Whether you're polishing choreography for your upcoming student showcase, or boosting your stamina for your summer intensive (or both!), these tips for better memory will come in handy!
- Better learning through oil. Yep, rosemary oil contains a compound that helps with memory formation.
- Understand that the first few weeks will be a struggle. Common sense tells us that it takes time to master something, and studies have shown that brain activity spikes during the first few weeks of learning new choreography. It stabilizes after a few weeks, once you've "mastered" the new information.
- Power naps are your friend. If you have the chance to snooze or zone out in front of Netflix, choose the former. German researchers found that people were better able to retain information after a nap than after a binge session.
- Coffee, coffee, coffee! (In moderation.) It can boost your short-term memory. Yay!
San Francisco Ballet corps member Julia Rowe’s first run-through of Mark Morris’ intensely complicated ballet Maelstrom did not go the way she’d planned. “I went to do my first entrance and blanked—completely,” she says. “I’d already had a full day of learning other ballets and my brain was fried, but there was no time to stop, so the music just kept playing. It took me an eternity to get my bearings and remember at least some of the steps, let alone the timing.”
Memorizing choreography—and retaining the steps and counts—is a skill as important as pirouettes or allegro, and nearly every dancer struggles with it at some point. New company members may have it especially hard, though, when the sudden challenge of learning a large amount of repertoire in a very short time can overload an already fatigued brain and body. Gaining mental stamina takes time and practice, but there are plenty of strategies to improve your brain’s power, speed and focus.
Lay Some Groundwork
First, give yourself a head start by becoming familiar with the ballet beforehand. Watch a video to get an idea of the piece’s structure and style, and listen to the music as much as you can, especially if it’s unusual. Joffrey Ballet’s Fernando Duarte found that studying the notoriously daunting Stravinsky score to Le Sacre du Printemps actually helped him learn the steps, too. “It was a lot of choreography,” he says, “but I listened to the music every day on Spotify to hear the accents and get the counts, and finally I got it.”
After Rowe’s terrifying blank-out, she had a revelation: “It occurred to me that if I could remember how the music went, surely I’d remember the steps to go along with it. That night, I went through the entire ballet and sang the choreography like words to a song. I did the same thing in rehearsal the next day. It worked! I didn’t miss a beat (or a step).”
So Many Steps, So Little Time
Dancers are trained to be detail-oriented, but when the pressure is on to learn quickly, getting stuck on specifics can slow you down. Take your time—particularly with unfamiliar movement. Watch the choreographer or ballet master move before you try to imitate. “Seeing and absorbing with my eyes first is more beneficial for me and actually makes it easier to repeat it afterwards,” says Duarte. “I can understand what they want, and I don’t miss things when they’re turning or facing backwards.”
Focus on the big picture first, advises Rowe. “Establish your outline and then fill in the details,” she says. “If you’re struggling with a phrase, bookmark it and move on. Nine out of 10 times, it will make much more sense when you come back to it later.”
If it doesn’t, think about the transitions before and after your roadblock. Jeffrey Stanton, a ballet master at Oregon Ballet Theatre, says, “It’s as if you’re learning a sentence instead of just words. Connect them all together and train your brain to know what comes next.”
Learning Multiple Roles—and Spots
As a new dancer, apprentice or trainee, it’s common to understudy multiple roles in one ballet—learning three Snowflake spots, for example—or to be asked to step in unexpectedly for a dancer you’re not officially covering. It seems like an impossible task, but Glenn Keenan, a ballet master for New York City Ballet who spent 10 years in the company’s corps, tells dancers to concentrate on one thing at a time. “Focus on learning one part really well, and then it’ll be easier to learn another one and transfer what you already know. But if you try to learn both at the same time, it’s nearly impossible.” Prioritize the part you’re most likely to perform, but stay aware of what else is being taught. And stay calm. Panic only leads to brain shutoff.
Often, reviewing material on your own is necessary to be completely prepared. Asking other dancers or the ballet master for help after rehearsal is a great way to feel more on top of the choreography—and show you’re motivated. And if you’re understudying, remember that it’s in the best interest of the person you’re covering that you know their part, so they’ll likely be eager to help. They may even be able to offer insider tips or explain details you missed.
While some people are naturally faster learners than others, memorizing choreography is part of every dancer’s life. But remember that your brain is a muscle, too—and with practice, patience and some mental discipline, it will become as flexible, strong and fast as your body.
Losing Your Concentration?
Staying focused when your body is tired isn’t easy, but getting frustrated will only sabotage your ability to learn quickly. Here are some tips for keeping your mental stamina sharp.
Visualize the steps, mark them or write them down to cement the sequence in your head without expending unnecessary energy on dancing full-out.
Shut out distractions. “Stay in the zone,” says Oregon Ballet Theatre ballet master Jeffrey Stanton. “Focus on what you’re doing, who you’re dancing with, and forget about who’s watching from the doorway.”
To cope with a heavy workload, compartmentalize your day. Concentrate solely on what you’re doing at any given moment without stressing over your next rehearsal.
When you get a break, take it. Not only will your muscles rest, but your brain will also have a chance to process what it’s learning. Setting it all aside for even a few minutes to read, chat with friends or think about something unrelated to dance will help you recharge.
Calf Stretching 101
From the first plié at barre to the last grand jeté of class, your calves are extremely active. But do you devote the same attention to those muscles during your cooldown? According to Michelle Rodriguez, founder and director of Manhattan Physio Group, sitting in a lazy lunge or hanging your heels off a step doesn’t cut it. Rodriguez, who has worked with dancers from New York City Ballet to Dance Theatre of Harlem, says a proper calf stretch isn’t complicated, but there are several important details to keep in mind. Here are her do’s and don’ts for an effective stretch:
Do pay attention to form. To target the gastrocnemius (the round muscle at the top of the calf), stand in a lunge with your hands on the wall, hips square, front leg bent and back leg fully straight with the heel firmly rooted into the ground. Keep the back leg in a slightly toed-in position. “This allows for support of the mid-foot,” says Rodriguez, “and keeps it from rolling in so the stretch occurs in the calf.”
Don’t forget about the soleus. If you trace a line from your Achilles tendon up toward your knee, this is the first muscle you’ll encounter. Rodriguez says, “It is important to stretch the soleus and gastrocnemius muscles separately despite them coming together to form your Achilles.” To stretch the soleus, start in the same lunge, but move the back foot closer to the wall and bend the back knee. Keep the heel down and back toes angled slightly inward.
Don’t rush it. Stay in each position for 30 seconds before switching legs. This is the minimum amount of time it takes for muscle fibers to establish a new length.
Do wait until after dancing. That’s when stretching is most beneficial, since the muscles will be warm. “Dancers should stretch their calves three times per day,” says Rodriguez. Do so once class, rehearsal or a performance has ended.
Don’t use a stair to stretch. Though it may be tempting, don’t rely on hanging your heel off a ledge or step. This puts excessive force on the Achilles tendon and causes the tendons and muscles in the toes to work too hard.
Do stretch in a weight-bearing position. As long as you’re not injured, Rodriguez says calf stretches are much more effective when done standing as opposed to lying on your back and using a belt or strap.
Don’t rely on props, such as a half-wheel rocking device, says Rodriguez. Though it’s designed to stretch the calves, it lacks support in the arch and may encourage dancers to hyperextend their knees while stretching.
Turn It Down a Notch
You’ve been prepping for your debut as Kitri for several months now, and you’ve been listening to the score through your headphones nonstop to make sure you know every little nuance. The last thing you’re probably thinking about is harming your ears. But according to the National Institutes of Health, an estimated 26 million Americans, ages 20 to 69, already have irreversible hearing loss caused by exposure to loud sounds, and up to 16 percent of teens have hearing loss that also may be a result of noise.
But how loud is too loud? Long bursts or repeated exposure to sounds 85 decibels or higher can cause damage. And beware: The louder a sound is, the faster it harms the ears. Check out the chart to see how your iPod tunes rank with other common tones:
Sound Decibel Rating
Hum of a refrigerator 45 dB
Typical conversation 60 dB
Hair dryer 85 dB
Motorcycle 95 dB
Mp3 player at highest volume 105 dB
Rock concert 110 dB
Siren 120 dB
Firecrackers 150 dB
It’s only every dancer’s worst nightmare. You walk into rehearsal, and when it’s time to start reviewing yesterday’s choreography, your mind goes blank. But one simple trick might help you recall the steps in question: closing your eyes. For a study published in Legal and Criminological Psychology, participants were shown a video of a robbery and later asked to remember details of the event. Half answered the questions with their eyes open, and the others did so with closed lids. The results: Those who closed their eyes answered 23 percent more of the questions correctly. Before your next rehearsal, spend a few quiet moments with your eyes closed. You may be able to recall more movement.
Do you have difficulty remembering choreography? Try spraying on some rosemary oil before rehearsal. A recent study at the University of Northumbria at Newcastle in the UK found that smelling the scent of rosemary could help boost your memory. Researchers think this might be due to eucalyptol, a compound found in rosemary oil that evaporates into the air and can be absorbed as you breathe, and has been shown to play a part in memory formation when it reaches the brain. One little spritz of rosemary won't magically transform you into a quick study, but it could help get you one step closer.