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"Why do we have to do the same steps over and over?"

One of the most common things I hear from my younger students is "Plies and tendus again??? We did them last week!!!"

As exciting as dance classes can be, one thing that can often get frustrating is repeating the same seemingly repetitive exercises or movements over and over again. No, the dance teachers don't enjoy boring their students, and no, it isn't that they can't come up with more creative exercises. There is a reason that exercises need to be done repeatedly and it is called "muscle memory."

Just like when studying or learning something new such as vocabulary, math, or historical facts, we rarely remember the details the first time we see it. It takes several times of looking over the information, memorizing, or repeating it over and over to make it stick. When we do this with work that needs to be retained in our brain, we call it "committing it to memory." Our bodies, and in particular our nerves and muscles, are the same. When we learn a new movement or dance step, our muscles need to learn how to do the movement, so it needs to be done over and over again to commit it to it's own memory.

Think of a baby just learning how to walk. They rarely take their first steps and then immediately start running. Their feet have to relax enough to support them, the muscles in their legs need to learn which ones need to stretch or bend, their core muscles need to provide support, and their brain needs to figure out how to make it all balance and stay up. Every time a baby stands up, they get a little more stable. Every step is a little less shaky. Sometimes they progress quickly, sometimes they regress and what was stable one day is a wobbly the next day. This is a basic example of muscles learning to move and work together, creating muscle memory.

Dance is very similar. Every step we learn, our muscles must learn which ones need to activate, bend, stretch, and for how long and in what way. When we do movements over and over, we are teaching our muscles how to execute the movement and make the movement work with the rest of our bodies. We are not only training our brains to remember how to do the movement, we are also building the muscle memory so that the muscles can do the movement the same way or better each time. Eventually the goal will be to have the muscles "know" how to execute the movements so well, the dancer doesn't have to concentrate so hard on executing the movement, and can instead focus on things like musicality, performance, and presentation of the steps and the choreography.

As wonderful as it is for our muscles to have the ability to retain memory of movement, they also can very easily retain information that is incorrect or unsafe. Take an example of someone who sits at a desk staring at a computer or hunched over a phone for hours at a time. Sitting in a bad position can easily train the muscles into believing that 'this is the position that you are supposed to be sitting in' and after a while they can develop sore and achy muscles, as well as overall bad posture because the muscles have spent so much time in those positions they have been "trained" to stay that way. Dance mistakes can also create bad muscle memory patterns. If dance steps are either taught incorrectly, or the way the body does something while learning isn't done correctly, that is what the body learns. This is why dance teachers not only repeat the same corrections over and over again, but warn against "practicing wrong." Every single time the body moves, it learns. So if someone moves in a bad or unsafe way, they body will learn and retain that, making it more likely to move that way again and have to be "untrained" before "re-learning" the right way to do it.

For dancers, muscle memory is just as important as memory in the brain, and just another example of how dancers have a much more complete control, knowledge, and understanding of both their mind and bodies. So yes, dance steps need to be done over and over again, but every time a movement is done, it is a multi-faceted and full-body learning experience and an opportunity to grow.

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