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How to Learn (and Remember!) Choreography for the Stage

Choreography… for some dancers it’s a very long four-letter word. Even for those who love choreography, the process of learning a new routine can be exhausting, confusing, and defeating. As if preparing for a performance wasn’t intimidating enough!

Whether the idea of choreography makes you skip or shudder,  it’s pretty much a given that you’ll have to learn one at some point in your studies (And if you plan to perform regularly with a class or troupe you may as well learn to love it!). That’s why you need a strategy for learning choreography. It can make the process go a lot easier and it can help you remember a routine when it most matters… on stage!

The Theory Behind This Strategy

There’s a lot of approaches to learning choreography. In this post I’m going to share with you the one I use. I like it because it’s very simple. In fact, it’s all about achieving just one goal:

Learn the choreography by not thinking
Thanks to faestock  for stock image.


Here’s why: You’ve probably heard of the “fight or flight” response from psychology. It’s the idea that when we feel threatened, our bodies pump adrenaline into our system so that we’re ready to either flee or take the threat head on. This is obviously very useful when you’re physically threatened, such as if you encountered a bear on a hike. But this response happens when we face other kinds of threats, too. You’re familiar with the feeling- get up in front of a group to speak and suddenly you break into a cold sweat, your mouth is dry, and you can feel your heart racing.

On stage this can sometimes be inhibiting. But we can learn to use this natural response to our advantage. As we step out into the spotlight, blood is diverted away from internal organs and outwards towards our extremities. The thrill shuts down our ability for more abstract thinking, and churns up our baser instincts. Thinking isn’t very useful on stage. Muscle memory, on the other hand, is at its prime.

You have to learn choreography with your gut- not with your head. Choreography that becomes instinctual will serve you well under pressure, and you’ll remember it much longer (sometimes years!).

Let’s repeat our main goal here: DON’T THINK. DANCE. Now, here’s how to do it:


Step 1: Before You Begin

Know your moves. It’s true that some people actually prefer to learn how to dance through choreography, and choreography can actually be a really useful learning tool. But when we’re memorizing a routine for a performance, it’s best to be prepared by knowing all the moves first. Remember our goal? Concentrating too much brain power on how to perform a move when we should really only be thinking about when and where works against us. Make sure your technique is solid and you’ll think less on stage.

Know your learning style. Are you the type that likes to count beats? Do you learn better in a group? Does repeating silly mantras in your head help you remember a sequence? Having some self-knowledge about your personal learning style is worth its weight in gold. Now see if you can arrange to learn your choreography in an environment that supports your learning style. Not sure what your learning style is? Hmm… I might have an upcoming blog post about that…stay tuned!

Belly dancer on stage

Step 2: Getting Down to Business

Practice early and often.  If you had just six hours to perfect a choreography, it’d be better spent over the six weeks than the six hours before the show. Start practicing as early as you can, even if you only have a few combinations to work with at first. And try to sneak in frequent (rather than long) practices. You can, for example, save the 5 minutes before you jump into the shower before work as your choreography time. If you start early enough, it’s even okay to take some time off if life gets busy. (Added bonus… when you revisit the routine after time off you’ll discover which parts are the hardest to recall- drill those more.)

Listen to the music like crazy. Do this when you can’t physically practice, like on the way to work or while doing chores around the house, and at a deep level your brain will still be processing the motions. You’ll catch nuances in the music you didn’t hear at first. You’ll begin to anticipate every phrase and beat. It’ll take more thinking out of your dance because you’ll spend less brain power on interpreting what you’re hearing, leaving more brain power for reacting.

Drill specific phrases again and again. This is the muscle-memory part and the key to your practice! Start by breaking the choreography into its smallest unit, single combinations. These are like words in a sentence. Practice each one over and over without building or moving on. When you’ve drilled each ad nauseam, put two or three together to fit the phrasing of the music. These are like your choreography’s sentences. Drill, drill, drill. Finally, sentences can become paragraphs with entire sections of the music.

Note that this is distinctly different from how we are usually taught choreography, which is often by learning the beginning and then adding a little more on after each run through of the music. Don’t learn the choreography as a long string of movements. Drilling the building blocks makes a stronger foundation for adding more complex phrasing later.

However, I personally think it’s okay to practice the beginning more than the middle. Stepping out on stage is hard. If your entrance is strong it can help you transition into using the muscle memory that will take you safely through your routine. It can also give you a boost of confidence that will radiate from stage.

Check yourself (before you wreck yourself). Think you really know your stuff? Here’s a few ways to test, and more importantly discover, where your weaknesses are before show day:

  • Try starting in the middle of the music. Can you pick it up without any hesitation?
  • Can you perform the choreography without the aid of mirrors? How about facing a different direction than normal?
  • What happens when you perform in front of an audience of friends or family?
  • Throw yourself a curveball. Try placing an obstacle in the middle of the dance floor, or wear a big floppy hat (no seriously!). Can you perform while distracted?

If you’re still relying on your higher thinking skills to remember your routine, these scenarios might throw you off. You know what that means… back to drills, drill, drills!

Belly dancing on stage

Step 3: Performance Day Success Tips

Steal a moment in the spotlight. Try to get to the venue early, or arrange to see the stage before the show. You might be able to walk through your choreography, or at least stand on stage, before you perform. This is a great way to orient your routine to the performance space.

Anticipate distractions and eliminate. Is the entrance to the stage in a place you were not thinking? Is the stage shorter than you imagined? Proactively anticipate distractions and then practice dealing with them. If you do not have the time or space for physical practice, envision in your mind dealing with them successfully.


Learning choreography is an acquired skill. The more you practice, the easier it will become. Pick up some belly dance choreography DVDs, take a choreography workshop, or even try a fitness class (like step aerobics) that builds choreographed sequences. Practicing the skill of learning choreography, in between times when you’ll actually be using one for a performance, can make the process much easier.

Lastly, remember that it’s never the end of the world! As always treat yourself, flaws and all, with kindness and patience. Like many things in life, your experience of learning a choreography is dictated much more by your attitude than your actual performance. When needed, step back and take a breath!


Read the Next Article: This article assumed the choreography already existed. But how about some tips for creating your own? Learn how to create choreography courageously in my next article.

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