A student asks, “I love dancing but can’t seem to get the choreography down. What should I do?”
Last year my partner Liz and I went through the entire DVIDA program for Argentine tango — Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum; each level with 15 unique two phrase patterns (eight measures, or about 16 steps); eight columns of information for both leader and follower — a monumental memory and performance task that required us to develop new capabilities and expand old ones. We used many techniques to get through it (with High Honors!).
Is it a performance issue? A memory issue? Well, of course, the two are intricately connected. When our brain feels distracted by, “What do I do now?” it can hardly pay attention to, “How do I do this well?” Likewise, wrestling with, “How do I make this work?” torpedoes thoughts of, “What comes next?” As when learning a new musical piece, the first step is to memorize the notes, our gross dance movements, and then we can work on timing and expression.
Have a relaxed mind, knowing that it will come in the way and in the time that suits you. Nothing depends on you doing this the same way as anyone else (even when it seems like it does!)
Challenge yourself to capture the whole piece in your mind on the FIRST showing. Suppose you don’t? How close can you come to the big ideas of it? Don’t be one of the people who calls out, “Show us one more time.” Use constructive failure to sharpen your mind. Possibly you’ll discover a new, interesting thing, or at least learn what you need to pay more attention to.
Look for big picture pieces. I like the method of telling a story. (Brigitte Menard on Quora) reminded me of the value of storytelling.) “Who is moving about whom, and when. Where are they going, and what are they doing. What is each partner’s motivation.” So even if I don’t know precisely what my feet or their feet should be doing, can I navigate us in the relative movements with each other? (I realize this goes against advice below, and for learning music, where you want to avoid mistakes at all cost. They say, learn in small chunks, go slowly, do it correctly. I see value in that bottom-up approach, combined with this top-down approach.)
When watching an instructor perform choreography, try to find the most advantageous viewing place. If you’re learning a specific role, perhaps the best spot is to shadow the person performing that role. But maybe it’s better to shadow the opposite role? Or from the side? Or from above!
Start recognizing and learning chunks that you often see across lots of different choreography. In the tango, for example, these could include: the fundamental relational movement steps Open step, Front-crossing step, and Back-crossing step; la cruzada, molinete, ochos, cadencia turns, common entrances and exits.
Learn/practice it backwards. (From Peter Renzland on Quora) If, as is so common, we always start from the first, restarting when we make a mistake, then the material at the end doesn’t get practiced as much. Also, it usefully challenges and strengthens our memory if we can jump into the choreography at any point.
Vocalize the action. We have a massive amount of brain power dedicated to our vocal and hearing apparatus compared to other body parts. We can combine that with our mirroring neurons that want to copy what we see or hear or is going on in a different part of our body. Think of the way a tap dancer might say, “Step, ball change, kick, shuffle, flap!” It is worlds easier for their brain to memorize and repeat that sequence, guiding the feet and legs, than it is to create the motor neuron pathways.
Cheat. It’s perfectly fine to look to others to fill in your blank spots (recognizing that they may not have it complete or correct). Ask your partner. Ask a neighbor. Ask the teacher.
Write it down. I always carry a pen and pocket notebook (my favorite) in class. During class or immediately after I make notes using words, diagrams, and my personal dance notation. For me, expressing things in my own words is part of my process for internalizing and remembering class material.
Make videos of yourself. Much more powerful than making a video of the teacher or watching YouTube is to make a video of yourself (and your partner) performing the choreography! Immediately after class have a friend use your phone to make a video of you making your own didactic (teaching) video, where you not only perform the movements but also talk through them and point out any special notes. This has several benefits, and especially benefits over a teacher video. You immediately exercise your recall. You can include all the notes and demonstrations that you need, and nothing that you don’t need (such as teacher demos that are actually performances, confusing you over what the class was about). Hearing and seeing yourself connects with you in a way that others can’t.
Flash cards, Video reviews, and in the car Recitations. These last few ideas I used in the DVIDA project mentioned up top. They probably won’t apply to most people, but when faced with learning 60 figures (well, 15 at a time) in great detail, I was looking for all the help I could get. I transcribed each figure into about three lines of dense choreographic notation that I could actually speak. Importing these into Quizlet flash cards, I would do spaced repetition review and testing. I would review the official (and excellent) DVIDA videos before bedtime. I made an audio recording of me speaking all the flashcards. Then in the car I would test myself, pausing after receiving the number and name of each figure, I would then recite the full figure. Or I would play the music to accompany figures as I recited the choreography.
Spaced repetition. Have a good night’s sleep and allow yourself the possibility that you may dream of what you have learned and what you can learn and imagine. Perhaps you see yourself performing, or you feel yourself performing. Rather than trying to cram for an exam, you’ll do better by spacing out your learning and practice sessions, allowing your sleeping subconscious to help make sense of it all.
Now after and as we are learning the choreography, we apply ourselves to perfecting the performance aspects of it.
Go slowly. This won’t always work, because some movements may rely on momentum for their correct execution, and slow can take you out of the flow that makes chunks connect smoothly. When you get to trouble spots, break it down and do each piece in a deliberate, careful manner until you have the movements the way you want.
Go fast. Can you challenge both your performance memory and your choreography memory? Can you still perform it cleanly? What do you need to work on in order to do it with the precision and energy that you seek?
Back up. When you hit a trouble spot realize that the actual problem likely occurred one or two steps prior to that point. Back up a little ways and go through the trouble spot only a little way beyond. Keep “ironing” over the area around the trouble spot until you get it smoothed out.
Use the right music! The right music can make certain movements easier, while the wrong music can make them harder. Your mind-body hears-feels the rhythms. If they don’t fit the movements, that confuses your body.
If you do a partner dance, such as Argentine tango, learn the opposite role. This helps your body learn what you partner wants to feel to make the movements most clear and comfortable. It also fosters awareness of creative possibilities: See Do it the opposite way below.
Ask for help. Does a neighbor in class seem to have the skill you need? Ask them for help. Ask the teacher for help. Ask your partner what they need from you. What do they want to feel more of, less of?
Whether you are a performer or social dancer, the point of learning and perfecting choreography doesn’t want to stop there. Now how can you leverage the work you have put in on this? You want to make it part of your working movement vocabulary that you can call up for improvisation whenever you want, and as a source for related, new ideas of your own.
Once you have done a pattern umpteen times and have now thoroughly learned and perfected it, let your partner know that you are going off book and experimenting with changes.
Test the lead & follow. Let’s say you learned a figure that included an ocho cortado. Can you lead/follow when the lead for that is randomly changed to a pivot, a spiral cross, an entrance to a molinete?
Combine chunks differently. Can you do a sequence in a different order? Can you usefully repeat certain elements? Drop out elements?
Enter/exit chunks differently. At least in ballroom dances (which includes Argentine tango) teachers show figures with typical entrances and resolutions. Often these are the easiest way to get into and out of a movement sequence. But how could you do it differently!
Do it the opposite way. Keeping in mind that in partner dances some movements may not work as easily or as smoothly due to the asymmetrical embrace, we can still usefully explore all the possibilities of trying movements to the hand-side versus the arm-side of the embrace. In reverse order. In me-to-my-partner fashion versus partner-does-to-me.
Catalog chunks. Keep track of the things you like, the ones that seem particularly interesting or useful, or that you do well, or that evoke delight from your partners. Periodically review this to see if things you’ve used in the past have fallen out of use. Do you want to revive them?
Challenge yourself. Before a social dance event pick two or three (or more, as you can handle) movement elements to be sure to use. For a dance, play with using a single element as much as you can, with all the variety you can in terms of entrance, exit, speed, size, dynamics, rhythm, level, and you name it!
Whew! Well, now you know everything there is to know about learning, knowing, and using dance choreography … at least everything I know, and you don’t need to come to class. Actually, there are a few things to be said for going to classes, regardless of your level of expertise or achievement.
Classes give us a safe place to experiment and fail … or succeed! Classes (and private lessons) are the place where we can work rigorously on technique while we learn new things. With that underpinning, that foundation of careful work, augmented by our private practice (solo and with partner), at the social dance we can release those concerns and allow ourselves to be in the flow, knowing that our preparation will help carry us through to performing well, near to and — happily — often even better than our class work.
Best of success to you.
[Much of this article first appeared as an answer on Quora.]
David Phillips teaches Argentine tango at Tango Tribe in Austin, Texas.