Learning Choreography Fast Without Pulling Your Hair

You’ve created a choreography for a hafla. Or you’ve chosen to take part in a choreography project like The Juniper Project, or Masmoudi Students, or like the Olivia Kissel Hybrid intensive. Or someone from your troupe has broken a leg and they need a replacement for their part. Either way, it doesn’t matter, you’ve got a limited amount of time and you need to learn a choreography.

The way a lot of people seem to tackle this is the usual: repeat until it sinks. Problem is, that takes a long time. Also, by merely repeating a choreography that you are learning, you are reinforcing the mistakes, wrong steps, wrong weight shifts… If you are not clear and clean on what one move is doing, you keep repeating it muddied. Basically, you are reinforcing all the bad patterns which you will then need to work even harder to remove.

Another typical way that people learn a new choreo is by learning a new bit and tucking it to the rest. So they learn the first 16 counts, repeat that a few times. Learn another 16 counts, do all 32 counts a few times. Lather, rinse, repeat. The issue with this approach is that you are repeating the first part far more than anything else, and the final far less. So you’ll have a strong beginning, and a weak ending, because if you’ve repeated each part 20 times before adding another, and you’ve got 5 parts, then you’ll have done the start 100 times, next part 80 times, until the final just had 20. Nobody wants that.

Other typical way is to start, wait to see where you are stumbling or making a mistake, stop at the mistake, and restart again from the beginning… lather, rinse repeat. So again you are reinforcing the first section, hoping that somehow you will clear up that stumbling block before moving on, and you are wasting time with sections that have no issue. Not ideal.

So, how do I do it? I use a combination of methods taught to me by my piano teacher at the National Conservatory back in my home country, and extra bits I gathered from Daniel Coyle’s The Little Book of Talent (which, btw, is a fantastic book, go get it!).

  • write it all down: I use a combination of words, squiggles, and symbols borrowed from Laban’s notation; some people do diagrams, you might know choreography script; it doesn’t really matter HOW you write it down, but the act of carefully considering all the elements of each movement will help your brain realise all it needs to do for each part. If you are working from video, this also saves you having to wait for the whole slow explanation each time, or having to figure out where in the video they are; with the notes, you can go “maya maya omi omi roll up shoulder shimmy”
  • split into manageable sections: with Masmoudi Students, we have videos for “weeks”; if you don’t have that, you can use definite sections in the music, verses if there’s singing, or any other way that makes sense to you. Once you’ve done that, split into even smaller chunks. I do it down to 8-16 counts, and this happens concurrently with the previous point, so while I am writing, each line is ideally a set amount of counts within its’ own section
  • grab your tools: mine include a free metronome and The Amazing SlowDowner from Roni Music. There are other options, either for your music player, phone or computer, some free, some paid. I got a nice little app for free for my old iPod which is very basic but does the trick too. Audigy allows you to do this if you’re using your computer for music. Whatever works for you, really; the idea is to have *something* that allows you to work slowly. Like PAINFULLY slow.
  • practice each section separately: and I mean each SMALL section of either 8 or 16 counts. Practice it slow, and use your notes. I prefer working on these small sections without the music, as that saves me having to wait for the bits before and after the loop; I use the metronome for the counts, but if not possible for whatever reason, I use the slow downed version. I also start each section from the pose where I would have ended from the previous section, and end with the pose/step you would have gone into. This makes joining sections later on easier. If one section is complicated enough that is still causing issues, I slow it down even more until it becomes doable and it flows
  • start joining small sections two at a time: keep working at snail pace focusing on getting the technique and the steps correctly. the slow speed will allow you time to focus on everything, and the short sequences will make them easier to memorise. Remember to always end each sequence with the beginning move or pose from the next
  • counter game: once you’ve got all of your small sequences from your big section paired, it’s time to start playing a game against yourself. Grab some counting items (I use coffee pods, you can use coins, buttons or whatever). By now you should have repeated each sequence enough to have it memorised, and you should start feeling comfortable with the pairs; some people find they are adding some sing-songing in their heads while doing each part that helps, some just count… again, this is personal. Whatever works for you to remember what you’re supposed to be doing in each section. Join the pairs, so there are 4 mini sections, and add one counter for each repetition you do without checking your notes, and without mistakes. Play this to win: “five repetitions, I will take a break” or “five repetitions I will move onto the next” or “five repetitions I will have a chocolate raisin”. Whatever challenges you. You want to make it more challenging, make it so that those five reps need to be consecutive; if you mess it up restart the counting. Repeat with the rest of the mini-sections in your chunk, and until you have done your main section several times without messing up; I prefer to use the music only when I start working on the main sections, and use the loop function on the Amazing SlowDowner to do this automatically so I can just keep on dancing
  • STOP and go have a nap: seriously, have a nap. Some neurophysiology studies suggest that a quick nap after learning reinforces patterns, as they give the brain time to process what it has just worked on; if I am doing this in the morning or afternoon, I try to go over what I learnt during the day right before bed, either by doing a quick once-over, or repeating it in my head, or if I am learning from a video, watching that particular section.
  • start the process again with the next section, ignore previous, or do a quick once-over after you’re done with this new part
  • join all main sections, again, keep at ridiculously LOW speed; by now you should be familiar enough with the material because of the individual repetition that you shouldn’t need much extra aid, and make sure you are working slow enough to repeat it without mistakes, as you want to reinforce the correct technique, steps and weight shifts and not to fumble around
  • identify weak spots and address them by working on that really small bit; even if it’s just a wrong weight placement during 2 counts, include the bit before and after to make sure your body picks up the context of the moves; work as slow as you need to.
  • speed up: once you can repeat the whole thing at snail’s pace, start speeding up; the current piece I’m learning, I’m working at 75% speed; for one I learnt in class with a teacher I worked at 80%. When you are able to do the piece several times really slow, up it a notch, say 5%, and try again; this will make the speed increase incremental enough that your brain should keep the clean moves while getting faster at it; if you want, bring up the counter game again; when you are fully comfortable with the speed, up it another notch until you reach full speed

Congratulations, you haven’t just danced your piece beginning to end, but you should have also memorised it along the way as the careful, mindful repetition should have reinforced the correct steps. Now go and have fun.

90 Day Bellydance challenge update

Right before the end of March I posted about Andalee’s 90 day Belly Dance Challenge. One of the points of the challenge is to do some sort of account/tabulation/journaling of what is going on, and why.

I started the challenge on the 1st of April, and it’s been going relatively well so far. I’ve skipped about three days, one of them because my ankle flared after too many turn drills in class, one of them because I was expecting to have an open floor at an event to dance and there wasn’t. Another day I had a fever and spent most of the day in bed. The day the tendonitis flared, I did propioception and physio instead, as it was the responsible thing to do. The day I was sick I managed the requisite 5 minutes with a slow ATS practice, and the day there wasn’t the open floor, I managed a couple of minutes while waiting for someone, plus plenty of chair dancing, so there hasn’t really been any day when there was *no* activity whatsoever, even though I haven’t stuck to the letter of the challenge.

It’s been interesting to notice some subtle changes as I am moving along. I always used to fidget while doing tummy rolls or whatnot, but it’s a lot more conscious now. I’ve been drilling quite a bit of ATS, mostly because this term we covered moves that required quite a bit of homework on my part (spins, learning proper spotting, some new vol. 9 moves), and I’ve also been practicing the solo I did in December to maybe do again in late April/May. With three classes or official practice sessions a week, and one day definitely set aside for ATS, What about the rest of the days? Here is where it gets interesting, as I’ve started figuring out how to fill in the rest of the week. I’ve had so far a couple of days where I’ve worked with zills, aiming to get used to playing them not for ATS, as I’ve been doing, but for Egyptian. It’s not been easy, but it’s been quite fun and exhilerating to get right.

I’ve also realised that I can do some “scattered” practice during the day, that does add up to quite a bit: five minutes of arms drills while watching a TV program, 5 minutes of tummy rolls while on the phone, 5 minutes of isolation combo drills while waiting for the kettle to boil, a couple of minutes of one-legged shimmies and propioception/balance exercises while talking to hubby, a couple more minutes of shimmies while doing the dishes, a few minutes doing undulations and torso twists at the desk while waiting for programs to open or items to render, and suddenly it’s nearly 20 minutes of dancing that I’ve barely noticed. This is great for those days when I can’t consciously set aside the time to practice, or when my body needs a bit of a break and I don’t want to be on my feet that much.

Have I seen any benefits? Hell yes! Aside from better overall stamina, my ATS this term has felt a lot more enjoyable, as I’ve seen very definite improvements. My spinning went, from barely able to do a couple at a pitiful 70bpm, to a more respectable 120bmp, so average of 10bmp increase a week since start of term. My TribalFusion isolations are becoming a lot quicker and sharper, or so I think, and I’ve been able to tackle much quicker combos presented by my teacher without wondering whether my body could keep up with them. My turns seem to have also improved, they do feel faster and I seem to finally be loosing my fear of turning without toppling over. I have to confess I haven’t been practicing the Egyptian choreos, mostly for lack of space (we are working on a fan veil choreography and I can’t use them in my house at all) but the overall sharper, faster moves are helping me use my practice time at the studio a lot better.

So, overall, very please with how things have been going so far. Ideally, I’d like to work a bit more on my zills, and start setting aside a day for working on developing choreography, but there’s still time for that while I settle into the flow.

I’d strongly recommend doing it, and even if you have missed the starting day, there’s always the option to extend the date. So what are you waiting for?

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