Learning Choreography: Musings and Advice

Hello readers! I hope everyone is having a lovely day. The sun is shining (momentarily), the rain has stopped (fleetingly), and I’m thinking about choreography (perpetually).

More specifically, I’ve been thinking about how I learn and store choreography in my memory. I’ve been taking ballet classes again after a college-induced hiatus, and lately the studio has been prepping for a winter show that includes some Nutcracker music. Now, let me take a moment to explain my history with Tchaikovsky’s most famous work: Every year from ages 10-18. 5-8 shows per year. Rehearsals starting in September.  Nowadays, if I hear *any* of the Nutcracker music, I break into a cold sweat and the choreography floods into my mind. It’s impossible to sit still, as the counts and countless variations of the evolving choreography assert themselves on my conscious mind. 

How do I get to this place? Not the to PTSD-esque symptoms, mind you, but to the place where a piece of music triggers an automatic physical response. It’s not a natural skill. It doesn’t just ‘happen’ in people who have never tried before. Ballet dancers learn a process through which the teachers list and half-demonstrate the steps. The dancers have a minute or so to go over them, and then are expected to not only know what is happening, but make it pretty. While dancing, if I have to think about the next step, it’s already too late.

Admittedly, I learned this skill when I was young, and I’ve always been good at it. I pride myself on only needing to see something new once or twice and then the brain and body have it locked down. As such, I’m having a hard time figuring out how to break it down for newbies to the dance world–specifically ballroom.


  1. Mimicry! Don’t just stand there while I describe a sequence, nod, and then expect to do it correctly when I turn the music on. Step along with me, follow my arms–this is a skill you learn by doing, not watching.
  2. Listen to the music outside of practice. Bored in class? Play the music in your head! Think about the steps. Scribble them in the margins of your notes. Draw little footprints of the sequences on the backs of your tests to amuse your TAs.
  3. Learn where your feet and other body-parts go by touch, not sight. Proprioception is a magical thing. Yes, we have a mirror in the studio, yes, you might first have to look to make sure your arms aren’t doing T-rex impressions. But when you perform, there will be no mirror, only an audience who doesn’t want to watch you gaze at your feet the whole time. And when you social dance, you want to be able stare adoringly into your partner’s eyes–or awkwardly over his or her shoulder, whichever the case may be.

All of this is about training yourself to associate movements with music in a given order, and that falls to the parts of the brain that control short-term to long-term memory consolidation and spatial reasoning. Conveniently, those processes are both contained in one deep, seahorse-shaped structure that is capable of lots of Long-Term Potentiation–persistent strengthening of synapse groups involved in learning.

Yes, the Nueroscientist in me is bursting out squealing “I’m relevant!”

So often people say to me, “I can’t do it, I have two left feet, I can’t remember stuff.” To which I’m tempted to say, “You have a hippocampus, you’ll be fine. Just try it again.”

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