dance tips

One overlooked secret to movement mastery in dance

Justin Clarke

It's a secret out in the open, teachers often share it with students, and we regularly ignore its power – even as research continues to prove its worth.

In our quest to master movement one of our greatest foes is our own fallible human memory. Whether we're trying to master a choreography, lead a sequence of moves, or embody great follower technique our success often depends on whether we simply remember.

But remembering can be hard, and caring about the tiny habits and practices to help improve recall are never as exciting as just getting on a dance floor to practice.

However research consistently shows one simple practice can have a dramatic effect on understanding and recall.

The power of pen and paper

Taking notes with a pen and paper can seem like an antiquated and inefficient practice – especially in a modern age of keyboards, dictation and video recording.

But the act of taking physical notes appears to engage the brain in such a way that our ability to understand, store, and recall information can be significantly improved.

One prominent study on the topic was undertaken in 2014 by Pam Mueller from Princeton University and Daniel Oppenheimer from the University of California, Los Angeles.

In the study students were required to watch a short TED talk on an interesting but uncommon topic. The students were divided into two groups: one was required to take notes by laptop and the other by longhand (using a notebook and pen).

The students were further separated  into three groups to study the impact of different conditions: an instruction to undertake 'normal note-taking', an instruction not to take notes verbatim, and a testing structure where students were allowed to study their notes before being tested for recall.

Guess what they found?

Students taking longhand notes outperformed their laptop-bound peers in every group.

Notepad and pen
Taking notes with pen and paper has consistently been shown to improve recall and understanding.

The power of thinking

There's an interesting explanation for why this might be the case.

We just can't transcribe as much information with a notepad and pen as we can with a laptop, so this limitation forces our brain to engage and summarise, paraphrase and 'content-map' – what academics call generative note-taking.

Generative note-taking involves deeper processing which confers greater 'encoding benefits' to those who choose to scrawl ink on paper.

With laptops and other devices where we can copy information faster we're more likely to engage in verbatim copying of information, called non-generative note-taking – which is much shallower 'cognitive processing' (a.k.a thinking!).

One nuance to this academic exploration of recall is that knowledge can involve 'factual' or 'conceptual' items, and according to Mueller and Oppenheimer's paper, previous research indicates it is only 'conceptual' items which seems to benefit from generative note-taking.

Their study also appeared to confirm this: in the first two groups there was no difference in recall between laptop and longhand note-taking for factual items (though there was for 'conceptual' items across all groups). Even so, in the third group longhand outperformed even with factual items.

What about movement mastery?

While the study was focused on two different styles of note-taking in an academic context, there are two powerful ideas for people looking to master dance and any form of movement.

Note-taking in any form improves understanding and recall

The study summarises earlier papers which confirm the benefits of note-taking (in any form) to understanding and recall.

Whether you use a notepad and pen, its digital equivalent, or even tap out notes in Sentu, you're already ahead of a version of yourself who decided not to cultivate a habit of note-taking.

And while note-taking may seem like a practice best left to more traditional, academic learning environments, is the importance of recall and understanding any less important in dance?

How many times have you been in a class, weekend workshop, or session at a congress where a teacher has shared an insight, concept or idea that totally transformed your understanding of movement, and you were left feeling like it was seriously important, critical, and powerful knowledge that had to be remembered?

But then wave-after-wave of these moments can come, and before you know it you're attempting to vaguely piece together those insights in a training session a week later.

I've variously typed out some brief notes on a phone, scribbled into a disorganised notebook, or my personal favourite: settled for the sense the piece of information is so critical, so important that I'll surely just remember it forever. Ha.

Pen and paper note-taking is not anachronistic – it is superior

It's understandable that many of us might subconsciously think scribbling onto paper is a quaint and anachronistic indulgence, but as we've discovered, it's actually a superior learning practice.

In fact you may have noticed the some of the best teachers hand out notepads and pens at their workshops, attempting to impart on you the importance to write it down, in your own words,  so you don't forget.

Having been in those situations I'd admit to perhaps holding a subconscious bias against the instruction (some bare workshop notepads decorated with a handful of points is damning evidence).

But if we throw away the bias, consider the evidence, and think about the additional benefits of note-taking with pen and paper it all becomes quite compelling.

Especially in a dance context.

A notebook and pen are sturdy.

You can quickly throw them in a bag before tossing them on a studio floor along with everyone else's belongings.

They never run out of batteries.

If you're on day 5 of a congress or workshop, rushing around and a little disorganised in a foreign country and city, you don't have to worry about whether your notepad is out of juice.

They turn on immediately

Where booting and unlocking a device can take time, especially if you want to make one little note, a notepad and pen are essentially instantaneous recording devices.

One overlooked secret

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the most powerful.

Just by cultivating a tiny habit of note-taking with pen and paper, you can unlock a secret many a dance teacher has tried to impart on a class.

In some upcoming posts I'll take a deeper dive into how we can take notes in different dance contexts, but for now why not try exploring it for yourself, and discover the power of note-taking.

If you'd like to read the paper yourself check out 'The Pen is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking':

Mueller, P. A., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2014). The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard. Psychological Science, 25(6), 1159–1168. doi:10.1177/0956797614524581

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