Tuesday, July 7, 2009

How to Pick Up Combinations Quickly

I was reading someone’s blog the other day, and one of the comments was from a young dancer who was having trouble remembering combinations in ballet class. I thought this would make a great blog post because I, too, was one of those dancers who stood in the back and tried to blend in. Eventually I became one of the quickest to pick up combinations and was no longer afraid to stand in the first spot at the barre or go with the first group in the center. Here are some of my ideas about how you can pick up combinations quickly.

Probably the hardest part for me was just learning all the steps…period. When I started dancing at Butler University as a high school student, I encountered so many steps I’d never seen before. Learning the basic mechanics of faille, temps le cuisse, ballonné, flic-flacs, brisé, entrechat trois (to name a few) took some time. It’s all part of the learning process, and until you are familiar with how to do each of the steps then you can’t be too impatient with yourself.

Once you’ve mastered the basics and you at least know how to do all the steps in a given combination, then you can begin putting things together. I found the single most valuable way to learn how teachers put combinations together is to begin recording them in a notebook. Now, when you first start doing this you will not be able to recall every combination from class; begin slowly and jot down one or two barre combinations that you remember and one or two center combinations.

As a prospective teacher yourself, you can always refer back to these one day and reuse them in your own classes. To make the most out of this exercise, here are the pieces you should note.

Type of combination

Teacher’s name and date

Time signature and beginning position

Counts and Steps

An example would be as follows:

Pointe Center Petit Allegro

Melissa Lowe 3-25-1987

2/4 Begin R foot front 5th croisé

1-2 Echappé to 2nd position en pointe, close L foot front 5th croisé

3-4 Detourné toward back foot, tombé front onto R

5 Step coupé back onto L

6 Pas de chat R to end L foot front 5th

7-8 Sous-sus L foot front, plié croisé devant

1-8 Repeat all to other side

Over time you will begin to notice how a particular teacher structures his or her classes, and how they structure the individual combinations or exercises. I tried to always stand behind someone at the barre that I could count on to know the steps, and in the center I did my best to be in the second group of dancers so I’d have time to watch the first group and review the steps. For petit allegro, sometimes just marking things with my hands was helpful, or making up a cadence to say in my mind that would help me know what came next. For the combination above, I might have made something up that went in time with the musicality or counts: out, in, turn, step front, coupé, pas de chat and up and down.

Learning to switch feet quickly, where to place your weight, which foot closes front or back, how to reverse a combination—all of this takes time to accomplish. Besides writing down the combinations, it can also be helpful to go over them in your mind while your body is actually at rest. Much of this is a mental task anyway, so wearing yourself out and tripping over your feet might not be the most efficient way to learn how to pick up steps faster.

Knowing that you are going to need to recall a certain combination after class in order to jot it down in your notebook will help your long term memory. You’ll be amazed at how many steps are commonly linked together in the same pattern. Also, if you memorize the sequence of steps, you’ll be able to do them at a much faster rate in your head than you could do with your body. When I was learning lines for a play, for example, I would always try to say them as fast as I could just so I knew that I had them down; I never intended to perform them aloud at the same pace, but it boosted my confidence if I could say them quickly. The same thing applies with combinations: you can fast forward the time signature and watch it in your head at a very quick rate, so when it comes time to do a similar combination in class you’ll be more prepared to tackle it at the right tempo.

Do any other dancers out there have tips for how to pick up combinations? A lot of it is just perseverance and not giving up. Each day your brain is putting two and two together and before you know it things will begin falling in place.


  1. Very useful!
    Thank you

  2. I love the idea you've presented - "journaling" the combinations is a great way to gain some insight into the structure a teacher uses and solidify the sequence for future use in class (and beyond).

    I wrote about strategies for remembering choreography on my blog. I mention writing it down but offer a few other ideas too. It's not quite the same as learning to pick up choreography more quickly but learning to process the information being given and recalling that info are two sides of the same coin I think.

    Anyway, here's the link if you want to check it out: http://danceadvantage.net/2009/06/07/remembering-choreography/

    Great blog, by the way! Such a useful resource you are providing.


  3. Thanks, Nichelle. I checked out your blog and it's great! We did hit on a lot of the same points in these particular posts, didn't we? :)

  4. I know! Kind of wild that the post dates are exactly a month apart too. I could say that great minds think alike but then I'm afraid I'd be putting myself in a category I don't belong! lol