Girl dancer posing with arms outstretched in a dance studio

How to Pick Up Choreography

Once someone has created the masterpiece that is their personal choreography, how is a student supposed to ‘pick it up’ and put it on their bodies? And, once you know how to do that, how can you get better at it?

Novice or professional, student or teacher, learning how to break down the art of picking up choreography is a useful tool to have in your dancing tool belt. We’ll be looking at this issue from a student’s perspective, but you can apply these same ideas to how you teach choreography instead if you are a teacher or choreographer.


Dance is physical. You can memorize as many viral TikTok or iconic music video choreographies in your head as you want, but it’s not called dancing until you actually, well… dance! 

When it comes to picking up the details of choreography quickly, Transition Steps are your friend! Transition steps are the smaller connecting steps between bigger, sometimes flashier, or more challenging movements. Many instructors will tell you that transition steps are just as important, if not more important than a big kick or turn. CLI instructor and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel choreographer, Marguerite Derricks, is known to pay a lot of attention to transition steps when teaching and watching her choreography. Professional dancers know that they are the most important when it comes to cleanliness, clarity, and quality of movement.

Two dancers wearing black in a bevel pose in CLI Studios with Marguerite Derricks

Transition steps might look like walks, weight changes, crosses of the feet, plies, tendus, half turns and pivots, and smaller releves. Hmm… these terms sound a lot like what you would hear in a Technique Class. Yep, when you break down any difficult choreography, you’ll find similar terminology at its core! Work on your technique, and you will find your body organically making more connections inside of complicated choreography as well.

Another helpful tool is your Focus. When you have a sharp focus, as opposed to letting your eyes wander, your brain focuses more on a physiological level too! Combine that with the fact that your focus is an often overlooked part of choreography and you’ll be knocking out those 8 counts with clarity in no time.

Lastly, understanding that everybody and Every Body is Different can transform your ability to pick up choreography. This is where videotaping can come in handy! When you record yourself you can see how well you are matching your instructor and rewatch it as many times as you need. Then it’s just practice to see how you can perform the movement the way you’d like to, using your assets to your advantage!

Putting The Steps Together

For beginners, work on basic technique classes in conjunction with dance classes that feel good for your body. Eventually, you can merge the more disciplined parts of dance with the natural human desire to move that everybody has in them!

For more advanced dancers, don’t overlook transition steps—in fact, consider learning choreography focusing only on the in-between steps, and making them just as full out as your battements and big jumps. This technique can set you apart in a crowd and open your dancing to new vistas, so give it a try!

Find the Narrative

Martha Graham dancer Lloyd Knight in a contraction pose smiling looking upwards

As physical as dance is, it’s not solely an athletic pursuit. Dance is art, expression, and a way to tell stories. One of the easiest ways to retain choreography quicker is to attach meaning to your movement.

Professional memorizers, otherwise known as “Super Memorizers” will use this technique when memorizing anything from a deck of cards to geographic maps of a location. When you attach meaning to something, it makes it easier to remember. To remember something in sequence, creating a story can be even more helpful.

It doesn’t have to be overly complex, though! The story can be as simple as thinking that you are dancing on a cloud for the first 8 counts, and then the cloud falls out from beneath you and you are on solid ground for the next few 8 counts. Many instructors will give you imagery as they are teaching their choreography, so pay attention to the imagery, metaphor, and narratives that the instructor is using. It makes learning the steps more interesting, but it also makes piecing them together easier too.

In ballets, there are often very clear narratives, like a “dance to the death,” or a dance where the two dancers celebrate falling in love. The same is true for many musicals and film dance productions. In street styles like hip hop and house, the dance movements are social and very communicative and expressive, so you can picture that you are communicating with a friend (or a foe!) but instead of using your words, you have to use your body.

Listening to the lyrics and the mood of the song can often be helpful too, but some choreographers will choose to choreograph in contrast to the music, so make sure to pay attention to the instructor and what parts of the story they are emphasizing as they teach.

Learn Your History!

Many instructors will explain how or why they choreographed a specific dance move by referencing their influences. They may say that the intro to their choreography should feel like a scene from a certain movie, or that it is influenced by a certain choreographer. This is all a part of knowing dance history. If you know what a choreographer is talking about, you’ll have an easier time following their steps and piecing them together. The more classes you take, the more immersed you will be.

Contemporary dancer Chaz Buzan posing with his hands in front of his face in at CLI Studios

Immersing yourself in dance can also look like watching shows and films. Immersing yourself in the ballet world might include seeing the biggest named ballets like Swan Lake, Giselle, The Nutcracker, or more contemporary works like the Rite of Spring or the Maple Leaf Rag. By exposing yourself to a variety of choreographic work, you’ll begin to see the patterns and the meaning behind common dance moves.

In Class

So you have the physical sequence of the steps, your transition steps are clean, and you’ve attached meaning to a few of the steps. You’re recalling the steps a little quicker than before! But as soon as your group is called to the center of the room, you forget everything. What happened?

The first thing you need to understand is that that’s normal. It happens to all dancers, even at the professional level! It won’t help you to get mad at yourself for forgetting the steps, so be kind to yourself if you do happen to go blank once the music turns on. It’s okay to laugh and jump in when you catch the groove. 

The great thing about online dance classes is that the pressure of performing for a crowd is often non-existent. Your pets might be watching you from the corner, but trust us, they only have good things to say! Make sure to be supportive of yourself, and for every criticism or opportunity for growth that you see, try and take some time to point out something you did well. Even if you can’t see it, showing up and practicing is half the battle, so you deserve all the compliments.

At a certain point, you have to let your body take over from your mind. Some great ways to do that are by deep breathing before you begin dancing, trying to clear your mind of anything but the music and the moment. 

Marking, Repeating, and Repeating Again

“One more time, then music?” Ever heard that in a dance class and not believed it? Dance teachers are known for saying “one last time,” and then still having the dancers repeat a move a few more times. Ever wonder why that is?

Hip hop dancer Delaney Glazer and her assistant dancing with arms up in CLI Studios

Repetition works. Something else those Super Memorizers do is repeat and repeat and repeat the things they are trying to memorize. If you’re in the studio, practice on the side or run the choreography in your head before it’s your turn to dance. If you’re at home, you can pause and repeat sections to your heart’s content!

Don’t be afraid to slow down or repeat sections that you find particularly difficult or illuminating when taking online dance classes. CLI’s video player allows you to slow down, speed up, and mirror to make learning easier. You have the benefit of being able to repeat a difficult section rather than being in person with an instructor moving too fast for your level.

Finally, marking the choreography before practicing it full-out is a great way to repeat choreography without exhausting your physical energy! Marking is when you practice the choreography at a smaller range of motion and conserve your energy, while still practicing the dynamics, sequence, and timing of the dance.

Bonus Tip: Choreograph!

CLI Co-Founder Teddy Forance says that creating his own choreography will often help him learn choreography faster in classes, and vice versa. Just how reading can make you a better writer, and actively writing helps you to hone in on the kind of books you like to read, taking dance classes can help you become a better choreographer, and choreographing will help you to hone in on your personal tastes and what you like to experience and create as a dancer.

This article was full of a lot of ways to pick up and retain choreography better, so choose the tip that made the most sense for you and try it out in any one of our on-demand classes with a CLI Studios membership.

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