I recently learned a pretty tricky drum solo by another dancer in 5 hours, over 3 days.
When I was cast in Jillina’s stage production of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, I learned 7 choreographies in about 6 weeks. So here are some of my main tips to learn choreography quickly!
1. I watch well
Mirror neurons are a type of brain cell that fires both when we perform a specific action (like an arabesque) and when we observe someone else performing the same action.
That is to say, when we see another dancer perform an arabesque, the mirror neurons in our brains fire as if we were performing the movements ourselves.
This can help us understand and learn movements more effectively – so watch first, try second!
2. I don’t repeat mistakes
This one sounds really silly, but I’ll explain what I mean!
If I’m running through a choreography, and I keep making the same mistake, I don’t just keep going and hope it will get better.
I stop what I’m doing. I watch that section again. I practice it without the music. And then I do the run-through again. If I get it wrong again, I stop the music there immediately to break the pattern in my brain. I go from the top (or the top of that section again) and try to get it right.
3. I sing the timing
Especially with lyrical pieces or raqs sharqi pieces in general, steps are not usually on counts, but they follow the melody or other musical accents.
If I’m struggling with a step, I watch the piece again (there’s a theme here!) and I sing the steps. So if there’s a tricky arabesque combo with suspension, I sing along to the dancer performing it in whatever way makes sense for my brain. For example: “left, right, left, riiiiiiiiight, turn and….”
This helps me hear where it fits in the music.
4. I ask the silly questions!
If it’s an in-person or live-streamed choreography workshop, I’m not afraid to ask questions.
Don’t be afraid of looking silly. You’ll be more equipped to learn things independently if you ask questions about the technique or choreography while the expert is right there in front of you.
And chances are, there are other people in the room or the class who have the same questions as you, but are too shy to ask!
5. I prioritise practice frequency
Here for a good time, not for a long time! When trying to learn choreography quickly, I prioritise practice frequency over practice duration.
This increases the chances of me retaining the choreography in the long-term, compared to one or two super long practice blocks in a week.
6. I review right before bed
Sleep provides a lot of benefits to memory consolidation and learning (so getting enough sleep is also key to learn well).
Something I’ve done for a long time, is reviewing tricky things right before bed – even just once, perhaps even just watching instead of dancing.
So my brain can consolidate while I sleep!
These are just some of the ways that I learn choreography quickly!
Looking to get your isolations sharper, your figure eights and circles smoother, and your quality of movement crisper and cleaner? It’s all about practice! However, the way we practice can have an effect on what we get out of that practice. Mindful drilling trumps mindless drilling, so here are three tips to strengthen your belly dance isolations!
1. Know what you’re moving, and how you’re moving it
Hip locks. Well, we’re moving the hips right? Sure, but what’s the driving force behind that movement? We know we need to alternate straightening and bending the knees, so have you taken the time to notice if one leg is working more than the other?
First, start noticing what your default pattern is. Film yourself and watch it back, or ask your teacher or mentor to help you identify what’s driving your movement.
Then, it’s time to get a little nerdy. What muscles can you choose to activate a little more to emphasise the hip lift? (Side note: Muscles are always working – there’s no such thing as a skeletal movement, so here it’s more about what you’re actively choosing to contract a bit harder for emphasis!)
It’s really helpful to learn what muscles could be driving the movement, and get an understanding of how privileging one muscle group over another could change the movement quality of that isolation.
2. Strengthen those muscles!
We’ve gotten nerdy, we’ve started to think about the muscles involved! Now what? Easy – strengthen those muscles. Interested in how you can get your obliques to play a part in increasing the size of your hip lifts and drops? Start strengthening them. Plus, there’s the added bonus of a decreased injury risk when our muscles are stronger.
…. Then speed it up, but don’t cheat! Slowing down an isolation can help you to feel and see the “sticky” parts. When you take your hip circle, maya, or hip lock at a slower speed, you’ll be more able to see differences in size and symmetry. If you’re more aware of these differences, you’ll be more able to work on them. When we’re learning or perfecting a skill our brain has to be involved in doing the work. So slow it down, notice what you want to change, give your brain time to process, and keep at it. When you’re ready, increase the speed. Find where you’re comfortable, then get to that “sweet spot” that’s just out of reach – when you’re not flailing and getting too frustrated, but where you’ve gotta work and reach to get and keep that technique strong and even! Playing with speed is not only a good way to identify how we can improve our quality of movement, but also great for challenging our current level of technique.
One of the biggest mistakes I see dancers make when it comes to training is ignoring the concept of progressive overload.
What the heck is progressive overload!?
Progressive overload refers to gradually (the key word here!) increasing the amount and/or difficulty of your training over time. In both the rehabilitation and athletic performance spheres, we use progressive overload to safely and effectively improve strength, mobility/flexibility, and conditioning status (cardiovascular fitness).
I see dancers make two big mistakes when it comes to progressive overload:
Not acknowledging (or perhaps understanding) where they currently are NOW.
I see so many dancers injure themselves (or just make themselves so sore that they NEVER want to train again!) because they set a goal that is too lofty for their current fitness levels. Lofty goals are fun, but you need to progress towards that goal over time. Just because someone else can run 5km right now, doesn’t mean you can right away, especially if you’ve never run before!
The next most common problem I see is:
Building up to a certain level…. And then never changing anything!
You don’t need to always aspire to stronger, faster, more flexible (although, I truly believe that stronger is better in lots of ways for our bodies – but that’s a discussion for another time). But our bodies are REALLY good at adapting to stressors. Exercise is a stressor. We need a certain amount of consistency for our body to adapt, but once the body is used to something, we need to change it up to keep ourselves seeing the same benefits of training. This can be as simple as changing the type of exercises you do every 4-6 weeks, or adding weight or resistance to the exercises you’re doing.
Progressive overload is not just important for our strength, conditioning and mobility work. It’s also important to consider when planning our dance practices.
Consider this common scenario:
You’re going to a belly dance festival for the first time in a long time (especially after the last 2.5 years of most things being online!). You’re usually dancing for 45 minutes, three times a week. But you’re so excited to dance again, and all the workshops look SO good (sound familiar?). So you’ve signed up for 8 hours of workshops this weekend!
Jumping from 2.25 hours of dance in a regular week to 8 hours (or 10.25 if you also did those standard regular classes) is a big jump in load for our bodies. This can be one of the reasons you might be more likely to sustain an injury at a dance festival – it’s a huge jump in loading that your body is not used to.
But don’t just take my word for it – let’s use a simple method to assess this jump in dance volume:
The acute-to-chronic training/workload ratio (ACWR)
Sounds complicated already, I know! But I promise it’s not, and for this simple method, you can even find a calculator online. I use a slightly more involved version of this method, but this basic method is a great way to get a snapshot of whether you’re increasing your dance and/or training volume too much.
The acute-to-chronic training/workload ratio (ACWR) compares your mileage (for activities like running, cycling, and swimming) or duration (for activities like dance) from the last week to your average weekly mileage/duration for the last four weeks. Week 4 is last week, Week 3 is the week before it, and so on.
When you do an ACWR calculation, you’ll end up with a number at the end. Here’s what the numbers signify:
<0.8 = danger zone; undertraining which can lead to injury risk (yes, we also don’t want to DROP our training amounts too much from week to week if we want to avoid injury!)
Week 1 = 135 mins (3 weeks before the festival: your standard 3 x 45 minute dance sessions)
Week 2 = 135 mins
Week 3 = 135 mins
Week 4 = 615 mins (The week of the festival: Your standard 3 x 45 minute dance sessions, plus your 8 hours of workshops at the festival!)
To calculate your ACWR, add up the minutes from each week:
(615 + 135 + 135 + 135) = 1020 mins
Then, divide that number by the number of weeks (this is standardly measured in 4 week blocks):
1020 / 4 = 255
Then, take the amount of load (in our example, in minutes) from the most recent week, and divide it by the average of the last four weeks (the number we just calculated above):
ACWR = 615 / 255 = 2.4
In this example, your ACWR would be 2.4 → You’re currently in the “danger zone,” the highest risk category for injury because of how fast, and how unevenly, the load has been ramped up.
This is just one of the reasons why we want to progressively overload all of our training – dance, strength, conditioning, mobility or otherwise. We want to progressively build up overtime to reduce our chances of injury.
Have you got any questions about progressive overload for me? Leave me a comment below!
In addition to being the founder and director of Greenstone Belly Dance, Siobhan Camille is a Rehabilitative Exercise Specialist and Strength & Conditioning Coach. Siobhan Camille has an extensive background in exercise science with postgraduate level degrees in Exercise Prescription and Rehabilitation Science. She takes a particular interest in the safety, strength, and performance of dancers, and has conducted formal research on injury incidence in belly dancers. She draws on this background to emphasise safe dance technique and teaches her students how to find and activate muscles to create clear movement.
I spoke to Aziza of Montreal, an internationally reknowned dancer and superstar – and a huge inspiration to me as both a person and a dancer. We chatted practice, consistency, stage presence, cycling and more!
For a long time, I didn’t publicly state this because it felt performative. But I’ve realised that being more vocal about what we believe in also helps ensure we attract the students and collaborators who also share the same core values.
To that end, I want to tell you what inclusivity looks like to us, and what we’ll be doing to do better as we go forward.
💚 Modifications are always offered in classes to accommodate injury or illness. You are always allowed to take a seat if you need a rest. On the rare occasion I don’t offer you a modification and you need one, you are always welcome to ask.
💚 There is no shame in leaving your camera off during online classes. I do often acknowledge it and invite you to give me feedback if you have a question (as I can’t see you and give feedback), but there is no shame here.
💚 There are no body type requirements and no body shaming in our classes.
💚 There is also no tolerance for whorephobia, fatphobia, racism, homophobia or sexism in our classes. I, Siobhan Camille, acknowledge that as a white female in our society, some of these things are ingrained and unconscious. I invite you to call me in if you hear me slip up.
💚 We make multiple donations per year to anti-racist organisations, and causes supporting dancers of MENAHT origin and MENAHT peoples in general.
✨ The important part – how will we continue to do better? ✨
💜 We will be more transparent in our donation processes. Currently we’ve been providing the donation overview amounts only to those who request it, for no real reason other than it felt “showy” to publicly post our donations. These will now be public. We hope this will also help highlight some awesome organisations and initiatives doing good in the Black and POC communities, MENAHT communities, dance communities and beyond.
💜 We will continue to teach on cultural relevance and significance in all dance classes; you cannot divorce this dance from its roots and context.
I also want to give a huge shout out to Eshe of Mahasti Creative Emporium who inspires me to stand up for what is right even when it’s uncomfortable. I truly appreciate you.