Why Can't I Remember That?
& Dan Finch
Ever go to a weekend, learn a new dance, then try to do it in class two
days later and barely remember the rhythm? Who hasn’t?
Learning puts information into your short-term memory, but to get it to
stick, it has to be stored in that complex filing system we call a
brain. Memory experts say you need to review new material repeatedly to
ensure retention—10 minutes after the learning session, 24 hours later,
and even a week later. (We call that practice, practice, practice.) You
will lose up to 90% of what you just learned within two days unless you
reinforce it by repetition. This is one explanation for why new
material taught at a weekend jumps into focus after the Sunday reviews
(repetition 24 hours later).
Roy Gotta, a cuer from New Jersey who taught a lesson-planning session
at this year’s Roundalab convention, said he started teaching the
figure Turning Two Step earlier to give dancers more time to learn it
throughout the weeks of his beginner classes. It had been number 11 in
his list of figures to teach, but he moved it up AND each week he
spends 10 minutes of class on practicing it, “completely unrelated to
whatever else I am teaching that night,” he said. Repetition,
Learning is the acquisition of new information; memory is storing it to
use in the future. We have several types of memory. Episodic memory is
remembering events from our own life, semantic memory is memory of
general facts. Knowing who is president is semantic memory; remembering
how you felt on election day is episodic. Important for dancers is what
is called procedural memory, which involves the use of motor skills.
This type of memory gets better with practice, like knowing how to do a
telemark without thinking.
Procedural memory needs repetition, but experts say practicing one hour
a day for seven days is better than practicing seven hours on the same
day. Your brain needs time in between to store what you are learning.
That relates to another basic tenet—the average concentration time for
an adult is 50 minutes. This is why class teaching sessions should
never go over one hour, 45-50 minutes is best. And thus, during a dance
weekend, you should get a break or two during a morning or afternoon
Much of what we know about remembering what you learn comes from
studies of people who have suffered traumatic brain injuries. How they
adapt to remembering is a key to how most of us remember. Studies of
people with brain injuries have shown that better retention comes from
error-free learning. For the brain-injured, never ask them to guess at
an answer because their brain may confuse their wrong answer with the
right answer. Structuring learning time so there is no chance of an
error being stored works for all learners. Practice makes perfect, but
only if it is practiced correctly.
We can improve our ability to learn by paying attention to our brain
health. When it comes to the brain, you can teach an old dog new
tricks. The ability of the brain to adapt and change is called
neuroplasticity. With the right stimulation, your brain forms new
neural pathways, allowing it to learn new information at any age.
HelpGuide.org this month published an article on just how to help your
brain adapt. One way is through physical exercise. It increases oxygen
flow to the brain, reduces stress hormones, and stimulates new neural
connections, according to the article. Get enough sleep. During sleep,
memory consolidation occurs—the filing away of information. Eat well.
Just as your body needs energy from food, so does your brain.
Enjoy time with friends. Interacting with others may be the best form
of brain exercise, according to the article. A recent Harvard School of
Public Health study showed people with the most active social lives had
the slowest rate of memory decline.
Have a laugh. Listening to jokes and thinking through punch lines
activates areas of the brain vital to learning and creativity. Surround
yourself with reminders to lighten up—a funny poster, a picture of you
or your pet having fun. Take time to look at those internet jokes your
friends send around.
When you feel the “fog” set in at a weekend, change the environment
slightly. Go outside and take a deep breath, have a drink of water.
Many dancers say they have Fred or Ginger dancing on a movie reel in
their brain. This is visualization. Teachers need to understand that
people learn in different ways. Visual learners need to see it—so show
it repeatedly. Some learners have to hear it to make their own internal
image of the figure or combination—so describe it in as many ways as
you can. Use analogies to describe what it is like, the sillier the
better. (Remember, have a laugh, above.) Learners can employ several
different senses. Visual learners for example need to add the
additional sense of hearing, as in reading out loud what they want to
remember, or at a dance weekend, say it as you do it. Auditory learners
might want to make notes.
Teachers need to allow time to repeat what you’ve just done—dance
through the segment that was just taught, then dance through from the
beginning to tie it together.
New material needs to relate to what you already know, called linking.
Modifications are good but too many will be too much for the “old dog”
in most of us.
From a club
newsletter, July 2019,
in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC)
Newsletter, September 2019.