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.
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.
Dancers learn movement through a process called praxis, which has these steps:
- Ideation: conceptualizing a new activity
- Motor planning: organizing and sequencing novel motor actions in the brain
- 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.
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On May 18, 1919, Margot "Peggy" Hookham was born. She would grow up to become Dame Margot Fonteyn, England's first homegrown prima ballerina. She joined the Sadler's Wells School in 1934 and was performing principal roles with the precursor to The Royal Ballet the next year. Fonteyn was a company-defining figure, dancing Aurora for the re-opening of the Royal Opera House after World War II, creating numerous roles with Sir Frederick Ashton and forging a legendary partnership with Rudolf Nureyev.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
Memorial Day is notoriously one of Chicago's bloodiest weekends. Last year, 36 people were shot and seven died that weekend. In 2017 and 2016, the number of shootings was even higher.
When Garley "GiGi Tonyé" Briggs, a dance teacher and Chicago native, started noticing this pattern, she was preparing her second annual Memorial Day workshop for local youth.
The event's original aim was simple: "I wanted the youth of Chicago to have somewhere they could come and learn from different dancers and be off the streets on the South Side on this hot holiday," she says.
A recent trip I took to Nashville coincided with the NFL draft. As we drove into town, my Uber driver was a fount of information on the subject.
I learned that there are 32 NFL teams and that the draft takes place over seven rounds. That the team that did the poorest during the previous season gets first pick. That during an earlier event called the scouting combine, the teams assess college football players and figure out who they want.
There is also the veteran combine for "free agents"—players who have been released from their contracts or whose contracts have expired. They might be very good players, but their team needs younger members or ones with a certain skill set. All year round, experienced NFL scouts scan games across the country, checking out players and feeding that information back to the teams. Players' agents keep their eyes on opportunities for their clients which might be more rewarding.
While I sat in the traffic of 600,000 NFL fans I got thinking, is there something ballet could learn from football? Could a draft system improve young dancers' prospects and overall company caliber and contentment?
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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Despite what you might think, there's no reason for dancers to be afraid of bread.
"It's looked at as this evil food," says New York State–certified dietitian and former dancer Tiffany Mendell. But the truth is, unless you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, bread can be a healthy source of carbohydrates—our body's preferred fuel—plus fiber and vitamins.
The key is choosing your loaf wisely.
It can be hard to imagine life without—or just after—dance. Perhaps that's why we find it so fascinating to hear what our favorite dancers think they'd be doing if they weren't performing for a living.
We've been asking stars about the alternate career they'd like to try in our "Spotlight" Q&A series, and their answers—from the unexpected to the predictable—do not disappoint:
"New York City Ballet star appears in a Keanu Reeves action movie" is not a sentence we ever thought we'd write. But moviegoers seeing John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum will be treated to two scenes featuring soloist Unity Phelan dancing choreography by colleague Tiler Peck. The guns-blazing popcorn flick cast Phelan as a ballerina who also happens to be training to become an elite assassin. Opens in theaters May 17.
The Brooklyn-based choreographer Gillian Walsh is both obsessed with and deeply conflicted about dance. With her latest work, Fame Notions, May 17–19 at Performance Space New York, she seeks to understand what she calls the "fundamentally pessimistic or alienating pursuit" of being a dancer. Noting that the piece is "quiet and introverted," like much of her other work, she sees Fame Notions as one step in a larger project examining why dancers dance.
What does Mikhail Baryshnikov have to say to dancers starting their careers today? On Friday, he gave the keynote speech during the graduation ceremony for the inaugural class of the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance.
The heart of his message: Be generous.
Launching a dancewear line seems like a great way for professional dancers to flex new artistic muscles and make side money. Several direct-to-consumer brands founded by current or former professional dancers, like Elevé and Luckleo, currently compete with bigger retailers, like Capezio.
But turning your brand into the next Yumiko is more challenging than some budding designers may realize.
When I first came to dance criticism in the 1970s, the professional critics were predominantly much older than me. I didn't know them personally and, as the wide-eyed new kid on the block, I assumed most had little or no physical training in the art.
As slightly intimidated as I felt at the time—you try sitting around a conference room table with Dance Magazine heavy hitters like Tobi Tobias and David Vaughan—I smugly gave myself props for at least having had recent brushes with ballet, Graham, Duncan and Ailey and more substantial engagement with jazz and belly dance. Watching dancers onstage, I enjoyed memories of steps and moves I knew in my own bones. If the music was right, my shoulders would wriggle. I wasn't just coolly judging things from my neck up.