Kelly Russo/Unsplash

Can't Pick Up Choreography Quickly? This Might Be Why—And What You Can Do About It

Lately I've been having recurring dreams: I'm in an audition and I can't remember the combination. Or, I'm rehearsing for an upcoming show, onstage, and I don't know what comes next. Each time I wake up relieved that it was only a dream.

However, this is the reality of how I often felt throughout my dance career. Once I knew the steps, there was no undoing it. It was the process of getting there that haunts me to this day.


Even as a young dancer I had trouble. At 9 or 10 years old, I couldn't wait to make it into my dance studio's junior company, and I prepared by watching VHS tapes of recitals from previous years on repeat. But I could never prepare enough to predict what would be shown in the audition.

A group of ballet students practices a combination by following the instructor

Matthew Murphy

The frustration of looking around at other girls getting the combinations quickly and immediately reversing them was infuriating. Why couldn't I pick it up? Why couldn't I make my body mimic exactly what the teacher was doing? I knew what she was doing—I knew "pirouette," "développé," "battement," "ball change."

But the same note followed me everywhere: "Helene is a really wonderful performer with so much personality…She's not getting the steps as quickly as everyone else." I wanted to scream, "I am trying! I don't know what is wrong with me either!" And also, "Slow down!!"

After four years of dancing at an arts high school in Houston, I went on to major in dance at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City. I then danced professionally for a couple of years after college. Eventually I left the dancing world and became a speech therapist. I primarily work with children who have special needs and require a team of specialists. Through my work with these professionals and the children themselves, I have seen similarities between various disorders—certain brain signals are out of sync with motor or auditory functioning in the brain and body.

In my field of speech and language disorders, we see some children with auditory processing deficits. They may have difficulties with auditory memory, auditory sequencing and discriminating sounds (words) in background noise. In making the connection between my own dance challenges, I realized that this processing of information happens with movement as well.

"Maybe this was my problem!" I realized recently. Something was not firing quickly enough in my brain during those dance classes and auditions many years ago. It occurred to me that perhaps my dance teachers were completely unfamiliar with motor planning deficits. If they themselves never struggled with slow acquisition of movement, how could they truly relate?

To move our bodies, there are areas of the brain that "translate visual information into motor commands," according to Steven Brown and Lawrence M. Parsons, in a 2008 research paper titled The Neuroscience of Dance. Then, "signals are sent to the spinal cord and onto the muscles making them contract." Simultaneously, "sensory organs in the muscles provide feedback to the brain."

It is a highly complex multisensory process. Dancers have a unique ability to visualize movement, time these movements to music and execute many directional and opposing changes at once.

Pavan Gupta/Unsplash

Dancers learn movement through a process called praxis, which has these steps:

  1. Ideation: conceptualizing a new activity
  2. Motor planning: organizing and sequencing novel motor actions in the brain
  3. Execution: performing motor actions

Looking at this praxis model, I am not entirely certain where my breakdown was. Perhaps it was somewhere in between motor planning and execution, when a timing demand was in place. I know that I was getting the gist of the choreography, but not the whole picture.

When I took the time to practice on my own, without the demands, I was successful. Writing the sequences down also helped when I was learning phrases for an upcoming show.

So what can dancers do if they are struggling to pick up choreography?

1. Dancers today have smartphones, easy access to recording abilities, YouTube, voice memos and many more multisensory tools at their fingertips. If you're an aspiring dancer, use these!

2. Advocate for yourself during and after class. When the teacher asks if you need to see it again, say "yes." It will get you noticed and they will appreciate that you probably aren't the only one who needs to see it again. If you need help reviewing the material, ask an advanced peer to go over it with you for a few minutes after class.

3. Write it down. That tactile action combined with saying it aloud will help solidify the steps.

4. Don't mark. If you do, at least perform your hands full out while practicing.

5. Take many styles of dance classes. Repetition for muscle memory is key. During and after college I found that studying a variety of genres in addition to my dance major requirements helped me most in auditions.

6. Finally, know that you are not alone. You are not "slow" and I am sure you are concentrating and paying attention. Never be afraid to explain to your dance teachers that everyone learns differently. You may teach them something that will be valuable to other students in the long run.

Latest Posts


Brandt in Giselle. Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ABT

Skylar Brandt's Taste in Music Is as Delightful as Her Dancing

American Ballet Theatre soloist Skylar Brandt's dancing is clean, precise and streamlined. It's surprising, then, to learn that her taste in music is "all over the place," she says. (Even more surprising is that Brandt, who has an Instagram following of over 80k, is "in the dark ages" when it comes to her music, and was buying individual songs on iTunes up until a year ago, when her family intervened with an Apple Music plan.)

Though what she's listening to at any given time can vary dramatically, the through-line for Brandt is nostalgia: songs that take her back, whether to childhood, a favorite movie or a piece she's recently performed. Brandt told us about her eclectic taste, and made us a playlist that will keep you guessing:

GO DEEPER SHOW LESS
Ailey II artistic director Troy Powell teaching an Ailey Workshop at NYCDA. Courtesy NYCDA

NYCDA Is Redefining the Convention Scene Through Life-Changing Opportunities

Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.

"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."

Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.

Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:

GO DEEPER SHOW LESS
Courtesy The Joyce

Dance Magazine Chairman's Award Honoree: Linda Shelton

In an industry that has been clamoring for more female leadership, Linda Shelton, executive director of New York City's The Joyce Theater Foundation since 1993, has been setting an example for decades. As a former general manager of The Joffrey Ballet, U.S. tour manager for the Bolshoi Ballet, National Endowment for the Arts panelist, Dance/NYC board member and Benois de la Danse judge, as well as a current Dance/USA board member, Shelton has served as a global leader in dance. In her tenure at The Joyce, she has not only increased the venue's commissioned programming, but also started presenting beyond The Joyce's walls in locations such as Lincoln Center.

What brought you to The Joyce?

That was many years ago, but it's still the same today: It's a belief in and passion for the mission of the theater, which is to support dance in all of its forms and varieties—every kind of dance that you could imagine.

Diversity is so important in dance leadership today. How do you approach this at The Joyce?

Darren Walker said something interesting at a Dance/NYC Symposium, which was that The Joyce is a disruptor. It was nice to hear in that context, because we don't think of it as something new. We didn't have to change our mission statement to be more diverse. We've been doing this since day one.

Is drawing in new audiences and maintaining longtime supporters ever in conflict?

Of course. I call it the blessing and the curse of our mission. We do present more experimental companies that may attract a younger audience. But it's very tricky. You're not going to tell your long-term audience, "Don't come and see this because you're not going to like the music." We've had people walk out of the theater before, but it's a response. It's important to spark those conversations.

What experimenting have you done?

We've tried a "pay what you decide" ticket the past couple of seasons with some of our more adventurous programming. You would reserve your seat for a dollar and after seeing the show pay what you decide is right for you.

Do you have advice for other dance presenters?

Find opportunities to sit with colleagues from around the country. At Dance/USA there's a presenters' council where we come together and talk about what we're putting in our seasons and what we're passionate about. Maybe there are enough presenters to collaborate and make it possible to bring a company to New York or to do a tour around the country.

Also, remember what it's all about: making that connection between what's onstage and the audience. If we can do that, despite every visa issue and missed flight and injury and changed program and whatever else comes our way, then we should feel good about the job we're doing.

To purchase tickets to the Dance Magazine Awards or become a sponsor, visit dancemediafoundation.org.

contest
Enter Our Video Contest