Take the thinking out of Dancing!
DK Ballroom Instructor Cassie Tucker describes why practice is so important...
I am oddly fascinated by cases of memory loss. I’m not talking about a weekend bender that resulted in a blackout; I’m talking about chronic cases of long or short-term memory loss where parts of the brain responsible for forming memories have been permanently damaged. These cases fascinate me not because of what affected people can’t remember, but because of what they can remember.
I am sure you have heard the term “muscle memory” before. People often use it to refer to activities that we do on autopilot or without thinking such as driving a car or making a cup of coffee. This so-called “muscle” is actually a part of the brain called the Basal Ganglia, which is used to store routines in unconscious memory like a macro or program. To access it, our prefrontal cortex or conscious memory simply thinks, “make coffee” and the make coffee program is accessed from the basal ganglia and bam!, you have a steaming cup of goodness in your hands without any real idea of how it got there.
The basal ganglia is what allows people with a damaged prefrontal cortex to do things without understanding how. These people can navigate a kitchen, sing all the lyrics to their favourite song, find a bathroom, play the piano, all without any conscious thought as long as their body has learned how to do it. Ask them where that bathroom is and they’ll have no idea what you’re talking about. What really blows my mind, though, is that the basal ganglia can continue to learn and store new routines without any conscious awareness at all.
As a dancer, we often feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of things we need to remember when dancing: keep your head left, maintain stretch, keep your feet on the floor, close your feet neatly, that step is a heel, execute the arm choreography, what steps come next? And above all, SMILE! That is a lot to remember. But we don’t need to remember it at all. We just need to train each element into our unconscious memory so our body can automatically handle it.
The easiest part of a dance for a memory to store is the routine itself because it is a pattern. How often have you walked onto the floor at a social while emphatically telling your partner “I don’t think I remember Parma Waltz,” only to flawlessly execute the routine the second you went in to hold? That is your muscle memory kicking in, recalling the steps of the dance for you. How did it get there? Through repetition.
If we are intentional about what we practice it is easy to store anything into unconscious memory. Be warned though - practice makes permanent so it can be hard to undo bad habits. Also take comfort in knowing that if you practice hard and do happen to lose your memory, there is a good chance your body will still know how to dance!