How I Help Students Pick Up Combinations Faster

David Alonzo Jones has been a guest instructor for both Dance Masters of America and National Association of Dance Artists, and is a professor of Dance at the College of Marin. Today, he shares one of his favorite tools for helping his students learn combinations, routines, and choreography and why it’s become so.

I remember it like it was yesterday.

David Alonzo JonesA group of guys and girls in a dorm complex at the the University of Oregon trying to learn some movements to music that some theater guy wanted to put together for a presentation.

Even though at the time I had been a starter on the frosh football team, the opportunity caught my interest and so, there I was, with a number of other closet-dance lovers, trying to learn what I later would get to know as choreography.

I remember, to this day, how frustrating that experience was.

The movements seemed easy enough, I could certainly hear the music and recognize the counts, but there was something about putting the movements together and remembering them that made things difficult and frustrating. And so was my introduction to sight-reading – the backbone of the dance performance experience.

Although very little is said about this skill, it is a fundamental, and I do mean fundamental, element of the dance experience, both in class, and for the development of performance pieces.

Sight-reading dance

I call sight-reading in dance the ability to repeat movements that have just been demonstrated with as much detail and accuracy as possible. It is a cousin to quickly learning a script in drama or reading sheet music. This includes which movements occur when in association with a piece of music, so this means not only learning movements in sequence, but in rhythmical order and/or syncopation. Sounds difficult, and it is.

The dance class is where sight-reading abilities are developed. African, Ballet, Modern, Tap, Jazz, and Hip Hop all employ this element at some point in the class. To some extent, dance exercise classes place emphasis on sight-reading, but since these classes focus on giving the students a ‘workout’, the movement vocabulary is relatively limited, which in turn abbreviates the movement content and tends to make the choreography somewhat repetitious.

Years of observation

My teaching experience has led me to believe that woman are naturally better at sight-reading than men. Over the years, the men in my classes have always fallen behind women in this ability. Perhaps future research will reveal why this is the case. My own theory is that women are more open to cooperative/social activities than men, so when they are placed in a group activity with a common cooperative goal, they readily adapt and learn.

I have noticed that, oddly, some of the seemingly most capable academically and/or intellectually, seem to have the most difficult time with sight-reading. If one accepts the idea of the existence of left brained and right brained people, we could say that left brained people, although great with mastering language skills, have a more difficult time with right brain skills like spatial orientation, which sight-reading requires.

Generally, the longer you take classes, the easier it becomes to read and remember movement, and so in that respect it is a skill that you learn by doing. Certainly, it is a skill that makes dance student recitals possible, and generally accompanies the dancer as she/he improves her/his technical skill.

Years ago, if you had difficulties reading and remembering movement in dance classes, or when attempting to learn choreography, you were just up the creek, and without a paddle. You had to swallow the idea that the desired sequences of movement, or choreography that you were attempting to learn was simply beyond your ability to grasp.

The Breakthrough

That was then. Things have changed. I have been using video as a tool to help dancers for the past ten years, and I am here to tell you that it works, and works well.

I have videotaped movement sequences and combinations from class and made them available for my students, and I have seen a phenomenal amount of progress in the students’ ability to remember class choreography. Of course, students have to be motivated to watch the videos and practice them.

Videos work because it just takes ‘X’ number of repetitions of seeing and attempting to do a movement sequence or routine before it can be mastered. You can run a video 1100 times if you need to, to finally memorize a pattern.

You won’t get that many reps out of a teacher in a class.

Mastery Enhances Sight-reading Ability

In my beginning classes, I usually have a semester combination. The video allows dancers to see patterns enough times for their minds to log them and then commit them to memorized sequences. As a result, the students perform that combination better.

The more you study with any teacher, the more familiar you become with the movements that they use and how they choreograph, so essentially your ability to pick up movements should improve regardless. Nevertheless, I have students who have taken class from me several semesters who still seem to enjoy the benefits the video provides.

Once a relatively ‘meaty’ combination is mastered, classes usually do quite well with future ones. So evidently, the whole process is enhanced by gaining a sense of mastery of that first routine and the confidence that comes from it.

For beginning students, and/or students experiencing a new instructor, it’s critical that, at some point, you experience that sense of mastery. This leads to more success.

Do you regularly incorporate video into your teaching/learning process?

David Alonzo JonesDavid Alonzo Jones holds an MA in dance from Mills College. He began his studies at the University of Oregon where he performed with the Ballet Company. In the Bay Area, his mentors were Gwen Lewis and Ed Mock. He has been influenced by such noted jazz specialists as Gus Giordano and Joe Tremaine. He has worked with the Village People, Taj Mahal, Luciano Pavarotti, and Harold Nicholas of the famed Nicholas Brothers. He also worked with the cast of the Las Vegas spectacular “Jubilee”, and performed with the San Francisco Opera’s productions of “Lost in the Stars” and “Aida”, which was televised live in Europe.

There’s an app for that:

Dance Journal costs $1.99 in the Apple app store. You can log each class you take and note what you learn, even adding video or photos to make things easier to remember. You can sort your entries by date, category, or instructor. And, if you have a friend with the app, you can send them your entries so that they can look at them too.

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Guest Contributors

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  1. Thanks for this great article! I am always trying to get my students a little faster at picking up combos. I good teacher friend told me he always teaches 64 counts in the last 20 minutes of class. I was not use to giving that much material to students but I’ve found it works! We also do what I call “Quick Studies”. I only show them the movement sequence (usually 4-8 counts) once. Then they have to show me what I have just done. It has taught my students to really pay attention and concentrate. LOVE IT!!

  2. A great article at the perfect time: Nutcracker season! I have very little time to give LOTS of choreography to my dancers. They are all smart but get frustrated when their intelligence doesn’t necessarily translate into quick memorization. I also try to remind them that they need to be in class regularly and consistently in order to pick up choreography.

    In class, I like to reverse combinations a lot – very good for the brain and memorization!

    Great article! Thanks! Will definitely be sharing~

  3. my favorite exercises in class are always when they teach us four different eight counts, and you do it in order 1-2-3-4, and then 1-3-2-4, and then 1-4-2-3 and then 1-2-4-3 etc… and then you get multiple dancers doing different groupings of the choreo at the same time, so they can’t rely upon watching other dancers anymore.

  4. How do you deal with the fact that the screen is showing a mirror-image of what you really want done? My daughter seems to have a knack for learning from video but I struggled with it for years because I would copy the video exactly and end up, for example, turning the wrong way.

    • If you have the option, Chelsea, record the movement from behind the dancer demonstrating. This isn’t possible when re-creating from a performance but for in-class or rehearsal material it works!

  5. Thanks for such a great article! I teach Bellydance to mostly adult women, who are new to dance or have not danced for years, so they are still developing their sight-reading ability. I first teach the breakdown of each moves/technique (if it is new) with drills to get the muscle memory engrained. I then demonstrate the new combination 24cts, teach it slowly with verbal cues and repeat 4-6 times together, I then watch them do it. Once they generally have this I then add on the next combination but usually teach no more than 2 new combinations each class and work on choreography for no more than 20 minutes at the end of each 1hr class. If I teach a workshop (2-3hrs) we will learn an entire choreography or as much as they can take on board and then film the rest for home study.

    When initially learning, some students definately sight-read (myself or other students), others respond more so to verbal cues. I always encourage my students to learn the music first as Middle eastern dance movements really sit on every percussive or melodic note and I have found that those who bother to learn the music will pick up the choreography quicker. I have been thinking about providing class based video footage of combinations so this article is great encouragement for me to do so and further support student learning.

  6. Rachel Avery says:

    Videos are great because they give us a reference for review when we pass onto the next choreography. Students can also see their progress. I also find that repeating the rythme vocally, instead of just counting or finding the accents while doing the movements works well.

    • I have a little boy who loves to dance. He had an IQ test and came back with a processes issue which means he can’t learn quick. He wanted to do a dance team and is this year only I think it was the worse mistake ever. He does fine with the prepared piece on stage but can’t learn choreography in 45 mins. The last competition we went to the other young boys got scholarships and he didn’t and is heartbroken. I video tape his normal classes but I think the team might be the worse thing for him. Any advise?

  7. Ms. Chrisrian says:

    I need advice in regards to a 22 year old that loves to dance, she has danced with school programs but not from her early years. She really wants to make a career of it, what if anything can she do now that might give her a chance, you help is greatly appreciated.

    • Just like other careers, to prepare as a professional, she’ll need to take professional-level classes or enroll in a pre-professional program, dancing daily under the eye of knowledgeable and professional instructors. College programs may be the best option if she doesn’t currently live in a city where professional classes are available.

  8. Nice article! After s multiple decade hiatus, started taking dance w Russian teachers. Hard combinations, no repition. They let me tape several advanced classes which I practiced a lot and I ended up making great progress over a year that they noticed.