In addition to all the mental effort required of dancers onstage, there is a whole lot of it needed behind the scenes as well. In both rehearsals for performances and in classes honing one’s technique, choreography has to be committed to memory. At the elite level, choreography is taught quickly and in large amounts. Dancers have to be attentive and skilled at learning lots of information in a short amount of time and then putting that information to use immediately. Not only do they need to remember the movements themselves – where each part of the body should be - but they also need to memorize the timing of the movement and the quality with which it should be done. Because so many elements need to be encoded for each moment of a dance routine, learning choreography requires that dancers be completely present mentally.
|San Francisco Ballet rehearses|
What makes it possible for dancers to learn so much material in so little time? We all have our tricks for studying for exams in school, and dancers have one for learning choreography. One technique they use is called “marking.” To mark a dance means to go through the motions of the dance in a minimized way. For example, if a routine requires me to kick my right leg to my side as high as I can, when I mark that, I might point my right foot to the side and flick my right hand up. If I need to do a pirouette, I might just twirl my finger in the direction of the turn without rotating my whole body. When marking, dancers do something that represents the movement without actually dancing it “full out,” e.g. jumping as high as necessary or extending the body as long as necessary. Long thought to be just a method of conserving energy while rehearsing, new research shows that marking really is a “trick” for learning choreography. Marking choreography actually makes it easier to learn choreography.
|Students perform in class|
Whether participants marked or danced a routine full out did not have an effect of the amount of movement errors they made. In fact, there were few of these anyway as the participants were advanced dancers and the routines relatively simple. However, there were significant differences in movement quality based on whether the dancers marked the routine or danced it full out. Participants in the marked condition exhibited the right movement quality significantly more often than those in the danced full-out condition.
This new research challenges the notion that embodying our cognitions – enacting our thoughts with our bodies or using our bodies to somehow support our thoughts – is beneficial for learning. There are cases, like dance, when enacting those thoughts is so cognitively demanding that it can hinder learning. The authors suggest there might be other instances when minimizing movements helps learning, such as when basketball players practice free throws without a basketball.I’m sure that, for most dancers, the idea that marking has more cognitive benefits than dancing full out is not entirely novel. But I do think it feels nice to have some scientific support for marking. Next time you’re in the studio standing there just twirling your finger instead of doing a pirouette, remember that you’re not lazy - you’re just encoding the elements of the choreography more effectively!
If you weren’t familiar with dance marking before this post, what do you think of this learning strategy? If you’re a dancer, did you realize marking was helping you learn the material better than dancing full out? Let us know in the comments!
Reference:Warburton EC, Wilson M, Lynch M, & Cuykendall S (2013). The cognitive benefits of movement reduction: evidence from dance marking. Psychological science, 24 (9), 1732-9 PMID: 23863756