Does your brain get it?
Anyone who’s been in a class or workshop with me has probably heard me say this when checking in with students. Once I’ve presented and broken down a combo or section of choreography, I ask if their brain gets it before we move on. So what exactly do I mean by that?
In short, your body takes orders from your brain when dancing so if your brain doesn’t fully understand the instructions – what shape is your hip making, where is your arm and what foot are you supposed to be on – then the chances of getting an accurate result from your body are pretty slim. Of course, once your brain is clear on the instructions, the body does take some time to get it together and comply – that’s what drilling and practice repetition is for – but the brain has to get it first. This is an important step that I see dancers ignore. Being unclear, they fumble through an unclear movement or footsteps till they get to a part they are sure of. If you keep running through a combo with errors because you aren’t truly clear on what happens when, not only is it unlikely to resolve itself correctly, you may set and memorize patterns that are wrong. If it’s a group choreography, that is a real problem.
So how do you make sure your brain gets it?
In my experience, one of the best ways to thoroughly check your understanding of a movement sequence is to remove the pressure of the beat. Turn off the music and do a slow walk-through of the movements by yourself. Be patient. Don’t gloss over little ambiguities – those can get you in trouble. If you’re not sure why you wound up on your left foot when you’re supposed to be on your right foot for hip drops next, check it out. Did you take the right steps at the right time in the thing that came before it? Don’t just switch feet and move on. Track it back – was that supposed to be a 2 step pivot turn before the hip drops, but you took 3 steps? Well-written belly dance choreography is clear and uses logical and natural weight changes that set you up properly for the next movement. If a choreographer expects to keep dancers synchronized and looking clean together on stage, it’s a must.
Be proactive. Speak up.
If you find yourself with unclear gaps in your understanding of class material, ask specific questions. “I’m on the wrong foot for the hip drops and I can’t figure out why.” Sometimes I think students feel bad about asking questions. They apologize and for the life of me, I cannot understand why! When a student asks, I know they care about what they’re doing – they are really thinking about it. Almost always, the explanation benefits others in the class who just didn’t bother to ask. I love questions. They also help me to improve as an instructor by pointing out where I could have explained something differently or more fully, or where students find something is trickier than I anticipated.
The bottom line is I am there to TEACH, not just to present something. Teaching is a two-way communication process and answering students’ questions effectively is an important part of the job.
The mental integration process.
Once you’ve done the tedious task of working through your understanding of the mechanics of assorted body parts, the next step is to get it organized in your brain for speedy recall. That’s the part we call “memorizing the dance”. It’s all in there, but can your brain access it at the pace of your music? You’ll need to be able to do that in order to build the muscle memory that will kick in later- brain before body, remember? Once muscle memory is in place, you can move on to beautifying your transitions and attending to the graceful details that will really polish your dance, but you have to bake the cake before you can decorate it!
Here are a few tools to help with belly dance memorization:
- Train up. Make a reduced speed practice track using Audacity or other audio editing software. This is especially helpful if you’re working with fast music or choreography that has lots of quick, precise movement like in a drum solo. It’s your bridge between the take-your-time no music walk through I mentioned above and your final performance speed. Make a few speed versions if you need to take it in smaller steps. More on that here.
- Let the music talk to you! There’s a reason we shimmy at certain times and travel in others. Yes, there’s lots of artistic license, but again – well-written choreography should reflect what the choreographer hears in the music. There’s usually more than one thing to choose from (I could go on for days on this point!) but there should be something musically that the movement relates to – the rhythm pattern, the melody line or texture of a sound. Find it and let the music remind you of why a movement is where it is.
- Sing it! Although you may feel silly, singing cues to the steps is remarkably effective! The more senses we involve in the learning process, the better the results in my experience. Hum the melody line that hip circle reflects. Say “shimmmmmmmmmyyyy……pop! pop!”. Create cues that work for you.
- Do the mental practice. When I need to memorize choreography (yes, the teacher still has to memorize what she’s written!) I run through it in my head when I lay down at night and upon waking up. Visualize the movement – you may even feel it in your body as you lay there. Hear the music in your brain. Note where the next step doesn’t come to mind right away.
- Grease the groove. Do you have a stubborn spot where you repeatedly blank out about what comes next? Pinpoint it and take the last movement or two that you DO remember and the next one or two that you’re having trouble recalling reliably and drill that junction together over and over. Find a way to connect them – does the arm position or movement that came before create a frame for the next thing? Does it change direction? Find a way to relate your stubborn movement to the thing before it. Build the muscle memory for it with a targeted repeated drill of that specific spot.
- Paint the big picture. Some dancers find creating a “story” out of the movements is useful as a memory device. Others find that having a spatial map helps them remember. For example, go forward, then back, then move in a circle. The description of the path can cue your brain to recall the steps for each section. “Big picture” constructs of that sort can help you organize the order of the movements.
One of the most useful things you learn over years in dance is to learn how YOU learn best as a student, and how your students learn if you are an instructor. When you find the tools and methods that are effective for you, put them to work consistently. You’ll take some of the frustration out of learning and teaching choreography and move along more quickly to the more fun parts!