How many times have you ground to a halt in the middle of learning a choreographed dance? Probably, to your despair and frustration, too many! Improvising is OK: you’re the boss, you choose, you express the music according to how you feel….it’s a solo anyway. Choreographed dance is another kettle of fish, especially if you’re dancing as a group and you have to stay in sync with each other. If you’re not careful, you end up agonising that you’ll never get the hang of the sequences. This, of course, compounds the issue and makes you feel even more inept, while you fear that all the others are rolling their eyes and making you wrong for being so slow.

Despair not! There are ways of pinning down that pesky choreography, so that you become its master. Here are some strategies that you can pick and mix to see which ones work best for you.

Seef Saffah performing at Penzance's Quay Fair Day: all jumping in unison!

Seef Saffah, mid choreography, all jumping in unison

A. In class
  1. First off, ask your teacher to demonstrate the whole dance. This gives you the opportunity to appreciate its shape and to spot aspects like direction, levels, repetition and variation.
  2. If your teacher agrees (and you have a smart phone, of course) record the dance so that you can re-run it in your own time as often as you need.
  3. Listen OFTEN to the music. This helps you to spot the patterns within it. After all, it’s the music that’s driving the choreography. Notice changes of tempo and rhythm; count the beats 1& 2& etc. Mark repetition and variation, verse and chorus: these will make more sense of the dance steps and sequences. Get the feel of the music for the dance.
  4. Break the choreography down into bite-size chunks. You’ll boggle if you attempt to learn too much in one go. There will be some dominant sections and also smaller ones with ‘bridges’ to link them all together. Like a jigsaw puzzle, get the ‘edge’ (main) bits sorted then fill in the smaller sections.
  5. Some moves will be key points in the choreography, so check that these really are learned most thoroughly of all. Then if you do get wobbly on some of the other moves, hopefully that won’t interfere with the choreography too badly.
  6. Watch your teacher demonstrating each section before you attempt to follow/copy. There is a component of ‘ideokinesis’ (a movement-science visualisation method) called mirror-neuron theory that says a dancer’s own movements are better informed after seeing someone else perform. So watching the demo may help your muscles to pick up that section of choreography more efficiently. You’ll know what you’re aiming for.
  7. ASK if you don’t get a certain step/transition/sequence! You’re not wasting the teacher’s time if they repeat it for you. Any teacher worth their salt will demonstrate and explain in several different ways to check that everyone understands. It’s in their interest to do whatever it takes to get you there. Most likely others also need more explanation and repetition and lack the courage to ask. So, you’re helping them too!
  8. When you come across a new move or sequence, you learn it through a process called ‘praxis’ which involves processing information in three steps: a) your brain visualises it (ideation) -> b) plans it by organising the relevant motor actions within itself (motor planning) -> c) sends the necessary messages to your muscles to execute the motor actions (execution). Dancers do all this while also matching the moves to music…impressive!…all without the need for conscious thought as to how this works. The catch 22 is that we all have different rates for this translation of visual information into motor commands. So be patient as you take on this praxis……
  9. Practise the praxis! Keep practising! Repetition reinforces the signals from brain to muscles and back again. This gives ‘muscle memory’ which bypasses conscious thought. The reward is that you’ll find yourself ‘in the moment’ (a delightful freeing feeling) dancing without the need for concentrating unduly on the moves with associated fears of going wrong. You do need to make sure, though, that you’re practising everything accurately. If not, you’re reinforcing faulty moves….which will take a lot of effort to undo and re-do later the right way.
  10. If you can devise a way of writing down the choreography, do so. Writing and saying aloud reinforce the physical moves. You can do this by sitting out of the dance every now and then or by referring to the recorded choreography at home (see point 2).
  11. Concentrate on your feet first, to match the rhythm. Then add hips, upper body, arms and flourishes etc. Start basic….add detail. It’s best to get all the body involved as soon as possible, though, to give full expression to the music and coordinated meaning to the moves.
  12. You can develop your own imagery, key words or sounds to match moves and thus help to remember them: e.g. off the top of my head ‘diving arms’, ‘swoosh steps’, ‘bongo hips’, ‘squiggles’. Then you could string these together like a story-line to remember a sequence.
  13. Transitions can be sticking points as you stitch all the moves together. So, identify and focus on transitions: be aware of how your body moves between moves. Feel the changes in levels, direction, where your weight is, which parts of your body change between moves. Then you can focus on these in-between changes.
  14. Pinpoint directions: front/back/sides and diagonals/corners. Where do you need to be facing for the various moves? What is the relationship between your body angle and the space you’re dancing in? Where are your eyes focused?
Seef Saffah staying in sync, dancing on a wet stage at Stithians Show

Managing to stay in sync on a slippery wet stage at Stithians Show

B. On your own
  1. The main benefit of practising this way is that you can take your time to dance –> review to check accuracy –> correct –> practise again without holding anyone up. You can talk yourself through the choreography. Here’s where a recording of the teacher’s demo will be really useful.
  2. If at all possible, get hold of a mirror that is big enough to see yourself dancing. This might mean a temporary one that you drag in from another room or may have to keep re-positioning the mirror to see feet/arms/torso…..yet seeing yourself gives instant brilliant feedback.
  3. Keep a notebook to record your progress, so that you’ll remember particular questions to ask once back in class, together with the teacher’s responses/corrections that you can implement.
  4. You can dance in your head, wherever you are! This is a great way to reinforce your learning since visualising the choreography keeps it fresh mentally and also in your muscle memory. It has long been recognised for all sorts of activities that visualising them makes them easier to attain and maintain. Top sports people and people recovering after illness/injury do this, for a start.
  5. Dance the choreography with a friend, or several. This helps to keep the practise light and fun. You can then give each other feedback and help, sharing any strategies that clarify how and what to do. This is particularly useful for practising how to stay in sync with other dancers re directions faced, size/level/speed of moves and any travelling in between. You could video each other, to see how you look. Then you can relax afterwards with a treat and catch up with each other’s news!
Sif Safaa dancing an Andalusian scarf donce on the castle battlements on St.Michael's Mount.

Lots of practice is needed for keeping scarves under control! This time in breeze on the castle battlements, St Michael’s Mount.

Whether in class or on your own, be KIND to yourself when it comes to learning choreography! Be patient. Know that you’re doing the best you can. So what if you’re slower than some others in getting it all sorted? That doesn’t make you stupid or lacking in any way. There are probably others who are slower than you! Each one of us is unique in our abilities and expression, including how long it takes to ‘get’ a choreography. Enjoy the journey. Honour yourself for having the determination, stickability and creativity to make the dance your own. If you believe you can, then you will do it!