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Why Can't I Remember That?

by Sandi & Dan Finch

Ever go to a weekend, learn a new dance, then try to do it in class two days later and barely remember the rhythm? Who hasn’t?

Learning puts information into your short-term memory, but to get it to stick, it has to be stored in that complex filing system we call a brain. Memory experts say you need to review new material repeatedly to ensure retention—10 minutes after the learning session, 24 hours later, and even a week later. (We call that practice, practice, practice.) You will lose up to 90% of what you just learned within two days unless you reinforce it by repetition. This is one explanation for why new material taught at a weekend jumps into focus after the Sunday reviews (repetition 24 hours later).

Roy Gotta, a cuer from New Jersey who taught a lesson-planning session at this year’s Roundalab convention, said he started teaching the figure Turning Two Step earlier to give dancers more time to learn it throughout the weeks of his beginner classes. It had been number 11 in his list of figures to teach, but he moved it up AND each week he spends 10 minutes of class on practicing it, “completely unrelated to whatever else I am teaching that night,” he said. Repetition, repetition, repetition.

Learning is the acquisition of new information; memory is storing it to use in the future. We have several types of memory. Episodic memory is remembering events from our own life, semantic memory is memory of general facts. Knowing who is president is semantic memory; remembering how you felt on election day is episodic. Important for dancers is what is called procedural memory, which involves the use of motor skills. This type of memory gets better with practice, like knowing how to do a telemark without thinking.

Procedural memory needs repetition, but experts say practicing one hour a day for seven days is better than practicing seven hours on the same day. Your brain needs time in between to store what you are learning. That relates to another basic tenet—the average concentration time for an adult is 50 minutes. This is why class teaching sessions should never go over one hour, 45-50 minutes is best. And thus, during a dance weekend, you should get a break or two during a morning or afternoon teach.

Much of what we know about remembering what you learn comes from studies of people who have suffered traumatic brain injuries. How they adapt to remembering is a key to how most of us remember. Studies of people with brain injuries have shown that better retention comes from error-free learning. For the brain-injured, never ask them to guess at an answer because their brain may confuse their wrong answer with the right answer. Structuring learning time so there is no chance of an error being stored works for all learners. Practice makes perfect, but only if it is practiced correctly.

We can improve our ability to learn by paying attention to our brain health. When it comes to the brain, you can teach an old dog new tricks. The ability of the brain to adapt and change is called neuroplasticity. With the right stimulation, your brain forms new neural pathways, allowing it to learn new information at any age.

HelpGuide.org this month published an article on just how to help your brain adapt. One way is through physical exercise. It increases oxygen flow to the brain, reduces stress hormones, and stimulates new neural connections, according to the article. Get enough sleep. During sleep, memory consolidation occurs—the filing away of information. Eat well. Just as your body needs energy from food, so does your brain.

Enjoy time with friends. Interacting with others may be the best form of brain exercise, according to the article. A recent Harvard School of Public Health study showed people with the most active social lives had the slowest rate of memory decline.

Have a laugh. Listening to jokes and thinking through punch lines activates areas of the brain vital to learning and creativity. Surround yourself with reminders to lighten up—a funny poster, a picture of you or your pet having fun. Take time to look at those internet jokes your friends send around.

When you feel the “fog” set in at a weekend, change the environment slightly. Go outside and take a deep breath, have a drink of water.

Many dancers say they have Fred or Ginger dancing on a movie reel in their brain. This is visualization. Teachers need to understand that people learn in different ways. Visual learners need to see it—so show it repeatedly. Some learners have to hear it to make their own internal image of the figure or combination—so describe it in as many ways as you can. Use analogies to describe what it is like, the sillier the better. (Remember, have a laugh, above.) Learners can employ several different senses. Visual learners for example need to add the additional sense of hearing, as in reading out loud what they want to remember, or at a dance weekend, say it as you do it. Auditory learners might want to make notes.

Teachers need to allow time to repeat what you’ve just done—dance through the segment that was just taught, then dance through from the beginning to tie it together.

New material needs to relate to what you already know, called linking. Modifications are good but too many will be too much for the “old dog” in most of us.


From a club newsletter, July 2019, and reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, September 2019.


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If you would like to read other articles on dance position, technique, styling, and specific dance rhythms, you may visit the article TOC.



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