Strategies for Remembering Choreography

Help with remembering dance combinations and choreographyEver have trouble remembering what comes next in a dance?

One of the common struggles students face in class is recalling the sequence of choreography. Particularly, if you are a beginning student, you may not have yet developed the tools needed to quickly retain passages of movement. Everyone is different and you will need to find what works for you. The following are just a few techniques you might try the next time your teacher gives a combination.

Look for the Pattern

Photo by Eric Fredericks

Photo by Eric Fredericks

Choreography is not typically one, long, string of unrelated movements, though when it is given more quickly than you are used to, it can seem so. Generally you will be shown a sequence more than once. If you’re struggling to keep up with the rush of information coming your way, it may help to focus on the pattern first and worry about the movement second.

The pattern may relate to number of repetitions. For instance, 4 front, 4 side, 2 front, 2 back, 1 front, 1 side, 1 front, 1 back — it may seem an odd pattern, but if you’ve retained at least this, filling in the blanks will be easier.  Patterns may also be directional. Perhaps the choreography travels to the down-stage corner, faces upstage, downstage, then moves stage right.

Focus on One Aspect of the Choreography

Pattern is just one element of choreography. You might also choose to focus on other components, one at a time, to construct the sequence in your body and mind. For example, try focusing your attention on the feet alone if combining the arms, head, and rhythms all at once is proving to be too much information. This doesn’t mean you have to leave the other elements out altogether. Do what you can, but give yourself permission to let one thing go for the sake of absorbing the details of another. You can always layer the movements with more detail as you go.

Attach a Visual Image

Sometimes attaching a mental image to a step or series of steps can help you to put things in order. The movement’s name may offer clues – for instance Pas de Chat is “step of the cat.” This swift jump directly relates to the pounce of a feline. However, sometimes movements don’t have names or at least not ones that correspond to an image. So, it’s okay to attach your own visuals and/or terminology… no matter how strange.

What does each movement or series of steps bring to mind? Maybe your sequence looks like this: chopping vegetables, waves crashing, popcorn, ice skating. As long as the images make sense to you, you will likely be able to keep these images in order, aiding your memory of the choreography itself.

Photo by Scott Rettberg


Write it Down

Sometimes the act of writing, or seeing words or sketches on a page can solidify a chain of movement, particularly if there will be some time before your next class or rehearsal. You might try writing down the choreography (in whatever way suits you) as soon as possible after your class. This is not a technique that works for everyone and I have seen students get too attached to their new “cheat sheet. ” The key is remembering that this device is capturing memories you have not creating memories where there are none. The choreography is already stored in your body, putting it on the page is just mental repetition.


Speaking of repetition, there are lots of ways you might apply this prominent memory device. Though practicing “full-out” is most helpful, “marking” the movement can also be beneficial. Try marking as much as you can as the teacher demonstrates the combination or, whenever there are spare and appropriate moments during the class – while the first group performs, while the teacher is working independently with someone else, etc.

When there is a moment in the sequence that you trip or get stuck on each time it is performed. Try performing the movement prior, the problem spot, and the moment following, three or more times in a row. Then perform the whole thing again. You may find that this helps to correct the gap in memory you’ve been experiencing.

Also, never underestimate both mental (i.e. visualizing the choreography) and physical practice. This kind of repetition not only solidifies your memories but will bring to light the segments of the combination that seemed clear in class but are trouble spots in your memory.

Sing the Rhythm

Sometimes thinking of dance as a rhythm or melody can assist your recollection of the choreography. Your movement may alreay by set to music, however, the dance itself has a rhythm or phrasing. Try to focus on this and even “sing” it to yourself as you move or recall the movement. Many teachers do this when teaching the movement. It’s very common in tap (Shelly Oliver does it about 20 seconds into the video below) but it is certainly possible in other styles.


No matter what strategies you use to remember choreography…

Don’t Rely Too Much on Others

Many students will depend heavily on the teacher or other students when performing movement. I like to call this “brain-sucking” because when you do this you are leeching the movement sequence from someone else without actually retaining much of it in your own brain. The danger of this is that when that person is no longer performing the choreography or makes a mistake, you will be unable to perform accurately. When attempting the choreography after it has been given, try to keep your focus off of those around you – looking ahead or changing your focus as required in the choreography. A little brain-sucking is normal, however, I find that most students don’t need to do it as much as they think, which brings me to…

Trust Your Motor Memory

Neuron - Photo by Mark Miller

Neuron – Photo by Mark Miller

Your brain and body have an amazing capacity to “remember” movement patterns, pathways, and relationships. The mechanics and neuroscience of this is not completely understood. Like all skills,  however, motor memory (sometimes referred to as muscle memory), seems to be learned and improved through practice and experience. As you are learning, it pays to trust these neuromuscular systems to do their work. Do not let lack of confidence or “overthinking” undermine the relatively natural process that your mind and body go through as you learn and practice choreography. Replace negative thoughts with positive and affirming ones.

Want more great tips?

Here are our top secrets, plus some awesome movement memory games.

Do you use other memory devices for recalling choreography?

What strategies can you share?


Nichelle (owner/editor)
Nichelle Suzanne is a writer specializing in dance and online content. She is also a dance instructor with over 20 years experience teaching in dance studios, community programs, and colleges. She began Dance Advantage in 2008, equipped with a passion for movement education and an intuitive sense that a blog could bring dancers together. As a Houston-based dance writer, Nichelle covers dance performance for Dance Source Houston, Arts+Culture Texas, and other publications. She is a leader in social media within the dance community and has presented on blogging for dance organizations, including Dance/USA. Nichelle provides web consulting and writing services for dancers, dance schools and studios, and those beyond the dance world.
Nichelle (owner/editor)
Nichelle (owner/editor)
Nichelle (owner/editor)
Nichelle (owner/editor)

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  1. For me, I think a big one will soon be use of Project Natal based motion capture. Yes, you can video choreography (i’m talking more about remembering choreography from informal dance lessons, rather than professionals learning a choreography for a performance).

    It’s struck me as odd, that in many instructional materials – dvds, that they don’t contain a “dancer’s eye view” – that the learner has to themselves transcode a 3rd person perspective to a 1st person perspective. It’s good to see how it is from the outside – but seeing what it looks like from the inside so to speak presumably could really help also – in terms of using visualisation for retaining muscle memory, and going through a routine in the mind’s eye.

    For me – and i’m still a beginner at this – in part it’s chaining, linking the moves together – in the memory learning field – this is akin to having to rather than remember separate things, link these together (the use of points on a specific known route is one technique, where at each point on this remembered walk, a fact, person, or thing can be attached to it, to thus have them in order).

    • I like to go over choreography when i return home from class,so it is fresh in my mind. This seems to help and getting to class a bit early to run through with mirrors, i also video at times to evaluate how i really appear. then, practice…i even do some less obvious moves waiting n lines,etc. and mentally recall old and new routines,gypsy.

  2. The technology is almost there to use the Kinect or it’s successor – to actually try and motion capture/video movements.
    It’s only more for simple movements at the moment as it needs line of sight, but it could help you remember most parts of you give an audio commentary whilst filming with Kinect.

  3. Thanks, both of you for reading. Yes, gypsy, those little rehearsals to keep the movement fresh help a great deal. I think the videos you make are probably more useful for self-evaluation and improving your performance than memory. I suppose you might rehearse along with your video, but I’m not sure if that would help you remember as much as “brain-suck” off of your own image. Like video, Kinect or motion capture may not help you remember choreography in the moment, when you need it – what do I do next? These seem most useful for their potential in the future to preserve or notate choreography.

    Writing it down overlaps into notation but, in this case I think writing it is more mental rehearsal. Like you, gypsy, I do the writing when I get home (when it’s fresh). My notes have the added bonus of being able to reference them if need be, but it’s generally not notation that I would be able to recreate a dance from, say, a year later. The act of writing adds a physical and visual element to my mental rehearsal which seems to help me remember better in the moment, even though I don’t have the paper in front of me.

  4. +1 Singing the Rhythm

    • Tristan, when you commented, I couldn’t remember if this was one of the strategies I had included! It’s been a while since I revisted this one. 🙂

      This is one of my favorite teaching strategies too – not just in tap. I’m not a lover of counting (though because some students do respond to it better, I try to offer both). “Singing” the rhythms and phrasing encourages feeling the music and in general taps into people’s more innate sense of rhythm & music.

  5. Charlie says:

    Great practicle ways to help learn, this artice should be at the top of the search, thanks a bunch!

  6. Learn it backwards. Start with the last combination, and work your way back to the beginning.

    That way, you’re always more familiar with what’s coming next.

    That’s helpful because you know you’ll be able to end strongly. But more importantly, you’re not wasting attention in worrying about what’s coming next.

    I wrote an article about this a while back:

    This applies to anything you have to memorize. A friend of mine is a bass teacher, and he uses that technique with his students.

  7. Mariel says:

    Thank you so much for this contribution. I just recently started Hip Hop dancing again and plan to take on Jazz dance so I might try these techniques next time since I am so clumsy while trying to study a choreography!