For years, I hated choreography. Learning steps and having to memorize counts gave me anxiety. Falling behind the rest of the class made me feel inadequate. And learning movements described as "male" and "female" just led me to dissociating in dance class. As a dancer who started learning as an adult, I have struggled with imposter syndrome--narratives of "I'm not a real dancer."
Have you ever felt like this?
I can't tell you how much I longed to move with the freedom and power I saw in other dancers. But when it came time to learn choreo, it was like trying on someone else's clothes and nothing fit right.
When the pandemic hit and every dance class went online, learning became more difficult than ever before. Videos were accidentally mirrored. Mic's cut out or drowned out the music. Wifi connections caused lag. And navigating spatial awareness from a flat screen was not easy.
Why am I sharing this? It's because I don't want you to give up.
To be honest, I still struggle with comparing myself to those who have an embodied fluency with movement. Often, dance classes are taught by folx who speak "movement" as their first language. They have been dancing and moving for years. I have often found myself judging myself for not being able to understand and replicate the movements with the perceived ease I see in others. That comparison has short-circuited my mental focus and undercut my ability to learn. Layer that on top of "zoom fatigue" and you'll understand why I've had actual anxiety attacks locked in my bathroom, trying to learn one minute of choreo.
When I feel comparison and envy rising when I get frustrated, I do my best to be kind to myself, and accept exactly where I'm at. Like any language, we learn through practice, trial and error. Over time and immersive practice, our confidence and fluency grows. Dance is no different.
Over the past year, I've been confronting my choreo-phobia head on. I'd like to share 5 steps I use to effectively and efficiently learn choreography online. Using these steps, I can even pick videos from my favorite dancers and choreographers online, and learn them at my own pace, without stepping foot in a (virtual) studio.
I used to think I wasn't "good enough" at dance to learn on my own, but that narrative no longer serves. I use these steps when I'm in dance class, movement classes in school, or picking up choreo from a video I found online. I hope these tips help you in your home dance practice too!
[Accessibility note: I am referring to visual learning from online dance videos and classes.]
1. Find the beat: What is the count of the music? Try tapping your foot, waving a hand, nodding your head, or clapping along as you find the beat. I invite you to think of this as the "pulse" of the music. Knowing the beat (and where it changes) can help keep in time, even when practicing at different speeds.
2. Learn the music: Being able to hum the tune, sing the lyrics, and repeat the beat help us translate music into our own body language. This is not for performance sake. Learning the music until it is second nature keeps anxiety down by reducing anticipation or fear of not knowing. If I'm learning or creating choreography, I listen to the song on repeat until I know it in my heart. First, I listen to it openly. Then I try humming or singing along. Then I listen a million more times until I feel confident I know it. If you want to test your music learning, I invite you to try singing or humming the song, a capella.
3. Slo-mo is your friend: This is applicable to video replays of choreography. I *love* slowing down the YouTube playback speed when learning choreography. After watching the original choreo at normal speed, rewind and set the playback to 0.25 or 0.5. Start with the first 8-count of music (this is why finding the beat and knowing the song are super helpful), mirroring or taking notes (more on that below) as you go. When you feel confident with that first 8-count, go on to the next, building at slo-mo. Then, when you've completed your slo-mo learning, try it without the video to check your retention. On your next passes, set the playback to 0.75, and see how you feel. Again, practice without the video to check retention. Finally, dance along at the original speed and see how it feels! The point is not to replicate exactly what you see, but rather match the musicality and overall feel of the choreography.
4. Taking notes: There is no right or wrong way to take notes, so long as they serve your learning. I keep a small notebook for dance. When I'm learning during the "slo-mo" phase, I make hash marks to show the beat, and write down key words in the lyrics where certain movements initiate, land, or need to be accented. Sometimes I draw little squares to track where the piece travels. The point is to create your own cheat sheet, so when you're running through without the video, you can jog your memory.
5. Make it your own: Each of us is unique in the way we move. Our bodies are not all perfectly symmetrical or controlled. That's okay! If you there is a turn or spin in the choreo and you are struggling to get it, it's okay to simplify the movement so you can keep with the overall musicality of the piece. If you do not have the flexibility or range or motion to bend, twist, or extend the way it's shown in the video, that's okay too! Go with what feels right with your body and is safe for your form. Use your creativity to adapt the steps and make it your own, so that you can dance full-out in your full authenticity!