Muscle memory is the way your body remembers a motor movement through repetition. The memories are not really stored in your muscles, but in your brain. By repeating the same thing many times, the brain knows what comes next without much effort—the movement seems to come naturally.
Muscle memory is an important part of competitive Irish dancing because we learn the steps by repeating them, make corrections by repeating them, and eventually we want to perform onstage by repeating what we have practiced.
Many dancers tell me when they are on stage they hardly seem to really think about their steps—the dancing comes naturally. Muscle memory is great because when we compete we start thinking about many other things like where the other dancer is going, where the judge may be looking, and if our parents/teachers are watching.
Therefore, by practicing steps the way we want them to look on stage our brain will store the memory and it will come more easily when we compete. If we can remember the way our steps go without thinking much, then we can focus on corrections like crossing over, turnout, posture, and timing. By practicing many times with your corrections eventually you will not have to even have to think much about those, your body will remember automatically. I know some dancers who even like to smile while they practice so that it will come more naturally onstage.
There is however a downside to the muscle memory system. If your teacher changes something in your steps, it may take awhile to correct the movement. You may have experienced this before when you made the same mistake over and over—even though you knew it was wrong you could not seem to make your legs and feet change it! The best solution is to repeat your steps with the corrections and comments until you override the old memory your brain stored. Also, the system only works if you’re practicing your best, otherwise your body will get used to the messy movements.
To effectively work on your muscle memory, you should focus on the quality of what you are doing rather than the number of times you do it. A few good run-throughs are better than many sloppy ones. You should drill the pieces of your steps you’re struggling with, rather than skip through. PERFECT PRACTICE is what will make your performance perfect!
Whether you are training for an Oireachtas, taking your first steps in Irish dancing or you just want to get fit in a fun way, Diddlyi has what you need. Access all of our online Irish dance workshops FREE for 24 hours - it takes less than a minute to register!