Think of the last time you sang a song that you sort of knew.
The chorus was easy, you sang it loud, and then that first verse stared... and you didn't. Maybe you hummed, or gave some warbled, indistinct version of the lyrics, but you definitely didn't sing your heart out.
Your dance routine is the same. There are parts that you know, parts that you sort of know, and then gaps in time and space where everything is blank.
Here's how you fix that.
12 Steps to Master Your Next Dance Routine
Problem: Your brain shuts down because of the quantity of patterns to remember.
Solution: A typical dance performance is 90 seconds in length. This makes for three chapters of 30 seconds. A perfect narrative: Beginning, Middle, and End. Chapters help with your mental formatting, and serve as mile markers on your road to the end of your dance number.
Tip: Listen to your song and see if you can track the chapters of your choreography.
2. "Tell a Story"
Problem: Style and character feels fake and phony.
Solution: Some of the most memorable routines are the ones that tell a story. Learning a routine with a calculated narrative gives your performance more commitment, purpose, and they're harder to forget. So before you begin construction on your next routine, agree to the story you want to tell, for memory, and memorable, purposes.
Try it: If you need a narrative for your next routine, start with great music. Often times the story you pick is shaped by the lyrics and mood of the singer.
3. "Draft Mode"
Problem: Over-thinking gets in the way of your progress
Solution: This can seem scary, but you need to let the early stages of your Dance Script look a little rough. Sure, this may disagree with all of your rhinestoned aspirations, but it is the essential first stage. Great actors must learn their script before they can begin to deliver a great performance, and great dancers will follow the same principle. Refinements will happen, but focusing on them before the script is memorized will stifle the learning process.
Tip: Your choreography will install quicker in your brain and body by keeping your lessons closer together.
Problem: Your choreography seems to all blend together
Solution: Unfortunately, there is no strategic advantage to your routine by having Boy Band highlights in your hair. The Highlights of your routine come in the form of climactic moments, like explosions in a movie. Things like dips, drops, or dramatic pauses will create plenty of audience appeal, and they also establish additional landmarks on your 90 second routine quest.
Tip: Less is more when it comes to Highlights. Too many dips, drops, or dramatic pauses can cause the audience to grow numb to these moments.
5. "Know Your Measures"
Problem: You can count, but eventually the counts all get jumbled together
Solution: Counting in measures is a musically aware person's hack for keeping track of where they are in the song. Dancers use this counting hack to do the same thing, but with their patterns. While not for everyone, knowing the measures is a fantastic way to segment out a long stream of dance information.
Tip: Measures are like sentences for music.
6. "Let's Get Loud"
Problem: The timing of your routine seems to work out on paper, but nowhere else.
Solution: We tend to remember things much better when we say them out loud. If timing as been a challenge, it could be that you're counting on your brain to track the information, and it's already got a lot of other things on the old to-do list. This may not only help with your routines, but also your car keys... as long as you say it out loud. For more on this, check out this article on Distinctive Memory in Psychology Today
Tip: Try vocalizing your count as you are dancing it while learning choreography. This adds an additional stream of data to your brain and will help tremendously with recall.
Problem: You need a GPS system to avoid getting lost on the dance floor.
Solution: Great ballroom dancing relies on alignments. Similar to how a Military Unit team has designated plot points on a map with corresponding names ("Tango, Alpha, Zulu, etc."), ballroom dancers have Line of Dance, Diagonal Wall, Diagonal Center, and plenty others. These navigational points help determine your starting and ending point for each pattern.
Tip: Your alignments allow you to transpose your studio coordinates to any dance floor.
8. The Cold Round
Problem: You're not sure if you're ready to perform
Solution: There is something the professionals dread more than anything when they are taking a lesson or practicing: The Cold Round. This is when you dance full out, like it's the night of the competition, without any preparation. It's the ballroom dance version of a fire drill, and it is meant to see how well you really know your material.
Try It: Start a lesson with a cold performance of your routine without stopping. This will give you an indicator of how well you know your material.
9. "Sing It"
Problem: You can remember patterns or timing, but not both
Solution: Which is easier to recite, a song or a speech? We're going to venture out on a limb to say that you probably know more lyrics to Elvis, Madonna, or Lady Gaga songs than the Presidential addresses of Washington, Lincoln, and John F. Kennedy. One of the great keys to creating a great routine memory is counting less like a speech, and more like a song. So if your Cha-Cha has a big impact on counts 1 and 5, you would get louder on those counts, and softer on the others. This type of counting takes time, will feel a little funny to do, but is incredibly effective.
Tip: This is an upgraded version of #6. Try adding more inflection in your voice as you count before you start serenading the studio.
7. "Pressure Test"
Problem: You wish you could perform the way you do on a dance lesson
Solution: You will never know what you know until you try it under pressure. There was a point, long ago, when your local Arthur Murray was a departure from your comfort zone. Now, that seems like another version of you. The problem? What you have done on your lessons doesn't create enough pressure to replicate a dance performance. The solution is a Pressure Test. This can come in the form of party demonstrations, freestyle showcases, or facing a different direction than normal. You may know your routine, but will your body let you do it when the adrenaline is pumping? You won't know until you pressure test.
Tip: A variety of pressure tests will help to reveal which skills hold up, and which erode, under pressure. This gives you and your teachers valuable insight in your training going forward.
8. Cross Training
Problem: You need something other than 10,000 hours of repetition to jump start your routine learning technology.
Solution: The night of your big performance you'll only have one shot. So, as productive as it may feel to plow through your routine until your feet bleed, it could be giving your body a false sense of performance confidence. The solution is the dance version of Cross Training. Trying a Cold Round Performance, adding a layer of refinement, and then stepping away from your routine to focus on another area of your dancing forces your brain to cross train. Later in your lesson you can return to the routine and repeat the process. This helps to simulate your first performance multiple times throughout your lesson.
Tip: If this is for a wedding, cross training is perfect for developing easy dances for your wedding reception, while maintaining a focus on your wedding dance.
9. Focal Points
Problem: You blank out when an audience is around
Solution: A seasoned news anchor does this, and you may not even realize it. They switch from one camera to another so seamlessly, that it keeps the viewers engaged, and the News Anchor alert. "Focal Points" does the same thing for your routine. Your eyes need choreography, and just telling them not to look down isn't enough. Adding the detail and precision of when to look at the audience will not only make your performance more appealing to an audience, but it will keep your eyes from staring off blankly into the vacuum of forgetfulness.
Tip: When changing your focal point to the audience, try looking above them to keep your posture looking good.
10. No Brakes
Problem: You stop at the first sign of a mistake
Solution: If parents stopped the car every time one of their kids asked "are we there yet?", they'd never reach their destination. Well, stopping at the first sign of a mistake trains your body to abort at the first sign of trouble. Is that really the way you want to perform? Great dancers know how to dance through their mistakes. The trick here is to dance without stopping - even if it isn't the pre-determined choreography.
Tip: Dance your routine with the goal of going for 90 seconds, no matter what. When you reach a point where you can't remember the actual choreography, continue with basics until you can remember where to pick things up, or when the 90 seconds have finished. Even as a follower, this is an essential tool in resetting the goals away from your choreography, and instead on completing 90 seconds.
11. Know Your Audience
Problem: You are fine dancing in front of certain people, but not others
Solution: There are some audiences that are more important to you than others. For example, dancing in front of other students is much easier than family and friends. Take the advice of Sun Tzu:
"If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If know neither the enemy nor yourself you will succumb in every battle" - The Art of War.
What we can learn from this is that the better you know your audience, and how you'll react to it, the better you can prepare. Sure, you may have that routine down to the point where you can perform it in front of other dance students, but knowing that your heart will beat twice as fast in front of another audience is worth putting in the extra work.
Tip: Inviting a family member, friend, or co-worker to an Open House to watch you perform is a great exercise in learning to know a different audience.
12. "The Rule of Three"
Problem: You feel like scrapping a routine after the first performance
Solution: Each performance of your routine will occur at different stages of the Curve of Learning. We've found that routines need to be performed at least three times to fully realize their dance developing potential. The routines you have seen that you've loved were most likely performed far more than three times.
Tip: Keep in mind that the routines that are easiest to remember are the ones that we have performed the most. The Rule of Three is designed to preserve this project for the long term.
A dance routine is a vessel. It's a container that holds priceless technical and style information. It allows you to have a rehearsed backup plan while social dancing, or a platform to showcase your dance confidence. Our goal is to ensure you don't discard your container, or disregard the benefits of having one. If this guide has helped you, please let us know in the comments below.