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.

Comments

  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.

    Nichelle

  3. Tammy Stanwood says:

    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

  5. thanks soo much for the tips, they have helped me a lot during class!

  6. You’re welcome, Tanya…I’m glad you’ve found this site helpful!

  7. Thanks so much! My ballet teacher makes us keep a ballet journal, where we write corrections, combinations, and stretching charts. We also have “words of the week” which we must write down, along with the meaning of the action and we are later tested on them. We also have many assignments such as numbering the corners of the room with a certain system, and writing why we love to dance. We also had to write about a ballet, introduce the characters, say which we would most like to portray, and how we would do it. It has helped me advance so much in her class!

  8. i had a teacher who taught us to memorize four counts or steps and place those sets, like a picture,  in different locations, or sections of  the mirror. as it came time to do the next step, we had too look at that area and visualize the set, and then do the next part of the combo.    it was an interesting idea, and kind of worked for me, but i have a friend who finds that it has changed her dancing. 

  9. I can certainly appreciate this blogpost! I am one of those dancers who finds themselves behind someone they can count on to know the steps during barre, and has to be in the second group during center because I always have such a difficult time remembering combinations! I have never exactly been the “ballerina,” type, though I have taken class most of my life. I have had so many ‘breaks,’ over the years that it has honestly been very hard for me to keep up in class and maintain steady progress because there seems to have been many life interruptions that have prevented me from being able to commit to ballet the way I would like to. For instance, the birth of my daughter, and shortly afterwards, having to take care of her as a single mother, and thus provide for her the way both a father and a mother would. This of course, leaves less time and money for dance. However, even when I was able to spend my time regularly in the studio, I still always had some difficulty in picking up combinations quickly. It is not that I do not have the capability of learning it; it is that I have always needed to See a combination over and over again, and really get it into my brain before my muscles could even begin to process how they needed to move. I would feel so frustrated because all the other dancers pick up combinations so quickly, and many times the teacher would not even need to show it more than once, they would just say the combination verbally, mark it, and that’s it, you just had to know it. This is something I have struggled with, and even when I do see it quite a few times, I still need to drill,drill,drill. Your idea of writing the combinations down is a good one! I shall have to try that this week when I am in my ballet class, and will have to somehow force myself to remember enough to be able to write it down! I think the biggest key in remembering combinations though is consistency. Consistency is taking class every week, and in taking as much class as one can. It can be a hard thing to do in the busy world of today if you are not a young, budding ballerina, but still, it is a nice thing to strive to dance as often as possible. I myself have created a blog on my website, http://www.dancestudioconnect.com, and would love to inquire about having a text link on your website. I find your blog to be incredibly useful and informative to all dancers, and if it is in any way possible to have a text link on your site, I would love to hear back from you!Cheers!Liz

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