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: 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.

Example:

Data Object: Learn a specific rhythm.

Action:

  • 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.

Repeat

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.