Study Habits.

Posted by on 04.11.2011

Here is a question for you ballet-goers out there in Internet Land… When you go to see the ballet, do you take a moment to think about what goes into performance preparations? I am sure you have thought about it on some level or another, but I assure you, the actual amount of work put into performances would surprise you. And I don’t mean just rehearsal hours.  The most tedious work of all is learning a new work.  For example, setting John Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet on Miami City Ballet took choreologist Jane Bourne a solid 4 weeks; 5 days a week, 6 hours a day… That’s 120 hours!  Then countless hours more are spent perfecting and polishing.

My recent first, real, interaction with Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room inspired this post.  I have seen Upper Room many times, as MCB has performed it on tour and in two different programs since I have been with the company.  Every time I see it, I get chills.  This work emits such an energetic vibe that overwhelms me every time.  So naturally, I can not be more excited to be a part of it.  As I continue learning more and more of the ballet, my head is swimming with choreography.  In section number two, the “Stomper” women do one simple combination.  The steps together take up about 32 counts.  Dancers learn 32 counts of choreography quickly every day; in class, in rehearsals, etc.  We are programed for it.  Throughout the entire section, these women just execute this one combination, but in every order you can possibly imagine; forward, backwards, to the right, to the left, facing the back, changing sides in the middle.  This particular section has proved to be a challenge for me.

Over the years, I have developed a few techniques to aid my absorption of choreography.  For me it surely doesn’t happen over night, nor is all my work done exclusively in the studios.  My favorite trick is to sit down with a video and write down every step.  I would share my notes with you, but I would be much too embarrassed.  Not only is my spelling of ballet steps horrible, but when it comes to modern choreography, I am forced to conceive imaginative names for steps.  For example, my Upper Room number three notes contain the phrase “foot change slide turn”.  I don’t think Ms. Tharp would be too pleased with that interpretation.

Also, reviewing new choreography before going to bed at night also helps ingrain steps in my memory.  After six hours of learning new steps in rehearsals, it is really wonderful to take a break during the evening hours, then revisit the choreography before drifting off to sleep.  Often the steps and music invade my dreams.  The next morning I always feel more familiar with the steps and more prepared for rehearsal.  Lastly, I find that teaching the steps to someone is the ultimate way instill choreography in my mind.  I find that when I can teach a ballet effectively, I know the information inside and out.

So, dear ballet enthusiast, I bet you didn’t know dancers went home and did their homework at night, did you? And to my fellow professional dancers, students, and adult dancers, what secrets do you have for learning new choreography?  Everyone learns in a different way, have you found what works best for you?  Feel free to leave a comment below and share your tips!


  1. Your contribution to the ballet is so important!  But your appreciation for the art form is even more important! Be assured that the dancers can feel your enthusiasm from the stage. 

  2. I do think about all of the effort and time that went into the performance preparation. That is why I feel guilty (like I stole something) when I only have to pay $20 – $25 for a pretty good seat at a ballet. I am thinking that I should be paying like $50 at least. Fortunately, some ballets cost a lot more than others (not a steal) and I feel like I really contributed to the company.

  3. I love the "crazy jump and collapse"! You win on that one! But it doesn't matter as long as you know what it is referring to right? Thanks for the comment!

  4. With you, Rebecca, I learn best when it comes to taking notes. Writing the steps down is a huge portion of the process for me. Transcribing them to paper seems to boost my ability to remember the piece more quickly. Wouldn't it be nice if contemporary dance had a set vocabularly similar to ballet? :)(My favorite note from a recent piece: "crazy jump and collapse")

  5. Differentiating similar choreography is also a big challenge! Sometimes a set will repeat, but with a few subtle differences. Those are the sorts of things that drive me crazy.

    I like the tip on listening to the music while reviewing the choreography. I am sure this approach also helps you become very familiar with the music.

    Thanks for writing in!!

  6. Particularly as I've gotten more and more variations and pas de deux's under my belt, on of the things I've had to work on was differentiating similar choreography. I found that writing it down in sequence really solidified things for me.
    Of course, my French spelling is horrendous, and more modern choreography requires more creative descriptions… No one will ever see those notes. But what matters is the effect they've had. It was good.

    And listening to the music while mumbling to myself like a lunatic helps too. But I wouldn't know anything about that from personal experience *whistles non-chalantly*

    Hope that was somewhat helpful.

  7. That is how we feel often with more modern pieces because we are not as used to that kind of movement. So I understand what you mean when you say new concepts are more of a challenge to pick up.

    There is nothing worse than feeling like everyone else has absorbed the new material, when you have not. In reality, people just learn differently. It is ok to take a little more time. This is why many times I work on my own at home so that I can be really on top of it. It is important to find what what works well for you in order to keep up.

    Counting is very important in choreography, especially Balanchine's. It is important to know how the steps relate to the music. Once you become more familiar with the work, you become less reliant on the counts and begin to just feel the music.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

  8. Very informative post Rebecca. It makes my head spin to think of learning everything you have to learn. I have a hard enough time working with a two minute block. I agree that your brains must get wired for it to pick it up so quickly. I see that in my pas class. The girls see a video once and already have all the steps down while I'm trying to figure out what I'm even supposed to be watching.

    From the adult beginner's perspective, I see the video, then our teacher breaks it down into small segments, then we run though it once to mark it and then we try it. If I'm lucky I will hear bits of the music. It is usually changes in the music that I hear first. Some of the things I pick up quickly but if it is a new concept I get totally lost.

    Usually the first time I do it I really struggle and I have to watch the video for reminders.

    I only feel that I have a small clue about what I'm doing when I study the video on my own. During class it can be distracting because the girls are all ready to move on and do it when the teacher is explaining things so I start losing my focus.

    Ironically the only pas I feel I know well is Le Corsaire and that was the first one I learned. But I watched the video many times and started going though things in my head.

    I struggle with the count. I seem to go by instinct instead have having some real sense of the count.

    Since my knowledge of terminology is very limited I have to be a visual learner. The girls will say what the steps are when they are learning it but most of the time that goes right over my head.

    But it is a very nice feeling of accomplishment to actually get things done correctly.

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