Julia Rowe and Daniel Deivison-Oliveira in Giselle. Erik Tomasson, Courtesy San Francisco Ballet.

Brain Drain: How to Prevent Information Overload in Rehearsals

This story originally appeared in the August/September 2015 issue of Pointe.

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)."

A woman wearing a winter coat, hat and scarf and headphones walks through a city street at night. We only see her from the back.

Listening to the music can help the piece to sink in.

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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.

A woman writes in a blue journal on a white table. She wears a white top and has an iPhone and white mug next to her.

Writing steps down can help to cement sequences in your head.

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​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.

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The corps de ballet make up the backbone of every company. In our Fall 2020 issue, we highlighted 10 ensemble standouts to keep your eye on. Click on their names to learn more!

Dara Holmes, Joffrey Ballet

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Dara Holmes and Edson Barbosa in Myles Thatcher's Body of Your Dreams

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Wanyue Qiao, American Ballet Theatre

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Wanyue Qiao as an Odalisque in Konstantin Sergeyev's Le Corsaire

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Joshua Guillemot-Rodgerson, Houston Ballet

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Leah McFadden, Colorado Ballet

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Leah McFadden as Amour in Colorado Ballet's production of Don Quixote

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Maria Coelho, Tulsa Ballet

Maria Coelho and Sasha Chernjavsky in Andy Blankenbuehler's Remember Our Song

Kate Lubar, Courtesy Tulsa Ballet

Alexander Reneff-Olson, San Francisco Ballet

A ballerina in a black feathered tutu stands triumphantly in sous-sus, holding the hand of a male dancer in a dark cloak with feathers underneath who raises his left hand in the air.

Alexander Reneff-Olson (right) as Von Rothbart with San Francisco Ballet principal Yuan Yuan Tan in Swan Lake

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India Bradley, New York City Ballet

Wearing a blue dance dress with rhinestone embellishments and a sparkly tiara, India Bradley finishes a move with her arms out to the side and hands slightly flexed.

India Bradley practices backstage before a performance of Balanchine's Tschaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2.

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Bella Ureta, Cincinnati Ballet

Wearing a white dress with pink corset, Bella Ureta does a first arabesque on pointe in front of an onstage stone wall.

Bella Ureta performs the Act I Pas de Trois in Kirk Peterson's Swan Lake

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Alejándro Gonzales, Oklahoma City Ballet

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Alejandro González in Michael Pink's Dracula at Oklahoma City Ballet.

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Nina Fernandes, Miami City Ballet

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She's also quite fond of designer handbags. "They're my go-to accessory, and they're also my weakness when shopping," she says, naming Chloé, Chanel and Dior as some of her favorite brands. "I really appreciate the craftsmanship it takes to produce one—they're so beautiful and each has its own story, in a way."

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The Details: Street

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BCBG blazer: "It has some shoulder pads and a really cool pattern," says Generosa. "It reminds me of my mom and '80s fashion."

Zara blouse: She incorporate neutrals, like this white satin button-up, to balance bright pops of colors.

Angelica Generosa looks off to her right in front of a glass-windowed building. She wears a blue blazer, white blouse, gray jeans and carries a small green handbag.

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Madewell jeans: Comfort is a major factor for Generosa, who gets her fashion inspiration from her mom, friends and people she comes across day to day.

Chloé bag: "I tend to have smaller purses because I'm quite small. Bigger bags overwhelm me sometimes—unless it's my dance bag, of course!"

The Details: Studio

Angleica Generosa, wearing a blue tank leotard, black wool leggings and pink pointe shoes, balances in a lunge on pointe with her left leg in front, facing a wall of windows.

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Label Dancewear leotard: "This was designed by my good friend Elizabeth Murphy, a principal dancer here at PNB. Her leotards always fit me really well."

Mirella leggings: "I get cold easily," says Generosa, who wears leggings and vests to stay warm throughout the day.

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Freed of London pointe shoes: "When sewing them, I crisscross my elastics and use an elasticized ribbon from Body Wrappers," which helps alleviate Achilles tendon issues, she says. She then trims the satin off of the tip of the shoe. "Then I bend the shank a bit to loosen it up and cut a bit off where my arch is."

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"Nutcracker is a tradition that is ingrained in our hearts," says UBC co-founder Lissette Salgado-Lucas, a former dancer with Royal Winnipeg Ballet and Joffrey Ballet. "We danced it for so long as professionals, we can't wait to pass it along to dancers through this competition."

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