If you’re like me, then one of the challenges you have is remembering routines in social dance. I have been trying a technique to learn dance routines faster and I was pretty happy with how it worked for me so I am ready to share it.
However, before we get into details – we need to talk about chess.
If you have read much of my other stuff on dance, then you will know that I mainly focus on looking into areas outside of dance to find techniques that can help develop attributes ideal for social dance. One of these attributes is memory. So who has really good memory? Obviously memory champs do. However, so do chess players. Experiments demonstrate that master chess players can be shown a chess board with pieces as the might be in a game for only 5 seconds and then reproduce the board lay out exactly from memory. That’s up to 32 items each placed correctly within in 1 of 64 places after only 5 seconds to commit the items and their location to memory! That, to me at least, seems very impressive. However, the story takes an interesting turn when you learn about another experiment. If the chess pieces are placed randomly (not in a configuration that would be possible within a normal game), then the chess masters are no better than you or me (I assume you’re not a chess master as well as a social dancer) at remembering the positions of each chess piece.
Why was this?
The chess masters did not remember the locations. Instead, the remembered the strategy or the game of play. Once they knew the strategy that was evident in the game, they could infer with the limitations that come from the rules of the game where each piece would need to be. This means less memory is actually needed for a good memory. Instead, you need good understanding and reasoning for good memory.
How does this work for dance?
Dance is not random either. The foot placement and the positioning of the body are both limited by what went before and what needs to come next. They also need to fit with the music and the nature of the dance. You can use all of these with a smaller number of positions to be able to infer a routine and ‘Remember’ it. This however, is a skill that needs to be developed. I have found that if I focus on a few key points within a section on a routine (say 4 or 5, which is around the limit of short term memory and the reason why phone numbers come on sets of 4 digits) and how you get from one to the other, then I will recall the routine and remember it much faster.
I have spoken to a few other more experienced dancers too and they have said that they have found they can recall routines faster in a similar way. No one told them to do it that way; they just ended up doing it. It probably became natural as they became more familiar with the different steps that could be used. As one fellow dancer said while we were talking about it in a group ‘you go from learning letters (foot placements) to words (steps) to sentences (routines).’
You might have already realised that you do the same thing with other areas that you have a lot of experience in: sports plays, answers to exam questions, reciting stories, directions when driving to work, operating a complex piece of machinery etc.
There’s no reason why you can’t do this for dance either. Next time you need to learn a routine, try expanding the perspective you use when how you recall it. Instead of thinking about each foot placement, think of the key points in the routine and how you get from one to the other. You might still need to remember some specifics of each step, but that’s now a part of a different memory task, and this limits the memory reserves you need to put into learning the routine.
This all seems good, but I have found some issues. Even though I have recalled the routine quickly, I have not always been able to get the timing right. Also, it does not mean that I have the technique right. Learning the technique quickly might make your teacher think that everything else is ok too. You might have read the section in part 1 of my e-book on the ‘Halo effect’ and how teachers can forget how hard some things can be to learn. You might also recall from my previous writing that my biggest challenge is musicality. Indeed, when I used this memory method, I found my musicality became the major limiter to my progression. I knew the routine, but I needed to really drill it with the music to do it in time.
If you have any other memory techniques that you think help, then please share them in the comments section below. It’s good to share ideas so that we can all look for ways to improve.
One last thing - If you would like to read more about the memory experiments on chess players or about performing better in general, then I can recommend the book below. I have used it to improve my dance ability and to improve the way I teach (engineering; not dance).
For full disclosure - if you do buy this book via the link, then I will get a comission.