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Oral Tradition and Memory for Dance

Updated: Jul 10, 2022

I came across a neat article about oral cultures and memory! I started thinking about how it applies to dance.

Memory and Dance Class

If you've taken any salsa or samba classes with me you know I'm not a fan of students taking videos at the end of class. If you haven't heard my mini rant about oral tradition in the African diaspora it goes something like this:

"Alright so we're not going to take videos today. I have found that when I take videos of class combinations I let them sit in my Google Drive. It's like a digital graveyard of dance knowledge. These dances we are learning are born out of the African diaspora. Many cultures of the African diaspora pass on information using oral tradition. In oral cultures the people's histories, genealogies, religions, and scientific knowledge are passed down through music, spoken word, song, stories, and dance. We are going to honor that tradition and hold these movements and knowledge in our minds rather than letting them sit in the cloud forever."

In salsa specifically, shine combinations aren't meant to be learned from someone else and regurgitated verbatim. What is that expressing about *me* if I do someone else's exact choreography at a social? Maybe I'm saying a little bit since my anatomy and movement instincts are different than the choreographer's, but ultimately I'm not saying much! I like to use combinations from class as I'd use source material for a research paper. I read it, make sure I understand it, then I figure out what is relevant for me to reference in my own work.

But I Didn't Get The Combination!!

It may feel scary when you don't think you fully got the "understanding" step. Well if you don't understand it now, how is re-watching without any input going to help? If you don't understand a lecture, you go to the professor and check in with them! That is so much more effective than stewing over it alone. Ask the instructor to watch the class do it and give pointers if they haven't already.

Now don't get me wrong, I don't hate technology. Videos are super useful if you use them well. Ask if you can send them a short video of YOU doing it and get a tip or two. I took a private with Shani Talmor last time she was in Saint Louis and she told me I could text her videos as I practiced. This was before I switched my mindset about taking videos and I didn't take her up on that - I had my little recording of her doing the combination and figured "ehhh that's good enough." Kind of arrogant right? I passed up an opportunity to a) reconnect with someone with more knowledge than me and b) make sure I understood what I paid her to share with me! So as another method of understanding movement from workshops, ask if you can send them short videos and get a tip or two! Most dance educators would love that - it confirms that they gave you something valuable.

Memorizing Movement Without Video

I memorize movement through repetition, creating a story, or associating moves with words/sounds/phrases in my head. When there is a pause in the flow of class I do the movement again and again. I pay attention to what in my body makes sense and what doesn't. I try to ask smart questions about what I'm not getting. "When does my weight shift to start that step?" "Is that hip sway an isolation or is my whole body moving?" Really make the most of class by being a proactive student. I will say if it's something simple like "is that the right foot or left foot" just use your eyes as to not waste time ;)

Now, for the article that inspired this post.

"Aboriginal elders explained to her how they encode knowledge in song, dance, story and place. This led to a theory that may revolutionise archaeology.
It has long been known that the human brain has evolved to associate memory with place, referred to as the method of loci. This means that we associate memory with a location."

Location is a method I haven't thought of! Can this be scaled down to a dance studio? Can we associate that bump in the floor with the memory of feeling our foot sliding over it and remember that phrase of movement? Or remembering that our head direction changes because we saw that crack on the ceiling when we looked up?

Does it still work once we take ourselves out of that original space? I don't know. The article is referencing cultural groups tied to locations. Indigenous Australians using the stars as "memory spaces" is such a beautiful concept. The knowledge they remember (flora, fauna, geological history, navigation) stays in that physical context though so it's possible that it isn't applicable to choreography that has to be put in different contexts... But I'll be trying it and you can be sure I'll mention it in class if it works!