Are there any words more anxiety inducing to a performer than “You know how to _______________, right?” Because it doesn’t matter what the question is, the answer is always “Of course!” and then you spend the next week giving yourself an ulcer while trying to figure out how to do whatever it is. And maybe I am wrong, but it seems like more often than not it’s some particular style of dance that “trips” people up (both literally and figuratively). In my case, when a choreographer once asked if I could tap dance, I smiled widely and lied through my teeth. Being part of that show pushed my limits as a dancer, but I was determined to succeed. That night I went and bought a pair of second-hand tap shoes and stayed up for hours watching instructional videos on Youtube (how people learned to do anything before the internet, I’ll never know).
Here is a set of tricks that help me to pick up and master choreography on a tight schedule.
1. Listen to the Song as Often as Possible
The faster you learn the song, the easier it will be. And I don’t just mean the words. When Tchaikovsky wrote his first ballet, it was a dismal failure because he didn’t consult with the choreographer to ensure the music matched the steps. Any choreographer worth their salt knows that the movement must work together with the music, so learning the song is just as important as learning the steps. Train yourself to listen beyond the words to what the instruments are doing, the backbeats you hear, the nuances and the timing. It will help you to link the steps and be in time with the music, rather than just learning the sequence of moves for the routine independently.
2. Set Up a Dance Space
It is true that you can practice anywhere with open space, but some routines may involve props that are difficult to cart around. When I took on that tap number, I salvaged a piece of plywood from a friend and set it up in my garage. Not an ideal space, especially given that it was wintertime, and I needed to put on a hat and mittens to practice, but it worked. Having a designated space is also helpful for privacy and the freedom to experiment without feeling self-conscious about trying a particular move fifteen times over.
3. Record the Choreographer
With their permission, of course. Always ask first, it’s just polite. Most choreographers are very open to this because it shows initiative and a desire to improve. Plus it’s simple to do because of cell phones. Once you have the video, watch it back while you practice, one move at a time. Pay attention not only to the step, but to what each part of the body is doing during that step and try to emulate it.
4. Record Yourself
Do this as often as you can. It is easy to figure out what you need to work on when you can see it. Much like watching the choreographer, look at each move individually and pay attention to what each part of your body is doing. Are you leaning too far forwards? As one of my dance teachers used to ask, does your arm look like a dead chicken wing? Compare what you are doing to what the choreographer is doing. I even find it helpful to keep notes in a notebook.
5. Internet How-To’s
Not every instructor is going to teach to your style of learning. So if there is a particular step or turn you don’t understand, try searching it online to see how others do it. Youtube is chalk full of instructional dance videos, and it might take hearing it explained another way for it to click.
6. The 10 Minute Rule
Reviewing the choreography for ten minutes, three times a day will help secure it in your brain and your body memory. Finding a full hour or two when you have other commitments like a job, homework, family, etc., can seem like a daunting task. But you can always find ten minutes. And you don’t even have to practice it full out. It’s the repetition that is important. Much like riding a bike, the more you practice it, the easier it will be. So chunk your time and review for ten minutes in your kitchen while you brew your coffee, or while you wait for the bus.
7. Say It-Do It
This might feel ridiculous the first few times you try it. As you practice each movement, say out loud what you are doing, to the rhythm that you are doing it. It doesn’t even have to be the correct terminology, feel free to say it any way that will help you to remember it. But saying it out loud will help to commit it to your memory in a secondary way. To the point that when I am no longer saying the words out loud, my mind will automatically think them and my body will follow.