Updated: Aug 28
When you’re new to a dance style, it can be really hard to remember dance sequences, because you have so much to think about. Believe me, I know. I’ve recently started learning Flamenco (I’ve been doing it for a year and a half), and it’s so different to the dance styles I teach that it’s much harder for me to remember.
Building your memory for dance sequences is an important part of being able to get the most out of your training. Think of it as being as important as building up your fitness, strength, flexibility, and technique.
If you can’t remember a sequence,
You can’t practice between classes
You spend all your mental energy following, instead of being able to focus on technique or expression
You won’t get as much enjoyment from the movement
It’s harder to progress and learn new material.
Here are some tips to help you build to ability to remember:
When you repeat a movement over and over again, you’ll start to build up new neural pathways to create ‘muscle memory’, which means you’ll need to use less brain power to remember.
If you can’t remember the sequence, ask your teacher if you can video the sequence you’re working on, then practice it at home, going over and over it so you can build up your muscle memory of the movements.
But first, check with your teacher that filming in class is okay. Make sure you film only the teacher, as other students may not want to be captured on film. Film from behind as it’s much easier to follow along than when you’ve filmed from the front. Try to film while the teacher is doing the exercise in class rather than asking them to repeat it after class (as they may have back to back classes and no time between classes).
2. Record the sequence
Recording the sequence could mean filming it (as mentioned above), or it could mean, writing notes, or even audio recording. I was teaching a jazz isolation to a group and one of my students asked if she could record me talking through the sequence. This can be really helpful if you are an auditory learner.
Not everyone learns the same way. There are three main types of learners – visual learners (they need to see something – so filming or writing down the steps could help), auditory learners (they need to hear something to process it, so recording the teacher, or closing your eyes and listening could really help), and kinaesthetic learners (they need to feel something to learn it, so doing the movement helps, or having someone (like your teacher) physically put your body in the correct position can help).
If you prefer to take notes, keep a dance diary where you can jot down the things you want to remember at the end of class. Sometimes, it can be hard to even remember what you did in class (when you’re new it might all be a blur), so you can start just by writing down what sequence you want to remember. At least then you can refer to your notebook and see if you can remember anything from that sequence when you’re at home. Or you might write the name of the sequence and how it starts. Or if you can, write down all the steps. You’ll develop your own shorthand way of recording movement over time. It could be using stick figures and arrows or other graphics rather than words. Whatever works for you.
3. Go through the sequence in your mind
Being able to visualize or imagine each movement in the sequence, you’ll have a better chance of remembering it with your body.
It’s helpful to think through the sequence a few times after class. Doing this is as helpful for developing those neural pathways as actually doing it.
Think it through a few times between classes (in addition to actually practicing it), and think it through before you do it (either to the recorded video or before class). You may not be able to remember it all, but even if you can just remember the beginning, or the end, or parts, you’ll be making progress.
4. Go through the sequence with a class mate
If you have a friend in class, arrange to catch up with them (maybe five minutes before or after class) to go through it together. You might be able to remember some parts, and they might remember other parts, and together you might be able to remember all, or most, of it. The process of working through it like this will stick in your mind more than just following the teacher in class.
5. Make sure you know the first movement
Take a moment before you start to remember the first movement. While you’re waiting for the music to start, or during the introduction, say the first movement to yourself, or visualize yourself doing it. It’s surprising how often beginner dancers stand there ready to move but haven’t actually thought about what the first movement is. Then when the music starts, there is a mini panic moment when you struggle to get started. Once that happens, you’ll be struggling the whole way through.
6. Take it one step at a time
Instead of crossing your fingers and hoping you’ll remember it all, start by remembering the first movement, the second, then the third, and so on. It sounds really obvious, but it can help reduce overwhelm. And you can celebrate your progress as you remember a bit more each time you do the sequence, instead of getting upset with yourself for not remembering it all.
7. Learn the rhythm
Knowing what the rhythm is like giving yourself a frame on which to hang the sequence. It may mean counting, saying the names of the steps in a rhythmic chant (even inside your head), clapping, or just saying the rhythm out loud in nonsense syllables (it could be just da da da da, or nonsense words, like ‘ti-cky ta-ta-ta’).
8. Set yourself a practice schedule
Do you ever get to class and suddenly remember you wanted to practice something during the week but you completely forgot? I know I have.
If you can set yourself a practice schedule (even if that is just a time to think about the movement) you’ll have a much better chance of actually practicing. I suggest having a session pretty soon after class (so it is fresh in your mind), one shortly before class (so you can brush up in case you forgot), and one in the middle.
You may need to remind yourself to remind yourself. Perhaps set a reminder on your phone, put it in your diary or on your calendar, or put a note somewhere you’ll see it. Whatever way that you normally remind yourself to do things is probably best. The important thing is that you have a schedule and a way of remembering your schedule.
9. Look for patterns
Dance is usually made up of a lot of patterns of repetition or variation. For example in a ballet, an exercise at the barre may have something performed devant (to the front), a la seconde (to the side), and derriere (to the back). So if you can learn the sequence devant, you should be able to remember the whole sequence. There will also be common repetitions. Using ballet as an example again, exercises are often performed ‘en croix’, which means ‘in the shape of the cross’, or to the front, to the side, to the back, and to the side. This is an example of a pattern within a pattern. There is the pattern of movement performed in each position, and there is the pattern of which direction the movements are performed in.
In jazz or tap, you might find that there is a simple and repetitive rhythm. If you can hook into that, it makes the task of remembering easier. In contemporary, it might be something that is performed in parallel and again in turnout.
This is called ‘chunking’, which is the process of taking individual pieces of information (chunks) and grouping them into larger units. By grouping each piece into a large whole, you can remember more. It’s like remembering a phone number. You don’t normally try to remember 10 digits (for a mobile number). Usually you will remember three chunks (four digits, three digits, three digits).
10. Tell a story
Instead of thinking of the movements as a random string of unrelated movements, think about how they could tell a story. This gives it meaning, and therefore makes it easier to remember.
For example, you may imagine that you are communicating or interacting with an unseen individual. I do this a lot in jazz in particular, because you might imagine things like pushing someone out of the way with your hip, or turning away from someone, or reaching out to someone. You can also tell a story about how you interact with the audience. I tend to do this a lot in ballet. For example, using different head angles in conjunction with arm positions. You might imagine you are opening your arms to the audience, or peeking under your arm at them, or looking away, or finishing with a flourish as if to say ‘see what I just did’.
11. Learn the terminology
Different dance styles use different words, so it’s important that you know what those words mean. Ballet is a good example of this, as everything is in French. Once you know the words and what they mean, it is so much easier to remember things. Flamenco is another example, as the words are Spanish. In tap, different teachers might use different terms to mean the same thing, for example, ‘heel hit’ and ‘heel dig’ both mean to connect the heel with the floor, but not the ball of the foot.
It can be useful to make up your own names for things (you’ll find in contemporary that a lot of teachers make up their own names for movements as there is much less consensus around what to call things and the movements are less codified). So do this as well if it helps, but it is good to learn the terminology.
I won’t go into all the different ways you can do this, as that would be a whole other article. But my aim here is to stress how useful it can be to know the names of the steps.
In ballet, a simple step may have multiple parts. A chasse for example, consists of a demi-plie, a slide, a transfer of weight, and a close. So if you can remember what chasse means, you automatically only need to think of one thing instead of four. There are also common combinations of steps linked together, such as ‘glissade, jete, pas de bourree’ or ‘coupe, chasse, pas de bourree, pirouette en dehor, to land in a lunge’. Imagine how much you’d have to remember if you had to think of all the movements that go into making up these three enchainments (chains of steps). In tap, a timestep may be made up of ‘stomp, hop, step, flat, ball change’ (there are all sorts of variations on the time step).
Knowing the names of the steps means you can say them to yourself in a rhythmic chant which will also be helpful (see above in Learn the Rhythm).
To get started improving your dance memory, I suggest you start with one or two of these techniques, and see what works for you.