Memory Demystified: Dr. Ruth Day's Memory for Movement Offers Insight into How Dancers Learn and Remember

By Lewis, Kristin | Dance Magazine, May 2008 | Go to article overview

Memory Demystified: Dr. Ruth Day's Memory for Movement Offers Insight into How Dancers Learn and Remember


Lewis, Kristin, Dance Magazine


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When Ruth Day took her first ballet class, she made an observation that would change her life. Only 6 years old, she became frustrated by how long it took her classmates to learn a leap combination. After explaining the steps--which was enough for Day to remember it--the teacher told the class to envision jumping over an imaginary log. "When it was my turn, she said, 'OK Ruthie, look at the log, now leap over it,' " Day recalls. "I understood the general value of the visual image, but I didn't need it and it was getting in my way."

Years later when Day tried modern dance for the first time, she was mystified by how long it took her to learn combinations. "I was taking extra time naming the movements in my mind, then translating those names back into my body," she says. Day put her epiphany to the test by trying out tap dance. Sure enough, she excelled as a hoofer because many tap steps already have names--some even have built-in rhythm. "Flap" is often pronounced "fuh-lap," for instance.

Since 1989, Day has been exploring how dancers learn and remember movement. She has studied thousands of dancers for a project she directs at Duke University called Memory for Movement. The principles derived from her research show dancers how to improve memory and teachers how to help their students pick up combinations with greater speed and precision.

The general process of knowing--how we learn and remember--is called cognition. But, as Day experienced in her first ballet class, not everyone learns the same way. Most dancers rely on a number of different "memory cues."

These cues fall into three categories: linguistic, visual, and kinesthetic. Naming movement and counting are linguistic cues. Visual cues include watching someone perform a movement, and kinesthetic cues involve how movement feels in the body.

Through American Dance Festival, Day has gathered data drawn from laboratory experiments, surveys, class observations, and more over the last two decades. In a typical experiment, dancers are shown seven basic movements on a computer screen, then try to perform the sequence from memory. The results are taped and scored for accuracy, speed, and quality of movement. Later, the dancers indicate which memory cues they used. …

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