standing at a bus stop, or even while drifting into sleep. Picture yourself – and/or a group that you dance with – moving through the material, in your “mind’s eye”.
Closing your eyes can help make visualizing easier by reducing outside distractions – but that doesn’t feel comfortable for everyone. Another option is to keep a soft gaze forward. Review the material as many times through as it takes to feel more comfortable with your handle on it, balanced with how much time you have available. Overall, visualization can be particularly helpful for visual learners and the visually-inclined (which, spoiler alert, is many dancers!)
The answers to picking up choreography (and retaining it) are there: whether from the person teaching choreography, our own bodies, or in tools to help us get a grasp on all of the material. The more we learn to listen and find those answers, the better we can actually get at the skill of picking up dance choreography: a virtuous cycle.
Before long, we could find ourselves just naturally seeking and finding answers in these ways, just like we brush the floor in tendus or plier to prepare for jumps. Let's remember to enjoy it all along the way. Happy learning choreography, and happy dancing!