Better Dancer: How to Learn Choreography, Part 3

This is the third in the three part series on how to improve your ability to learn choreography. The first part covered tips on preparation, the second part covered tips for learning in the studio, and this last part will cover tips on how to better recall and refinement of choreography.

Getting It Right

Once you’ve gone through the process of learning a choreography the first time you’re not done. That’s only the beginning.

To be able to better recall choreography and then refine your performance of choreography requires diligence, focus and the right tools for the job.

Have Notes

Having notes, whether in a digital format (video, photo, etc.), personal notation or scary Laban notation, gives you a reference to help guide you through the choreography without having to immediately internalize the whole choreography.

They function as the blueprint upon which you can work through each section individually; they also serve to remind you of particular comments or feedback you received during instruction. Was this section expressive or stoic, intense or reserved and so on.

Learn to Mark

Learning to mark out a choreography is an excellent way to cement audio, visual and spatial cues in your mind.

What is marking?

Marking is also called walking the choreography. The idea is to perform the dance at a fraction of their normal intensity so as to reinforce their placement and relationship of movements and steps to one another.

Marking is a way of alluding to the movement without actually performing it; it’s the physical outlining of the choreography without going into depth.

By marking you can focus on sequencing movements instead of performing the movements.

Use a Video Camera

When practicing the choreography use a video camera to film yourself everytime you run it.

Instead of focusing on a mirror to check your lines while you practice, allow the camera to capture the lines for you and then watch the footage and note places where improvement is needed.

Running specific sections with various emotions or expressiveness allows you to find the appropriate character for your movement in a particular place in the choreography when reviewed on film.

The use of a video camera allows you to take note of where you may be ahead or behind the music, missing a step, creating an unanticipated shape, or moving in an unintended direction.

Filming yourself is a great tool for iterative refinement of a choreography.

Run It In Your Mind

Perhaps one of the best pieces of advice I received when learning a choreography to be performed was to run the whole choreography in my head; three times over back to back.

Visualize yourself going through the routine movement by movement in conjunction with the music (don’t actually listen to the music – it should be part of the visualization).

If you make a mistake or forget something start from the beginning. The goal is to properly perform the choreography non-stop three times through without making a mistake or forgetting a section.

The benefit of this visualization process is that you don’t have to be in the studio to perform it physically. It can be performed sitting on the bus, before you go to sleep, or wherever you have a moment to sit and focus your mind.

You’ll find that visualization combined with actual practice will improve your retention and performance more than with physical practice alone.

Have An Audience

It is exceptionally helpful to have an audience of peers, instructors or mentors to help refine various aspects of a choreography or particular movements.

The outsiders eye is invaluable in approaching the work from a different perspective and notice elements which are out of place or off. Having an open and critical discussion of the performance casts the piece in a new light for the performer, giving the performer a new view on their own movements.

What are your tips for recalling and refining choreography?

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.  Save 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: How to Learn Choreography, Part 1

Learning choreography is a part of dance training, whether you are a social, competitive or performance dancer. It is a tried and true method for dance instruction.

Choreography may be as simple as learning a short sequence of steps as a repetition exercise, or as complex as learning a whole sequence of dances and routines for a show.

Understanding how to learn, recall and perform choreography is as much a personal endeavor as dancing itself is, yet there are some tools you can use to speed you on your way.

Part 1 will cover how to prepare yourself for choreography, Part 2 will cover tips for learning choreography, and Part 3 will cover tips for recalling and improving performance of choreography.

Be Prepared

Preparation is one of the biggest advantages you can have for learning a choreography.

Start with choreography in mind.

You know you are going to learn choreography so there is no use denying or avoiding it. Having a mindset that opens yourself up to the learning process is essential. If you believe you can’t learn choreography, you are sabotaging your efforts before you begin.

Know how you learn

We all have slightly different methods for learning, so prepare yourself by finding out how you process and recall information.  Knowing your core learning styles helps you translate the material you will encounter into something meaningful.  But in the end, remember, dance is about physical movement, so make sure not to neglect how you translate information into movement.

Know your limits and your strengths

Learning choreography is as much an understanding of what we can do and what we can’t do.  If you are learning a choreography outside of your area of expertise, recognize that and don’t set your standards based on your strengths.  If you are sitting in on a Master class choreography and are not at that level know you may not be able to perform to that level, although it doesn’t hurt to try your damnedest.

Know your steps

Choreographies are built upon the understanding of certain basic or core movements in a dance. If you don’t have solid basics and core movement you are going to be struggling from the start. Know your basics and common sequences, practice them regularly (there’s a reason even the best ballet dancers go back to the bar everyday). If you know the choreography is going to focus on specific kinds of movement, dedicate time to practicing and strengthening those.

Maintain your body and mind

If your body is shot and mind frazzled when you step into the studio to learn a choreography, you are assuredly going to stumble and maybe even get injured. Make sure to keep yourself in good health, including eating well, keeping hydrated, stretching, warming up and strengthening your body. Don’t underestimate the power of a limber and ready body.

Have your own tips to prepare for choreography? Leave a comment.