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!


3, 2, 1… Smile!

Things have been pretty busy here – my first Christmas away from home, increasing responsibilities and opportunities at work, finishing all the admin for my PhD (finally got my paperwork through on Wednesday – I’m officially finished!).

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

My concentration face during class – I promise I’m still enjoying myself!

Amidst all this I’ve been taking lots of ballet – class six days a week at two studios with five teachers. It makes my schedule a little hectic at times (big understatement) but I wouldn’t swap it for the world. It took a month or two for me to shift my ‘style’ to match my teachers (i.e. one teacher likes me to keep my weight more forward that I’m used to, one likes me to finish my pirouettes with my arms in second etc).

Since then, I’ve been focusing on various parts of my dancing and I’m pleased to say I’ve seen some good progress. There was one shift in particular that I made before Christmas that has had a huge difference on my dancing: smiling!

It’s really easy in class to get sucked in by an exercise and become really focused. When this happens to me I tend to end up with a ‘concentration face’ – I end up looking pretty serious and slightly scary at times! Further, there can be times when you mess up a combination, end a pirouette badly, or get your feet tangled during petit allegro – this usually results in a grimace or a scowl directed at yourself.

One of my favourite photos of me dancing (in the Swan Lake Pas de Trois from a gala in 2013)  - and I'm smiling! Sort of...

One of my favourite photos of me dancing (in the Swan Lake Pas de Trois from a gala in 2013) – and I’m smiling! Sort of…

I’m not saying that I look miserable every second of a ballet class, far from it. I’m generally having an amazing time and often can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be. So it seemed a shame that wasn’t being shown (and I felt bad that teachers didn’t see how much I was enjoying class – although hopefully they realised that with my profuse thank yous after class). So in December I decided to concentrate on smiling.

What was the effect? I danced much better! I think the main reason for this is because it has helped me relax in class. I’ve had the correction to relax a lot in class recently and I definitely find I’m more relaxed when I’m smiling.

So that’s my tip for this post – next time you’re in class take a few moments before each exercise to think about smiling. It doesn’t have to be a massive grin throughout (although I’m usually about that happy!) but a little smile can help your dancing a lot. Do you have any similar tips? Share them in the comments below!

Hopefully I’ll have the next blog post out soon – how to memorize combinations in class! Let me know if you have any tips to share…

Until next time, keep on dancing!


P.S. I was totally honoured to be included in Adult Beginner’s Blogroll of Ballet Dudes this week – a list of totally awesome blogs by dudes who dance. Check it out – and if you’re not following AB then got on that right away, she’s awesome! (I should know, we fought the Rat King in the NYC Subway once…)

The Dance Journal – what is it and why should I have one?

Since my life has settled down (after a pretty momentous few months) I’ve been trying to take more ballet class and step my training up a notch. I’m currently taking class Monday-Thursday and try to take class on Saturday and Sunday wherever possible. Each class is 90 minutes long, with a variety of teachers (usually 5 different teachers at 3 ballet schools), so I get a whole range of corrections. It can be hard to take on board all these corrections, especially if they are small/subtle changes, and even harder to build on them class by class.

That’s why I have a dance journal.

What is a Dance Journal?

My current Dance Journal

My current Dance Journal

I’m going to give a complete non-answer here: a dance journal is whatever you want it to be. That wasn’t very useful, was it? Sorry!

It’s true though: there’s no set definition of what a dance journal is or what should be in it. I think of a dance journal simply as a tool to help me progress in my ballet training. Personally, my journal is a small notebook (make sure you pick a nice one – you’ll be writing in it a lot!) that lives in my dance bag. It’s there for me to put in any notes that might be useful to look back on in the future.

Abstractly, my dance journal is both my reflection and motivation. It enables me to build on my corrections from class to class, and to look back and see my progress. It enables me to see if bad habits are forming, or if I’m improving a particular movement or technique.

What should I put in a Dance Journal?

So what should you put in there? You’ve got a lot of choice and it’s really down to you and what you think will be useful.

Here’s a few things I put in my Dance Journal:

  • Corrections: This is definitely the bulk of my journal. After class I’ll try and write down all corrections I was given, although sometimes I don’t remember them until a day or two later!
  • Metaphors and Imagery: If a teacher uses a particular piece of imagery that I find really useful then I’ll note it down.
  • Nice combinations: If there’s a particularly nice combination in class then I’ll note it down. I’m probably not going to use it in the future but it’s a nice memory to keep.
  • Choreography: If I’m learning a piece of choreography, I’ll keep notes in my journal. It’s not necessarily the entire piece, but hints and prompts to help me.
  • Achievements: This is something people (including myself!) often forget to note down – when something goes well! Nail a triple pirouette? Put that in your journal!

Why should I use a Dance Journal?

Do you want to maximise your progress? Can you spare (literally) five minutes after class to write down some notes? Then there’s no reason not to use a dance journal!

A glimpse into my Dance Journal…

So, how do I use my dance journal? I thought I’d share some notes from my recent classes (along with a pic of my first ever dance journal!).

Don’t leave chest behind in pirouettes – move trailing arm before anything else to get chest round before anything else.

Don’t do 32 jumps, do a single jump 32 times – last should be as good as the first.

A couple of pages from my first Dance Journal entry

A couple of pages from my first Dance Journal entry

Work on engaging the core without tightening the chest – especially for developpés.

Make every balance grow – keep pushing through standing leg and reach chest up and over (think of a cresting wave).

Frappés should be cheeky and cute. Balancés should be sexy.

An entry from my dance journal a couple of weeks ago.

An entry from my dance journal a couple of weeks ago.

Hold muscles like water – can’t hold with clenched fists or open palms. Need to be somewhere between.

Got a “great!” during my grand jeté in grand allegro – and teacher said the woman in my group and I were in “perfect sync”. Yay!


Do you have a Dance Journal? What do you put in yours? If you don’t have one yet, how about adding it to your Christmas list…?

Until next time, keep on dancing!

Moving Continents and Giving Thanks

So it seems like all of my latest blog posts have started with an apology for not posting much recently, and I’m afraid recent history is doomed to repeat itself. I reckon I have a pretty good excuse though… I don’t think it’s an exaggeration that I’ve been going through the most momentous time in my life.

Following the submission of my PhD thesis in July, I had a week or two in Bath before heading back up north. I then had a week or two at home with my parents before moving out to San Francisco. I was pretty nervous moving out here. A new city/continent, a new job, a new career, and a new experience. But so far, everything has been amazing! I’ve made some amazing friends both from the programme I’m on (the Silicon Valley Internship Programme) and my new job. I’ve really enjoyed work so far and have gotten to work on some really cool projects already, although it has been pretty tough at times to get used to moving from an academic environment to industry. I’m now living in a really nice area of San Francisco along with five of the guys on my scheme in an amazing house (we even have our own elevator!?!), with a great view over the city to the Bay Bridge and East Bay.

Working isn't too bad when you have this view!

Working on a Sunday evening isn’t too bad when you have this view!

Amongst all of this change, I also had to prepare for my PhD viva. This is an oral exam conducted with an internal examiner from my own university and an external examiner who is an expert in my field (in my case, from NYU in NYC). Lasting for anywhere from an hour to five hours, it is a chance for my examiners (after reading my thesis) to grill me on my work, and how it fits in the wider context of my research area. With me moving to San Francisco, there was a little trouble organising where and when it would take place, but eventually we set a date for mid-November in New York. This meant quite a few weeks of preparation in lunch breaks and on weekends, along with the worst nerves I’ve ever experienced in my life. The week of the viva I went straight to the airport from work on the Monday, flew on a red-eye to NYC, met with my examiner for final admin on the Tuesday, before starting the viva itself at 9am on the Wednesday.

I’m happy to say that the viva went really well! It was a chance to exhibit the parts of my thesis that I was proud of, as well as defend the parts of my work that my examiners had questions about. After a couple of hours talking through my thesis (with interjected questions), my examiners had a short discussion amongst themselves and I’m happy to say they announced to me that I had passed. I’ve had a couple of final corrections to do since then (add a couple of paragraphs to clarify some points in my thesis) and I’m just waiting for my final confirmation that the examiners are satisfied. I then spent the rest of the week following my viva celebrating in New York. I managed to see five Broadway shows (all incredible!) and the Mikhailovsky Ballet in Flames of Paris (so many balletic fireworks – also incredible!). I also managed to take a couple of ballet classes in the city – after the good news I felt like I was dancing on air.

During this whole time, in fact, ballet has helped keep me grounded. It’s been really helpful having the familiarity of ballet class amidst a time of immense change. It’s reassuring to know that I can take a class, and it will always start with pliés, and work through to me letting off steam in grand allegro. I’ve always thought there’s something cathartic about class – it’s almost like a physical meditation.

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

Taking ballet class always makes me feel much calmer and relaxed. Don’t know what I’d do without it!

When I first moved to San Francisco life was a little too hectic to take class. I managed a single class in the first month or so – it was a really great class (and my first in three months!) with a fantastic teacher. There was a weird atmosphere in the class though, but I think it was just a small crowd in this particular class – I’ve since been back to the same class and it’s been great.

Then, once I had settled into my new house, I found a local school that offers regular classes. I started with two beginner classes and two advanced beginner classes to ease myself back into classes. My teachers are awesome and have given me lots of useful corrections already. After a month, my teacher wanted me to step up to the intermediate and advanced classes, so since the start of November I’ve been taking four 90 minute classes each week (Mon-Thu) and loving every second! I’m hoping to add some weekend classes at other schools (now my weekend isn’t clogged with thesis work!) and my main aim at the moment is to get back into shape. Hours sat in front of my thesis stress-eating are certainly starting to show. I’m not aiming for a particular weight as such, but my main aim is to be able to wear a particular biketard I own to class without feeling ashamed. It’s going to take quite a few months to lose the fat, gain the muscle, and generally tone up enough for this, but I’m going to take it slow. Oh, and my other goal is for a quintuple pirouette – my teacher said after class one night that he wants me to do a quintuple and I’m not sure if he was joking or not, but it’s certainly a goal to work towards!

Alongside amazing classes, I’ve also met some awesome ballet tweeps in San Francisco already. I’ve been reminded how friendly the adult ballet community can be: lots of people suggesting classes and tips on where to go. I’ve even had people offer me lifts to and from classes that are particularly hard to reach. Thank you to all the helpful people – you know who you are!

Carving the Thanksgiving turkey!

Carving the Thanksgiving turkey!

This week has been Thanksgiving here in the US (we hosted a dinner for 12, which went surprisingly well considering none of us had ever roasted a turkey before!), and it’s been a nice opportunity to reflect on what I’m thankful for.

First, I’m grateful for the support of my family and friends, particularly over the last few months. Without them, I’m nothing. Second, I’m grateful for the opportunities I have been given – I’m very lucky and try my best to make the most of my chances. Finally, I’m thankful for having ballet in my life – both for ballet itself, and for the community at its heart.

So now my life has started to settle down, it will hopefully be back to regular DaveTriesBallet service! I’m hoping to post much more regularly, and about a range of topics. I want to talk some more about the practicalities of taking ballet as an adult, how you can get ‘more’ from your classes, what I look for in a ballet school or teacher, how to dance outside your comfort zone, and more. Do you have an idea for a blog post you want to see on DaveTriesBallet? Let me know in the comments section.

I also have a couple of projects I’m starting to work on that I hope to share with you all soon. I want to try and help make adult dancers (especially you guys who dance!) feel part of a community, no matter where you are in the world. Fifth positions crossed I’ll be able to share something with you all soon.

So until next time, keep dancing!


Next Steps and Nerves

Hello everyone!

Sorry for the radio silence recently – my life has been a little crazy recently and I’m only just starting to get back to something resembling normality. I’ve only got a week or two until it all goes hectic again, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

I was a little happy after submitting my thesis...

I was a little happy after submitting my thesis…

Although not ballet related, I’m very pleased to say that a couple of weeks ago I submitted my PhD thesis! It’s taken three years of hard work and I can’t quite believe I’ve handed it in! The last three months have been pretty hellish – long days/nights at the office, and no time for ballet, whilst writing up has been tough but somehow it all worked out. Next up is my oral ‘viva voce’ exam in a month or two and if I pass (I’m keeping my fifth positions tightly crossed!) I’ll have a few months to do any corrections the examiners want. Although at times difficult, my studies have been one of the most rewarding and satisfying endeavours of my life and I’m hugely grateful to have had the opportunity to do this work. Continue reading

Review – The Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker on Digital Theatre

It’s a little strange to be watching the Nutcracker in the middle of March. But there’s a reason to feel Christmassy – Digital Theatre has just released two more Royal Ballet productions (and two Royal Opera productions) to accompany its current roster of Sylvia (with Darcey Bussell/Roberto Bolle) and Swan Lake (Marianela Nunez/Thiago Soares). I’ll be reviewing both of the new productions, the first of which is Sir Peter Wright’s magical production of The Nutcracker from 2010. Continue reading

Where to Start? Beginning Ballet as an Adult

Recently I’ve been getting lots of emails from people wanting to start (or come back to) ballet, often in their twenties. I’ve been more than happy to reply to people and help them prepare for their first class, and it has made me think about what advice I would give myself, if I could go back 3 and a half years to when I first started ballet.

I thought I would share some of the advice I have been giving out in the hope that it might answer some questions people have, and calm some fears. I also asked for some help from my twitter followers and got some great questions and tips that I’ve tried to include. These tips are in semi-chronological order and I’ve tried to cover most of the big topics – let me know if I missed anything off! Continue reading

Review: Ballet Hero Fantasy (feat Steven McRae)

I think one of the biggest issues in encouraging young boys to get involved with ballet is convincing them that it is ‘cool’. It can be tough for boys starting ballet whilst still at school: they might experience bullying and name calling, or they may feel they have to hide what they do in their spare time. There is also (as always) simply a lack of boys dancing, which is such a shame. I think anything that can help make boys think it’s cool to dance therefore deserves a huge amount of support. Even if only the dancers themselves find it cool, it can be a great way to encourage them to be proud of being a dancer. Continue reading

Cinderella – performance time!

I still can’t quite believe it. Last weekend, I danced in the Bristol Russian Youth Ballet Company’s production of Cinderella at Stockport Plaza. Not only did I get the chance to perform in front of hundreds of people to raise money for a fantastic charity, but I also got to share the stage with two of the country’s greatest dancers: Elena Glurdjidze and Arionel Vargas. Continue reading