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All about Memory for Dance Choreography and How to Improve it

Memory for a dancer is a skill that needs to be trained, rehearsed and refined just like your pirouettes or arabesque.

There have been many investigations into memory and especially for dance.

According to the New York Times:

“Dancers call it muscle memory. And while it obviously manifests itself physically as far as dance is concerned, what actually happens, according to neuroscientists, is that the movements become thoroughly mapped in the brain, creating a shorthand between thinking and doing.” (Solway, May 2007).

The science:

"Information perceived and learned through the senses is carried through the body to the brain by sensory neurons. As information is learned, it is carried across synapses, the connections between nerve cells, through neurotransmitters and electrical signals. These transfers result in cellular modifications across networks of neurons. Remembering or retrieving reactivates these neural networks, thereby strengthening the synaptic connections and making recall easier." (The Dance Current, Carolyn Herbert, 2017).

Did you know? "Forgetting can happen when strong emotions or prolonged stress cause the nervous system to secrete hormones that affect how neurons communicate with one another." (The Dance Current, Carolyn Herbert, 2017).

This is why a supportive and encouraging learning environment is vital for young dancers to make progress!

In order to help create that brain mapping, we need to know first of all, how we learn.

The Learning Pyramid was first created by education specialist Edgar Dale in the 1940s. In his book “Audio-Visual Methods in Teaching”, Dale referred to it as the “Cone of Experience". (Dale, 1940). It shows that experiences in the process of learning has far more value then simply being told or shown the information.

Repetition is important in the process but movement memory is achieved through a range of stimuli, the sensory experience, mental images and the kinaesthetic experience therefore a

well rounded teaching approach is key:

“To further explore the relationship between memory and movement, I spoke with nine professionals working in a variety of genres of dance at various levels in Canada. While they agree that repetition is essential to retaining choreography, they demonstrate the importance of a well-rounded teaching approach with their diverse and layered learning processes, including verbal cues, mental imagery and kinesthetic experiences” (The Dance Current, Carolyn Herbert, 2017).

Learning and remembering are closely connected. How you learn the work determines how well it will be remembered, that’s why a range of methods are important!

Different ways to learn:

1) Visual – Watching the step or looking at the way the step travels in the space.

2) Kinaesthetic Doing it for yourself. Trying it on your body multiple times – sometimes

whilst watching the example at the same time can be very helpful. Try this: when

your teacher/choreographer goes through the work – join in with them.

3) Audio – Hearing the sounds of rhythms that the steps make, hearing the music,

hearing the names of the steps in the order they come in or discussing the steps with

your class peers.

4) Pragmatic – Knowing the purpose of the step or piece of choreography. Some

people just need to know why and how it fits into all the training or other steps.

5) Theoretical – Understanding where the training leads to – understand the

background of the story or piece.

6) Passing the information on – If you are able to teach something to someone else –

this is the final step of learning, meaning you have full understanding in it yourself,

explaining the steps to another person is another way of practicing.

Methods used to pass on choreography and tips for how to do them:

1) Chunking – break the work into smaller sections or steps, practice these chunks, then

link them all together.

(Model: TBA Student Kaylene Po)

2) Word Association/Imagery – this move is like a wave in the ocean, it goes up and over – this will help your brain mapping immediately! Try to associate something to each move.

3) Listening/audio cues from the choreographer/teacher – even if that is dadeedadedum! It all helps to assure your brain of the pattern. Then try singing the sounds when you practice it – it does the trick!

4) Questioning and Class Discussion – if your teacher is asking you questions – this is helping you to develop your understanding. Discussing with your friends your dance work or talking through each movement to remind you of what comes next will also help you to make sure you know it – tapping into audio learning, pragmatists and theorists.

5) Layering – once you have the steps – repeating them but with a new focus each time eg/this time focus on the use of gravity on the counts of 1 and 4 to find the swing.

6) Mind Mapping – Listening to the music and map the steps in your mind.

7) Floor Pattern – focus on the direction of travel for each section you chunk and

changes of eye focus – where are those moments you look to the front?

8) Its All Relative – what does this move remind you of from your own life, the sillier the better!

9) Association (to experiences) – eg. partnering up with a friend is a great way to work this one – if you had fun together whilst practicing, then you will remember it along with the experience.

10) Repetition – don’t stop going over those steps –play with this eg/can you do the

routine facing a different direction, with different music, or without being told any



New York Times, How the Body and Mind Learns a Dance, Dianne Solway 2007

The Dance Current, Movement Memory, How we learn retain and remember dance, Carolyn

Herbert, 2017

Audio-Visual Methods in Teaching, Edgar Dale, 1940


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