Tips for Memorizing Combinations

As ever, apologies for the delay in posting! The excuses this time include sorting out a new contract at my work, and applying for a visa (eek!). Thankfully, all that work hasn’t stopped me from taking ballet (my current schedule is six classes a week: Sat-Thu) and seeing some ballet and theatre (particular highlights: San Francisco Ballet’s Don Quixote with Frances Chung and Taras Domitro and Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years with Betsy Wolfe and Adam Kantor).

This post, I thought I’d concentrate on something that I’ve been asked a few times in the past, and something that I struggled with for quite a while when I first started dancing. How do you memorize a combination in class?

My concentration face during class - I promise I'm still enjoying myself!

Me concentrating on a combination during class…

In a standard ballet class you have to memorize a lot. At a quick estimate, I reckon during a normal class there are at least 18 different exercises (10 at barre, 8 in centre). Assuming each has 32 counts, and every movement takes a single count, this makes 576 different steps to memorize. If you think that for every step, at a minimum, you need to remember what your head, arms, and legs are doing, that makes 1,728 different things to memorize – every single class!

So how do you keep all that stuff in your brain?! Here are some of my tips…

  • Pay Attention! This should go without saying, but the first thing you need to do is pay attention. I’m amazed when I see people in class not paying attention when the teacher is describing an exercise. If you don’t watch then you’ll never know what’s coming next!
  • Count along. This is one thing I always do when seeing a combination being demonstrated. I always say the counts along with the movement, even if just in my head. This helps me, especially if there’s a tricky part – I can associate with a specific count to make sure I’m on track.
  • Use your body to mark. This is a big one, that you will see many dancers doing. Follow along with the combination as the teacher demonstrates or says it. Generally I won’t do a full movement (unless it’s particularly tricky and I want to make sure I’ve got it “in my body”) but will use my hands, legs (at half-power), or my head to dance along. You’ll probably end up making your own set of gestures for different movements – my favourite is always twirling a finger in the air for multiple pirouettes… If only it was that easy! Remember to include the dynamics of the movement in your gesture: big gestures for big movements, small gestures for small movements!
  • Focus on directions and leading sides. These are two things that I always try to keep in mind when learning a combination. Less important for barre, in center direction is key! Always make sure you note which corner or wall your facing. Further, note when your leading leg changes – switching legs mid-combination can throw a lot of people!
  • Think of levels. I got this advice from a teacher in London a couple of years ago, and it was really useful. In center especially, keep note of the different ‘levels’ of a combination. When are you down in plie? When are you up on releve? Make sure you know which goes where.
  • Use the music. The music can often tell you what should come next. It can highlight certain movements – try to noticee when the teacher demonstrates which beat is dominant, and if you are placing emphasis on or off the beat. If you have a live accompanist then often they will slightly slow towards the end of a key phrase or before a change in the exercise (like rondd de jambes into port de bras). Don’t just dance to the music, dance with the music!
  • Don’t memorize things you know. Try and note what things you don’t need to memorize. For example, once you learn the ‘standard’ arms for a jete in petit allegro and have them built into a habit, you don’t need to memorize the arms unless they’re different from the norm.
  • Force yourself to memorize. Learning combinations quickly is a skill, and needs to be practiced. One way to do that is to force yourself to work on memorizing combinations – maybe stand at the end of the barre, or go in the first group for an exercise in the center. This will hone your skill and also hopefully give you confidence in your memorization.
  • Forget it! I personally think I saved the most important tip for last. Don’t aim to memorize these combinations forever. Only try to memorize the combination for the few minutes of the exercise. As soon as you are done, then forget it! Move straight onto the next exercise. If you ask me during fondu what the tendu exercise was then I’ll probably not be able to tell you – and that’s totally fine! Obviously this doesn’t apply to learning choreography for a performance or an exam, but for class it’s totally fine to forget what you did. Mind you, don’t forget your corrections! (That’s what a Dance Journal is for…)

I hope those help!

I also reached out to Twitter to see how other people remember combinations. Here a selection of some of the answers:

Do you agree or diasgree with any of the advice? What are your tips and tricks for memorizing combinations in class? Please share them in the comments section below!

Until next time, keep on dancing!

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4 Comments

  1. Hi Dave. Thanks for your helpful tips.
    Your blog posts made me step out of my comfort zone and try practising basic ballet moves. There are no ballet classes at my hometown, so I decided to take the first step by being self-taught through books and videos. It’s difficulty to start ballet as an adult, but I want to try my best.
    Keep working hard together. And thanks again for your amazing blog posts.

    Reply
  2. Great tips Dave!
    1) In my experience, remembering mentally the combinations of the day’s class before going to bed not only trains the brain to memorise ballet moves but also to absorb them quicker.
    2) This tip proves very popular with my students: scratching the leg that has to do a particular move, e.g. passé/retiré in pirouettes, or grand battement for grands jetés en tournent/ entrelacés helps to remember kinaesthetically.

    Reply
  3. Great tips. I have a lot of problems with memorizing combinations during class, after 8 hours of work I think my brain is too tired. I think getting enough of sleep is the key factory for memories and performance in class.

    Reply

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