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‘Practice Makes Perfect’ & The Importance Of Muscle Memory For Irish Dancers

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Cara Sutherland is an Open Champion dancer from Cleveland, Ohio, USA. She is currently studying Exercise Science and is involved with the Performing Arts at John Carroll University.

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!

Photo credits: Feet – wikipedia; Brain – Flickr User: dierk schaefer


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Comments

  1. It would be interesting to see specific reports illustrating the correlation between muscle movement and memorization in the brain. Having been injured and finding myself “on the sidelines” during classes, I have really noticed the difference between intellectually learning steps, meaning just watching the teacher and students do them, and actually repeating those same steps when you can later, thinking you knew them – thinking you knew them because you had them all “memorized” but hadn’t actually done them physically and finding out that you couldn’t perform the steps like you thought you could. There is something that happens in the learning process that enables the brain to record information in a specific way when the learning is coupled with the actual physical act of performing. I know many studies exist along these lines, but I have experienced this first-hand and would like to hear other comments.

    I’d like to comment on:
    “Many dancers tell me when they are on stage they hardly seem to really think about their steps—the dancing comes naturally.”
    – This is true for me too – but only on stage for a show performance. I revel in the energy and love the stage, but if I’m dancing for grades or on stage for a feis competition it’s completely different, I lose at least 50% of my capability

    “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.”
    I think the keyword here is “focus” and if there were some way teachers could pass on something to their students that would enable them to enhance their focus and concentration this would be fabulous – for I believe momentary distraction is truly a consequential detriment to performance. They say that Olympic athletes are able to zero in on this specific focus and block everything else out. For some this comes naturally and they don’t even have to think about it. But for others, maybe a little boost in the right direction is all they need. What do you think about integrating meditation or perhaps Tai Chi into Irish dancing warm-ups? 😉

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