For non-dancers, the process of memorizing the thousands of steps that comprise even a single ballet seems daunting. How do they do it?
New York City Ballet Principal Dancer Jenifer Ringer offers three explanations. First, she says, is the music. "Each ballet must have its own little piece of my brain that is reserved just for that ballet, ready to be called up whenever the music is played." Have you ever noticed that you can remember every word to the "Fresh Prince of Bel Air" theme song - even if you can't remember what you ate for breakfast this morning? Music is a natural memory assistant. For dancers, the music is the foundation of the dance and it is what makes the steps meaningful.
Next is muscle memory. Much like actors memorizing lines or musicians memorizing notes, dancers memorizing steps requires hours of repetition. "With enough repetition," says Ringer, "the music is inevitably linked by some mysterious connection to our muscle memory so that eventually, we don’t have to think about the steps. Our bodies know what to do, leaving our brains free to give flight to our imaginations in performance."
Finally, there is a dash of mystery. Each dancer experiences each dance in his/her unique way. "Each dancer’s artistry is radically different from another’s, so that ballets change and evolve according to which dancer is dancing which part," says Ringer.
Read the whole article: "How dancers learn their steps: music, muscle memory and mystery" - Jenifer Ringer for The Guardian, February 24, 2015.