Science News

"Mark" don't dance

Thu, 25th Jul 2013

Ginny Smith

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‘Marking’ through a dance can actually be more beneficial than dancing it properly in rehearsal.

‘Marking’ is something that most dancers will be familiar with. When you are rehearsing a routine, you don’t dance it as you would perform it every time, as it would use a lot of unnecessary energy. Sometimes you just walk through the steps- often not leaving the floor, and sometimes even making hand movements in place of difficult steps like turns.

But a new study Warburton and colleagues at the University of California suggests there may be something more going on than just energy conservation. They asked expert ballet dancers to learn two routines- each dancer practiced one of them entirely full out, and one partly through marking, with the routines counterbalanced.

As well as learning the steps, the dancers had to apply a ‘quality’ to each movement- such as gliding or floating. They were then assessed for how well they performed the routines. They found that the dancers did better in the routines they had marked than the ones they had rehearsed full out.

This suggests that marking must do something other than conserve energy, and the researchers argue it is due to the dancers’ cognitive workload. If you are dancing a routine full out, you have to concentrate on your movement, posture, footwork, balance… the list goes on. They argue that because of this, the dancers’ brains are overloaded, and they don’t commit the qualities they are trying to learn to memory as effectively.

This has implications for the field of embodied cognition. The idea is that we use evolutionarily older brain systems to help us with complicated cognitive activities- so we make physical movements, like counting on our fingers when adding up, or we talk to ourselves when trying to remember phone numbers. This field believes that externalising cognitive processes helps with memory formation- the opposite of what is seen here.  It may be that when the activity isn’t particularly physically demanding, the physical representation helps, but when it is something very difficult, like ballet dancing, it overloads the brain. Marking a dance, rather than dancing it properly, relieves some of this cognitive load, allowing you to commit the steps to memory better.


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