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.