Better Dancer: How To Learn Choreography, Part 2

This is the second of a three part series on tips, tools and advice on improving your ability to learn choreography. The first part covered preparation, this part will cover tips and advice on learning in class, and the last part will cover recall and refinement of choreography.


Depending upon the level of the material and the teacher, choreography is presented and taught in a variety of ways. Whether the instruction is purely visual repetition, sequencing, or count by count; these tips helps.

Create a Blueprint

As the choreography is demonstrated, create a mental outline from what you see and hear. Mark significant changes, shifts and movements in your mind.

Having an outline or birds eye view of the overall structure of the choreography is like having the blueprints to a building. You’ve got the plan, now you have to become the construction worker – starting from the foundation to the frame to the sheathing, walls and so on until it is complete.

Break It Down, Build It Up

Choreography is in essence a sequence of movements, long or short. Experienced dancers can understand and recall large chunks of sequence quickly, while less experienced dancers understand more basic chunks.

Just like building with legos, you need to put the pieces together one by one to form each chunk and then assemble the chunks into a larger whole.

Know your chunk size.

By that, know how long or short of a sequence you can address and repeat quickly. As the choreography is taught or shown, begin with chunk sizes you can process easily (whether that is 8 counts of movement or a full phrase of music).

Start at this level and begin combining them into larger chunks.

Work on creating several larger chunks individually, then assemble the larger chunks into the even larger chunks until you have assembled the whole choreography.

Use Cues to Anchor Chunks

Develop verbal, spatial and musical cues to anchor chunks of movement to specific times, places, and rhythms.

Cues come in many forms.

Spatial cues anchor what comes next with where you are at a certain point in space. This can be placement within a group of dancers, location on a stage, or body position. By tying a chunk to spatial cues you take the pressure off of recalling larger chunks by placing chunks into context.

Verbal cues anchor what you are doing with a verbal phrase or series of sounds. They can be as simple as verbal rhythms spoken while performing the physical representation of the sound, or as deep as stories representing various movements or sections of the dance that carry one section into the next.

Musical cues anchor what you are doing and what comes next with the music being played for a piece. While not all choreographies are performed to music, many are. Knowing that a specific chunk follows a particular hit in the music, or a shift in the mood of the music changes the style of the momvent, allows you to place chunks into context.

Cues place content (the chunks of movement) with context. By understanding context we can deliver content adeptly.

Do It, Don’t Watch Yourself Do It

If your studio has mirrors, don’t focus on what you are doing as you dance it in the mirror. Focus on the experience of performing the movements correctly. The mirror is a refinement tool, not a framing tool.

Placing too much emphasis on a mirror distracts you from engaging your bodies memory. ┬áSave the mirror for refinement – or even better, use a video camera to review your performance.

In Your Words

Whether you are using a physical dance journal, or a digital dance journal, capture each step of your learning process so you can use it to recall, reflect and refine your performance of the choreography in the future.

This note taking process puts the choreography into your own words.


When in the studio learning choreography put the rest of the world out of your mind. To learn swiftly you need intensity of focus.

Watch the lead dancer or instructor demonstrate first, don’t attempt to mimic immediately. Watch the whole presentation of the choreography, take note of the outline, the chunks, the cues. Create the outline, listen and watch for the cues, and fill in the outline with the pieces.

Focus ties all of the elements together.

What do you do to learn choreography? Leave a comment.

Better Dancer: The Digital Dance Journal

This is the start of a series of articles on Being A Better Dancer.  The series will consist of articles on how to become a better dancer through the examination of learning process, creative process, and performance improvement.

I recall back when I started dancing I toted around a little spiral notebook with me to all the classes and workshops I attended. In it I jotted down notes, steps, counts, sequences and feedback. Anything that would help me along as a dancer.

It was a repository for my progress as a dancer and while some may disdain the use of journals or writing dance steps out, it helped me navigate a new domain of movement and remember the intense amount of information presented in classes and workshops.

Mine was just a spiral bound notebook and a pen, but today, with the ease of video, audio and photo capture, it can be much more. A digital dance journal may comprise dance videos of steps you have learned, voice memos of feedback, written out counts to a step, inspirational videos and songs, and the list goes on.

Create a capture process

Once you make the decision to have a dance journal, you need to establish a habit of capturing the feedback, reflections and inspirations in a way that works for you.

If you are a writer you’ll be used to toting around a notebook and pen. If you are a photographer you are used to having a camera on you. If you are nearly anyone in the digital age, you’ve got a cell phone with a camera in it. You may use a single capture medium, but more likely you will use a collection of tools to capture information for your dance journal.

Example of Capture Media

The most important part of the process is to create the capture habit and maintain it. Without a consistent habit of note taking (in whatever form) you will lack the critical data you will use to reflect on later.

Create an organization process

The capture process gives you the data, the organization process makes that data meaningful.

In the organization process you may use a series of folders on your computer, mind mapping software, project management tools, or straightforward text files. The goal is to take the captured data and place it into an overarching domain map or structure.

The domain map is a theoretical structure of the practice of dance. The map is for your own benefit so structure it as you will, but there will most likely be a few principle categories that tree or web out into other sub-categories.

Example Lindy Hop Domain Map

In each domain place or link the corresponding data that you collected in your capture process. This gives your feedback a place in the meta-view of your domain.

Don’t be afraid to move data around or add it in multiple spaces. There are many options for how you can structure your own data so it is meaningful to you. The most important part of this process is that you create a domain map or structure that makes sense for you and that you can place captured data into that map for later review.

Create a review process

The organization process makes data meaningful by placing it within your domain map, the review process creates a space to engage and work with that data.

Once you have an established domain map with various categories and sub-categories and you have begun placing data into the map you can begin a review process.

The importance of the categories and sub-categories in your domain map is that you can break apart a specific portion of the data to review and engage with without having to confront the sheer density of information in the whole domain.

Deliberate practice requires that one identify certain sharply defined elements of performance that need to be improved, and then work intently on them.

– Geoff Colvin

In your review, take a specific set of elements or sub-category and engage with it alone.


Data Object: Learn a specific rhythm.


  • Breakdown and identify the rhythm from the data.
  • Build up the rhythm slowly from steps you already know.
  • Perform rhythm
  • Film yourself performing rhythm
  • Compare to example from data.
  • Repeat while fine-tuning rhythm to match data.

The review process is the most difficult and yet the most rewarding part of the journaling process. Identifying and engaging with the elements of your feedback process that push you just outside of your comfort zone will accelerate your learning process.


The journaling process is a cyclical process. As you proceed from capture to organize to review, you will notice that you will be capturing, reorganizing and reviewing alongside each step. This is an essential part of the process.

At each stage you will be improving not only the various aspects of your dancing, but also the very process by which you improve your dancing. This metacognition of your learning process and your dance domain is essential to exceptional performance.

Flickr photo by StarbucksGuy.