During confinement last year, I went to the grocery store, excited to have my daily hourly outing until I got to the cashier, I put my credit card in the machine and... PANIC. I could not remember my pin code if my life depended on it!! I got terrified, people were waiting behind me getting impatient. The cashier was sweet enough to tell me to step aside a moment, calm down and try again in a bit. I composed myself, breathed, forced my memory but nothing would come out! I tried again 5 minutes later and after panicking thinking I started to lose it, I told my brain to just let my fingers do it... Just like magic, my muscle memory kicked in and I pressed the right numbers on the pad...
As you know, there are different kinds of memories (singing cue: "Meeemoryyyy" from Cats):
We could go all medical but let's keep it simple and talk about the main ones we use in dance:
- Sensory memory: a quick flash of information triggered by one or more senses.
- Short term memory: we hold the information until we don't need it anymore (mostly for exercises in class)
- Long term memory: conscious or unconscious recollections from 5mins ago to many years (where muscle memory is stored). Why do I remember Mr B's Concerto Barocco like it was yesterday 18 years later??? My first Balanchine ballet ever at Ballet Chicago...
Many factors can help or disadvantage your memory like your senses kicking in or stress arising...
First, let's treat the "I have no clue what the exercise is" syndrome of daily class...
When we get to morning class, sometimes, we're honestly half awake... *Sigh* We might be tired and sore from the day before, distracted by an injury or something psychological going on outside of ballet.
- Remember these 2 essential senses: HEARING and SIGHT. I always tell my students to absolutely use the two simultaneously when learning combinations. You might remember things better when someone tells you or shows you something. But using both will save you even during the combo as you can visualize or hear the steps which were just given to you. Marking with your hands at barre and your full body (with arms!!) in center is also primordial. It will literally leave a MARK on your body and muscle memory will kick in faster.
- Secondly, be sensitive to your teacher's patterns and style. After having a teacher for a while, you can almost predict a bit of what's coming next. You'll remember which way they like to end an exercise, what their usual musicality is, what steps they prefer etc... Stay alert!
- Thirdly, if you forgot, (we've all done it, guilty as charged here) open your eyes and mimic the one person you know always gets it right!! It's a good mirror exercise anyway ;)
- Lastly, if you don't know the exercise in center, DON'T GO FIRST! Take a second and watch first group if you're unsure. I've heard many stories of dancers who didn't know the combination & ended up hurting themselves. Your body won't be ready to put itself in the right direction, its weight in the correct place & your feet will weaken from hesitation. It seems trivial but it could be fatal. So be honest & be smart!
Now let's talk about learning new choreography, revisiting a ballet and being choreographed on.
- New Choreography and revisiting a ballet: One of my most challenging memory was at Carolina Ballet. At the start of my 2nd season with the company, I had to learn a corps AND a soloist part in a ballet called Messiah. It was a 2 and a half hour long ballet with about 8-9 costumes changes, props, multiple entrances and exits. I thought I would never be able to do it all... I cried many times feeling completely overwhelmed. Learning a totally new corps part while you have to look at a soloist one is nearly impossible. So I had to be organized. Here is what helped me...
WRITING IT DOWN📝: write your entrances and exits in order (with sides of stage), include any costume changes and which side of the stage is best so you can also put the right shoes at the right place, and which props are required. Within each section, write a few key moments (in your own words) like a specific step or count you really need to remember.
LISTEN TO THE MUSIC🎶: Listen to it over and over so you can find little cues of your own. You might hear that little ding and it might be life changing! That epiphany and amazing feeling you have when you do a particular step on that particular note. You can even get familiar with the music before you start rehearsal.
FILM YOUR FIRST CAST🎥: If you can and are allowed, try to record the dancer you are learning so you can review it on your own time and at your own pace. If you can't film in rehearsal, maybe you can access a copy of the ballet online and see what you're in for.
ASK A COLLEAGUE OR BALLET MASTER❓: Don't be scared to ask your ballet master or colleague to repeat a tricky section slowly for you. But also know when too much is too much... If most dancers have done the ballet before, I would recommend asking when the rehearsal is over so you don't slow the process down. If it's a pas de deux, ask your partner to stay a little longer after rehearsal to figure it out together calmly.
GO OVER IT MARKING, IN LITTLE CHUNKS🧘: Do it slow and make sure you have one part down before attacking the next one. And always go over the choreography before you go into your rehearsal. Don't expect the ballet master to do it for you cause they might just go straight into it (and you don't want to be the reason he or she screams "STOP"!!!🙊🙊)
REMEMBERING PANTOMIME: I used to take so long to get pantomime right! The only thing that works for me is telling myself the words in order as I do it! For example:"I" "love" "you" "not"👇♥️👆🚫. And always wait for the other's reply before your next move to make sure you have the correct next gesture!!
DON'T GET FRUSTRATED IF IT'S A NEW STYLE🕺: We can't get it all at once... The counts, the heads, the arms, the legs, the technique and the style. Cut yourself some slack, learn the base first, once you have it, work on the style in the mirror. Alvin Ailey sure ain't Swan Lake! And Balanchine or Robbins are not Sleeping Beauty, so be patient with yourself...
- If you're being choreographed on: All of the above will help you but I would also recommend you to be very present and actively behind your choreographer doing each step he or she is creating in the moment and you might just become his or her best memory!!
So just remember (haha) you are not alone in this process... You have your own brain to train of course but people can help you out as well!! Give yourself the best tools and if you still have some trouble, I truly believe a sweet soul will kindly help you out... ✨