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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

How to Learn Choreography

by Shira




Some people seem to have a natural gift for learning choreography. But most of us don't. Fortunately, memorizing choreography is a skill that can be learned.

The primary keys to learning choreography include:

  • Set realistic goals.
  • Ask your weekly belly dance teacher to spend some teach each class using "go across the floor" technique for building combinations spontaneously.
  • Absorb the music.
  • Give yourself permission to learn at your own pace.
  • Rehearse in your head.
  • Break it into small, digestible pieces.
  • Understand which learning method works best for your brain, then look for a way to apply it to learning choreography.
  • Take notes.
  • Practice, practice, practice.


PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Andre Elbing, Bärbroich, Germany. Taken at one of Shira's performances in Egypt.



Set Realistic Goals

If you're new to learning choreography, don't put too many demands on yourself. If you attend a 4-hour seminar taught by an internationally-famous instructor, remember that many of the other dancers there will be seasoned professional dancers who are looking for new challenges. Don't expect to learn as quickly as them, and don't expect to look as graceful as them. Most of all, don't expect to retain the full choreography that was taught over the course of 4 hours. Just expect to come away knowing something you didn't know before: maybe one or two great new step combinations, insights into musical interpretation, or a few tidbits about the dance's history or ethnic context.

Be kind to yourself. Pick a goal that matches your level of dance experience. Even though I've been dancing for over 30 years, my own personal goal for those 4-hour workshops is to either emerge with one or two great new moves to incorporate into my personal style, or to gain a better understanding of that particular teacher's style as a whole. I don't seek to come out with a full choreography to perform. Depending on the teacher, I might expect new ideas on musical interpretation, new depth of understanding of the dance style the instructor is teaching, new insights into Middle Eastern culture, new ideas on how to explain moves to my student, etc.

Even if you're learning new choreography in your local weekly class, don't put too much pressure on yourself. Let's say you've been dancing for 5 years, but always your own personal improvisation. Then you start classes with a new teacher, and you discover that other students who have been dancing only a year are learning faster than you. That could be discouraging.

But remember, if they started with that teacher in the first place, and if she taught them at the beginning how to learn choreography, they have more experience with that particular skill than you do. They have also previously been exposed to that teacher's favorite step combinations, which you may be seeing for the first time. Don't place yourself into the trap of thinking that you should learn faster than they do just because you've been dancing longer.

As you adjust your goals & expectations to match what's realistic for you, you'll put less stress on yourself. It's hard to learn something new when you're feeling stress. So plan your goals according to what makes you comfortable. Take that corner of your brain that was fretting about your fear of failure, and redirect it to enjoying the class. You'll learn more!


PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.



"Go Across the Floor"

You may have noticed that people with a "dance background" in ballet, jazz, modern dance, or other mainstream dance forms often learn choreography more easily than people whose sole dance experience has been with belly dance. At a workshop, the people with "dance backgrounds" are typically those who learn the choreography being taught more quickly, while everyone else struggles.

Why? It's because of the type of class format the "dance background" people are accustomed to. In ballet and other mainstream dance classes, the instructor typically incorporates an exercise called "go across the floor". The structure of this exercise helps train the student's brain to learn new material very quickly. In contrast, belly dance classes rarely contain this type of exercise, and therefore belly dance students are not given the opportunity to develop this skill.

Ask your regular weekly teacher to add "go across the floor" to her classroom format and spend at least 5-10 minutes on it each class. If she's not familiar with this teaching tool or if she's not willing to use it, consider taking some classes in ballet, modern dance, or jazz to gain the benefits of it.



Absorb the Music

Good choreography is chosen to match the music. Of course, this seems obvious, doesn't it? It's hard to become familiar with a brand-new piece of music at the same time you're learning brand-new ways to move your body and trying to do them in a particular memorized order. So if you can become very, very familiar with the music outside of class, then when you come to class you'll already know what to expect next in the music and you can concentrate just on learning the movement.

If possible, get a copy of the music before the day of the workshop. Or, if you're learning choreography over the course of several weeks, find out the first night of class how you can get a copy of the music and go get it immediately.

Now, listen to it. A lot. Put it on your MP3 player, or burn it to a CD. Play it in your car or listen to it on the bus when commuting to and from work every day. Listen to it while you're eating supper, bathing the baby, doing yard work, or while you're sitting in your doctor's waiting room.

Jot down notes about how the song is structured. Most songs can be divided into 4 or 5 distinct melody segments. If a song is in the verse/chorus format, there will frequently be a couple of different melody segments in the verse, another used for the chorus, and one more as an instrumental interlude between the chorus and the beginning of the next verse. Learn to anticipate these as you listen to the song.

Give each musical segment a name: "Verse 1st half," "Verse 2nd half," "Chorus", "Interlude". Or, "Melody 1," "Melody 2," "Melody 3," "Melody 4," and so on. As you listen to the song, write down which musical segment you're hearing at that moment. When done, study what you have written. Listen to the song, and review its structure. The better you know the music, the better you'll be able to associate the dance moves of the choreography with it.

Finally, go over the music and identify which dance move from the choreography goes with which melody segment. Some choreographers follow patterns, always using the same move (or a variation of it) each time a certain melody line appears. Others don't do that. Study the structure to see if you can spot a pattern in the choreography for this particular song. For example, in one dance I choreographed, I used variations of basic Egyptian for Instrumental 1, variations of point-point-point step for Instrumental 2, some sort of side-to-side move for Vocals 1, and some sort of "in your own circle" moves for Vocals 2 & 3.


PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Kaylyn Hoskins, Solon, Iowa.



Learn At Your Own Pace!

Know your limits. If you're a less experienced dancer than your classmates, don't expect yourself to learn as quickly as they do. Do what you can, and don't feel bad if you're doing less than they are.

Your instructor may be teaching finger cymbal rhythms to accompany the choreography. If you find that playing the cymbals causes you to lose your focus on the movements, then for now don't play the cymbals.

Similarly, you may find that you can get the move as long as you stick with doing just the feet and hips, but as soon as you add arms you lose it. In that case, don't add arms just yet. Do what you can, and focus on getting that right.

If your classmates seem to be learning it, remember that they may have more experience than you do with memorizing choreography, playing cymbals, or already knowing how to do some of the combinations used in this particular choreography. So don't be angry at yourself and don't become discouraged if it's more than you can handle. Concentrate on learning what you're ready for, and accept that it may be less than what your classmates are ready for. There's no shame in knowing your limits and accepting them.

Please don't give up, even if it's difficult. Let's say you're in a 4-hour workshop, and two hours into it you know you can't cram even one more move into your head. In that case, move to the back or side of the room. As the instructor rehearses the group through what she has taught so far, dance the part that you've mastered so far, then step out of the way for the part that you're just not ready to learn. Use this time to write notes to help you remember the things you want to remember.

Remind yourself that the real benefit of learning choreography is to learn new step combinations that you can incorporate into your own personal dance style, combinations that you can build into your own solos.

As the workshop progresses, learn each new step combination. You may discover that your favorite combination from the entire dance is taught near the end of the workshop.


PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.



Rehearse in Your Head

This tip won't help you much in making it through a 4-hour workshop where the choreography is all taught at once, but it will help you learn choreography that is taught over the course of several weekly classes or troupe rehearsals.

Now that you've absorbed the music and you know it so well that you know what's coming next, you're ready to begin mental rehearsal. The great thing about mental rehearsal is that you can do it anywhere: in the car, while doing yard work, in the grocery store checkout line, or anywhere else you have some time to pass.

Write down everything you've learned so far in the choreography, if you haven't already done so. Consult your notes and memorize the first two moves, in order. Just the first two. You can come back for the rest later.

Start the music and envision yourself dancing those first two steps. Then go back to the beginning and repeat. As you do this mental rehearsal:

  • Envision yourself easily making the transition from the first step into the second.
  • Picture what your hands and feet are doing to make the transition.
  • Pay attention to what the music is doing. Analyze how the movement fits with that particular part of the music. Try to link the music in your head with the movement that goes with it.

When you feel totally confident that you know how to move from the first step into the second, add the third move to your mental rehearsal. Again, keeping rewinding and mentally repeat the three moves together in order many times, thinking about how to transition from one to the next.

Continue adding one move at a time to your mental rehearsal. Take the time to absorb each move and truly understand the transition into it before you add another.

If you find that you don't know which move comes next, press "pause" on your music player and stop to think. Don't go any further until you remember. Try first to remember without consulting the notes, but if that doesn't work, go ahead and consult the written notes. Then go back to the beginning and try again.

Do this over and over and over in your car, on the commuter train, while doing yard work, while bathing the baby, and any other time you can listen to music on the go. Repetition is the key to memorizing. You'll be surprised at how effective mental rehearsal can be!


PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Pixie Vision Productions, Glendale, California.



Keep It Simple!

It can be easier to learn smaller chunks than to memorize an entire piece all at once.

Here's one approach...

Group the choreography into small, logical segments. Give each one a name. For example, "the first verse", or "the baladi section", or, "the section with the flutes", or "the first combination". Then, pick only one segment at a time, and focus on learning it in depth. Once you have mastered one segment to the point where you can do it without having to stop and think about what comes next, then you can work on learning the next segment. Eventually, you'll know the entire dance.

Another way to do this....

Pick an individual step combination that appears in the choreography, then drill that one combination over and over many times. Next, drill another combination from the choreography, again repeating it over and over many times. Eventually, once you have reached the point of knowing each combination so well that you can do it without thinking, then for your next step you can memorize the order of the combinations.



Know Yourself

Education researchers have discovered that different people learn in different ways. Some of us learn best by absorbing information that our eyes collect. Some of us learn best by paying attention to what our ears are hearing. And some of us learn best by using physical movement. Assess yourself - which learning style works best for you?

Now that you know which way you learn best, think about how you can use that knowledge to learn choreography more easily. For example, I learn best from what I see. I retain what I've read in a text book much better than I retain what I hear in a lecture. So if the instructor gives me written notes for the choreography, I keep them with me and consult them as I learn it. If she doesn't give me written notes, I write my own.

If you learn best when you hear something spoken, ask the instructor for permission to use a small cassette player to record what she says during class. Also focus on listening to what she says, and listening to what the music is doing as you practice it.

If you learn best by using physical movement, focus your mind on how to do the transition from one move to the next. Practice just the transition, over and over. It may also be helpful to hand-print your own copy of the written notes two or three times - that motion of writing down what to do may help imprint the movement in your memory.

You may have additional ideas on how to draw upon your preferred learning techniques to memorize choreography. Experiment with them, and explore what works best for you.


PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Pixie Vision Productions, Glendale, California.



Take Notes

Some instructors will give you written notes. Some won't. If yours gives you notes, keep them with you while she is teaching, and consult them to see what words she used to describe each move that she teaches. Then add your own comments to explain the move in words that you will be able to understand later. Draw stick figures if necessary.

Don't just passively accept the notes and put them away. The act of describing the move in your own words will force your brain to analyze what you have learned, and that will help you remember it.



Practice, Practice, Practice

When you do have time and space to dance, practice the choreography. Use that mental rehearsal to help you anticipate which move comes next, and do it. Pay attention to what the music is doing, and think about how the move matches it.

Practice will transfer the moves from your brain into your body. It will help you identify transitions where you need special focus.

If there's a particular step that you always forget, try this: first, examine how the previous step ends. Analyze what you need to do with your feet, your hips, and your arms to transition from the previous step into the one that you always forget. Now, practice just two steps: the previous step followed by the one you usually forget. Emphasize in your brain the process of ending the previous step by then proceeding through the transition, whatever it is. In your head, revise the ending of the previous step by adding the transition to it.



Other Ideas

Some people find that inventing memory aids helps. For example, give every step the name of an animal. You might call an undulating step a cobra step, or a bouncy step a jackrabbit step. If the undulation comes after the bouncing, imagine the cobra chasing the jackrabbit.

Find a classmate to practice with outside of class. Together, the two of you can help each other remember what is being taught.

If you have a learning disability, consult a professional educator with expertise in your particular disability to advise you on techniques that may help you work around it.


PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by William M. Smith, Iowa City, Iowa.



If All Else Fails

First, don't blame yourself. It's possible that this particular choreography is especially hard to learn. Not all choreographers create intuitive, easy choreography. One key to easy-to-learn choreography is repetition. If this one doesn't have much, that might explain why you're having trouble learning it.

Second, again remind yourself that your classmates may be more experienced than you at learning choreography, or they may have in the past learned other choreographies created by the same person, and therefore may be familiar with how that choreographer uses turns, direction changes, and other stylistic details. Learn what you can, and stick to realistic goals that work for you personally.

Third, if you're learning the choreography over the course of several weeks, practice my suggestions for mental rehearsal and applying your preferred technique for learning (sight, hearing, movement). With practice, these techniques will become more intuitive for you, and they'll make it easier to learn future choreography.

Fourth, again, ask your teacher to use "go across the floor" as a classroom exercise, or take classes from a dance teacher who does use this format. It may be necessary to choose ballet, modern, or jazz dance, because many belly dance teachers don't do this.



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