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8 Tips for Picking Up Choreography Quickly
It’s frustrating, isn’t it?
Knowing that you could really get that combo if you just had a little more time to practice… Having “concentration face” at every audition because there’s no room in your brain for performance quality – you’re spending all your energy just trying to get the steps.
I’ve been there, and I know how disheartening it can feel.
The ability to pick up choreography quickly makes you a valuable dancer. There’s a reason professional auditions teach their combos at lightning speed. Well, 1) they’re probably in a hurry to get to the next 100 dancers, but 2) they want to see who can handle that high-speed style of working.
In a professional rehearsal process, there’s no time to rehearse something until you get it right. You have to soak up choreo like a sponge and get it show-ready in a limited time, usually 1-2 weeks. That’s why it’s so important to be able to pick up choreography quickly at an audition.
Unfortunately, the best way to improve your choreography recall is to… just have more years of dance experience. Not to improve your technique, just to increase the number of times you’ve learned a piece of choreography. The number of hours you spend in the dance studio, the number of teachers you learn from, the time you spend on each dance style… all of those contribute to being able to pick up choreography quickly.
That said, I’m assuming you don’t have that kind of time.
While my #1 tip is to take as many dance classes as you can, with as many different teachers as you can, these following tips will also make a great impact on your ability to pick up choreography.
Take Class Above Your Level
The more advanced the dance class, the greater the teaching speed. Teachers of an advanced class will assume you already have a grasp of the basics, and take less time to explain the steps. If your studio allows it, see about dropping in to a higher-level class, or even adding it to your weekly schedule. That extra push will help you pick up choreography more quickly in the classes at your own level.
Replace “Right” and “Left” with More Reversible Words
In ballet, we often use helpful terms like “croisé,” “effacé,” “en dehours,” and “en dedans” to describe your feet’s orientation to each other and to the room. For example, if you’re unfamiliar with these terms, croisé means you’re facing either of the front two corners with your downstage leg in front. (Very rough and non-technical translation.)
Those terms make it easy to reverse a combination to the left side. Instead of translating all your “rights” to “lefts” and your “lefts” to “rights,” you know that croisé is croisé, just facing the other corner.
I apply these words to modern dance and jazz all the time. I find it especially helpful in modern when you’re constantly getting down and up off the floor and changing your facing in the room. Using reversible words like “croisé” helps me so much when reversing combinations.
Instead of “left leg circles towards the right leg, then step in front to face the right corner and turn to the right,” which would be very confusing to reverse, try this: “upstage leg circles to the inside, then step the same leg to croise and turn upstage.” Both of those sentences describe the same movement, but the second one is the exact same words when reversed.
If you’re not familiar with ballet terms, however, they’ll probably just make it more confusing. I do still recommend replacing “right” and “left” with other words, though. “Downstage” is still “downstage” on the other side. “back” is still “back,” “front” is still “front.” It’ll take a while to get used to, but once it’s a habit, you’ll be able to translate combos to the left side in a flash!
Give Steps New Names
Modern dance teachers don’t always give names to the movements in their combos. You usually get a combination of “Whoosh,” “arm-leg-head,” and “ba-da-dum.” That can be confusing when you’re trying to commit choreography to memory!
Try making up your own names. Make them as silly as you want; no one needs to know! Action words are best, i.e. “turn the steering wheel,” but any word will suffice.
This tip might not work for everyone, but give it a try and see if it works for you! My guess is if you tend to process information orally (you like to talk things through out loud), this will be a good trick for you. Read more suggestions based on learning style below.
Practice Transitions Where the Teacher Paused
Dance teachers don’t tend to go through the entire combo from start to finish without stopping. They break it into manageable chunks. You might learn two 8-counts, do it with music a few times, then learn two more 8-counts.
The break between those two chunks is going to be a weak spot for memory recall. Wherever the teacher paused, your brain divides the information. Practice the transition from part 1 to part 2 several times to engrain it in your memory.
I learned this in college and didn’t believe my professors until I tried it. Trust me, it really works!
Practice at Home with YouTube Videos
As I said before, the best way to get better at picking up choreography is to practice picking up choreography. Usually this means taking a bunch of dance classes, but with the help of the Internet, you can practice this skill at home, too!
Search for things like:
- “dance tutorial [song you like]”
- “[style of dance] tutorial/routine”
- “[song you like] dance choreography”
- “dance tutorial step by step”
- “[style of dance] class”
Start off with videos where the dancer walks you through the choreography step-by-step. Set a goal for yourself of how often you want to learn new routines!
Then, for an extra challenge, try to learn a combo from a video where the choreography is not broken down. Pause and rewind as necessary and try to figure it out for yourself. This will be easier if you’re a visual learner, but I encourage everyone to try it, because it will definitely boost your ability to pick up choreography!
Know Your Learning Style
Are you a visual, auditory, kinesthetic, or reading/writing learner? There are lots of quizzes you can take if you’re not sure, but you probably have a general idea already. Knowing how you learn best can help you make the most of your situation when you’re learning new choreography. Here are some tips for each learning style.
- Try to stand where your view of the teacher is not obscured. If the room is really crowded, find another student to watch who is doing it full out.
- When you get split into groups, watch the other groups dance and imagine yourself doing the combo with them.
- It can also be helpful to not watch the other groups, instead replaying the combo in your mind.
- Be careful not to watch your own feet, or get too caught up watching others, while you dance!
- It’s okay to just stand there and watch the teacher demonstrate. Everyone else might be marking it, but if it’s more helpful for you to see clearly, do it. (Be careful in auditions, though, as this can appear like you’re uninterested. At least mark it with your hands.)
- Give every movement a name, so you can mentally “sing” the combo to yourself as you go through it.
- Be careful not to move your mouth or whisper to yourself while you’re performing, though! Just when you’re practicing.
- Listen carefully to the teacher’s instructions. She may offer helpful tips or cues.
- Pay attention to how the steps fit with the music. If there are lyrics, notice which steps go on which words. Same with counts.
- Mark it as full out as you can, right from the beginning.
- Practice the steps in sequence, rather than individually. When the teacher introduces the next 4 counts, try it with the 4 counts prior tacked on.
- When the teacher gives a correction, practice it. It shows you’re engaged and will trigger that memory when you go to perform the combo.
- Mark the combo on the side while other groups are going.
- This is a hard learning style for dance, but it also has its benefits. It’s one of my strongest learning styles, and I’ve noticed that it bleeds into auditory and visual a good bit. Try out a combination of those tips above.
- After class, write down the combo in your own words. A dance journal is a great place for that. Even if you never look at it again, the practice of putting movements into words will help you pick up choreography faster next time.
Pay Attention to Weight Shifts
It’s those little in-between steps that will trip you up, every time. As the teacher goes through the combo, pay close attention to how she is shifting her weight. Is her weight on one foot or both? Does she shift to the side before jumping or during the jump? How many steps are there before the leap?
A useful way to mark a combo is to just go through the weight shifts. Without kicking your legs or turning or going to the floor, walk through the combo just shifting your weight from one foot to the other.
Having a solid grasp of the weight shifts in a combo will help you recover from messing up and make all of your movements more fluid. It can also help you get the gist of a new step you’ve never done before, if the teacher doesn’t take time to explain it.
Dance teachers love questions! The only question that wouldn’t be appreciated is something that was already asked by another student. Or, you know, asking what the teacher had for breakfast. So ask questions, listen to others’ questions, just get all the extra insight you can!
You’ve probably heard this before, but it’s worth repeating. Someone else in the room has the same question as you. If you ask it, you’re doing both of you a favor.
And there you are, my 8 tips for picking up choreography quickly. Try them out, see what works for you, and practice, practice, practice! I would love to hear in the comments if you have any questions, additional tips, or success stories!