Dance Moves

The phrase “going through the motions” implies laziness or lack of interest. But elite dancers often substitute hand motions for full body movements while they learn demanding dance routines. This practice, called “marking,” may improve the quality of the finished performance, according to a study published in Psychological Science.

“Marking is an unusual cognitive device that we see in other areas. Basketball players use it to create muscle memory for free throws,” said Ted Warburton, a professor of theater arts at UC Santa Cruz. “But in dance, it’s more than a form of mental rehearsal. It’s a unique tool that makes a mental connection to an action, but also can enhance the quality and expression of that action.”

In this study, 38 advanced ballet students were divided into two groups to learn a basic routine. Judges awarded higher scores, for execution and artistic expression, to performances given by dancers who were allowed to mark during rehearsal. This technique may spare strain on the bodies and minds of dancers, said Warburton. But it might also be useful in other learning situations.

Co-authors on the study included Margaret Wilson, a UCSC associate professor of psychology.