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Memories of a Dancer... when Dance meets Neurosciences

Katja Hanska, Photograph Igor Bielawsky, 2020

What's the connection between dancing and neurosciences?

As a dancer, I have experienced “blanking” at some point in my former career, like forgetting a known section of choreography during performance. Despite hours of practice and rehearsal that deeply integrate intricate movement sequences into my memory, sometimes I had “blanks” and was forced to improvise until I could recall the next sequence. So, what happens when a dancer forget his choreography? How is it that dancers are able to remember intricate sequences in the first place? And, what is the science behind memory? 

According to Neurocognition and Action Research Group at the University of Bielefeld, in Germany, “The complex movement sequences executed by dancers epitomize the human capacity for sequence learning.” As a former Dancer and now working as a Psychotherapist and a Dance Movement Therapy (1) Choreographer, I am interested in how learning and memory processes are experienced by students and to further explore the relationship between memory and movement.

We know that repetition is essential to retaining choreography, and the importance of a well-rounded teaching approach with diverse and layered learning processes, including verbal cues, mental imagery and kinaesthetic experiences. Learning and remembering are closely connected, and dancers seeking to enhance their movement recall must focus not only on techniques for retrieving movement, but also on techniques for encoding it into their memories. 

The Science of Memory : Stages and Processes

The most basic definition of memory is the interrelated processes of taking in, storing and retrieving information. Memories are the result of learning, which is changing a behaviour due to an increase in knowledge, skills or understanding, and are created in stages. First, an individual experiences stimuli – what they see, smell, taste, touch and hear – through their senses, and those perceptions become immediate or sensory memory. From this abundance of unclassified sensory memory, relevant information becomes working memory through the process of encoding, whereby it is assigned meaning, allowing it to be recalled later. Finally, information that is found to be necessary for future retrieval becomes long-term memory through consolidation, during which recent memories are differentiated from older ones and are made less vulnerable to being forgotten. Once they have been perceived, encoded and consolidated, such long-term memories may be retrieved for years or even a lifetime. 

There are two forms of long-term memory. The first is explicit or declarative memory. It stores facts, events, people, places and objects. The second, implicit or non-declarative memory, retains perceptual and motor skills, such as riding a bike or typing on a keyboard. In order to retrieve explicit memories, such as the names of past prime ministers, the individual must be consciously aware of the process of retrieval. Implicit memories, such as driving a car, are expressed through performing a physical act without consciously reflecting on that performance.

Memory on a cellular level

Professional tap dancer Tasha Lawson describes her process of learning choreography as one of “embodiment on a cellular level.” For her, learning and remembering movement sequences involve complete integration so that the movement “lives” in her body’s “muscle memory.” This understanding effectively reflects the neurobiological processes associated with the encoding, consolidation and retrieval of memory.

Information perceived and learned through the senses is carried through the body to the brain by sensory neurons. As information is learned, it is carried across synapses, the connections between nerve cells, through neurotransmitters and electrical signals. These transfers result in cellular modifications across networks of neurons. Remembering or retrieving reactivates these neural networks, thereby strengthening the synaptic connections and making recall easier. Current research suggests that the more memories are destabilized and re-stabilized in this retrieval process, the more integrated into the cellular architecture and implicit the memory becomes. The old saying “practice makes perfect” bears weight – the more we revisit a memory, such as performing a plié, the more we strengthen the neural connections of that memory and the more deeply we integrate it into our bodies.

(1) Dance movement therapy is a psychotherapeutic tool that may improve wellness. Proponents recommend this intervention on the basis that the body and mind interconnect, meaning that anything that affects the body will also affect the mind. Dance movement therapy, also known as dance therapy, is the psychotherapeutic use of movement to improve health and well-being.

The intervention improves:

  • anxiety

  • depression

  • quality of life

  • cognition, meaning the ability to think and remember

  • interpersonal skills

Author : Katja Hanska

Bibliography & Resources :

American Art Therapy Association

Dance Medicine Association

Injury Prevention and Management for Dancers, Nick Allen

The Arts in Psychotherapy, Vol. 33, Issue 4, 2006

The Dance Current


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