Muscle Memory Madness


Hi, it's April. Welcome to Dancer's Called to Action. The place to be for the dancer looking for confidence, knowledge, and tools for moving forward.

Nary a class that goes by without hearing the words, muscle memory. Funny how obsessed we are with this thing that isn't even completely real. Muscle memory is defined as a form of procedural memory that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition, which is definitely a thing, but there's no memory in the muscle. Instead, we're only talking about the brain. These changes that occur in the brain, during, let's say a dance class, the way we memorize, alters the information that the brain sends out to the muscles, thereby changing the movements that are produced. So it's best to consider the term, muscle memory, as a nickname for our process and not take it literally. Anyhow, this concept of muscle memory, it's at the top of most answers; Priority list: muscle memory, remembering faster, picking up choreography quickly, and I will act like it's not important because remembering choreography allows you to relax into the performance. It allows you to start refining nuances. It allows you to play with textures and dynamics, your performance quality, your personal flavor, and today we're going to talk about exactly how muscle memory works and I'm going to give you some very specific tools for building your memory skills.

The first thing to know is that there are separate compartments in our brains for different kinds of memories. For example, one part of your memory knows that Christmas Eve is on December 24th, that's part of your declarative memory, a part of the brain that just stores cold hard facts. You may also remember a conversation with a friend that you had in a coffee shop and you remember being there, but can't remember the exact conversation. This would be your episodic memory. The part of the brain that remembers life events, and both are controlled by different regions, which I suppose isn't a revelation. We've all heard stories about patients suffering from amnesia or a traumatic brain injury who can recall some things and not others, depending on what part of the brain was impacted. In the case of choreography, we're dealing with the procedural memory. That is, the part of the brain that deals with the skills memorization.

So declarative and episodic memories are mainly produced and stored in the temporal lobe and the hippocampus, but a much larger range of brain areas seem to be responsible for skills like dance, like choreography, including areas in the motor cortex, which is the part of the brain that sends signals to the muscle of the body and is responsible for planning and executing movement. The basal ganglia, which has a little structure deep inside the brain, which is associated with a movement initiation and the cerebellum and area at the back of the brain, which deals with adaptation. Okay, so I know that you, your eyes might have gone cross right now, but if I were to just bottom line everything I just said, I would say that it is hella cool that learning choreography calls upon so many different pieces of the brain, because dancing involves planning, initiation, execution, and adaptation.

So I mean, I guess the bottom line is dancers are kind of bad asses, but this is why it's skills. Memories can be memorizing and skills can be such a process. As we begin learning, the brain has to call on every one of these parts and get them to fire off in a very specific order. So, in the brain there is this white fibrous matter. There's also gray matter, but there's this white fibrous matter in the brain and this matter thickens, and strengthens between a various regions of the brain in response to our learning a new piece of choreography. It's a sort of fatty tissue and you can think of it like one part of the brain building an expressway to another. The strong tissue, the stronger the tissue, the faster these regions talk to each other. Our primary motor cortex, changes as well. This area of the brain is responsible for causing actions, and makes connections with other neurons that travels down the spinal cord to contact the muscles in the body and caused them to contract into action.

So, we're in class, we're learning movement, we're learning a new combination. What's happening is there are these sort of weak pieces of tissue that are, or yeah, fibrous matter I guess, that are barely there. And so the recollection of these combinations, of these movements in that order is difficult. And then the more we do it, the fattier those connection points get, they start going faster, they start going faster, they start going faster, and pretty soon, we're able to remember the movement. So the primary motor cortex, sends a message down the spine into the hand that says, Porter, Ron. Now it's pretty cool. I know some of your bored, but I think this is some super juicy information. The bottom line is that when we're learning choreography, that connection points between all the regions of the brain that need to get to work is a bit weak. And the more you work those regions, the faster those expressways are built. It's all about repetition, friends.

So why do some dancers to pick up so much faster than others? Well, some of it may be predisposition, but the unglamorous and real answer is, practice. The more you put yourself in a learning environment, the more chummy your brains regions get with each other. This is why practice does not make perfect. Practice, merely solidifies what you're doing. Those patterns in the brain will generate whether you're doing it correctly or not. So going slow is a critical component of creating good habits. This is also why level appropriate classes are so important because a class that moves too quickly, simply doesn't allow proper cognitive processing. Okay, so what's a dancer to do? Well, I'm glad you asked. I have for you a five point checklist, of actionable items to start building stronger muscle memory. Number one, learn slow. Forget slow. Building muscle memory, requires slow repetition.

Get used to endless, endless, slow repetition. Get lost in it, develop a reverence for it. Slowly moving through movements until the body can work through them cleanly and only then gradually increasing the tempo. Muscle memory doesn't discriminate between good and bad habits. Muscles remember mistakes in the exact same way that they remember correct technique. So, slow, is key. When you repeat mistakes again and again, you build a muscle memory with those mistakes which makes them even harder to overcome later. And I've often wondered about the way we teach class, this traditional method of warm up, across the floor combo, and whether that's truly the best way to learn dance. But in any case, slow tempo is your ally. Number two: feeling above imitation. So in a slight contradiction to the first point, just a slight one, you don't have to be quite so hardcore about not making mistakes when learning new movement, while simplifying and slowing down is helpful.

Letting go of looking like the teacher and instead allowing yourself to just capture the feeling or the groove of the choreography, allows you to loosen up, worry a bit less and try to feel the music. Once you find the feel and the shape of the piece, you'll have time to narrow in on any issues that need to be addressed or habits that need to be removed from muscle memory,, as you work through it over and over. And I use the shape a lot in my class. When dancers are struggling to get choreography, get the shape of it. You know we stand here. I know we turn at this point. We moved to the right on this point. Just this overall picture, allowing yourself to get the macro first, before the micro, can sometimes help dancers learn more quickly. Number three: try breaking songs up into bite size pieces, breaking movement up into bite size pieces as well.

There's a reason dancers use eight counts, but it doesn't have to be what you use. You can use anytime increment you want. I have had times where I've been overwhelmed in class, but when the teacher broke it down just an eight at a time, it didn't seem quite so bad. You don't need to get it all at once. Even if you learned part of the combo and didn't do the whole thing, it would be a whole lot better to fully understand a part of it, than barely understand all of it. Break it up into manageable parts, and concentrate on learning one part really well, and if eight counts doesn't work, try four. If counts don't work, try stories or phrases. Practice part eight, slow until it feels good. Speed it up and then move to part B and repeat, going back to connect them together later.

Think about the way we read long serial numbers. When we call tech support, we break it up into chunks. The mine absorbs pieces better, and a quick tip: Work the transitions between pieces. Memorizing sections is great, but you won't be able to perform unless you can easily transition from one into another. Number four, visual memory. Visualization is a major tool in mind body medicine, and it's even practice in physical therapy, in aid of recovery, so we're not talking about visual visualization that you'll hear people talk about in this self help realm or were they'll say, meditate and then journal, and then close your eyes and picture the life you want. We're not visualizing the life we want. Instead, what we're referring to, is picturing the exact choreography in our head as slowly as needed to create those pictures. See the muscles, see the limbs and actions, see the facials, the textures, the weight shifts. By using the mind's eye like a camera to provide images of what the muscles and joints are doing in your choreography, you can more deeply engrain muscle coordination.

Why does this work? Well, science says, excuse me, scientific research has found that thinking about a physical activity stimulates the same regions of the brain as,physically moving, triggering them to send signals to the body required to dance. So even though you're just sitting there or laying there or cooking, those neural pathways are remarkably strengthened just through detailed visualization. So leave your phone at ear room at night, ditch the social media and instead, dance in your head as you drift off. And then lastly, narratives, cues, and rhythms. Oftentimes we try to memorize via counts or music. And if that works for you, great. No need to fix anything. But there's a lot of kind of learners out there. And just like in school, we talk about how some children are visual learners and some are kinesthetic learners. We learn differently as well. I use narratives often in my class, not as often as I used to.

They're always a little bit odd, but they will tell a stories. So, um, you know, take the arm, swipe something off the dresser, catch a feather under a rain boat, drop the baby. Uh, it honestly helps. And yeah, there is an entire field of study related to narrative memorizatio,n and entire cognitive field of study related to how telling yourself a story helps you memorize things more. So, as goofy as that is, it's what I do sometimes it's actually blending our skills, learning with episodic memory, so you get more brain power working for you. So sometimes telling a story helps, cues our GoTo in every class. So rather than counts or music, naming the action. So for example, instead of one and two, three and four or five, six, seven, eight and a think hand, hand, close break extent, look, swoop, arc, kick and touch. You know, it's giving the labels to the movements, can help you memorize them more quickly. And then lastly, rhythms. So, some people pick up quicker rhythms. I tend to enjoy rhythms more than I enjoy counts. So when people use noises, but tah, tah, tah tah, that's easier for me, than one and a two, you know, see I'm messing it up already. Cues, narratives, rhythms, stories.. Experiment with what works for you. So, that's five ways to strengthen your muscle memory.

 Remember, muscle memory, this practice of getting the brain to fire quickly, it's a skill like anything else. And like any other skill, it can absolutely be strengthened for anyone with a little commitment. And practic. Dancer's Called To Action is a proud product of Unify Dance Network. If you found these words helpful, please leave me a happy review. That's the best thank you I can get. You can find me online Or Instagram at @mizmaclean. See you next time, Dancers.


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