Learning & Remembering Combinations

            "It is difficult to see the great dance effects as they happen, to see them accurately, catch them fast in memory." -Martha Graham

Everyday dancers enter studios, watch a demonstration of an exercise or combination, are asked to learn it, and then must perform it in a matter of minutes.  Some dancers learn the combinations quickly and are able to execute them almost immediately, while others struggle to remember what comes next.  It may be helpful for dancers and dance educators to understand what is happening in the brain and how memory is developed, and then use this knowledge to improve upon this necessary skill.

            There are three steps that occur in the brain when something is being “remembered”.  First, sensory information is gathered through sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch.  For dancers, combinations are seen, directions and counts are heard, and the movements are kinesthetically felt through touch sensors as the exercise is performed.  These sensory messages are sent along nerve pathways by neurotransmitters to the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that is responsible for organizing and storing memories.  The hippocampus connects and consolidates all of the sensory input into a single experience so that a dancer can watch a plié being done, hear the word plié, feel what it is like to perform a plié and know that all of these sensory experiences relate to the same thing.

            After this connection is made, this experience becomes part of the short-term memory.  The short-term memory can only hold about 7 items at a time and can only store them for about 30 seconds.  However, each time a new experience is repeated, the 30-second time clock is reset, which is why repeating something to yourself over and over again is valuable.  The short-term memory is also capable of grouping several items into a chunk of information – a relevé can be simply registered as one item and not as a plié, a rise, and a plié, which would account for three different items to be remembered.  The short-term memory also makes connections between the new input and past memories, which is why a repeated dance step is recalled more easily, even if it is being performed in a different context.

            After several repetitions, the neural pathway (the route the brain uses to communicate with the body) that is formed when a new exercise is learned becomes a well-travelled route, and this exercise is sent to the long-term memory.  Long-term memory has an unlimited capacity and can hold a memory forever as long as it is accessed from time to time.  If a memory is not recalled, the neural pathway weakens over time, and the exercise may have to be reviewed.  The review would serve to reactivate the established pathway and would not take as long as the original learning process.

            It is important to remember that how a dancer pays attention when seeing a combination for the first time will influence what he or she is able to remember.  Unless a dancer is focused, the brain treats the demonstration as merely another thing happening around it that has little importance.

            It is also important to understand that trying to absorb too much sensory information at once can overload the brain and impair the memory process.  A dancer might try simply watching the combination the first time it is demonstrated, marking it while watching it the second time, and repeating some type of auditory clues such as step names or counts to him or herself while watching and doing it another time.

            Repetition will help to reinforce the neural pathway and cement the memory.  Dancers should also know that merely watching others perform the combination or envisioning themselves performing it after they have learned it will also strengthen the pathway as is discussed in my posts

            Remembering combinations in class will always be easier for some than others, but understanding the process may help those who struggle with this skill to find ways to improve upon it.

Understanding Post Performance Letdown

            “Life is ten percent what you experience and ninety percent how you respond to it.”   ― Dorothy M. Neddermeyer

          Last week’s post, Understanding Performance Anxiety, discussed the body’s physiological reaction to performance stress that results in feeling of anxiety before the performance begins.  This week’s post will address the physiological changes that occur after the performance is over that often result in feelings of sadness or depression known as post performance letdown.
            Dancers spend months training and rehearsing for performances, and while they are in the throes of it, it seems like the rehearsals will never end, but they do.  Suddenly dancers’ bodies get a break, tired and achy muscles get to rest, schedules return to normal, and dancers can return to a life outside of the dark, windowless theaters.  Sighs of relief are audible but are often followed by something called the post performance letdown.  Dancers become acutely aware of lingering aches throughout the body, they have difficulty getting out of bed in the morning, and are often overwhelmed by feelings of sadness and/or symptoms of depression.

            Dancers spend months creating a work of art that disappears as soon as the costumes are packed, dance floors are removed, and props are struck from the theater stage.  No other production will ever be exactly the same.  Dance is ephemeral, and psychologically, dancers may be mourning this loss.  Their goals have been achieved, the roles are no longer theirs, and they no longer get to hear the positive feedback from applauding audiences.

            It will help dancers to know and understand that there are definite physiological reasons for these feelings as well.  During intense bouts of physical exercise, the body releases high levels of neurotransmitters, proteins, stress hormones, and endorphins.

            The increased amount of neurotransmitters helps carry messages quickly and efficiently from the muscles to the brain and back to the muscles along nerve pathways.  The neurotransmitters norepinephrine and serotonin increase heart rate and blood flow and have also been connected to improved moods.  The neurotransmitter dopamine also acts as an analgesic, relieving or dulling pain.

            The proteins that are released stimulate growth in the nervous system to help increase the body’s response time as well as provide for cell growth to keep the overworked muscles strong and functioning.

            Adrenaline and cortisol are stress hormones secreted by the adrenal glands.  Adrenaline increases the rate of heart contractions, which results in quicker blood flow throughout the body.  It also relaxes the bronchioles, or breathing tubes found in the lungs, to allow oxygen to pass into the blood and carbon dioxide to leave the blood faster.
Adrenaline also signals the pancreas to produce more insulin.  Insulin is what allows the muscles to use the glucose that is in the blood to create energy.   

            When cortisol is released, it signals the liver to start converting stored energy into glucose for the body to use.  Cortisol also diverts energy away from activities that are considered low priority during physical activity and redirects that energy toward the muscles.  Although adrenaline levels rise and fall quickly, cortisol levels rise gradually and return to normal very slowly.

            All of these physiological changes move the body into a hyper vigilant, excited, and blissful state.  When the production comes to an end, and the body’s state begins to return to normal, everything begins to slow down.  The heart rate decreases, blood flow slows, respiration returns to normal, and nerve and cell growth return to a normal pace.  The conversion of glucose to energy slows down, dopamine levels decrease so any muscle soreness or pain is no longer dulled, and the blissful state created by the released endorphins also disappears.  Since cortisol levels rise and fall slowly, elevated levels stay in the body for a longer period of time, and high levels of cortisol have been linked to symptoms of depression.

            It is helpful for dancers to know that post performance letdown is a very real phenomenon.  The feelings of sadness or depression that dancers may experience after a performance are simply a result of the physiological changes that occur as the body moves from a heightened, alert state to a normal one.  This bit of knowledge and simply understanding what is causing these extreme feelings can help dancers cope with post performance letdown.

Understanding Performance Anxiety

            “Life is ten percent what you experience and ninety percent how you respond to it.”   ― Dorothy M. Neddermeyer

            With the arrival of spring, comes the chance for dancers to perform in showcases, recitals, and demonstrations.  Although the opportunity to perform for friends, family, and other audience members provides dancers the chance to share their passion, it can also lead to performance anxiety.

The Scream by Edvard Munch

            Athletes, public speakers, singers, and actors, as well as dancers experience performance anxiety.  The anxious feelings develop when the performer begins to doubt him or herself and believes that he or she may not be able to meet all of the demands that performing requires.

            The body has a definite physical response to the stress of this situation, and if the dancer is not aware of what is happening, the shaking legs or “butterflies” in the stomach can be upsetting.  Dancers are known for being able to control their bodies, and when the body takes over, it can be very disconcerting.

            The body’s built-in alarm system, also known as the fight or flight response, is activated when a threat is perceived that will upset the status quo or force a dancer out of his or her comfort zone.

            It prepares the body to fight off and survive the threat by triggering the release of the hormones epinephrine (commonly known as adrenaline), norepinephrine, and cortisol.   The hormones relax the muscles of the lungs to allow more oxygen to enter the body and speed up the heart rate so the additional oxygen can be carried by the blood to the brain and the muscular system.  The increased delivery of oxygen to the brain increases focus and concentration, but it can also cause the dancer to feel lightheaded and/or dizzy. 

            Glucose, or blood sugar, is the body’s source of energy. The increased blood flow quickly delivers the glucose to the muscles so that they are ready to react.  The muscles also tense in preparation for movement, which can cause involuntary shaking.

            In order to transport the glucose to the muscles, certain blood vessels dilate, or expand, while those that lead to other parts of the body constrict, or begin to close, so that the blood is directed toward the muscles and brain and diverted away from the other systems.  As a result, the digestive system slows down, causing feelings of nausea and/or stomach upset, and hands and feet may begin to tingle or feel cold.  The lack of blood circulation in the feet is what is responsible for the saying, “he got cold feet”, meaning that the person was too nervous or anxious to follow through with the intended promise or performance.

            As the heart rate and breathing rates increase, the body begins to heat up.  In an effort to cool itself down, the body begins to sweat.  The sweating response also serves to make the skin wet and slippery so that a person could escape if captured.

            Additionally, the pupils of the eyes dilate to let in as much light as possible and to help survey the surroundings.

            While a performance is hardly a matter of life and death, the body perceives anything causing anxiety as a danger and threat.  This physiological response is a normal one, and research has shown that most dancers believe that it can have a positive influence upon a performance.  The increase in available energy, paired with the increased ability to concentrate, puts the performer in a highly vigilant state.

            Performance anxiety only becomes a problem if the dancers feel like they cannot control what is happening in their bodies.  Not understanding the feelings of nausea, dizziness, shaky limbs, and rapid breathing, can cause the dancer to feel a loss of control and panic.

            Research studies have found ballet dancers tend to experience more anxiety than those who study other dance styles and that soloists or principal dancers report more symptoms than members of the corps de ballet or ensembles.  However, all dancers report experiencing some level of performance anxiety.

            It is important for dancers to understand what is happening in their bodies as they nervously wait in the wings for an entrance.  The stress response to the idea of performing in front of an audience is a normal one.  By educating dancers about the body’s response, we can provide a feeling of control that empowers them.  This sense of control will allow them to use the response to positively affect their performances rather than allowing panic to set in, causing the stress response to become debilitating.