Friday, October 4, 2013

A Learning Tip from Dancers

If you watch any of the numerous dance shows on TV, such as Dancing with the Stars, So You Think You Can Dance, or even Dance Moms, you know that dancing at the elite level requires a lot more than strong muscles, a flexible body, and fierce determination. Professional dancers are smart. Not only are their bodies working at a high level, but their minds are as well. When performing, dancers are juggling numerous thoughts as they strive to execute each movement as precisely as possible. “Point my feet, lengthen my neck, drop my shoulders, SMILE!” Somehow, dancers must get their bodies to perform all of these movements with specific qualities, all the while making the dance appear both physically and mentally effortless. As someone who has danced my whole life, I often joke that dance is the only kind of physical exercise I enjoy because dancing well means I don’t have any mental resources left to realize I’m exhausted!

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
To study this, researchers asked advanced ballet undergraduates to learn two routines on a Monday. On Wednesday, half the students marked Routine A and danced Routine B full out. The other half did the opposite. On Friday, all of the students rehearsed both routines full out once. This made it so that everyone was at least familiar with dancing the pieces full out. The students then performed each piece individually while being filmed. The videos were later watched by expert dancers who judged whether dancers performed the correct movement at the right point in the sequence and whether they executed the movement with the intended quality. For example, some movements were supposed to have a punching quality: strong, sudden, and direct; others were meant to have a floating quality: light, sustained, and indirect.

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.
Swan Lake
Why might this be the case? The researchers propose that it’s because dancing itself saps cognitive resources. When dancing full out, dancers are already using a lot of mental effort controlling their bodies so that they can execute complex movements correctly. If they mark the movements, they don’t have to focus on extending their legs properly or maintaining their balance. Instead, they can concentrate on committing the specific movements to memory. Marking clears the mind, making more room for learning steps with the proper sequence, timing, and quality. Once all the elements of a dance are learned, they can, of course, then be more easily performed with all of the necessary components intact.

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!
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


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  2. This is really interesting! At my ballet school growing up, we were only allowed to mark once we had already learned the piece to the choreographer's satisfaction; being allowed to mark was something you had to earn. It never occurred to me that marking might help learn a piece. Thanks, Kate!

    1. Hi Ebbe! Thanks for your comment - that is super interesting! When I read this research, I was wondering how many dancers really think that the sole purpose of marking is to conserve energy, but it sounds like at your studio, that was the teachers' perspective. Maybe this research will help some dancers learn choreography more quickly, which would leave more time for making the performance as a whole better. Thanks for reading :)

  3. See my earlier blog post on marking as symbolic practice to enhance performance across other physical and cognitive tasks - - Welcome your comments at

  4. I really enjoyed reading this blog post, dancers have always been interesting to learn about to me! I am in a psych 101 class and this sounds pretty similar to something I read in the class recently, I feel like marking dance steps isn't the only reason why it is easier for professional dancers to catch on to a dance so quickly. I believe this because I read about something called Neuroplasticity, which is changes in the physical structure of the grey matter around/in the brain when induced by continuous training. It refers to your brains ability to change in response to learning, active practice, or environmental changes, and as a end result this improves your ability to perceive and remember what you are constantly practicing. So this can happen to the brain for all kinds of reasons if your environment changes or with constant practicing of activities, like juggling or dancing. Although marking/minimizing the newly learned dances steps makes it feel easier for the dancers to practice and catch on to the dances, but that's really not the only reason why they are catching on so quickly. As they are watching and learning the new steps from their instructors, there bodies may be physically “marking the steps” but their brain is working and playing a role in that too. This practice triggers that part of the brain where Neuroplasticity happens, the active learning and practicing of the dance moves causes your brain to change and builds the ability to perceive and remember the dance steps. And with the help of Neuroplasticity, it becomes easier and easier to remember the moves and get the dance down.

    1. Hi Megan - yes, no question that it gets easier and easier for dancers over time to pick up choreography, and you are right to point out the role of neuroplasticity. Thanks for your thoughts and for reading!

  5. I am a dancer and marking does help dancers remember the choreography. I think that this also has to do with the sensory neurons in your brain. The sensory neurons convey information about the environment from specialized receptor cells in the sense organs to the brain. So to me it seems that seeing the choreography and hearing when we are suppose to do the certain parts of choreography would be information transmitted through the sensory neurons to our brain to help us remember it and to also help us carry through the choreography we are asked to do.

  6. This is a very good blog post that I personally can relate to in a way. I believe that the "marking" technique is effective due to the limbic system. The limbic system is in charge of the role of one's learning, memory, and emotional control abilities. When dancing, there are many moves one must memorize and the limbic system is what helps someone learn and remember the dance moves. The hippocampus, a part of the limbic system, is in charge of learning and forming new memories making it easy for one to learn a new move and remember it later on. The cerebellum in your brain, is in charge of coordinating movement, balance, and posture. So when a dancer is "marking" their moves, the cerebellum is the part that helps with the movement and balance of those moves. Neuroplasticity, also known as brain plasticity, is the brain's ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the neurons in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment. By dancers not doing their routines full out every single time, their brain must slowly adapt to the changes of simply just "making" their movements. This also saves them energy and time and is less stressful on the brain because marking is easier for the dance to be learned. When it comes time to do the routine full out, they know their exact movements because the brain has had time to memorize and break down each movement. That is why I believe the dancers in the blog who had marked their routine, had better movement quality because they had given their brain time to break down the routine with step by step marks.

  7. I found this article particularly interesting because i am a dancer myself and have to learn new dances and deal with all these processes daily. It was crazy to me when i realized how much of my brain i use at once to do a dance and i do it all the time. When i researched what parts of the brain we use for dance i got this:
    Primary Motor Cortex – Send neural impulses to activate muscles.
    Somatosensory Cortex – Body sensation – important for feeling movements.
    Premotor Cortex – Preparation of direction and spatial aspects of movement, and trunk control.
    Supplementary Motor Cortex – Planning sequences of movement and coordinating both sides.
    Cerebellum (Lobules IV & VII) – Coordinating leg muscles during cyclical movements.
    Right Frontal Operculum – Involved in movement sequencing.
    Cingulate Motor Area – Movement intention and allocation of resources.
    Superior Temporal Gyrus – Processing of heard music.
    Putamen – Select and organize movements that have predictability or regularity, such as rhythmic movements.
    Thalamus – Link sensory and motor information during unfamiliar or irregular rhythms.
    Medial Geniculate Nucleus – Send beat information to the Cerebellum.
    Cerebellum (Lobules III, V & VI) – Help synchronize movement with music.
    Superior Parietal Lobule – Using sensed movements (kinesthesia) to help guide leg movements.
    All these parts come together at once to make something beautiful (or maybe not so beautiful for some) with our bodies. The idea that marking is the best idea for learning a new dance is great news for dancers to hear because it would be both mentally and physically exhausting trying to do the dance full out every time. The idea of dancing full out every time isnt a good idea anyways because we have to have time to process what moves go with what part of the movement so when we do dance full out, we will not create bad muscle memory. If we create bad muscle memory, it becomes harder for us to go back and clean it later so marking and connecting moves first gives our brains time to break it down and perform how it is supposed to look.

  8. By spacing out your routine and studying one area at a time, it's called distributed practice. That type of practice is way more effective compared to a massed practice, which is like cramming for an exam the night before or in this case, practicing the routine without stopping. My question is could you remember a routine perfectly, step by step, years after performing it? Is the routine placed into your short-term memory or long-term memory? I'm not a dancer but when I try to learn a new dance of you tube, its difficult for me to remember any of the steps after twenty minutes of doing it. I understand now that it may be because i practice in mass and not distributively.

  9. I once knew a chemist who finger-fiddled with chemical ball-and-stick models because it helped him visualize reactions. Is this marking? No need to answer.

  10. Professional dancers are smart.................
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