Memorising extensive sequences of movement is not an easy task. Memory is a very intricate process. We have different types of memories that our brain stores in various types of ways.
When it comes to memorising movement vocabulary, at some point the body just seems to know. This is what dancers call ‘muscle memory’. This ‘magic’ happens under a memory type called non-declarative memory which is stored in motor areas of the brain such as the basal ganglia (responsible for voluntary movement and motor programming) and cerebellum (contributes to coordination, balance, motor fine-tuning). In this type of memory, information is recalled unconsciously through performance rather than recollection, that is, we can retrieve the information without having to consciously think about it. When actions are repeated enough, they become automatised and do not need your conscious awareness.
In fact, conscious awareness can sometimes disrupt the process. In this one, if you experience a lapse the key is: do not think too hard!
So, what can be done to avoid lapses and improve memory skills?
This is the most common reason dancers reach out to me for. A lot of the times I hear ‘I do not have a good memory’ or ‘I just cannot do it’. The good news are: yes, you can! The first crucial aspect to consider is that oftentimes dance class environments and teaching methods are made for those who pick up fast, completely disregarding learning differences. Here it is important that you get to know yourself as a learner, understand what factors are interfering with your memory abilities and find what works best for you.
Non-inclusive teaching methods are not the only aspect that can difficult choreography memorization and cause memory lapses. Stress, anxiety, cognitive overload, distractions, negative self-talk disrupt memory formation and recall. Here, I am going to provide some general tips.
Give meaning to the movements! Meaning is memory’s best friend and emotion-based memories are easier to form and harder to forget.
Actively recognize movement patterns and relationships as this can aid learning and memory. It is easier to remember patterns than to remember separate unrelated chunks of information.
Use different types of cues: visual (e.g. imagery that guides the movement such as imagining walking on hot sand), auditory (e.g. chanting, counting) and motor (e.g. how the movement feels, marking). The more senses and ways you use to cue your movements, the more different places they will be stored in the brain. Therefore, when a lapse occurs, your brain has more resources to retrieve from.
Reduce cognitive load by eliminating potential distractions. You can also introduce ten minutes of mediation at the start of the class to reduce stress. Daily meditation practice has been shown to improve memory, learning and focus.