or, how to run drills without hating yourself.
The coronavirus has made practicing with other people difficult at best and impossible for many. Yet, in this era of partner-free dancing, effective solo practice seems just as feared by dancers as it always has been.
“W-w-what? Dance without another person there? And just be alone with all of my mistakes? I could never!”
I hear you cry. Mortifying as the prospect is, solo practice is not only a way to keep your habits in quarantine but also a surefire tactic to maximize your growth as a dancer. Like it or not, almost everything you need to work on can be improved without a partner there and in less space than you think you need.
The problem is solo practice is hard. If you’ve given it an earnest shot before, you almost certainly can relate to one of the following:
You run drills for about three minutes (or however long that one song you run drills to is), pat yourself on the back, and pretend that those three minutes of half-assed “productivity” are going to make a difference in your dancing,
You torture yourself for hours running the same drill far past the point of diminishing returns, then feel like garbage because deep down you know you’re still not doing enough,
Or, you decide that instead of drills, you should choreograph a 30-second figure to a queue of all your favorite songs and imagine dancing it in front of a big crowd, because that will totally help your quality of movement.
I don’t feel bad about the extra dose of sass in there because we’ve all done it. Everyone has made dreadful attempts at solo practice, myself far more times than I care to admit. But how do we move past these lonely cries for help and make productivity the norm in our solo practices?
Have. A. Plan.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the key to a successful solo practice is to have an itemized plan, every single time.
Here’s a real example from my workbook:
Solo practice -- 1 hour
Warm-up - 7 min
Review notes - 3 min
Half-naturals - 50 reps
Spiral turns - 5 min
Review tango syllabus and focus on leg extension - 20 min
Cool down - line dance to “Shake That”
If you just stole this program, doing it every day might make you really good at throwing half-naturals and dancing to Eminem, but you’ll probably forget half of your dances in the process. Instead, I’ll briefly outline the formula I use to make these plans for myself, and hopefully, you can replicate it in whatever way works best for you.
One preliminary note: whenever possible, make these plans the night before your practice. You’ll have higher expectations for yourself and make a better plan than if you’re lazily writing it down as you put your dance shoes on.
Know how much time you have. Having this in mind from the start will tell you exactly how much you can accomplish during the practice. If it’s 5 minutes, “learn the entire syllabus” might not be reasonable. If it’s 5 hours, consider practicing more than just scattered chasses.
Do the same warm-up every day. Warm-ups are not only about getting your body ready to move but also getting your head into the right mental space for practice. It’s a ritual that reminds both your body and mind what you’re here for and how to focus on it. We’ll get into the importance of rituals another time, but for now, just trust me. I do the same 7-minute warm-up every single practice (solo or not), and it has been an absolute gamechanger for me.
Review the relevant notes. As soon as you’re warmed up, remind yourself of the technical details you’re going to keep front of mind during this practice. Revisit them as often as you like.
Set clear commitments. Think about your practice like you would a workout program. Sure, sometimes you can walk into the gym and just do whatever you feel, but if you want to be truly effective, you need details. Instead of “whatever makes my arms tired”, you commit to 4 sets of 8-12 curls with a 90 second rest period. The same goes for dance practice. In as clear a manner as makes sense for you, set a goal beforehand that you will hit exactly. Don’t stop short of it and don’t go past it. These usually can be written as one of: Repetitions: pick a move or drill and commit to doing a preset number of them. Time: set an alarm and keep focused until it interrupts you. 15-25 minutes is usually a good interval. Number of songs: alternatively to time, commit to drilling, say, botafogos for 3 sambas. Actions: run a full 5-dance round with 3-minute songs, and other things down this line of thought.
Change topics often. According to rapid learning theory, you learn fastest when you keep your brain on edge by quickly and dramatically changing topics. Work on any single thing for longer than 30 minutes and you’ll approach diminishing returns. You could get more out of your time by pulling a full 180 and drilling something completely different. Switch from standard technique to spiral turns or tango to samba. You get the idea.
Finally, always end with something fun. Cool brain fact: when your head is evaluating whether it wants to do something or not, it checks its memory to see how you felt about this thing before. But instead of making an accurate assessment of the whole experience, it just checks how you felt about the peak moment and final moment of that thing and averages them together. As a result, an easy way to trick your brain into enjoying solo practice more is to make the latter of those two moments as fun as possible. Freestyle something, run your favorite part of your choreography, or dance to the best Waltz song you know. Whatever it is, if you have a good time doing it, going back to practice tomorrow will be more enjoyable still.
I encourage you to open the notepad on your phone and devise your next solo practice right now. You don’t even have to schedule it yet, but just beginning the planning process could save you from another lonely hour of skipping around your rumba playlist and doing 12 minutes of actual practice. Remember: you’re capable of getting so much more done in less time than you think. All it takes is a little planning. (Published in Sheer Dance September 2020)