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Motor Learning in Dance

This is an excerpt from Dancer Wellness eBook With Web Resource by Mary Virginia Wilmerding,Donna Krasnow & IADMS.

Motor learning refers to changes that occur with practice or experience that determine a person’s capability for producing a motor skill. These changes are relatively permanent, and they are associated with repetition of motor skills. In dance, motor learning is the process that allows you to learn basic and sophisticated skills that are not acquired through typical human motor development. Specific examples include pirouettes, large jumps, and balances. In addition, the aim of motor learning is to gain these skills with the specific intent to improve the quality of performance by enhancing smoothness, coordination, and accuracy.

The Learning Process

The motor learning process includes these essential stages:

  1. Attention and observation (perception) of a demonstrated skill
  2. Replication (execution) of what has been observed
  3. Feedback
  4. Repetition (further practice)

In most formal dance classes, your teacher provides the initial information by demonstrating and explaining a dance combination. You then perform the movements, and those movements are encoded in your mind. With repetition, that movement becomes a part of your memory. When the same or similar movements are required, you must recall it mentally and transfer it to physical execution. By the time the motor skill is embedded in memory, it is an image or concept of the task that is recalled at this level of execution, as opposed to a complicated series of details, multiple body parts, or individual muscle activation. This step is the final goal of the motor learning process.


As the teacher demonstrates the combination or skill for the dance students, the process of motor learning starts with attention and perception. Perception has two components. First, you observe and organize your present experience; second, meaning is attached to that observation based on past experience. Perception is dependent on the senses (sight, touch, smell, hearing, taste). For example, you see the teacher demonstrate the shift from first position to retiré, and you might relate it to any number of childhood games in which you attempted to balance on one leg. You also hear the music for the exercise, giving the movement a temporal context. It is likely that the first attempts would include some wobbling and adjusting while the brain seeks strategies to accomplish this shift in a smooth, coordinated way as demonstrated by the teacher. Note that learning can be enhanced through use of attention (conscious focus on what is being learned or the environment), but perception does not necessarily demand attention.

In addition to the sensory information, perception relies on another way of sensing. The bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints, and skin all have specialized tissues (nerve cells) that receive information during stance and movement, and they send this information to the brain; this type of sense is called proprioception. Considerable fluctuations exist in the ability of the brain to utilize proprioceptive information during some of the adolescent years, and deficits are noticeable during growth spurts. It is not uncommon to see dancers regress in ability to balance on one leg during these growth spurts. If you are already accomplishing multiple pirouettes, and a growth spurt occurs, you may suddenly find that you can no longer achieve this task; you might consider doing fewer turns during this phase and attend to other motor or artistic components of the skill.

Perceptual skills
are those skills that are inherited rather than learned but can be enhanced by training. Perceptual skills include hand-eye coordination, rhythm, visual discrimination, spatial discrimination, body control, and balance. Thus, one of your goals is to take the innate skills that you bring to class and fine-tune these abilities. For example, some dance students have an innate ability to balance easily before any training has occurred, but they may do the given task by lifting the hip of the gesture leg and leaning the torso off to the side. You can learn ways to fine-tune your skills by listening to feedback (to be discussed later) that encourages a vertical alignment of the torso and a translation of the pelvis onto the standing leg.

From Perception to Movement

Motor learning is set in motion by perception and continues with replication; in this phase, you attempt to do the observed task. Learning a dance or movement skill depends partly on how the information is presented. Motor learning can take three general forms: visual, verbal, and kinesthetic (touch and sensation). You can become aware of what your preferred learning strategies are, to make the best use of class time. It is also of great benefit for you to observe your peers attempting the material, and working through problems and errors. By seeing others correct and improve the attempted skill, you can see what constitutes a successful strategy and try applying it to your own experiences. This process has the added benefit of encouraging the idea that making mistakes is a natural part of the process, a necessary component of learning to dance. When you develop an overwhelming fear of making mistakes, you can limit your progress.

Diversity in Dance

Examine Your Preferred Learning Styles

Examine your learning strategies. How do you prefer to learn dance movement? Are you a visual learner? Are you a kinesthetic learner? Are you a verbal/analytic learner? Now think about how you might expand your learning strategies. What type of learning strategy would you like to be better at? How would you work on expanding your ability in this type of learning? If you can be diverse in your learning strategies, you can work easily with a larger group of teachers and choreographers.

Learn more about Dancer Wellness.